On January 31, 2015, I made my debut on EW.com with “You Take the Good, You Take the Bad: An Oral History of The Facts of Life.”
If you follow me on social media, this isn’t what you’d call breaking news, since I actually commemorated the anniversary twice: first I posted the link to the piece on the day that LinkedIn referred to as the anniversary of when I started writing for EW.com (and which I describe more realistically to as the anniversary of when I signed the contract for what remains the only time that I’ve written for EW.com), and then I posted it again on the article’s actual publication date, mostly because that’s really when I’d intended to post it in the first place.
Now that we’ve passed the one-year mark and there’s no fear of anyone suggesting that I’m stealing readership away from the original piece, I believe I’m standing on solid ground in offering up some of the “deleted scenes,” if you will, from the various interviews I did for the oral history.
Sadly, this means that you will not find anything from Mindy Cohn or Kim Fields, since they weren’t of a mind to reminiscence about the days when they played Natalie and Tootie, but you will get some heretofore-unpublished anecdotes from Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Garrett), Lisa Whelchel (Blair Warner), Nancy McKeon (Jo Polniaczek), and a wide variety of other cast members and behind-the-scenes folks who participated in the proceedings, including one gentleman whose reminiscences didn’t make it into the EW.com piece at all.
That’s right, Maurice LeMarche: at last, your story can be told!
Lastly, before kicking things off, I just want to dedicate this collection of odds and sods to the late Alex Rocco, who was kind enough to call me up within five minutes of my texting him to ask if he’d be willing to participate in the original piece. I don’t have any additional material from that particular conversation with Rocco – he and I had already talked at some length about his time on the show in earlier chats we’d had over the preceding few years, so we were able to kind of cut to the chase with his contributions – but you will find an anecdote about Rocco from Nancy McKeon, who I never would’ve been able to get on the phone if he hadn’t vouched for me…and if I hadn’t gotten her on the phone, I don’t even know if I would’ve had a piece. R.I.P, Rocco. I can’t thank you enough for helping me to get the ball rolling.
And with that said, let’s roll on, shall we?
Charlotte Rae (Edna Garrett): In the episode where the girls took Mrs. Garrett to a strip club, I was channeling my mother. I was in a show that was going to open on Broadway, but we were doing six weeks in San Francisco, and there was a place where they did gay striptease shows and stuff, and my mother just couldn’t believe it. She said, “No! Really? Oh, for goodness’ sake!” [Laughs.] So I remembered how she said that, and I tried to use that.
Lisa Whelchel (Blair Warner): Pretty much everything about Blair was the antithesis of me, and that always makes it more fun as an actress. I really wouldn’t have wanted to play a part that was just like me, anyway. I like it when it’s different. It’s always great to change things up, so we enjoyed every time they made new changes. Any time there was something new, it just brought new blood into the show and made it fun. They would listen to us when it was regarding our characters, but they didn’t consult us for the bigger premises. There were often times when there were lines or different things that we’d say, “No, that doesn’t feel right.” I can’t recall any specifically, but they were always very responsive.
Julie Piekarski Probst (Sue Ann Weaver):In the beginning, Sue Ann was kind of your all-American girl. She was from Kansas. I guess in a way they were kind of seeing who I was and then trying to characterize her a little bit more based on that. Towards the middle to end of that first season, though, it definitely seemed like she was getting a life of her own. They had me becoming….not everyone’s best friend, but kind of the friend that you go to for advice or that kind of thing. But they were also realizing that I could deliver a little comeback line, but in a way that was different than the way Blair did it. Blair’s were more of a blatant zing, Sue Ann’s were a little bit sweeter and nicer, but they were still both successful ways of delivering comebacks, and the writers particularly noticed something between Blair and Sue Ann, a comedic timing with the zingers going back and forth.
I felt like we were representing the audience with the different girls we had. But then you look at the fact that we kind of had a tough girl with Cindy, but she had blonde hair and Sue Ann had blonde hair, and…you don’t know much of it had to do with the visual cues, and if they just really wanted the audience to be able to recognize the girls from one other. There’s a part of me that wonders if they felt like they needed to define the differences between the girls by bringing in a character with dark hair, who was definitely a tough girl, who had a distinct accent, to really create that contrast between her and the other characters. I don’t know that the audience needs to be spoon-fed quite as much as the networks seem to think they do, though.
