Eighties sitcom The Facts of Life followed a group of pupils at an all-girls boarding school who were making that tricky transition to womanhood. Sadly, its leading cast member was forced to face the prospect of a more drastic transition when she received a devastating diagnosis. Here’s a look at the heartwarming manner in which she dealt with the news.
Having already played housekeeper Edna Garrett in NBC sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, Charlotte Rae then reprised the role for its spin-off The Facts of Life. This time around, Garrett was a housemother to a group of pupils at a girls-only New York boarding school. The show debuted in 1979 and stayed on the air for nine years.
Other main cast members included Kim Fields as gossipmonger Dorothy “Tootie” Ramsey, Lisa Whelchel playing pampered brat Blair Warner and Mindy Cohn as naive Natalie Green. Following a second-season retool, The Facts of Life became the highest-watched comedy on the NBC network, surpassing even the show that it was derived from. And in 1985 the cast was joined by a young – and then unknown – George Clooney.
Rae eventually left the show following its eighth season premiere, feeling that she’d taken the character as far as she could. Edna Garrett was written out when she married a Peace Corps worker and emigrated to Africa. Garrett’s sibling Beverly Ann Stickle, played by Cloris Leachman, was then written in to replace her.
The Facts of Life was canceled in 1988 when key cast members Nancy McKeon and Mindy Cohen refused to sign up for another season. Nonetheless, the show continued to entertain new generations thanks to numerous re-runs. And in 2001 the majority of the main cast – including Charlotte Rae – reunited for an ABC Thanksgiving special.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926, Charlotte Rae had begun her career performing on the stage. She later picked up Tony Award nods for her performances in Morning Noon and Night and Pickwick. She also released an album in 1955, titled Songs I Taught My Mother: Silly, Sinful & Satiric Selections, which contained pastiches of Marlene Dietrich and the Gabor sisters.
Rae first came to TV viewers’ attention when she landed the role of Officer Leo Schnauser’s wife Sylvia in Car 54, Where Are You?. Other notable parts included Mrs Bellotti in Hot I Baltimore and Molly the Mail Lady in Sesame Street. She also guested 11 times on The Rich Little Show.
However, Rae’s big break came in 1978 when she joined the cast of Diff’rent Strokes. Renowned for her orange hair and quirky but kindhearted personality, housekeeper Edna Garrett was one of the show’s most-loved characters. And the spin-off, proposed to producers by Rae herself, boosted her profile even further.
After leaving The Facts of Life, Rae guested on medical drama ER, family sitcom The King of Queens and teen hit Pretty Little Liars. She also voiced Nanny in the late ’90s animation 101 Dalmations: The Series and Aunt Pristine Figg in Tom and Jerry: The Movie. And in 2015 she appeared as Kevin Kline’s mom in rock-star dramedy Ricki and the Flash.
Sadly, though, Rae’s later years were plagued by health problems. She was once forced to undergo emergency surgery when the pacemaker she’d had fitted way back in 1982 suddenly stopped working. And in 2009 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, an illness that had apparently taken the life of her mother, older sister and uncle. Thankfully, following a prolonged bout of chemotherapy, Rae was given the all-clear.
But six years later, Rae told People magazine that she was now battling bone cancer. Now in her 90s, the star revealed she was in two minds over whether to undergo yet more chemotherapy treatment. “I’m not in any pain right now,” Rae explained. “I’m feeling so terrific and so glad to be above ground.”
“Now I have to figure out whether I want to go have treatment again to opt for life,” Rae continued. “I love life. I’ve had a wonderful one already. I have this decision to make.” She also admitted that she’d already refused one course of treatment.
“I wanted to think about it first,” Rae told People. “I think I’m going to go for it. The side effects were not too bad when I did it originally. I’ve had a great life, but I have so many wonderful things happening. I’d like to choose life. I’m grateful for the life I’ve already had.”
Rae also had some words of advice for People readers. She said, “At 91, every day is a birthday. I want to tell everybody to celebrate every day, to savor the day and be good to yourself, love yourself, and then you can be good to others and be of service to others.”
Sadly, Rae passed away in her Los Angeles home in August 2018 at the age of 92. The news was confirmed to CNN by her only surviving son, teacher Larry Strauss, although he didn’t reveal the details of her passing. Rae also had another son, Andy, who tragically died in his mid-40s.
The father of both Larry and Andy was John Strauss. Rae walked down the aisle with the composer in 1951 but the pair divorced in 1976 after Strauss’ bisexuality caused their relationship to break down. Sadly, after enduring a prolonged struggle with Parkinson’s disease, Strauss died aged 90 in 2011.
In the wake of Rae’s passing, a host of former castmates took to Twitter to pay tribute to the much-loved actress. Lisa Whelchel, aka The Facts of Life’s Blair, posted, “Thank you, Charlotte, for 40 years of friendship and love.” Kim Fields, who played Tootie in the show, tweeted, “You all already know my heart is heavy yet…. sorry, no words at the moment just love and tears… and yeah, smiles…”
Perhaps the most heartwarming tribute came from Mindy Cohn, aka Natalie. “It’s with a heavy heart & tears (but a smile as I think of her) that I now move through the world without this incredible force of a woman being it,” Cohn wrote on Instagram. “She was my champion, a teacher, a proud example of the tenacity and perseverance needed to live as a creative.”
And it wasn’t just Rae’s sitcom co-stars who paid glowing tributes. Several other celebrities who had worked with her on other projects, or simply admired her talents, took to Twitter to express their sorrow. These included Broadway actress Audra McDonald and comedians Gilbert Gottfried and Kathy Griffin.
A memorial service was held for Rae in Los Angeles a week after her passing. Her The Facts of Life co-stars Mindy Cohn and Kim Fields were present at the event, which concluded with a rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.” The two actresses also made their own touching eulogies at the service, footage of which was later uploaded to Instagram. It was clear that Rae will be missed by many.