The Facts of Life is the ultimate girls television show that aired from 1979 to 1988. The premise of the series is surrounding the world of one middle aged caretaker and four young women, going through what young women go through – drama, drama, drama! Between their school work, boy troubles, fights between themselves, and comedic timing to boot, this show had everything a girl could ask for in a television show about what would seem to be very similar to her life. We loved the show so much that we had to go ahead and scrunch up some behind the scenes juice; we knew there had to be some!
The Facts of Life was a spin off from the hit series, Diff’rent Strokes. The story was spun by way of the Drummond’s housekeeper, Edna Garrett, who decided to take a job as the caretaker at an all-girls prep school in Eastland. The story revolved around Garrett and the group of young women, actually being a far cry from the Diff’rent Strokes storyline. The show was not an instant success, so much so that NBC executive, Brandon Tartikoff, needed to convince producers not to pull the plug. The producer of the show was none other than Norman Lear. Tartikoff told the New York Times in a 1988 interview, “Norman Lear, who didn’t want his name on the show, probably netted out about $30 million in his personal bank account for not wanting that show to exist.”
Garrett and Her Four Girls
The first season of the show was slightly messy when it comes to the amount of people involved in the cast. As of season two, the series was totally revamped. They went from a large cast to four main young women to be the main girls – Blair, Jo, Natalie, and Tootie. Let’s not forget Mrs. Garrett, of course! She would ultimately be the one responsible for the girls and their well being, keeping them in line and up to speed with their school work and social engagements… or so she would try!
Molly Got the Cut
One of the girls from season one that didn’t make it to season two, is Molly Ringwald of all people! We all know that things worked out for Molly anyway, with her starring roles in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, to name a few. Molly was on the show perhaps for only one year, but she remained friendly with the leading ladies of the cast throughout the seasons. We wonder if they knew the kind of superstar they had in hand when they decided to cut her from the show…
The Facts of Life theme song is very well known among the fans of the show. The song was written by Al Burton and Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring. Season one was sung by one singer, while season two through nine was sung by Thicke and Loring (who were married to one another at the time!). Either way the song was a huge success and fans of the show were happy with whoever sang it!
Comedienne Geri Jewell was cast in the episode titled, Cousin Geri. She was the first individual to be cast on a series while having a disability, opening the conversation about performers who are disabled and what they are able to achieve. Jewell recalled the night she performed at the Media Access Awards, “I got a standing ovation, and I ran into Norman in the elevator. He said, ‘You’ll be hearing from me really soon, kid.’ Three months later, he called me with the cousin Jeri episode, and I filmed it two weeks before Christmas that year.”
Tootie’s Roller Skates
Young Tootie was always skating around the house in The Facts of Life. Fans thought that it was just written that way and the Tootie just loved her roller skates, but in fact the matter was that producers wanted 9-year-old Kim Fields to look taller than she actually was as she was supposed to play a 12 year old. Ironically, Kim didn’t get the guest spot on Diff’rent Strokes because she was too tall in the scenes with Gary Coleman.
Natalie | Mindy Cohn
The character of Natalie wasn’t supposed to even be. While in pre-production, the producers and actors went to Westlake School for Girls to research the living style for the show. While they were there, Charlotte Rae (the lovely actress playing Mrs. Garrett), met Mindy Cohn and just loved everything about her – especially her peppery attitude and comedic timing. Rae loved Cohn so much that she made sure the role of Natalie would be created for Mindy (who wasn’t even an actress at the time!).
The show was supposed to be called, Garrett’s Girls, which would have been a good name as well but producers felt like it gave too much away. The ultimately went with, Facts of Life, as we all know and love; which seems more appropriate considering what all of the girls go through over the seasons on the show, learning the true facts of life, whether it be good, bad, sad, funny or tragic. This coming of age series hit every topic relevant at the time it was showing, with an added funny edge.
