Troubled Final Months of 'Diff’rent Strokes' Star Dana Plato

Dana Plato, 14-years-old when “Diff’rent Strokes” began its run in 1978, died 20 years later. While the two incidents are connected, her substance abuse ultimately caused her accidental death.

The summer before Dana’s death on May 8, 1999, she made the latest of many comments regarding her substance abuse to E! when she said, “I was so wasted, it would take me a good five days to sober up and go to work.”

Her former drug counselor, Ray Slaughter, told the publication that she drank almost a gallon of vodka a day at one stage but tried to stay sober. It looked like Dana started getting her life back on track until she “started to go crazy again,” as her manager from 1993 until 1998 described her behavior and added, “I was hoping she was going to straighten herself out.”

At the beginning of 1998, Dana got introduced to the aspiring filmmaker, 41-year-old Fred Potts in Tuscon and got engaged that June. However, her drug use caused them to split, and Fred urged her to leave Los Angeles and the life she lived in it behind.

Nancy Reagan on the set of television show "Diff'rent Strokes" with Conrad Bain, Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, Dana Plato, and Mary Jo Cattlett in 1983. | Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Nancy Reagan on the set of television show "Diff'rent Strokes" with Conrad Bain, Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, Dana Plato, and Mary Jo Cattlett in 1983. | Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“She was going to settle in, be an Arizona beach bum, sit by the pool, relax, no drugs, no alcohol,” Fred said of the move that didn’t happen. “I never got an explanation.”

By then Dana had been on the road with Robert Menchaca, whom few of her friends knew about until after she died. They traveled in her mobile home to West Palm Beach in February 1999 and decided to head back on May 1 as Dana had a few up and coming projects that could jump-start her career.

The former child star Johnny Whitaker had been in recovery at the time himself and had taken Dana on as a client. But she didn’t check in daily as they agreed and the last few weeks before her death Johnny didn’t hear from her at all. “But she’d only call about once or twice a week,” he said. “For the past three weeks, Dana hadn’t called at all.”

Dana’s first appearance got scheduled in New York City on Howard Stern’s national radio show, followed by a stint as host at an adult-entertainment expo in Chicago.

On the couple’s way to New York, they decided to stop at Robert’s parents home during Mother’s Day weekend in Moore, Oklahoma. 

Their neighborhood got spared by the tornado that raged through only a few days before and parked her 37-foot Winnebago safely at their residence. Late afternoon on May 8, Dana said she wanted to go lay down in her mobile home as she didn’t feel well.

Robert joined her a few hours later and covered her with a blanket after he noticed her cold but sweating. He curled up next to her and napped until shortly before 9 pm, but when he tried to wake her up, he couldn’t. Dana took valium and Lortab before she went to sleep, and the dose proved fatal. 

Despite best efforts from Robert’s mother Marcela Menchaca, a nurse technician, Dana died. Her death got seen as an accidental overdose as Moore Police Sgt. Scott Singer said, “There was no indication of suicide.” 

According to a Houston toxicologist, Lortab can easily become lethal when mixed with Valium. “Its a nuclear bomb you give yourself,” he said.

Part of her struggles came after she thought that having a baby at 18 would cause her to “never be alone again. 

“She deliberately got pregnant while doing the series. When I spoke to her about it, she was enthusiastic about having done that,” her onscreen father, Conrad Bain told PEOPLE.

She struggled to be a mother to her son Tyler and his father, Lanny Lambert and his paternal grandmother, Joan ended up raising Tyler for the most part. Dana had a pre-occupation with her substance abusing lifestyle, which became apparent in 1989.

Her career had virtually ended after she left “Diff’rent Strokes” in 1984, and along with other child stars, appeared on Sally Jessy Raphael’s talk show about the tribulations of child stardom.

Minutes before the show, Dana came out of the ladies bathroom with a nose caked in cocaine. She ran into Paul Petersen, a former child star from “The Donna Reed Show,” and she had so much cocaine on her face that he told her to wipe it off

Earlier in the year, having gone through all the money she had made on the show, Dana posed for Playboy for extra cash. But her spiraling life soon drove the actress to more extreme measures to feed her drug habit.

She got arrested in 1991 after she stole $160 for a video store in Las Vegas and got caught after she forged a prescription for 1000 valium tablets the following year. She got sentenced to five years of probation and lost custody of Tyler in the process.

Sadly, Tyler struggled with the loss of his mother at 14 years old and committed suicide at the age of 25. On May 6, days before the 11th anniversary of his mother’s death, Tyler died of a drug overdose.

A longtime family friend of the Plato’s told Johnny Whitaker that Tyler became “very withdrawn” a few days before his death and that he “wanted to be with Mom.”

Also known for his time on “Family Affair,” Johnny struggled with addiction for many years before he turned his life to help others.

Almost unrecognizable, Johnny Whitaker became a counselor who partook in various addiction programs and also founded a nonprofit organization for Hispanic addicts.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.

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