If you owned or had access to a television set in the 1980s, you probably spent some time watching the iconic show The Facts of Life. This classic television program broke records and made a splash in Hollywood. This show took steps forward that no other show had before them, and viewers everywhere are grateful for it.
The Facts of Life helped girls and boys alike to find their footing through the challenging teen years. The girls overcame so much together and experienced several milestones both as individuals and as a group on the show. Here is everything you wanted to know about The Facts of Life!
The Facts of Life looked different later on than it did in the beginning. The show was centered around a group of girls at an elite boarding school called Eastland, but it got a little more complicated. The show actually started with seven girls in the first season – including Blair, Tootie, and Natalie – as well as some others who were quickly dropped from the show.
Eastland Academy was a bit more crowded at first. These other new classmates included some stars we still know today – Felice Schachter, Julie Anne Haddock, Julie Piekarski, and Molly Ringwald. This was early in Molly Ringwald’s career, before Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club gave her more recognition. The producers “trimmed the fat” and let go of the extra girls because there was not enough content for them to work with.
So many of the guest stars from The Facts of Life went on to become big stars. Molly Ringwald is one example, but another may shock or excite you. George Clooney had a recurring guest spot before he made it big, playing a handyman. He appeared in a whopping 17 episodes during the later seasons.
Clooney was in good company with the other soon-to-be stars who made appearances throughout the show. Mayim Bialik, Seth Green, David Spade, Helen Hunt, and Paul Feig all made appearances; some even came close to getting their own spinoff series! This teaches us to pay attention to every actor on a show because you never know who might be the next big thing!
At one point in time, a show running for nine seasons was unheard of. Remember, the world did not always have streaming; there was no form of a “season drop” – you just had to park yourself in front of the television and pay attention. By the time the show ended in 1988, it actually made history as the longest-running sitcom in NBC’s history.
The show ran for nine seasons and 201 episodes. Back then, that was enough to set a record. It even passed Diff’rent Strokes, from which The Facts of Life was a spinoff. Since then, the show has been surpassed in the network’s record books by other iconic shows. Some of these include Cheers, Frasier, and Friends.
Did you know that Mindy Cohn was not an actress but just a prep school student that the producers modeled the show after? Before the show’s start, Charlotte Rae joined some show producers and visited Westlake School in Bel Air, California. They wanted to observe real teens, and they came back with more than they expected: their next cast member!
Cohn was one of the many students who were willing to be interviewed for research, so she met with these TV folks to answer their questions. She would later write, “Getting out of class sounded good, and the additional enticement of free doughnuts sounded better,” which is something we can all relate to! What an incredible start; go to school for a typical day and come back with a show contract. Unreal!
The actresses of Facts of Life demanded more money. By Season 6, Nancy McKeon skipped the first two tapings to make a point. The producers initially planned to sue her for breach of contract, but they caved and offered McKeon and the other actresses a raise.
You may or may not know this, but The Facts of Life was a spinoff of the classic show Diff’rent Strokes. The new show’s plot would follow the Drummond family’s housekeeper, Edna Garret, who was played by Charlotte Rae, as she accepted a new job as a house mother at Eastland Prep School. However, the show was far from an immediate hit.
True fans can see the similarities between the two shows. Though The Facts of Life was not an instant hit, they held on just a little longer to let the show catch up to where Diff’rent Strokes had been. NBC executive Brandon Tarkitoff decided to give the show another chance and order more episodes; he needed the OK from Norman Lear, who did not want his name attached to the show. Luckily, though, he was persuaded – he would probably be out $30 million if he hadn’t allowed it!
Competition on Screen
The ladies of The Facts of Life had no clue that they were being compared and that only some would return for Season Two. Things at the Eastland School were rather crowded at first, with Felice Schachter, Julie Anne Haddock, Julie Piekarski, and Molly Ringwald playing roles early on. Little did they know, they would not return for Season Two.
The remaining girls showed up for Season Two and had no idea that the others had been fired. The girls soon learned that the producers decided to strip the show down to the studs and kept the parts that worked the best. They had no clue they were in such fierce competition!
Initially, The Facts of Life was set to have a different name. Initially, the show would have been called “Garrett’s Girls,” but show producers felt it gave away too much. It would have been a good name, though, don’t you think? It still seems like a great fit.
