Dana Plato Was A Beloved Teen Idol In The ’70s And Early ’80s — Then She Was Found Dead At 34

Published February 8, 2023
Updated March 13, 2024

Go inside the stunning rise and heartbreaking fall of Diff'rent Strokes actress Dana Plato, who died of a drug overdose in May 1999.

The death of Dana Plato would have come as a shock in the 1980s. But when the former Diff’rent Strokes actress died in 1999, few were surprised. Though Plato was just 34 years old at the time, it was clear that she had met a fate similar to that of other child stars.

Despite years of success, Plato struggled with the pressures of instant fame and started experimenting with drugs and alcohol as a young teen. Eventually, she was dismissed from her starring role in Diff’rent Strokes — and she had trouble finding other promising acting jobs afterward.

Dana Plato Death

Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty ImagesDana Plato, pictured with her costars Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges on the set of Diff’rent Strokes in 1980.

Personal and financial problems, combined with drug abuse, hastened a stunning decline for Dana Plato. In the 1990s, she also had some run-ins with the law, most notably after she robbed a Las Vegas video store.

The downward spiral would come to a heartbreaking end on May 8, 1999, when Dana Plato died of a drug overdose while visiting family members in Moore, Oklahoma. Though police initially believed that her demise had been an accident, it was later ruled a suicide by a medical examiner.

This is the devastating story of Dana Plato’s short life and tragic death.

Dana Plato’s Early Rise To Fame

Dana Plato was born on November 7, 1964, in Maywood, California. Initially named Dana Michelle Strain, she was adopted by Dean and Kay Plato when she was a baby. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, Dana Plato experienced the divorce of her adoptive parents when she was three years old.

Plato was primarily raised by her adoptive mother after her parents split. And before long, Kay Plato began taking Dana to casting calls. This led to several appearances in commercials.

At age 13, Dana Plato was offered the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to star in a TV sitcom. The young teen said yes, and she soon was cast as the character Kimberly Drummond on the NBC show Diff’rent Strokes.

The sitcom became hugely successful, making stars of its young coterie of actors, including Dana Plato, Gary Coleman, and Todd Bridges.

But with instant success came the danger of Hollywood excess, and Plato began experimenting with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine alongside her young costars. Navigating the tide of success and adulation without healthy coping mechanisms soon spelled trouble for the young Plato.

In 1983, Plato moved in with her future husband, guitarist Lanny Lambert, and she became pregnant around the age of 19 or 20. Because of this, Plato was written out of Diff’rent Strokes by the following year. According to USA Today, the producers worried that Plato’s personal life ruined the wholesomeness of her character and the squeaky-clean image of the show.

And just like that, she was dismissed from her starring role.

The Downward Spiral After Diff’rent Strokes

Diff'rent Strokes

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesDana Plato shooting a scene for Diff’rent Strokes.

Though Dana Plato was no longer a starring character on Diff’rent Strokes, she did have the opportunity to return on the show’s final seasons as a recurring guest star. But in the years following the birth of her son Tyler, she struggled to find other roles that would establish her as a serious actress.

Before long, Plato was settling for B-movies and adult films as a way to make money. In the meantime, she was also spiraling further into drug addiction and alcoholism, issues that were steadily taking over her life.

Her personal problems worsened in the late 1980s, especially when her husband ended their marriage and her mother died. Plato’s former husband eventually gained legal custody of their son due to Plato’s addiction.

Plato hoped that a Playboy photoshoot in 1989 would lead to better offers in the entertainment industry — and an improvement to her life in general — but no golden opportunities seemed to come. Meanwhile, Plato’s newly hired accountant allegedly embezzled most of the money in her savings.

Defeated, Plato moved to Las Vegas in yet another attempt to reinvigorate her career, but she still struggled to find steady work. And in 1991, she was arrested for robbing a video store in Sin City.

Dana Plato's Mugshot

Kypros/Contributor/Getty ImagesDana Plato’s mugshot, taken after she was arrested in Las Vegas in 1991.

Plato had clearly made little effort to disguise herself, as the clerk quickly recognized her. The clerk called 911 and famously told the dispatcher, “I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes.”

Police soon arrested her, and Plato was sentenced to five years of probation. But just a year later, she found herself in trouble again, this time for forging prescriptions for Valium. Dana Plato was sentenced to another five years of probation for her actions.

She was also ordered to attend rehab, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Though she soon insisted that she was clean and sober, her loved ones doubted that claim — and remained concerned about her health.

All the while, Plato continued to find herself cast only in low-budget films, remaining on the fringes of the entertainment industry.

Inside The Tragic Death Of Dana Plato

Dana Plato

Denny Keeler/Online USA, Inc./Contributor/Getty ImagesDana Plato, pictured in Hollywood shortly before her death.

On May 7, 1999, Dana Plato made an emotional appearance on The Howard Stern Show, during which she repeatedly claimed to be sober. But if she was hoping for a supportive environment, she didn’t find it there. Many callers mocked her, and some even accused her of being “stoned” on the show.

Angered and provoked, Plato offered to take a drug test to prove that she was clean and even allowed a producer to cut off a few pieces of her hair. But according to the New York Post, Howard Stern said that Plato privately begged him not to test her hair as soon as they were off the air.

“She said, ‘I want my hair back.’ That’s when I knew she was lying,” Stern said. “That’s when I knew she must have been on drugs.”

Tragically, just one day later, Stern — and the rest of America — learned that testing Plato’s hair for drugs wouldn’t be necessary.

Dana Plato died of an overdose on May 8, 1999. She was just 34 years old at the time, and her body was found in an RV that she had been sharing with her fiancé Robert Menchaca. At the time, Plato had been in Moore, Oklahoma, to visit family members. According to the Los Angeles Times, police initially believed that Dana Plato’s death had been an accident.

But a medical examiner later ruled her demise a suicide, citing the high level of drugs found in her system — including fatal concentrations of the muscle relaxant Soma and a generic form of the painkiller Lortab — and her history of suicidal tendencies. No suicide note was ever found.

Sadly, Dana Plato’s death would later have dire consequences for her son Tyler Lambert, who was just 14 years old at the time. Though the young teen had mostly grown up with his paternal grandmother, he was devastated by his mom’s tragic end and eventually turned to drugs himself.

And on May 6, 2010 — just two days before the 11th anniversary of his mom’s death — Tyler Lambert fatally shot himself. He was 25 years old.

After learning about Dana Plato, read about the tragic story of Judith Barsi, the 10-year-old actress who was murdered by her own father. Then, go inside more heartbreaking stories of former child stars.

Neil Patmore
A true crime specialist, Neil Patmore served as a police officer in the UK for nine years, and a private investigator for three years before becoming a writer.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Patmore, Neil. "Dana Plato Was A Beloved Teen Idol In The ’70s And Early ’80s — Then She Was Found Dead At 34." AllThatsInteresting.com, February 8, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/dana-plato-death. Accessed May 23, 2024.