It’s funny that there was that concern about how many characters were on the show, because you look at a show like Friends, and look how many they had! [Laughs.] Part of me feels that whatever was meant to be was meant to be, but I do think that they needed to give it more time, to let people settle in and get more of a definite identity for each character, because I feel like they touched upon it, but they were still trying to find their way.
When they changed the show and my character was cut, I’m not going to say I was actually shocked, but I was surprised. “Blindsided” might be the right word for how I felt, though, because I did feel like Sue Ann was getting more opportunities and more storylines where I was a main character. I will say that, if there had been any sort of rumor going around the set like, “Oh, I hear they’re gonna cut a couple of the girls,” then I probably would’ve thought, “Well, probably not me.” But there was no hush-hush rumor going around. It was just, “We’re cutting the cast.”
Almost immediately after that happened, though, I started work on a pilot called The Best of Times, which was definitely ahead of its time: it was kind of a musical-comedy series that was produced by George Schlatter, who did Laugh-In and Real People, and I was on it with Nicolas Cage and Crispin Glover. I was the main character on that, so even though it ultimately didn’t get picked up, the fact that I went straight from The Facts of Life to doing that, I wasn’t, like, sitting in my room going, “Now what?”
When Felice, Julie Anne, and I came back (for the Season Eight episode “The Little Chill”), oh my gosh, that was so much fun. It was a blast. But, you know, looking back, that’s another one of those episodes where my character kind of took the lead, and it provided a little bit of closure for me, I think, because it was, like, “Okay, they still like to use Sue Ann.” It was great to come back and see everyone and to see how much we’d all changed, but I remember that I got married just a few months before we did that, so when they said, “You have to take your wedding ring off,” I was, like, “Not my ring! I can’t take my ring off!” [Laughs.] But the whole thing felt very much like we were picking up where we left off, in terms of the kindness and the friendships that had been there.
John Bowab (director): I was fairly new in television at the time – I came from theater, and I had done a lot of theater – but when I got a call from The Facts of Life, I had already done an episode of Soap and a few episodes of Benson. Not too many, though. It was the first season, and it was a very complicated situation, because there were so many girls in the show. They had seven girls at the time, so it was not an easy thing, and nobody really knew if it was going to last. Charlotte Rae had met with me and liked me, but the question was whether they were going to be able to make the thing work. At the end of a certain period, they decided that they really had too many girls, and they were missing someone to get on Blair’s back. That’s when we screen-tested Nancy McKeon.
When they added Nancy, they cut three of the girls. They were all delightful girls – Molly Ringwald was one of them – but they just couldn’t make it work with all of them, so they had to bring it down. Lisa Whelchel was never in question, and I don’t think Kim Fields was ever a question. Mindy Cohn was new to the game, though. And, of course, she had no experience, but they still kept her on after the first season, and she turned out to be a very integral part of the show.
After that first year, I was working on a number of other shows, and about three or four years went by, but I always kept in touch. I became very, very friendly with Charlotte – and still am – and I continued to keep in touch, particularly with Nancy. And then somewhere around the fifth season, they asked me to come back, they were going to pay me a lot of money, and I was available, and I remember they said to me, “It’s probably the last season.” So I said, “One more year? Well, why not? It’s fun.”
By the time I came back, they had a new writing staff, and…I was sort of delighted, to tell you the truth. I don’t mean to hurt anybody’s feelings, but I thought it had become a little preachy. I thought even in the first season it had become preachy, and subsequently when I saw the show I thought, “God, they just seem to have a moral every week!” So I wasn’t really sorry during those four years I wasn’t doing it. But in the fifth year, they hired the team of Stuart Wolpert and his wife, Deidre Fay, and they were terrific to work with, and I felt that the show took on another quality, a more grown-up quality. And by that time, the girls were no longer kids. Nancy had grown up, and Kim had matured. They had all matured, I felt, into rather interesting actresses. Of course, after saying it would only be for one year, it wasn’t – the fifth season went into the sixth, and the seventh, all the way to the ninth! – but I stayed with it all those years, and I was happy. I still went off and did other things on occasion, pilots and whatnot, but it was a terrific experience.