Clearly, that was not what the show would be known as later. The Facts of Life was selected as the series’ title, and perhaps it was more fitting. The show followed a group of girls as they learned about the ups, the downs, the good, and the bad. They ultimately learned “the facts of life” themselves!
Girls across the world are told how to dress, how to look, how to act, and so on. The team behind The Facts of Life used to try to control the appearances of their stars. The producers had a lot to say when their stars gained even the slightest amount of weight. The actresses were teenagers at the time, so naturally, their bodies were going through changes.
However, weight loss and weight gain did not seem to be tolerated. If a character was meant to be chubby, like Natalie, who was played by Mindy Cohn, they draped her in baggy clothes to seem larger still. On the other end, Blair, played by Lisa Whelchel, was forced to lose weight. The producers hired nutritionists and therapists to combat the “issue.”
The Facts of Life was the first television show to have a disabled character appear regularly in a primetime slot. The character, Cousin Geri, was played by Geri Jewell. Jewell was a comedian with cerebral palsy. The show’s producer, Norman Lear, was blown away when he saw her perform at the 1980 Media Access Awards.
Not only was Jewell thrilled to receive a standing ovation, but she was also excited to be approached by a Hollywood producer. He informed her when they met in the elevator that he would be reaching out soon. Three months later, he reached out with the Season Two episode, “Cousin Geri.”
Tootie was a spunky little thing – so many people think her roller skates were a result of her personality, but you might be surprised to hear what the real reason is. Her trademark roller skates were constantly worn throughout the first season because, according to the producers, she was too short to play a twelve-year-old!
The actress, Kim Fields, was only nine years old when the show began production. She played a twelve-year-old, and producers felt that adding some height with the roller-skates would make her pass for someone just a little bit older. She lost out on a role for Diff’rent Strokes… because she was too tall. Either way, we are happy that she had her part in this show!
Down on Sesame Street
Before we knew her as Mrs. Garrett on The Facts of Life, she had a career with a show that is still running today. Charlotte Rae was on the famous world phenomenon Sesame Street! For years, Rae played the role of Molly, the Mail Lady, on the iconic children’s educational program.
Her role as Molly the Mail Lady was basically as a television educator. She spent her time on Sesame Street teaching children about the importance of the letter M, other letters, and some significant parts of grammar. Her acting career didn’t stop there; she also had roles in Car 54, Where Are You? And, of course, Diff’rent Strokes.
Bringing NBC to the Top
In the 1970s, NBC was not the same network that it is today. It did not have the same tenure and ability to make us swoon with their original programming as it does now! Between 1977 and 1978, there were thirty network television shows. How many of them were on NBC?
NBC was the least successful of the networks, ABC and CBS included. Only four of the shows on television at the time were on NBC. After the network found success with Diff’rent Strokes, they wanted to capitalize and keep the momentum going. This led to the creation of The Facts of Life.
The Facts of Life Goes to Paris
“The cast takes a vacation” is a tale as old as time on network television. Nearly every show has some type of on-screen trip, somewhere across the world. At the very least, shows featuring families and kids end up going to Disney World. The cast of this show had a special treat!
The cast of The Facts of Life traded in what would have been a four-part episode for a full-length TV movie. The cast went to Paris because Mrs. Garrett would be attending a prestigious cooking class, while the girls had their plans for the trip.
Girls in Paris, Part Deux
The Paris movie was filmed in a different format than the rest of the show. Usually, there was a studio audience and a laugh track. This was not the case for the Paris feature. The special was two hours long. The format did not feel like it was the same program.
It should not be a shock to hear that the characters hit some hijinks along the way. The viewers see the girls making their plans for their time in Paris. They experience life in another country, not straying from their character roles along the way.
Paris Part Trois
We hope these girls understand the privilege they had to be taken to Paris because of their house mom’s fantastic opportunity! Jo wants to check out Le Mans, a high-speed car race, which is pretty on-brand for her. Blair intended to find a Paris trip’s necessities: French clothes, French perfume, and a French boyfriend!
Four of the girls headed off to a French boarding school to practice their French, while some hung back and just wanted to embrace the culture. No one was happy with the arrangements: Mrs. Garrett had a teacher who could not stand her, the girls were stuck at a boarding school an hour outside of the city – the list goes on.
Where Was Eastland?
The school was depicted as being in Peekskill, New York, which is a real town in upstate New York. The city itself is easily accessible from New York City via the Metro-North commuter rail, but the show was not really filmed there! In real life, the show was filmed in a college dormitory in California.
