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Among the many people touched personally by former first lady Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, was actor Todd Bridges. He was 17 and starring as Willis Jackson on the fifth season of ABC’s Diff’rent Strokes when the wife of then-President Ronald Reagan appeared on the sitcom — a warm-hearted exploration of class and race — to promote her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.
In the episode, which first aired on March 19, 1983, Willis’ little brother, Arnold (the late Gary Coleman), writes an investigative piece for his school newspaper about drugs having infiltrated his campus. After reading the story, Reagan, playing herself, visits Arnold at home to learn more about the epidemic; she then drops by his school to help convince a skeptical faculty that Arnold’s story is true.
Bridges went on to battle a severe crack cocaine addiction. In 1988, he was arrested and tried in the shooting death of a drug dealer. (He was defended by O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran, who successfully proved his client was never at the crime scene, exonerating him.) Speaking exclusively to The Hollywood Reporter, Bridges reminisces about the extraordinary security precautions taken for the first lady’s guest appearance — and the effects her words ultimately had on saving his own life.
The last time we spoke, your TV father Conrad Bain had passed away. We really must stop meeting like this.
My mom said the older you get, people start passing away. That’s what happens.
What are your memories of Nancy Reagan’s guest appearance on Diff’rent Strokes?
My first memory is how tight the security was and how we weren’t able to move around like we were used to. At that point, I didn’t know that much about the Secret Service and all that. Once you were around her, you saw how serious they were about it. Most of our audience was made up of Secret Service.
How many agents are we talking about?
The audience held about 300 people in total. We didn’t know exactly how many of them were Secret Service, but it was a lot of them. Tons of them. They had guys on the roof. They had guys everywhere, man.
They weren’t in the black suits with the sunglasses?
They were dressed just like normal people. The way I knew they weren’t our regular audience is that [the cast’s] jokes they weren’t laughing at, but when Nancy Reagan made a joke, they laughed at everything she said — “Ha ha ha ha!”
Where were you filming the show?
Universal [Studios] at the time — and they had it completely sealed off. They had the airspace blocked off! I met one of the Secret Service guys who showed me what he had in the trunk of his car. I was freaked out by that: It was a surface-to-air missile. You may not want to put that out there.
Like a bazooka or something?
No, it was a ground-to-air missile. You might not want to print that, though.
In the trunk of his car?
Oh yeah. It was really serious. We had these tags and every time we went in or out, we got scanned with the tag. And the set was completely closed. No one was allowed to come near it.
Whose idea was it to have her on the show?
I think it was one of our producers. We didn’t know if she’d agree to it, but she did. She was great.
Was there rehearsal time with her?
She rehearsed one time and that was it, then she shot her scenes. They didn’t want her to be there for that long.
Did Ronald Reagan come to see her?
No, he didn’t. But there was some talk of him coming and then security tripled! To be honest, I don’t know for sure if he was there or not. He may have been there, but we never saw him.
What did you make of Nancy Reagan personally? Was she nice?
She was very personable, very nice. She sat down and had long talks with all of us. She was wonderful, a really nice lady. If you’re lucky enough to meet presidents or first ladies, you realize that they’re ordinary people — but they’re not really ordinary people. To have her on our show was a wonderful thing.
The theme of her show was “Just Say No” to drugs. Had you started using drugs at this point?
No. I started after that.
Did her message make any impression on you?
The “Just Say No” thing didn’t explain enough, is what I thought. With my children, I explained it a lot more, definitively. In those days, our parents would say, “Don’t use drugs,” and we’d say, “Why not?” “Because we said not to, that’s why.” And that was it. But I think Nancy’s appearance did make an impact on part of the world. It really did. You have to realize it was the ‘80s, when drugs hit really hard. It was everywhere fast, because of Miami, which just exploded with [cocaine].
And the crack cocaine epidemic in New York.
Yeah, and that crossed over into Los Angeles and everywhere else. People thought there was a difference between the two and there wasn’t. The only difference between cocaine and crack cocaine was that smoking cocaine was more intense than doing a line. And a lot more addicting because it’s so much more intense. But they were trying to act like there was some different ingredient and there wasn’t.
Wasn’t it a class thing too? One was much cheaper and more available?
No, it was really just what you preferred. Some people preferred smoking, some people preferred snorting.
Did you think about Nancy while you were having your own addiction troubles? Did she ever reach out to you?
No, she never reached out. But she actually did help me through my troubles. At my lowest point, I started remembering what she was talking about and the reason why the stuff was so bad. Once you figure out the root cause — what makes you do something [self-destructive] — you figure out how to stop. It’s really all about you when it comes down to it. You can’t blame anybody else. You can’t put it on whatever environment you grew up in. You have to quit blaming and put the responsibility on yourself to get off of it.
How many years have you been sober now?
That’s great. Congratulations.
Keeps me out of trouble, that’s for sure.
Did Nancy Reagan’s appearance have the greatest social impact of any Diff’rent Strokes episode?
We did a lot of shows that had impact. We did a show on child molestation. We touched on a lot of subjects that in those days weren’t talked about very much. I think that’s why our show was so successful. We weren’t afraid to go to that place.
I will never forget seeing the child molestation episode as a kid. It really scared me.
You know why that show was tough for me? That already had happened to me. And I couldn’t even talk about it. Back then it was really bold. Now it needs to be talked about. You have to find out who these people are because they destroy children. It takes children years to recover. It took me years to recover from that. It led me to turn to drugs. So just the fact that Nancy Reagan did what she could … any time you get a first lady putting herself out there … The Betty Ford Center, for example … It’s amazing because they’re really trying to help society get better and do better. It was a great honor having her on our show. I can’t say anything negative about her. She had a big smile and was easy to talk to. She made a big impression on all of us.
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