Howard Leeds (writer): The show went on to a phenomenal run, but all (Ben Starr and I) did was write the pilot…although I shouldn’t say that’s all we did. It was kind of important! [Laughs.] But after we did the pilot, sometimes they carry over the writer of a pilot to be a part of the show, and that obviously didn’t happen in this case, but it was turned over to a very good writer/producer named Jerry Mayer.
We loved Charlotte, and we were very happy for her to be able to get her own show. We knew we’d miss her on Diff’rent Strokes, but it was a wonderful opportunity for her, so we were all very pleased about that. It was a labor of love. Of course, with any spin-off, you never know long any spinoff is going to last or whether it’s even going to work, but we had good thoughts about it, and the idea seemed popular with the network.
Yes, there were a lot of girls, but it was a girls’ school. If you’re going to do a show about a girls’ school, you’ve got to expect girls. [Laughs.] But as with many series, things change from the original concept as you go along. You find certain things work and certain things don’t, and you change to fix what doesn’t work, you certainly keep what does work, and they evolve.
Jerry Mayer (executive producer / writer): Helen Hunt was in an episode that I wrote called “Dope,” which was about some of the girls trying marijuana, and what’s funny is that when they had a special to celebrate the 75th anniversary of NBC, they had a big variety show with all of these actors who’d been stars on the network, and Helen Hunt – who, of course, went on to be on Mad About You – told a joke about being in the “Dope” episode, and they ran probably a minute or so from it. I got a nice royalty check from that! [Laughs.]
The girls looked all innocent, they learned a lesson… With “Dope,” marijuana was out there and kids were trying it, so that was an obvious kind of edgy subject to cover. I mean, when you see in the paper, “The girls experiment with marijuana,” the audience says, “Oh, this one I gotta watch!” Those were kinds of shows we were looking for. One time I got a call from a guy that was writing a book about sitcoms, and one of the episodes he asked me about was “Emily Dickinson,” where Blair stole a poem and claimed it as her own. He asked, “Why would you write an episode about that?” And I said, “Well, because a lesson was learned…and in that case the lesson was, ‘Don’t steal from a famous poet!’”
John Lawlor was very good and a funny guy, but after we phased out his character, we still needed a headmaster that we’d have from time to time, so we ended up getting Roger Perry, who played Mr. Parker. Just as a side note, Roger Perry was married to Jo Anne Worley at the time, but then they got divorced, and he’s now married to Joyce Bulifant, who used to be married to Bill Asher, who gave me one of my first sales as a writer when he was producing Bewitched, which starred his wife at the time, Elizabeth Montgomery, who ended up having an affair with one of that show’s directors! You could write plenty of books about all of the things like that that happened.
I wrote an episode about Natalie’s grandmother coming to visit, and to play her, we got Molly Picon to play her, who had a huge history in the theater. And in one of the very first episodes, we had an episode where Mrs. Garrett’s ex-husband visited, and we got Robert Alda for the part. And the reason for that stretched back to years earlier, long before his son (Alan) got famous, when I saw the film Rhapsody in Blue, the George Gershwin story. I was such a big Gershwin fan, and when I saw, I thought, “Robert Alda, what a great guy.” So when we were doing The Facts of Life, I thought, “I’m gonna hire Robert Alda to be in the show as Charlotte’s husband!” Which is an interesting pairing, to be sure. [Laughs.] But while he was there, I told him how much I admired him and that I had ever since I first saw him in that film. And then in the second season, we cast Alex Rocco as Nancy McKeon’s father, and, of course, he was Moe Greene in The Godfather. He and I became very friendly over the years.
