Haunted by her image as the perfect television sitcom daughter, Dana Plato saw her once promising career devolve into B-grade-turned-blue movies as she endured numerous run-ins with the law before succumbing to a drug overdose at the young age of 34 as she was reportedly on the verge of a would-be comeback. The beautiful, girl-next-door Plato traveled the all-too-familiar path of a child star, becoming a minor journeyman child star in sundry 1970s TV projects and ads before winning her ostensible breakthrough role of the preppy Park Avenue older sister to two adopted African-American boys on one of the signature programs of the 1970s and early 1980s, "Diff'rent Strokes" (NBC/ABC, 1978-1986). But the weight of her early fame and glaring lack of prospects in its wake would lead to a roller-coaster arc of alcohol and drug abuse, the nadir of which she would reach with her infamous robbery of a Las Vegas video store while wielding a pellet gun. Beset by further bouts with the law and rehab, she nevertheless managed to marginally resume her career in low-rent thrillers and sci-fi films, acceding to increasingly and exploitatively risqué fare, which culminated with a soft-core porn outing in which she famously did same-sex love scenes. Mere days after a notorious appearance on Howard Stern's radio show in May 1999 - in which she dubiously claimed to be 10-years sober - Plato died in her RV trailer in rural Oklahoma, with authorities later attributing the death to a suicidal drug overdose. The onetime promising and vibrant actress' death would only serve to cement a growing urban legend of an existing curse on the cast of "Diff'rent Strokes," which saw all three child actors suffer tragic falls from grace.
She was born Dana Michelle Strain on Nov. 7, 1964 in Maywood, CA, to a 16-year-old unwed mother, Linda Strain. Struggling already to take care of an 18-month-old child, Strain put Dana up for adoption. Dean and Kay Plato adopted the child in June 1965, moving her to their San Fernando Valley home in Southern California. While adoptive father Dean ran a trucking company, Kay Plato spotted a flare for performance in the young girl and became convinced she could have a career as a child actor. Initially working the commercial circuit, Plato won roles in 100-plus TV spots for companies such as KFC and Dole. In a famous Hollywood near-miss, she was reportedly cast as Regan, the demon-possessed little girl central to William Friedkin's monster hit film "The Exorcist" (1973), but Kay - once she understood the graphic nature of the film - refused to let her adoptive daughter proceed with the project, leading to Linda Blair's canonical performance. Plato did manage to break into dramatic acting with a guest-shot on ABC's popular action-adventure show "The Six Million Dollar Man" (1974-78), as well as land "precocious kid" parts in the low-budget television movie "Beyond the Bermuda Triangle" (NBC, 1975) and the feature "Return to Boggy Creek" (1977). By some irony, she won a bit part in the much-maligned "Exorcist" sequel in 1978, and a slightly higher-profile job that year in Neil Simon's comedy feature, "California Suite."
The year 1978 would prove a mixed bag for Plato, as she suffered an overdose of Valium, signaling an early predilection for addiction, but she also continued to land regular work, culminating in what would become her defining role. On "Diff'rent Strokes," she portrayed the initially bratty but eventually big-sisterly Kimberly Drummond, birth daughter of a wealthy man (Conrad Bain) who has adopted his late African-American housekeeper's two young sons (Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman). The show revolved around the culture clash between the wards and their new family and its upper-crust environs, typically with saccharine resolutions closing out every episode. On the strength of Coleman's becoming a precocious quip-slinging phenomenon, the show hit big, ranking No. 3 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1978-79 season and No. 5 the next year. For her part, Plato earned $22,000 per episode, became teen magazine fodder, and her ascendant star earned her featured guest roles on some of the top shows of the time, including "CHiPs" (NBC, 1977-1983) and "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986), plus special projects such as a 1980 "ABC After School Special" (1972-1995) and "High School U.S.A." (NBC, 1983), a comedic TV movie that featured some of the top teen talent of the time, including "Strokes" co-star Bridges and Michael J. Fox. But behind the scenes, Plato's life became anything but that of her squeaky-clean TV proxy.
Plato's substance abuse issues only accelerated during the show's long run, and she reportedly often showed up on-set drunk - oddly juxtaposed to a series that once guest-starred then-First Lady Nancy Reagan in a "very special" anti-drug episode. She had also begun a relationship with musician Lanny Lambert, by whom she became pregnant in late 1983. This prompted "Strokes" producers to fire her after the 1983-84 season. She married Lambert in spring of 1984 and bore him a son, Tyler, that summer. In 1985, NBC axed the show and ABC picked it up, giving her an opportunity to play Kimberly again in the show's final season. At loose ends after that, Plato found her career tracking as so many child stars had before her, stigmatized by an image shaped by a role on a show by then seen as a cheesy cultural lowlight. She lost her career steward when her mother died in 1988. Lambert left her soon after. Desperate to jumpstart her career, she posed nude for a photographer late that year, the product of which went on to appear in Playboy the following year. Her first post-"Strokes" screen credit did not materialize until 1989, when she netted a supporting role in the B thriller/slasher film, "Prime Suspect." But Valium and alcohol abuse continued to plague her and, upon their divorce in 1990, Lambert gained sole custody of their son.
