For many people, their most powerful and enduring friendships begin at school. The same holds true for the stars of The Facts of Life, even though their all girls boarding school, Eastland, was entirely fictitious. “We were best friends even more than we were coworkers,” Lisa Whelchel (aka rich brat Blair Warner), 55, exclusively recalled to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “There wasn’t a lot of fighting or competition — we were kids, and we were able to act like kids.”

As the 1979–’88 sitcom’s 40th anniversary approaches, the show’s core four younger cast members remain a tightly knit group. “We have lifelong friendships,” Nancy McKeon (tomboy Jo Polniaczek), 52, told Closer. “The privilege of having these people as my friends and peers has been life changing and wonderful.”

The Facts of Life
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Last year, the Facts of Life cast lost its leader, Charlotte Rae, who starred as housemother Edna Garrett (a character spun off from Diff’rent Strokes) and died after a battle with bone cancer. But Charlotte beamed with pride for her TV charges until the end. “I’m so proud of them,” she told Closer. “None of them got into drugs or any trouble. They went through school and got married and had kids.”

The show made stars of its cast members, and many other famous faces passed through as well, including Molly Ringwald (who was written off the show during its second season), Cloris Leachman (who replaced Charlotte in the eighth and ninth seasons) and George Clooney (who joined for seasons 8 and 9 as a handyman).

“George was just as charismatic then, but I don’t think I would’ve predicted his meteoric rise to fame,” Lisa admitted. “He was still awkward and gawky and finding his way as an actor, but he was always tons of fun. It was nice to have some testosterone on the set after so many years of estrogen.”

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During the show’s run, the characters dealt with typical teenage issues. In the second season, producers planned to have Blair learn the show’s title and lose her virginity. But Lisa, a devout Christian, objected. “I felt a big responsibility knowing a lot of young girls were watching the show, and you can’t deal with that topic in 20 minutes,” she said.

The writers relented, and none of the girls had sex until the final season, when goofy Natalie Green (Mindy Cohn, 52) did the deed in an episode called “The First Time.” Lisa says, “I asked to be written out of that show, and the producers were very supportive.”

The stars navigated difficult transitions offscreen as well. “Dealing with puberty, being a tween and then a teenager in a fishbowl was horrible sometimes,” Kim Fields (perky Tootie Ramsey), 49, confessed to Closer. “When your body is changing, people can be mean — everyone goes through those awkward stages.”

Thankfully, the girls could rely on one another for support. “I got to grow up with an amazing group of people, my castmates,” Kim said. “And in hindsight, I found out I impacted generations across the globe.”

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When Mindy and Nancy decided to leave the show after the ninth season, NBC unceremoniously canceled The Facts of Life, despite the fact that it was still winning its time slot. “It was just a thankless goodbye to people who had been in your home for nine years,” lamented Kim. “We were always a success with the audience, even though we were never a success with critics. We didn’t feel it was a proper send-off, given all that the show was to its fans.”

Those fans have never forgotten how Facts changed their lives, however. “When I was a teenager, I’d wear a ball cap and sunglasses because I didn’t want to get recognized and be bothered,” said Lisa. “Now it’s like, ‘Wow, what an opportunity to make somebody’s day.’ People are always so excited, but also genuinely touched, and they share memories of what the show meant to them. Now that I’m older, I really do appreciate it that much more.”

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While all of the show’s costars have continued to act at times, Lisa and Nancy put their careers on the back burners to raise their families. “I left show business behind to become a stay-at-home wife and mother,” Lisa, who has two daughters and one son, all in their 20s, said. “Now I’m a life coach, and I don’t feel like I have to prove anything. I can just do what brings me joy.” Added Nancy, the mother of two adolescent daughters, “I’ve enjoyed these years getting to be their mom — it’s their time. Everyone says it goes fast, and they’re not kidding.”

But when The Facts of Life’s stars see each other these days, it feels like no time has passed at all. Said Lisa, “It’s like childhood friends — you’re super close, and even if you go your separate ways, there’s nothing like them. When you get back together, it’s just like old times.” And that’s just the facts.

For more on The Facts of Life, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!