The Eastwood building, in reality, is located at Harwood Court dormitory in Claremont, California. This building is part of the Pomona College campus. Pomona is a prestigious liberal arts college in Southern California, just outside of Los Angeles.
The Paris Resolutions
Sure – we will circle back to their legendary Paris trip. Remember how we mentioned that everyone on the Paris trip was unhappy with their arrangements? These fierce ladies took it into their own hands to have the journey that they wanted to have. Jo hitchhiked and met a French boy, and the other girls escaped their headmistress on a field trip.
Though the girls were in a foreign country without much adult supervision, they did not get up to too much nonsense. The ladies decided to take their trip back and make it what they had always dreamed it would be. Who wouldn’t?
Barely Surviving Cancellation
NBC was not always the powerhouse we know it as now. In the late 1970s, the network was struggling. Of the top 30 shows on television, very few were on NBC. The Facts of Life barely survived cancellation, and it actually took some convincing to have the heads of the network continue the show.
In a 1988 interview with The New York Times, NBC executive Brandon Tarkitoff had to convince his higher-ups why the network should not cancel the program. Luckily, they gave it another shot, and the show became a success – though not as big of a hit as they had initially hoped.
The Facts of Life Down Under
These girls had it made! We aren’t sure if every boarding school takes its students on international trips, but Eastland’s ladies had it made as far as we are concerned. The girls were invited to a cultural exchange program with their sister school down under in Sydney, Australia.
The gang, plus Beverly Ann and Andy, flew to Sydney, Australia, to visit their sister school Koolunga, which was celebrating an anniversary. Unfortunately, this special was not filled with many kangaroos or koala bears. The girls did find themselves in a sticky situation down under, though!
While visiting their sister school down under, Blair and Jo found themselves dealing with some jewel thieves and were pursued by police officers – or at least men who claimed to be police. Others, like Beverly Ann and Andy, headed off to a sheep ranch nearby to see an old boyfriend.
The girls did indeed have the jewels, but they snuck them into their friend Natalie’s bag. Natalie was off touring the Outback with a cattle rancher, and Tootie was exploring ancient caves in that same area with an anthropologist she believed to be an Aboriginal Australian. These adventurous girls managed to get up to nonsense wherever they went!
Though she played Blair in The Facts of Life, Lisa Whelchel was not the first girl to play the role of Blair. The Facts of Life was a spinoff of Diff’rent Strokes, and a different actress originally played the role of Blair!
In the original show, actress Geri Reischl played the role of Blair. Unfortunately, though, she had a contract with General Mills, which prohibited her from working on any project with an indefinite timeline. After some scrambling, the producers found their girl, which is how Lisa Whelchel ended up in the show!
Theme Song Mania
Anyone familiar with television shows from the 1980s will remember the show’s iconic theme song. “You take the good, you take the bad…,” and you probably know how the rest goes. This infectious song was co-written by some of the music industry’s greats.
These tunes were created by the legendary Alan Thicke, his now-ex-wife Gloria Loring, and Al Burton. Charlotte Rae lent her voice for the theme song in Season One, but Seasons Two through Nine were vocalized by Gloria Loring. Loring and Thicke also composed the theme song for Diff’rent Strokes.
The Show Was Not a Huge Hit
Even if you loved the show back then, the show never hit their best rating goals. The show ranked 74th in its first season and never got much further than 24th in rankings, beyond a few episodes here and there breaking the top 20 slot. They can’t all be winners!
The show became more popular later on, starting in Season Two, mostly with a younger crowd tuning in. The show did not get much respect from the TV academy either. The show was nominated for an Emmy three times but unfortunately never struck victory.
All the Spinoffs
There were so many ideas for The Facts of Life’s spinoffs, but none made it beyond the pitch. The many options would not have surprised you when wondering why these spinoffs did not make it very far. Some of these ideas would feature the girls; meanwhile, others would focus on people who took guest roles.
Some of the spinoff options included an all-male military school near Eastland, set to star Scott Baio and his cousin Jimmy. Another would have focused on Blair and Jo in their college life at Langley, and another would focus on Jo’s family in the Bronx. The last would focus on Tootie’s cousin’s interracial marriage, which would feature MacGyver star Richard Dean Anderson playing the husband.
Everyone and their mother would likely remember sharing a kiss with George Clooney, who was named Sexiest Man Alive not once, but twice. However, Lisa Whelchel does not remember when her character shared a kiss with him in the Season Seven episode “The Reunion.” Do you think he has ever gotten that response to one of his smooches?