Moving to Las Vegas, she found work at a dry cleaner's shop, reportedly spent some of her spare time playing nickel slots, and even appeared on the daytime tabloid show "Sally Jesse Raphael" (syndicated, 1985-2002) to claim she had cleaned up. But other former child stars appearing on that show later claimed she had been high on cocaine during the taping. The next year she did a similar turn on "The Maury Povich Show" (syndicated, 1991- ) in which she reunited with her birth mother, but Plato soon let the relationship lapse. When she returned to the public eye, it would be in the most inauspicious circumstances. On Feb. 28, 1991, a Vegas 911 operator received a curious call from a video store clerk who said, "I've just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on 'Diff'rent Strokes.'" Plato had donned a black hat and coat and wraparound sunglasses, pulled a pellet gun on the clerk, and made off with $164. Inexplicably, Plato later shed her insufficient disguise and returned to the store in a sweat-suit where she was immediately arrested. After five days in the county jail, she posted the $13,000 bail which, it was discovered later, was put up by Vegas mainstay (and former teen celebrity himself), Wayne Newton. Charged with armed robbery, she received a lenient sentence of five years probation.
But she would violate that probation the following year when she was nabbed for forging Valium prescriptions, netting her 30 days in jail and an enforced stint in drug rehab - the first of numerous such detours for Plato. Newton reportedly helped her land a job, the lead in an ultra-B sex-comedy, "Bikini Beach Race" (1992), which featured her as an oft-scantily clad local rich girl helping some nerds one-up a typical scheming rich guy (porn mainstay Ron Jeremy). She followed this inauspicious project with another B-movie, "The Sounds of Silence" (1992), which co-starred another 1970s cast-off, Erik Estrada, as well as former "Strokes" co-star Bridges - who had gone through his own drug addictions and serious bouts with the law - and closely followed it with the curious hybrid B-horror film/video game, "Night Trap" (1992). Low-budget fare became her stock-in-trade, as evidenced by the would-be erotic thriller "Compelling Evidence" (1995), sci-fi outings "Millennium Day" (1995) and "Lethal Cowboy" (1995), and anemic action outings "Tiger" (1997), "Blade Boxer" (1997) and "The Hostage" (1998). She would raise more eyebrows in 1998 by taking a role in a soft-core porn film, exploitatively called "Different Strokes: The Story of Jack & Jill . . . and Jill." Her steamy same-sex sex-scenes with Landon Hall not only sparked another minor bout of media handwringing over the fate of the one-time apple-cheeked TV sweetheart; it also spurred Plato to come out as a homosexual in a lesbian-oriented magazine Girlfriends. She reputedly showed up for the accompanying photo shoot intoxicated.
Within months, however, she would be engaged to one Robert Menchaca and living with him in a mobile home in Florida. She would land another starring role, in the B-grade psychological thriller, "Silent Scream" (1999), but it would be her last. In spring 1999, Plato struck a deal with Shane Bugbee, a 31-year-old Chicago-based promoter who organized the Expo of the Extreme, a sort of latter-day traveling sideshow that featured extreme artists and cultural oddities (like Plato) filling out a slate of past-their-prime musical acts such as Motorhead and Fang. To promote her role in the event, Plato agreed to make an appearance on shock jock Howard Stern's radio show. She found herself grilled by callers, denied she was a lesbian, announced her engagement to Menchaca, claimed she had been drug-free for a decade and volunteered to take a drug-test, which she quickly recanted. After the embarrassing radio interview, she traveled to Moore, OK where Menchaca's parents lived. Plato hoped to visit her son, who lived with his father in Tulsa, for Mother's Day. When Menchaca went to wake her from a nap inside their mobile home, he was unable. She was taken to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead. The local medical examiner determined she had overdosed on painkillers combined with Valium and concluded that she had committed suicide. She had left no note, however, which prompted many close to Plato to take issue with the official finding. Years later, her troubled and still grieving son, Tyler, 25, would commit suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound only days shy of the 11th anniversary of his mother's death, officially bringing to a close Dana Plato's tragic story.