Asaad Kelada (director): When there were still seven girls and John Lawlor was the headmaster, so it was a very different set-up, I directed an episode, and it still hadn’t found its voice. I really couldn’t get a handle on what the series was going to be about, because there was just so much going on. Then when they revamped the show, I went back, and it was Mrs. Garrett and the four girls who remained for the run of the series. In fact, the first episode I directed was the first episode to introduce Jo, Nancy’s McKeon’s character, which was just a pure joy. She was so lovely and brilliant, as was the rest of the cast, and…I just found it an exceptional experience. And the producers who had just come on, Margie Peters and Linda Marsh, who were writers and producers, they were exceptional as well. It all seemed to fall into place. So I shortly thereafter became the series director, and we stayed together as a team for the next four years. It was a very special experience for me, a highlight in my career.
It’s surprising: it’s been a couple of decades now, at least – time goes quickly! – but it remains very vivid in my mind, I must tell you, and all four young ladies are very dear to my heart, and they’re all very clear to me. What struck me very much and very early on was not only how sweet and pleasant and enjoyable they were to be around, but also that they were immensely talented, and in an intuitive way. They were very young and with various degrees of training. Mindy had not done any acting when she was first plucked out of school to do the series, and Kim was a young girl. But they were very, very impressionable, they were open, they were instinctive, they responded very quickly. It was like a learning experience for all of us, because at the beginning of each episode, we would read it at the table, and then I would just meet with them, and we would talk about what the episode was about and what we were going to hopefully going to try to accomplish with it. We kind of all built it together and they were very responsive. Charlotte was like the den mother and was a wonderful example in her professionalism to all of them. It was literally a growing experience for them, and each of them had her own imprint on the series and their own special gifts. It was a remarkable unit. It was very, very enjoyable and productive, and it was thrilling for me to see them grow and evolve – literally – in front of our eyes.
At the beginning, it was just simply a matter of corralling youngsters, in a sense. [Laughs.] And having a focus and discipline, and just getting them to keep the work as the focus. They were going to school at the same time they were working, so they had stand-ins. They could spend only 20 minutes onstage, and then they had to go back to school. These were all challenges to ration the time, to bring their focus in and back to work, and then they’d go back to school. They were young kids, but they were surprisingly disciplined onstage and professional. One of the challenges for me was to use their youth as an asset instead of trying to sit on it, because even that unruliness and the fact that it was all coming from intuition. That was part of the charm and the richness of the series, because it was young people learning about the facts of life, and growing up. So it was a combination of life and art, life and work, at the same time. And that’s one of the things that I remember specifically.
Sally Sussman Morina (writer): They had done four episodes (at the very beginning of the series) where they had Charlotte Rae and the girls, and then they also had a teacher played by Jenny O’Hara and a headmaster played by John Lawlor. I wasn’t privy to the actual decision-making (about streamlining the cast) – I was in the writers’ room – but my recollection is that they realized they just had too many people and needed to simply. I also think they were looking for very clear characters, and some of the other girls just weren’t that clearly defined, that they kind of blended into each other too much. After the full 13 episodes, there was a lot of doubt as to whether the show would be picked up for a second season or not, and there was a lot of concern. I think it was pretty dicey whether it would be coming back. I remember having a dinner meeting with one of the NBC executives at the time, who said to me, “They’re only keeping the three girls, and they’re gonna pick up a fourth because they want more of a contrast to Blair.” Obviously, I think it was a shock to the poor girls who lost their jobs, but I don’t think anybody inside the show was surprised by that. I think it was just a natural thing.
The second season episodes “Shoplifting” and “Sex Symbol” were the two episodes that I got credit for writing, but we wrote on all of them at the time. There were some in the first season that I did a lot on, too. But I wasn’t technically a writer on the show then. I was just a writer’s assistant: I worked for Jerry Mayer, who was the executive producer at the time. I was only 23 years old when I went to write on that show, and by the time I had my first episode done, I was 24. I was very lucky. The writers at the time were all men, and they were all older. But because I was always in the room, if they were stuck on a joke or a line, I’d throw in something, and they liked it. They were really great to me to give me a shot, because I didn’t really have any writing experience at the time, other than a couple of spec scripts that I’d written. But Jerry and Al Burton – who ran Norman Lear’s company, TAT at the time, which was the original production company – they were fantastic to me. They really gave me an opportunity to write, and that just set my career up after that.