The cast reunited for the 35th anniversary of the show at the Paley Center in 2014. Whelchel discussed that she did not even remember sharing that kiss. “I am all for repressed memories, but why I repressed that one I don’t know!” she admitted at the reunion. Even though she did not remember the kiss, she did remember him acting like a big brother on set.
Something that was memorable that happened to Lisa Whelchel was when Eve Plumb, who played Jan Brady on The Brady Bunch, slapped Whelchel in the face! Plumb appeared on The Facts of Life as Blair’s sister, and during their rehearsal, Plumb slapped her in the face. “It didn’t really hurt, but I milked it a bit,” Whelchel later admitted.
Going Against Views
Lisa Welchel turned down an episode proposal that would make her the first of Mrs. Garrett’s girls to lose her virginity. The writers wanted her to be the first, but she considered it to be too risqué in her opinion. This episode actually went against her personal views against premarital sex.
The episode ended up happening, but with a different character. “Parental guidance is so loose these days. A lot of young girls get their lessons on life and discipline from TV,” she told People in 1984. “I don’t believe in premarital sex, and I don’t want to condone it to any young person who’s watching.” When the episode played out later, she refused to appear in the episode.
Mrs. Garrett Moves On
Charlotte Rae decided it was time to move on to bigger and better things. She left the series when Mrs. Garrett got married and joined the Peace Corps in the premiere of the show’s eighth season. However, she did not move on without giving her input on who should replace her as the mother of the house.
Rae told producers that they should look no further than one of her best friends – Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe winner Cloris Leachman. The two were classmates at Northwestern University, as well as roommates in New York. She would join the cast as Beverly Ann, who later accompanied the girls on their trip to Australia.
The ladies of Eastland were some of the sitcom characters picked on or “spoofed” in the short-lived NBC show, The Rerun Show. This program featured future stars of Mad TV fame, Paul Vogt and Daniele Gaither. Their episode poked fun at the Season Two episode of the show called “Shoplifting.”
The episode depicted was when Jo stole a blouse to give as a gift to Mrs. Garrett. The gift would have later implications when Mrs. Garrett tried to exchange the top. Vogt played Mrs. Garrett, and his head shaking helped him fit the role seamlessly!
Charlotte Rae: Then and Now
The Facts of Life would not have become what it was if it were not for the beautiful Mrs. Garrett. Rae had been acting since the early 1950s, and her role as Edna Garrett made her into the actress we know and love. She crushed it on Diff’rent Strokes, so, naturally, NBC wanted to make her into an even bigger star!
After almost a decade playing the kooky house mother of Eastland, she retired. Though she played a few roles over the years, her last screen credit was her role in the musical comedy Ricki and the Flash in 2015. Sadly, the actress passed away in 2018 after a long battle with bone cancer.
Lisa Whelchel: Then and Now
Lisa Whelchel was new in Hollywood at the time of her casting in the role of Blair Warner. Though she was portrayed as a rule-breaker and a rebel in the early days of the show, the actress was not comfortable showing that side of her character.
After her tenure at The Facts of Life, the actress did not want to further her acting career. Before the show ended, she turned to music and received a Grammy nomination for her Christian album All Because of You. She is a motivational speaker, a mother, and a homeschool educator for her children. She shocked fans when she appeared on Survivor: Philippines and won $100,000 after being voted fan favorite!
Kim Fields: Then and Now
Kim Fields was only ten years old when the show began, and she was one of the few characters who had appeared on Diff’rent Strokes. Her cuteness inspired NBC executives to bring her back and continue her character on The Facts of Life! She was so tiny at the start of the show that they put her in roller-skates, which became a staple for her character.
The actress took a step back after her role wrapped up and continued her education. She attended Pepperdine University before making a comeback in a leading role in another iconic sitcom, Living Single. She appeared in this series along with Queen Latifah. She directed some projects for Nickelodeon and appeared on The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Dancing with With the Stars.
Nancy McKeon: Then and Now
The series producers decided that the show needed a little more edge, which is when Nancy McKeon’s character, Jo Polniaczek, was introduced. From her first appearance, Jo gave them precisely what they needed. She even showed up to Eastland Academy on her motorcycle! In real life, you might not get that vibe from Nancy McKeon.
