Charlotte Rae Takes the Good and Takes the Bad As She Remembers ‘The Facts of Life’
Despite a career that spanned more than 70 years, from radio acting in the 1940s to various stage, film and TV appearances over the decades, there’s no denying that the late Charlotte Rae made the greatest impact on television viewers with her portrayal of Edna Garrett. It was the role she introduced on the series Diff’rent Strokes (1978-86) and, then, in its spin-off The Facts of Life (1979-88), which scored her a 1982 Emmy Award nomination in the category of Best Supporting Actress.
Charlotte may have died on Aug. 5, 2018, after a battle with bone cancer, but one can imagine the incredible joy she would have gotten from the outpouring of love and memories that were devoted to her, conveying just how much of an impression her portrayal has had on the audience. When asked by the Television Academy Foundation what she hoped her legacy would be, she responded, “If I took people out of themselves and they forgot all their troubles for a little while, because I brought them there, that would make me very happy. And if I ever made them laugh — God knows we need as many laughs as we can get.”
Well done, Charlotte.
Forty years ago, she was under a soon-to-expire contract at CBS when she had gotten a phone call from the office of Norman Lear (creator of All in the Family and The Jeffersons, among many others), asking her if she’d be interested in coming over to NBC for the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. On the proposed show, she would play housekeeper Mrs. Garrett for the wealthy Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain), his daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato), and his adopted sons Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges) Jackson. During the process, she was asked her opinion of the character and what she would bring to a household like this.
“I said, ‘The three children are without a mother, so I guess they need a little mothering, a lot of nice attention and a little guidance,'” she responded. “‘But no funny business with them. They’ve got to know that there are certain rules that they have to adhere to. It can’t be we just melt and love them to death every time we see them.'”
Apparently, it worked because she was hired. But then let go, because of that CBS contract. Then again, Norman Lear, who was producing Diff’rent Strokes, had just a wee bit of clout with CBS (not only for All in the Family and The Jeffersons, but Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time… it’s quite a list). A phone call later, Charlotte was free to bring Mrs. Garrett to life.
“What a wonderful part,” she stated. “I loved that woman. She could cook, was a good housekeeper, and had all that love for the kids. We had the most delightful year; they were so darling and warm. Dana was a little flaky, but she was okay, but the boys were so sweet. And Gary Coleman… he was the star of the show. One producer, who was not connected with us, said, ‘He’s your meal ticket.’ The whole thing with him is so sad, of course, because one day I went into his dressing room to tell him something and he was in dialysis. His mother was a nurse and supervised it, but no one ever talked about it. He was such a trooper and always delivered. Always… I don’t want to talk about it anymore, because he’s gone.”
Charlotte learned a fact of life — popular TV shows spawn spin-offs.
By the end of the first season of Diff’rent Strokes, Charlotte was, admittedly, growing nervous. Throughout the year her lines had been cut down (“Twelve lines in the last show”) and she was finding herself with less and less to do. Then one of the producers asked if they could have dinner, and she assumed she was about to get the ax. Instead, she was told Fred Silverman, who had taken over programming for NBC (after having turned things around for CBS and ABC), was a fan of her portrayal of Sylvia Schnauser on the Fred Gwynne sitcom, Car 54, Where Are You, and wanted to spin her character off into a show about a housemother in a girl’s school. “And that was the beginning of The Facts of Life and a whole different world for me,” she said.
That world, it should be pointed out, brought with it a sense of anxiety all its own. Not that Charlotte didn’t think she was up to the challenge, but, rather, what would happen if, unlike Diff’rent Strokes, it didn’t work for the network and was canceled? She had just come out of a divorce after 25 years of marriage and suddenly losing a steady source of income would bring real-world repercussions. But the thing that turned that around was the assurance that, should Facts of Life be quickly canceled, Mrs. Garrett would be able to return to the Drummond household.
“And in the beginning, the ratings were very low,” Charlotte noted, “but we found out that NBC kept it, because everything was low with them at the time. But when summertime came and the reruns were on all the different networks, people starting turning us on and getting hooked on our show.”
That show was initially set at Eastland School (eventually Eastland Academy), a private all-girls school in upstate New York, where Edna Garrett serves as housemother at a dormitory. In the first couple of seasons, there was a bit of a cast shake-up with the girls, eventually settling on the wealthy and spoiled Blair Warner (Lisa Whelchel), the humorous Natalie Green (Mindy Cohn), the youngest among them, Dorothy “Tootie” Ramsey (Kim Fields); and, in season two, tomboy Jo Polniaczek (Nancy McKeon). Lost in the mix, among others, was ’80s movie sweetheart Molly Ringwald.
