Dana was born in Maywood, California to Linda Strain, an
unwed mother who was 16 at the time of Dana's birth and was
already caring for an 18-month-old child. Strain put her infant
daughter up for adoption and in June 1965, Dean and Florine
"Kay" Plato adopted the child, raising her in the San Fernando
Valley in Los Angeles. She attended Sutter Jr. High School in
Canoga Park, California.
Kay Plato began taking Dana to auditions when she was very young. By the age of 7, Dana began doing television commercials, reportedly appearing in over 100 spots for companies as diverse as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dole, and Atlantic Richfield. Dana Plato was offered two highly sought-after movie roles: the part of possessed child Regan MacNeil in the 1973 film, The Exorcist, and the starring role in Louis Malle's 1978 film, Pretty Baby. Kay Plato did not want her daughter appearing in such unwholesome fare, and vetoed both jobs. The roles went to Linda Blair and Brooke Shields respectively, launching their careers. Plato, instead, had supporting roles in movies like California Suite, Return to Boggy Creek, and, ironically, an uncredited appearance in Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Plato was also training as a figure skater and was quite
accomplished, even qualifying for the US Olympic team. At the
same time, however, she won what would become her most famous
acting role and, according to Plato, her mother decided she
should choose television over figure skating. The role was that
of Kimberly Drummond on the sitcom, Different Strokes.
In 1978, Different Strokes debuted on NBC. The show concerned a wealthy Caucasian widower in New York who adopted two young black boys after their parents died. Dana played Kimberly, the teenage daughter of businessman Phil Drummond and the older sister of adopted Arnold and Willis. The show was an immediate hit and Plato made up to $100,000 an episode during its peak, even though she was never more than a supporting character (the true star of the show being Gary Coleman).
Dana appeared on the show until 1984. During that year, she got pregnant by her boyfriend, rock musician Lanny Lambert. The producers of Different Strokes did not feel that a pregnancy would fit the wholesome image of Kimberly Drummond, so Plato was let go from the show. Although rumors of drug use and other "problems on the set" swirled around her dismissal, the producers were ardent that the pregnancy was the only reason Plato's character was written out. Dana actually returned for several appearances during the show's final season, buttressing the argument that she left on good terms.
After leaving Different Strokes, Dana attempted to establish herself as a serious actress, but found it difficult to step out of the long shadows cast by her sitcom career. After her child was born, she had breast implants and appeared in a 1989 Playboy pictorial, but her career remained in the doldrums. Dana Plato started taking roles in such B-movies as Bikini Beach Race and Lethal Cowboy while more respectable roles eluded her.
In 1992, Dana was one of the first celebrities to star in a video game. The game, Night Trap, was universally panned by critics and attracted much controversy, given its adult nature. Although it is now seen as a pioneering title, Dana's career took another hit from the attitudes toward the game.
Toward the end of her career, Dana chose roles that could be considered erotic or even softcore pornography. Dana Plato appeared partially nude in Prime Suspect (1988) and Compelling Evidence (1995), but her most infamous picture is 1998's Different Strokes: The Story of Jack and Jill...and Jill. The movie's title was changed after shooting to tie it to Plato's famous past, but was not connected in any way to the sitcom other than through her involvement. Dana played a lesbian and the film was rated X due to s--ual content, but was not considered hardcore pornography. Sadly, Dana would appear in only one more film before her death.
Dana began having drug and alcohol problems early in life. At age 14, Dana Plato overdosed on Valium. Dana Plato also, by her own admission, drank and used recreational drugs during her years on Different Strokes.
In 1988, Dana's adoptive mother, Kay, died from a blood disease. Shortly thereafter, her marriage to Lanny Lambert began to fall apart. The couple officially divorced in 1990, with Lambert getting custody of their only child, Tyler (born 1985).
In 1991, Plato found herself in Las Vegas with no work. Dana Plato took a job working in a dry cleaning store to make ends meet. One day, she entered a video store, produced a gun and demanded the money from the register. She was arrested shortly thereafter. The gun was only a pellet gun and the robbery netted Plato less than $200. Dana Plato made headlines and became part of the national debate over troubled child stars, particularly given the difficulties of her Different Strokes co-stars, Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges. Plato's actions were seen by many as a cry for help and she was placed on probation, but in January of 1992, she was again arrested, this time for forging a prescription for Valium. She served 30 days in jail for violation of the terms of her probation and entered drug rehab immediately thereafter.
Following Dana Plato's appearance in the movie Different Strokes: The story of Jack and Jill...and Jill, Plato appeared on the cover of the lesbian lifestyle magazine, Girlfriends, in 1998. Dana Plato was interviewed by Diane Anderson-Minshall and "came out" as a lesbian. She later refuted that claim, stating that she was merely experimenting. It was reported that Plato showed up drunk for the magazine's cover shoot.
In Dana Plato's interview with Howard Stern, Plato mentioned that she signed power of attorney to an accountant who absconded with the majority of her money, leaving her with no more than $150,000.
Just before her death, Dana Plato and her fiancé, Robert Menchaca, were living in an RV in Navarre, Florida.
On May 7th, 1999, Plato appeared on The Howard Stern Show where she told Stern she was engaged to Menchaca and that he was managing her career. Dana Plato was frank about her situation, discussing her financial problems and past run-ins with the law. Dana Plato admitted to being a recovering alcoholic/drug addict, but claimed she had been sober for over ten years. Dana Plato's speech was quick and some callers accused her of being high, to which Plato defiantly offered to take a drug test on the air. Dana Plato also got very emotional, even crying when some callers offered her compliments and support. Stern mentioned Dana Plato was scheduled to appear at a concert event, The Expo of the Extreme, in Chicago two weeks after the interview.
The next day, Dana and Menchaca were returning to California hoping to revive her stagnant career. The couple stopped at Menchaca's mother's home in Moore, Oklahoma for a Mother's Day visit. Plato went to lie down and subsequently died of an overdose from Vanadom and Vicodin. Her death at age 34 was eventually ruled a suicide.
Plato's body was cremated and her ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
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