Unlike some of her other stars, McKeon did whatever she could to remain relevant after the show came to an end. She landed roles on several shows that would be canceled too soon, but she did not let that get her down. She managed to find her place on the female-driven crime drama The Division. She also appeared on the Disney Channel series Sonny with a Chance and was a contestant on Season 27 of Dancing with the Stars.
Fun Fact: McKeon shocked her co-stars by dating Michael J. Fox, who starred on Family Ties. Whelchel recalled, “We were all shocked when she was dating somebody, and [he was] somebody so cute and talented and wonderful.” The relationship lasted for three years.
Mindy Cohn: Then and Now
This girl had a fantastic start as Charlotte Rae and convinced the show’s producers to create a role just for her. As a result, Natalie Green came to life. The role was supposedly named for Rae’s best friend in real life, who was similar to the actress in so many ways. The character had a strong sense of self-esteem and proved to be a role model to girls at the time.
Cohn has had a successful acting career beyond The Facts of Life. She found her place with voiceover roles and landed a spot in the legendary Scooby-Doo franchise. She voiced Velma Dinkley in several Scooby-Doo video games and hit animated shows like What’s New Scooby-Doo? And Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.
John Lawlor: Then and Now
John Lawlor played the role of Mr. Steven Bradley, the headmaster of the girls’ boarding school. His character taught some classes at the school; however, he was not part of the show for too long. NBC big shots decided that the show did not need more than one strong authority figure, so his character disappeared after the first season.
His departure from The Facts of Life was not terrible for his career. He managed to thrive still with consistent roles throughout his career. He recently appeared in the adventure thriller Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey. He also appeared in Netflix’s original mini-series, Godless.
Juliette Lewis: Then and Now
One of the last characters introduced was Terry Rankin. She was brought on as one of the new students at Eastland, but not until the last two episodes of the series as a whole. They wanted to develop a spinoff with her character, but, unfortunately, the network did not go for it.
This did not seem to be an issue for Juliette Lewis, who has had an impressive and lengthy career to date. She received an Oscar nomination after she was cast in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear. She also went on to play roles in critically acclaimed projects like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Natural Born Killers, Whip It, and August: Osage County. Recently, she landed roles on TV shows like Secrets and Lies and HBO’s Camping.
Molly Ringwald: Then and Now
Molly Ringwald might not have gotten to where she is now if she had not gotten her start on screen in The Facts of Life. Her role was short-lived, as she was one of the characters who was cut after Season One. Producers might have kept her around longer if they knew the star she would later become.
Ringwald went on to become one of today’s most recognizable actresses. She landed roles in The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink, which helped her get to her status today. Her career stalled for a moment, but she landed back in the spotlight in her roles in The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Riverdale, and The Kissing Booth.
George Clooney: Then and Now
Did you know that George Clooney got his start on The Facts of Life? His role as Mrs. Garrett’s handyman George Burnett was one he appeared in before making it big. His character helped Mrs. Garrett rebuild her store, Edna’s Edibles after it burned down. Little did they know, he was about to make waves as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Clooney truly got his break in the medical drama ER, which put him on the map. He became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He was versatile and able to accomplish just about anything he wanted to in the industry. He constantly juggled roles in blockbusters across the board. His role in Syriana brought him his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This icon has collected awards over the years and currently works as a successful director, screenwriter, and Oscar-winning producer.
Geri Jewell: Then and Now
After making history as the first person with a visible disability to appear in a recurring role on a primetime show, she seemed hilarious enough to land any role she would desire. She played Blair’s cousin Geri, always making her cousin jealous as she managed to steal the spotlight.
Jewell has remained true to her roots in stand-up comedy. Stand-up remains at the center of her career, and while it is still her first passion, she manages to find her way back to TV now and then. She held prominent roles in shows like The Young and the Restless and HBO’s critically-acclaimed Deadwood.
Seth Green: Then and Now
Seth Green followed others’ footsteps from the show, who played minor roles but became massive stars. The actor landed one of his first significant roles in this series. He followed in the footsteps of Mayim Bialik, Juliette Lewis, and George Clooney. His cute face as a young child on the show might have foreshadowed what would come later.
Green has had a stellar career, primarily in the comedy field. He didn’t get much out of his experience on Facts but became a household name. He voiced Chris Griffin in Family Guy and Leonardo on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He has had the honor of participating in Comedy Central Roasts and has had a lengthy career in the comedy world since he appeared in The Facts of Life.