Todd Bridges was just 7 years old when he landed his first acting job. After appearing in dozens of commercials, this talented, precocious child was cast on hit TV shows like The Love Boat and Barney Miller. In the '70s, Todd also earned the distinction of being one of the first African-American actors to appear on popular series like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie.
After appearing in the groundbreaking miniseries Roots, Todd landed the role of a lifetime. He was cast as Willis Jackson on the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. Alongside child actors Gary Coleman and Dana Plato, Todd became a household name.
The hit series keep audiences laughing for eight seasons. But, when Diff'rent Strokes was canceled in 1986, Todd says he felt like his life was over.
Soon after, Todd's fall from stardom began. This beloved TV star became hooked on crack cocaine and methamphetamines, and he started dealing drugs to support his addiction. Fame quickly turned to infamy as reports of drug abuse and arrests made headlines.
Todd was arrested for felony assault and cocaine possession, and in 1989, he faced his most serious charge—attempted murder. Todd was accused of shooting a drug dealer eight times after a cocaine binge, but after two trials and nine months behind bars, he was acquitted.
Then, in 1992, Todd was arrested yet again, but this time was different. Instead of returning to jail, Todd entered a yearlong drug rehabilitation program.
To this day, many people still think of Todd as a poster child for child stars gone bad and remember him for his mistakes, but he says he turned his life around long ago.
This 44-year-old father of two has been clean and sober now for 17 years.
In his memoir Killing Willis, Todd reveals painful, underlying issues that drove his addiction. When Todd wasn't on the set of Diff'rent Strokes, he says there was little laughter in his life.
At home, Todd lived in fear of his father. "Whenever the garage door would start to come open, that's when we got nervous because we knew my dad was going to be drunk," he says. "We knew that he was going to be angry, and most times, he was always angry at me."
As a small child, Todd says he dreamed of being on television because he wanted to freely express his emotions and be himself. "I was unable to do it at home in front of my father," he says. "I was unable to be really happy or be sad or really say what I felt."
When Todd looks back at pictures and clips of his younger self, he says he feels a sense of sadness. "The only time when I was happy was when I was on the sets," he says. "I was going through a lot at the time. I really was hurting."
Todd says Conrad Bain, the actor who played Mr. Drummond, his father on Diff'rent Strokes, was more of a dad to him than his own father was.
For the first time, Todd reveals disturbing details of his darkest days. Todd says he was sexually molested by a family friend when he was just 11 years old, and he's been trying to cope with the pain ever since.
Todd says the grooming process started early. The abuser bought Todd a bicycle and showered him with attention. "He started setting me up for things by telling me that girls were no good and that you could feel the same way with a girl that you could with a guy," Todd says.
Then, after the man gained Todd's trust and the trust of his parents, the molestation began. In his book, Killing Willis, Todd describes the first time. "'Pull your pants down,' he said. I didn't want to lose everything he had given me. And so I did. He put his mouth on me. I got hard. I didn't know where to look or how to feel. I squirmed against the back of the seat. He kept on going, getting into it. I hoped it would be over fast. Then it happened. I came. As confused and upset as I was, I liked the feeling," Todd writes. "I didn't think about whether it was wrong that a man had done that to me. I held on to the fact that it felt good."
It's been more than 30 years since that day, but Todd is still overcome with emotion when discussing his abuse. "I'm past it, but it still hurts," he says. "It ruined my life. I spent the rest of my time trying to cover up how I felt about it and that pain, and I hated it."
From ages 11 to 12, Todd says the man abused him three separate times. Then, when he tried for the fourth time, Todd fought back.
"He wanted to go places, and I didn't want to go at that point because I knew something was wrong. It just didn't feel right," he says. "I remember I was sitting on my living room couch in Baldwin Hills, [California], and my mom was there. He came in the room, and I just jumped on him. I wanted to kill him at that point, because I really felt like I was in such pain, and I wanted to attack him."
Todd attacked his abuser before his mother, Betty, could pull him away. At that moment, she says she realized what had happened. "I had been molested myself [as a child]," Betty says. "I knew something was wrong. I told [the man], 'Leave my house right now.'"
When the man refused to leave, Betty says she went into the kitchen and came back with a knife. "I forced him out of the house," she says. "And I called [Todd's] father and told his father what had happened. He didn't believe it."
Todd's father accused his son of lying about the abuse. "That really destroyed me because my father was supposed to be my protector. He didn't protect me. He allowed this man to do this to me and didn't help me," he says. "That was the breaking point for me."
From that moment on, Todd says he was hell-bent on getting even with his father and making him pay for how his accusations made him feel.
Todd says he thought he was gay after being abused because his first—and only—sexual experience up until that point had been with a man. "I didn't know because I was thinking, 'Well, I liked the way it felt, and maybe that's what I'm into,'" he says.