For research purposes, Charlotte and producers actually went to an all-girls school that the daughter of one of the show’s producer’s attended, asking the girls a wide variety of questions, some of which had to do with what they wanted to achieve in the future. “This one little girl was chubby and Jewish, and so funny, and I thought that would be a wonderful supplement to the other three girls who were Christian, and one of them was African American with this funny little voice. It was Mindy Cohn, who was very funny and cute. She had never done a professional thing in her life, but I recommended her and she read and they took her.”
One way in which that backfired is that it created a bit of distance between Charlotte and the rest of the cast. They assumed that since she was involved in bringing Mindy on the show, she was a part of management and essentially kept their distance in the beginning.
“They were very polite,” Charlotte emphasized, “but they were not willing to get close at first. Years later, Nancy said, ‘We thought you were management,’ and I said, ‘No, I was just part of the team.'”
One of her strongest memories of the show is working with the other actresses, and the genuine care that they all had for each other. “They would take cigarettes out of my mouth,” she laughed. “I’m very grateful to them, because I didn’t smoke more than five cigarettes a day, but they kept pulling them out anyway. And when I had my pacemaker put in over Labor Day Weekend, because I was nominated for an Emmy they brought me an Academy Award statue that said, ‘The cream always rises to the top.’ Just very sweet. And when we went to Paris together to shoot the TV movie The Facts of Life Go to Paris, we all had such a wonderful time.”
The Facts were always changing.
The general public may not realize this, but The Facts of Life managed to touch on a number of issues facing teenage girls growing into womanhood. Not the least of which was body shaming, which actually became an issue for some of the cast members for real. “I had no idea they were being weighed by the producers,” said Charlotte of a process apparently done to make sure they didn’t get too heavy for the camera, “which was so stupid, because the more they tried to weigh them, the more they would want to eat. I mean, teenagers — that’s what they do. You can’t tell them things like that.”
The other thing about the series is that it was one that was always trying to change as the girls were getting older. Season 2, as noted above, saw the cast cut down and Mrs. Garrett adding school nutritionist to her duties. By the end of Season 4, Jo and Blair graduated from Eastland Academy, so a means had to be contrived to keep everyone together. At the start of Season 5, Mrs. Garrett opened up a gourmet food venture called “Edna’s Edibles,” which would see the four girls living and working with her there. In Season 7, the store was destroyed in a fire, resulting in the girls deciding to rebuild and turn it into a pop-culture gift shop they called “Over Our Heads.” George Clooney was also added to the cast (and how are you going wrong by adding George in the days when you could still afford to add him?).
For Charlotte, The Facts of Life had run its course, reducing her role in seasons six and seven and her leaving right after the start of season eight (Mrs. Garrett getting married and moving to Africa to work for the Peace Corps, replaced by Cloris Leachman as a new character). The show ran a total of nine seasons, and could have run more except for the fact that both Nancy McKeon and Mindy Cohn were ready to move on.
“When it was getting towards the seventh year,” Charlotte detailed, “I felt I couldn’t go on for two more years, which is what they asked everyone to do. It didn’t feel right to me, because I knew the focus was going to be even more on the kids and the kids don’t need that much guidance anymore. They helped each other, more or less. They didn’t seem to be writing for me to be talking to them about my experiences anymore, so I thought I’d like to go back and do stage work and travel and enjoy myself, which I did. So I did a crazy thing — after everyone said I should stay and get every nickel I could. I did have a moment where I thought, ‘This is my one big thing. It’s a miracle that I got it.’ A lot of people get on a series and it’s not successful. But you only live once.”
And as the years passed, she took great peace in the fact that the work they’d done actually touched fans of the show in one way or another.
“I get a kick out of people remembering me,” she smiled.”One time I was in New York and was coming out of the subway with a friend — we had gone to see something in the Village — and as we got off the subway and went up the stairs, this big guy saw me and yelled, ‘I knew it!’ He and I embraced and then he went his way and I went mine. Some movie and TV stars don’t like it, but I tell them, ‘You know, you’re in their home all the time. You’re in between their feet if they’re in bed looking at television. I mean, it’s a very intimate relationship.'”