Like so many who come to las Vegas, she was hoping to change her luck. Dana Plato’s life had already been a series of spins of the wheel, the terrible and the wonderful happening in rapid succession. Families, fortunes, fame—all won, all lost.
And the roll she was on in 1991 was perhaps the worst yet. Her mother dead, husband and child gone, her days hazed with liquor and pills, all of it culminating in a robbery of such ineptness it would’ve made a great Punk’D sketch. Dana held up a video store with a pellet gun and the clerk called 911, declaring, “I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes.” Her crime was simultaneously banal and bizarre: Petty stickups happen every day, but how often is the perp a notorious ex-child star?
Plato’s first unlucky roll came the day she was born. Her teenage mother already had one child and, unable to handle a second, she put Dana up for adoption. Fortunately, the cherubic little girl was quickly taken in by Florine and Dean Plato, a middle-class couple living in the San Fernando Valley. The happy family unit held together until Dana was 3, when her parents divorced. Mom got custody and Dad drifted away—until his return years later to sue his daughter for financial support.
Florine dedicated herself to her daughter … and her daughter’s blossoming acting career. With her golden hair, wide smile and smattering of freckles, Dana was the perfect all-American girl to sell Kentucky Fried Chicken or Wrigley’s gum or Dole bananas or more than 100 other products. Of course, eating 82 bananas in the course of numerous takes could make a little girl sick but, well, that’s showbiz.
The big break came when Dana auditioned for that paragon of ’70s schlock, The Gong Show. She didn’t get the part, but a casting director felt the teen was just right for a new sitcom about a wealthy white widower who adopts his black housekeeper’s two sons. Diff’rent Strokes became a phenomenon—high ratings and big paychecks, magazine covers and fan mail. As the boys’ new sister, Dana became a role model for girls and a pinup for boys. She also began experimenting with liquor and drugs and quickly moved past wine coolers and weed to stronger substances.
But midway through the series’ run, Florine Plato’s health took a turn for the worse, as a longtime illness turned terminal. Yet another parent was abandoning Dana: She partied harder, showing up on set late or drunk or both—doing a guest spot in a roller boogie scene on CHiPs, she glides toward the camera blank-eyed, Diff’rent Strokes co-star Todd Bridges visibly holding her up. At 14, she overdosed on Valium and had her stomach pumped. Within days, she was back to shuttling from her mother’s deathbed to another 12-hour day on the set, being the perfect girl with the perfect family, who never had a problem that couldn’t be solved in 30 minutes—22 if you don’t count the commercials.
Dana met Lanny Lambert, an aspiring musician, and the two moved in together shortly after her 17th birthday. She soon got pregnant, reportedly telling TV dad Conrad Bain that “when I get the baby, I will never be alone again.” The two rushed to Vegas for a wedding, like countless other blond actresses and rock guitarists, countless other pregnant teens and semi-employed 21-year-olds. Three months later, Tyler was born and a few months after that, Diff’rent Strokes sent “Kimberly Drummond” to “Paris” and another of Dana’s families was gone. The show had explored controversial topics from racism to child molestation (the infamous “The Bicycle Man” episode) to drug addiction (Nancy Reagan herself showed up to help the kids “Just say NO.”) But “a very special episode” about knocked-up Kimberly? Nope. Fired.
After a few guest spots in Strokes spinoffs Facts of Life and Hello, Larry, Dana struggled to find work and struggled in general. In 1989, she posed for Playboy—that and a bit in a Frank Stallone straight-to-video seemed to be the fizzle at the end of her Hollywood career. It wasn’t just teen-queen stereotyping that held her back: The ebullient girl who did cartwheels down the hall had become a hysterical woman who ran screaming and half-naked down the street. Her husband left, taking her son—so much for “I will never be alone again.” Dana followed the path of so many blondes who’ve burned out in Los Angeles and headed for Vegas.
Dana got a job as a cashier at Al Phillips dry cleaners—people sometimes recognized her as they handed over wrinkled shirts or a stained comforter, but she bore it graciously. (Vodka helped.) She got a small apartment in one of the thousands of beige buildings far from the Strip and tried to hold it together. But somehow, the $5.75-an-hour day job slipped through her fingers just like that $20,000-a-week hit TV show. And Dana became like so many others in Las Vegas: slumped on a stool in a strip mall bar, playing the nickel slots, hoping to win a jackpot that will pay the rent—and maybe have enough left over for a bottle.
And so one February afternoon, she walked into the Lakes Video Store, wearing black clothes and dark shades, waving her prop gun like the bad girl she never played on screen. Even if Dana hadn’t been familiar from television, the clerk would have recognized her when she returned to the scene of the crime—to pick up the sunglasses she’d dropped. Wayne Newton posted her $13,000 bail, saying he understood the difficulties and pressures of being a child star. Lucky. And then lucky again—only five years’ probation.
But less than one year later, she got busted trying to fill a forged prescription for 1,000 Valium. Once again, she scored probation and rehab rather than serious jail time. The break carried over to her career, as 1992 found Dana working in front of audiences for the first time in years—nothing that would win a girl an Oscar, or even a Golden Globe, but it was work. She got a “showgirl” gig in a comedic production at the Rio, Tropical Heat, and a role in an ’80s parody comedy, Bikini Beach Race. She also appeared in Night Trap, an interactive movie/video game that was the first of its kind, with her as the first “name” to appear in a game.
Dana could have kept going, continued to sell herself with a mixture of nostalgia, irony and cheesecake—instead, she tumbled even deeper into addiction, going from cocaine to crack like prime time to reruns. She got a boob job and scored a few gigs in sleazy softcore flicks—if you dug Kimberly Drummond in junior high, you’ll really dig her all grown up and writhing topless on the hood of a sports car.
She went back to Oklahoma, met a guy in a bar and, within weeks, declared him to be not only her fiancée, but her manager. And this was not her worst decision. A story appeared in the National Enquirer about Dana’s drug use: She decided to refute it by going on the Howard Stern show. Stern opened up the lines to callers and rather than support or sitcom snark, Dana found herself the real-time, live object of an internet comments board, a barrage of strangers jockeying for the best takedown—“has-been,” “druggie,” “ex-con.” Even Stern seemed struck by the magnitude of the vitriol: “It seems like everyone’s attacking you.” Dana left the interview shaken and miserable. She couldn’t put those voices out of her head. Or could she …?
The day after the interview, Dana Plato was found dead in the RV she called home. The Oklahoma deputy medical examiner ruled her death a suicide, because of her “past history of suicidal gestures” and because the sheer amount of Valium and Lortab in her system could not be a mistake. Not bad luck. Not this time. The lady took her chips and left.
Like other stars who died young and sad, Dana’s memory lives on in online tributes and chat rooms, video montages of Dana looking perky in side-ponytail and capris or pensive in an off-the-shoulder top, edited to songs by the Cranberries or Richard Marx. The belated appreciation makes sense: If Dana had been born a little later, lasted a little longer, made it into the days of sex-tape scandals and reality TV, things might have been different. Shift her context a little and she’s Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Nicole Richie.
“I feel lucky to have experienced everything I have,” Dana told the TV cameras after one of her arrests. Lucky? Maybe not. Or maybe Dana Plato just had a tragically vague fairy godmother who blessed her with abundant luck but forgot to specify that it should be good.