There was something about the show and somehow having every guest appearing actor come on right before he or she won an Academy Award! We have Helen Hunt who won her Oscar with the film, As Good as It Gets; as well as Ben Affleck and George Clooney for their film, Argo. George was the most memorable cast member (sorry Ben and Helen). He played the role of George Burnett, the lovable handyman on seasons 7 and 8. It’s amazing how many talented people appeared on the show before their careers entirely skyrocketed.
Spinoff to the Spinoff
As is done in television, when one thing goes well, producers will try everything they can to prolong their success. So what do they do? they make spinoff after spinoff, or at least they try to. Producers brought on David Spade and Richard Grieco to appear on the shows 9th season episode, Big Apple Blues. The reason behind this was that producers wanted to lay the groundwork for yet another spinoff, about a bunch of New York City college students living and working in the city. The spinoff, luckily, didn’t come to fruition.
As producers were still not quite ready to let go, there was another spinoff idea they were thinking of. The last two episodes on The Facts of Life were a setup for another spinoff idea – producers brought in actors Mayim Bialik, Seth Green, ad Juliette Lewis to guest star in both episodes as new Eastland student, continuing the tradition of the school so to speak. Luckily, again, this spinoff also didn’t end up happening. We are all for the leaving well enough alone methodology.
An All-Male Facts of Life?
Producers were really stuck on the whole spinoff idea for the show, there were four other spinoff ideas in the making, one of which was an entirely male cast in a military school right by the all-girls school, Eastland; it would have starred Jimmy Baio (Scott Baio’s cousin and former star of Soap). There was another spinoff being considered about Jo and Blair’s college experiences, yet another focusing on Jo’s family in NYC and lastly, a show about Tootie’s cousins marriage, which was an interracial one (a hot topic for the time).
The Clooney Kiss
Actress Lisa Welchel admits now that she doesn’t remember her on-screen kiss with George Clooney (who could forget such a thing?!), but that she had watched the YouTube footage proving that it happened. In an interview she recollected how great it was to have a man on set, “Just to even have the testosterone on the set after years of estrogen dominance made it fun to come to work. It was already fun because we had a great time, but he added this spark to the mix.”
Brad Pitt Connection
George Clooney wasn’t the only super attractive guy to go unnoticed on the show. Backstage one evening, actress Geri Jewell was introduced to someone by her publicist, Harlan Boll. She didn’t remember who she was introduced to at the time until her publicist reminded her. They were all standing in Cloris Leachman’s dressing room one evening when Harlan introduced Geri to none other than Brad Pitt! Granted this was before Brad was the mega-famous heartthrob he would later become, but still! Apparently Brad was a very big fan of the show and asked to go backstage.
Pre-Facts of Life
Charlotte Rae had a long career before she became the famous Mrs. Garrett on the show. She was on the show Sesame Street as Molly the Mail Lady, teaching children about the importance of the letter ‘M’, among other letters and grammatical stances. Other examples of Rae’s acting chops are present in her roles in Car 54, Where Are You?, Hot I Baltimore, and Diff’rent Strokes (obviously). She continued to act well after Fact of Life too, but that’s for later.
Fats of Life
Like any show all about girls, the matter of body issues is bound to come up. The girls, being teenagers, were fluctuating in their weight from season to season. Natalie’s character had the opposite problem, producers didn’t want her losing weight because being chubby was part of her role, so when she did lose over 40 lbs in later seasons, producers dressed her in baggy clothing to cover it up. On the other end of the spectrum, Lisa Whelchel was supposed to be the tall leggy blonde, so when she came back for season two, after a summer of fun with friends, producers were not happy about her weight gain.
Producers were so disturbed with her weight gain (which was not a lot by the way) that, according to Whelchel, they “hired nutritionists, therapists, and hypnotists. The sent me to fat farms, exercise trainers, and health spas. They even brought the scale to the rehearsal hall and had me weigh in every morning, while everyone gathered around to see if I had gained or lost any weight.” We must say that we think that it was all a bit excessive and unnecessary, only contributing to a bad self-image.