Then, when he was 12 1/2 years old, Todd says he and his co-star Dana Plato began experimenting sexually. "That proved to me that I liked girls," he says.
But, from adolescence on, Todd says his sexual abuse affected the way he treated the women in his life. For years, he used, abused and discarded girlfriends...except one.
"There's only one girl in my life that I had feelings for that I did not want to hurt. Only one woman, and that was Janet [Jackson]," he says. "I backed away from her because she was such a nice person. She was so good to me that I just couldn't see myself hurting her like that."
Todd says he chose Janet to play his girlfriend on Diff'rent Strokes, and they dated for a short time in the '80s.
Around this time, when Todd was 15 or 16, he says he began experimenting with drugs. "I wouldn't do it on the set. I would never do that. I would always wait until the weekends and do it just to try to forget what I was going through," he says. "When I was on the set, I felt such peace and safety."
When Diff'rent Strokes went off the air in 1986, Todd was a star. Two years later, he says he was living in South Central Los Angeles, the neighborhood where his downward spiral began.
"I had no shoes on, no shirt on, no money in my pocket, and I felt horrible about myself," he says. "I felt that my life was over."
To support his voracious drug habit, Todd began dealing marijuana, speed, crack and cocaine. "I wasn't Willis when I was over here. I was Todd Bridges, the drug dealer," he says. "I was considered a pretty notorious character."
Todd says people used to recognize him on the street and in crack houses, but he would tell them to shut up and stay away. To make people listen, Todd took extreme measures.
"I had a .45-caliber MAC-10 I used to carry on me. I had a 9 mm, and if I showed you it and it came out of my waistband, you were shot," he says. "It was a matter of survival of the fittest."
During this time, Todd says he also employed girls as drug dealers so he could have sex with them. "I was a pimp in a lot of ways. I'm not happy saying that I was, but I was. That's the reality of it," he says. "I can't hide behind what I've done wrong, but I can say that everything I did was in the depth of me being loaded."
After Todd became addicted to meth, he says he cut off contact with his family, holed up in his home and battled vivid hallucinations. He says his paranoia was so extreme, he even dug a tunnel from his house to a nearby street corner. "That's how I would get away from the police," he says. "Because I knew the police were watching me."
Todd says he once stayed up for 14 days straight doing drugs, an unimaginable feat that caused psychosis.
"I started having grand mal seizures," he says. "I went into that house, [and] I started seeing these little green men that came up, and I thought my grandmother had put these inside my house, underneath it. The little green men were like Stretch Armstrong dolls, but they were green and they were running around. I was chasing them. I was shooting at them."
Betty says she had no idea what was happening to her son. "He disappeared. I didn't know where he was," she says. "I did know that he was gone on drugs, and I just went into prayer, and I said to God, 'If you want to take him, take him.' I don't want to see him like that."
At that point, Todd says he didn't care about his life, but he never wanted his mother to see him strung out.
When Todd was 26 years old, he was pulled over by the Burbank police. Todd had drugs in the car, and his first instinct was to reach for his gun and commit "suicide by cop."
"I put my hand on my gun because I was so tired of living," he says. "Not that I was going to shoot the police officers, but I was going to point it at them and make them shoot me to really take away the pain."
Then, Todd says a voice spoke to him and told him to put the gun down. "This voice said to me: 'Don't do that. Let go of it and let them take you in,'" he says. "I always say that the Burbank police officers didn't really arrest me. They rescued me in my time of need."
When he got to the police station, Todd says he promised his attorney, Johnnie Cochran, that if he got him out of jail, he'd get his life together. The judge gave Todd two options—go to prison or go to rehab. Todd chose rehab.
Recovery wasn't easy. After a violent outburst early in treatment, Todd says he was stripped down, strapped to a bed and was forced to wear a diaper. "[There's] nothing more demoralizing," he says. "I said, 'This is a far cry from being Willis Jackson.'"
As he lay there, Todd realized something had to change. "I go: 'This has got to stop. I've got to get my life together,'" he says. "And another voice came and said, 'Just give yourself time.' He says. 'I want you to learn to listen.' And I was like, 'Well, listen to who?' He goes, 'Listen to who I put in front of you.'"
For the past 17 years, Todd has lived a sober life. Today, he's the father of two children. "I've been living a great life," he says.
Since Todd says he never got enough love from his own father, he focuses on being positive and present with his own children. "I tell them I love them. I hug them. When my son wakes in the morning, he doesn't have to worry about whether his dad's in a bad mood," he says. "I give him a hug and talk with him, because I don't want him to be missing what I was missing."
In Killing Willis, Todd says he makes his pain and mistakes known so people realize what he's gone through to get to this point. "I accept full responsibility," he says. "I made some stupid decisions and some horrible choices. But my question always is: 'How long is the media going to continue to make me pay for it? What do I have to do?'"