In the first season, when Jerry was running things, I think it was a group effort: the writers sat and broke the stories together. I remember specifically working on one…well, more than one, but there was one in particular about losing weight, and Natalie was upset, and somebody was anorexic. I think Julie Ann Haddock wasn’t eating? So they wanted to do something about eating disorders. And then they wanted to do something about smoking pot, and I remember working on that one with Jerry. I would suspect more in the second season the writers broke the stories more together. It was very interesting: once Jack Ellison came into the show, even though I was a full-time writer on staff by that point, he just wasn’t very nice to me and didn’t include me in anything. So it wasn’t a very comfortable situation for me personally. I knew that I was probably going to be let go at some point. I just didn’t know when. Fortunately, there was a writers’ strike at that time, so it was probably easier for him to get rid of me at that point.
I was let go in 1981, in the second season, when there was going to be a writers’ strike. I didn’t really get along great with Jack Ellinson, who was the exec producer they brought in for Season Two. He was a much older man, and he ended up taking over the show, and…that’s when I was let go. I knew (Facts of Life writers) Margie (Peters) and Linda (Marsh) from another gig that I had done at Toy Productions, Bernie Orenstein’s company. Linda and Margie came in during Season Two to work with Jack. They kind of pushed Jerry Mayer aside a little bit, even though I thought he was one of the better writers, and they ended up kind of running the show after that. But I was gone at that point. I always say, “Look, I was practically a kid myself when I was on the show!” [Laughs.]
It’s amazing how long that show went on, and how it’s become such a cult show for people, given that it was really iffy – I mean, seriously on the bubble – about whether it would even come back for a second season. The fact that it went on for nine seasons was a testament to the girls. The audience grew up with the girls, the girls grew up onscreen. There was a season or two where they were all a little bit on the heavy side, but then they kind of grew into themselves. They were a nice group of kids. I liked all them, and their parents were all really nice. Well, I didn’t really know Lisa’s parents. I met Lisa Whelchel’s mother a couple of times. But they were just a really nice group of people, and I think they all genuinely liked each other, which is why I think it worked. I think it’s also why getting the show down to just the four main girls was a smart way to go, because it just became a much clearer and much stronger show as a result.
John Lawlor (Mr. Bradley): I had been a finalist for a show before The Facts of Life called Hello, Larry, and they were considering me for that until McLean Stevenson said he’d do it. Because of that, I apparently had an easier time of it when I went up for The Facts of Life. My job was described to me by the casting director as “the glue that holds all this together.” Not because I was particularly brilliant, but because I could listen to the moms and get the word to the producers that this person is having a little problem, or say, “Let’s just see if the scene works before we scrap it.” That kind of stuff. And it was nice. We all seemed to have a real good time. Of course, once the other girls got in, the older they got, Charlotte seemed less involved.
Charlotte Rae is an old-time actress and comedienne who knows what she knows and knows a lot about it. She’s not a pushy woman at all, and she’s a very vulnerable woman, but her comedy is very good. She has those wonderful takes, if you look at those moments when she’s just got that wide-eyed look or she’s shaking her finger. She’s one of the finest comediennes in the country. She just is. And she only showed part of it there. She’s got a lot of heart and technique. She can do almost anything. And she had a lot of work to do. But she’s almost an egoless person. She’s like the old-time troupers: “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. Where do you want me to stand? Now what do you want me to do?” And then she’d work her butt off to make it funny. And to make it real. That was her thing. And I think she was given far more to work with than was given to Cloris [Leachman] later on. She seemed to be more important to the girls when she was on the show than when Cloris was, but that’s when the girls were getting older and not really taking advice from anybody.