Jo Jo Jo
The character of Jo, played by Nancy McKeon, joined the cast in season two. The character of Jo was based on yet another famous character of that time, as Nancy stated in an interview back in 1982, “Jo originally was a lot like the Fonz; then they wanted to take away some of her dominance, which I didn’t want to do… So we talked about it, and came up with the way she is now. She’s not the Fonz, she’s not a wimp; she stands out alone.”
Lucille Ball Said What?!
On the show, Natalie and Tootie were the best of friends. Their characters meshed so well on screen that when Cohn ran into Lucille Ball at a restaurant, Lucille said, “You and that Tootie remind me of me and Viv. You are a very funny lady, Ms. Cohn. You keep this up now, ‘cuz you have a lot to offer.” “I thought, ‘Kill me now, it’s not going to get any better than this.'” Now THAT’S a compliment!
You know you’ve made it when other shows are spoofing yours. That’s exactly what happened in 2002 when NBC show, The Rerun Show, spoofed a Fact of Life episode where Jo steals a top to give Mrs. Garrett for her birthday, only for Mrs. Garrett to discover it was stolen when she went to exchange it at the retail store (oops!). The Rerun Show’s cast included MADtv stars, Paul Vogt and Daniele Gaither, who were spot on as they reenacted the original scenes.
Lisa Whelchel was asked to audition for Friends as the role of Rachel Green (which obviously went to Jennifer Aniston), but Lisa decided not to go through with it because, as much as she loved the script for the pilot, and thought it was one of the funniest things she’s ever read, she thought the show was too focused on sex and inappropriate content for her liking. Simultaneously, Nancy McKeon did in fact audition for the role of Monica Geller, but lost out to Courteney Cox. We think it all worked out for the better, we couldn’t imagine the cast of Friends any other way.
Whelchel was what you would consider a conservative young adult. She did not believe in premarital sex and so when the producers approached her with the storyline of Blair losing her virginity ahead of the other girls, she refused, stating, “I don’t believe in premarital sex, and I don’t want to condone it to any young person who’s watching.” She understood the influence her character had on other young women who were watching the show and she didn’t want the responsibility of helping make a decision she wasn’t comfortable with. Seems very fair to us.
Mrs. Garrett 2.0
In season 8 of the show, Charlotte Rae decided she would not be returning as Mrs. Garrett. Rae was tired of the television show schedule and wanted more time to do things she wanted to work on. Rae also thought that Mrs. Garrett’s character had been played out enough and that at that point she was being very repetitive. So when Rae left, she recommended to producers to hire Cloris Leachman! The Academy Award and Golden Globe winner was added to the show as Beverly Ann, adding her own unique spunk to the show.
According to Lisa Whelchel, fans are not going to be getting The Facts of Life movie they always wanted, “Mostly because I think everybody has just really enjoyed going in different directions… It’s nice not to get stuck in a little box. As wonderful as that box was, and as grateful as, I think, we all are for it, it’s just good to move on.” Honestly, we like to think the show ended on a high note and wouldn’t want anything to tarnish the picture we have of the show and all it meant to us.
Flashing back to season 2, actresses Whelchel, Cohn and Fields had no idea that the other members of the cast were fired between season 1 and 2. The girls just came to work for season 2 and saw that they were the only ones there. “Everybody was shocked… nobody knew—that I know of—that they were going to make this major cut.” Some of the girls who were let go appeared in other seasons of the show, expect Molly Ringwald, she was too busy becoming incredibly famous on her own. It seems as The Facts of Life producers did her a favor by letting her go, otherwise her career would have look tremendously different.
Longest Running Sitcom
The show was on the air from 1979 to 1988, the 9 year run was, back in 1988, made the show the longest running television sitcom in NBC history. During the 9 season run, 201 episodes were aired and every single one of them was loved by fans everywhere. The show outranked and outlasted Diff’rent Strokes, the very show it was spun off of. Since 1988 however, NBC did very well for itself and shows like Friends, Cheers and Frasier surpassed the record that The Facts of Life held.
Most people don’t know this, but the girls were very young when they started working on the show. Kim Fields was just 10 years old when she began starring on The Facts of Life, while Mindy Cohn was 13 years old and Lisa Whechel was 16 years old. When Nancy McKeon joined in season 2, she was also just 13 years old! We had no idea the girls were that young when they started, we knew they were young, but sheesh! At 10 years old we barely knew more than home and school, let alone a television set and cast.
In the 1970s, NBC was the least successful network out of ABC and CBS. There were 30 network shows between 1977 and 1978 and only four of them were on NBC. When Diff’rent Strokes premiered on the network in 1978, and became a bigger success than the network ever thought, they wisely decided to capitalize on the success of the show and quickly create the show’s spinoff, The Facts of Life. Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Garrett), was on both shows simultaneously for a while in order to make the storyline believable.
Country vs. Snobby
The character of Blair was initially supposed to be a super fast talking Texan rather than the snobby wealthy character that eventually unfolded. The character was changed because of how Lisa read the lines, it fit so perfectly with her tone and style that writers redid the entire role. Whelchel said, “There was one line in the script and I read it very snidely and condescendingly and sarcastically… and I didn’t realize until I got the part and came back later that they had rewritten the character to be the snob.”
The outside shots of the Eastland campus were shot in the city of Pomona, California. Many fans of the show still go to the estate style home to take a photo in front of the house and say they were where Blair, Natalie, Jo and Tootie went to school. Although the show was not considered a huge hit, it resonated with a lot of the public and slowly but surely gained a fanbase that was loyal, especially over time.
Charlotte Rae is from Appleton, Wisconsin; Mrs. Garrett’s character is also from rural Wisconsin. There were a lot of art imitates life on the show. For example, in the episode where Natalie’s father passes away, Rae narrates the episode with the story of the death of her real-life father back in the 1950s. Producers felt that when there is a personal edge to the episode it resonates more and becomes more relatable.
Lisa Whelchel Almost Wasn’t
Before Lisa auditioned for The Facts of Life, she landed a role on the show, Hello Larry. However, when Lisa heard about The Facts of Life, she decided to audition anyway and got the part of Blair Warner. Luckily she decided to go with The Facts of Life, seeing as Hello Larry only last two seasons and The Facts of Life lasted for nine. Also, we cannot imagine the show without Lisa as Blair, it just wouldn’t make sense.
Nancy McKeon’s Cry
Nancy landed the role of Jo due to her ability to cry on cue! We find that very interesting considering Jo’s tough character, but crying on cue is one unique ability to have. Nancy was on a Hallmark commercial where she needed to cry on cue and so producers brought her in to audition. Her audition went so well that she made everyone cry in the control room; way to go Nancy!
Tootie’s Real Name
Almost everyone knows Tootie as Tootie, no one bothers to think what her real name would be on the show. Here it is: Dorothy Ramsey. Honestly, we were also guilty of never giving it much thought, Tootie just felt so appropriate for the adorable pigtailed, roller skate wearing, young woman. Dorothy seems a little old for her, which is why Tootie was created, we’re sure! It’s always interesting when writers decide to give a character a nickname and a ‘real name’, making it so that the actress has three names!
The show had two made for television movies that ended up being featured; The Facts of life Goes to Paris, and The Facts od Life Down Under. Much like the spinoff ideas the producers had, these movies didn’t go anywhere except please fans who were very happy with the show. The production constantly was trying to continue and capitalize on the show’s success, eventually realizing that they needed to focus on what works rather than trying to create yet another version of something that works.
Lisa Whelchel Wasn’t the First Blair
Shockingly, Lisa wasn’t the first girl to play Blair! The original Blair was played by Geri Reischl on Diff’rent Strokes. However, once the spinoff for The Facts of Life was a go, Geri’s contract with General Mills prohibited her from working on something with no end date to it, so producers had to scramble and find a new Blair, and they sure did, with Lisa! We’re very happy with how it all ended up working out.