First we did four shows, then we did another nine, and then they fired four of the girls and me. It was brutal. In my opinion, anyway, as someone who was a lot older than they were. A lot of the girls were pretty damned good. They were good actors, and many of them had some kind of a career prior to The Facts of Life, but they were at a pretty delicate age. That’s show biz, of course, but they took apart half of that cast and just dropped them. Molly Ringwald made a career afterward – the show ended up just being kind of a stopover for her before John Hughes saw whatever everyone else saw, which was that she was really quite brilliant – but those other girls, they were talented, too. They weren’t just ciphers. Each had their own individual talent. One who was especially good was the girl who played Cindy, Julie Ann Haddock. She was very good. She played the tomboy, but she was quite a serious actress. And the other blonde girl, Julie Piekarski, I think she came up through Disney with Lisa. They all had a certain something. They didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. They were all serious about making a career and doing what they were doing, and the more you gave them, the harder they worked. And if they didn’t get stuff to do, then they were sad…like I was!
I liked doing The Facts of Life, and it broke my heart for the girls who were also let go. Charlotte was a little upset that I’d gotten fired, because I was her go-to guy when she said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” I said, “We’ll figure it out. Believe me, we’ll make this funny.” And I was upset because I couldn’t be her partner anymore. Now, two days later, I got S.O.B., the Blake Edwards film, but I missed the family aspect of The Facts of Life. I liked it. I liked being around the girls, I liked their moms and, in Molly’s case, also her dad, who was a brilliant jazz pianist. It was a nice group, but I guess they wanted more. But more what? I don’t know.
But I remember once going to a party with the new people. I was invited, so I went, and the new producers who were running it (Marsh and Peters), who replaced the producers from the first two years, they were in charge, and…I didn’t feel that they were friendly. I was surprised, because I loved the girls, but it just sort of felt to me like, “You don’t belong here, pal.” I wanted to tell them that I wished them well, but I just couldn’t because, well, you know, you sense these things, and the feeling was very much like, “Get out of here! That was then, this is now, and you’re gonna have to go away.” And I’ve never run into any of them since.
They ended up farming out the role of headmaster to several guys over the rest of the show. They brought someone in and he’d do a couple of shows, and then he’d go away, so they lost that adversarial thing that was there between myself and Mrs. Garrett, where I was too hard on the girls and then at the end of the show I’d learn the error of my ways. But I guess I wasn’t vulnerable enough to create an ongoing character, not silly enough to say. No one ever mentioned that to me. One or two years later, Jerry (Mayer), one of the producers, called and said, “I just wanted to say that your work was really splendid.” This was after he’d been canned, too. [Laughs.] But he just called out of the blue, and I thought that was really nice of him.
Nancy McKeon (Jo Polniaczek): There were quite a few girls on the first season, so they wanted to sort of pare that down, but they also wanted to bring on another character to be sort of be an opposite to the Blair character, if you will, so they’d opened the auditions up. I just did my best, did the best that I could, and finally got to a screen test between myself and one other girl (Kari Michaelson), who ended up being a really great friend. She ended up on another show, and she’s terrific.
There was a little bit of the “new girl” thing – they had all been together for a season – but everybody was so kind and welcoming and supportive. They knew it wasn’t me. We were kids. It had nothing to do with us, the making of these decisions. And I knew some of the other girls who had been on the show, and nobody had – or showed me, anyway – animosity at all. They were all very kind, and we were all just having a great time working.
I think as my first season progressed, there was kind of a melding of things I’d bring and things that the writers already had. They already had laid out the basics of Jo’s background, and then from there, it’s just them getting to know me, and perhaps what I was good at doing and what the audiences enjoyed seeing, not only from me, but between all of us. And then the writing, they go in and do their brilliant work, and then hopefully we can add another layer to it. So it’s a combination of all of us doing what we do. But as far as sitting down and going over the character or anything like that, I was 14, and that wasn’t really my place, you know?
What a great actor [Alex Rocco was], and what a joy. I never would’ve imagined that all these years later we’d still be the closest of friends, and that he’d know my kids. It was sure a gift to me. I was just new to the show, and I didn’t have anything to do with casting or anything like that, but he walked on, and he really did feel like a second dad. He’s just such a great man, and he’s had a full life, but to all of us – but in particular to me, because we were the ones who worked so closely together usually – it was just a joy to work with him. We had a lot of fun, and it sure was a gift to build this relationship with him that carries on to this day. And I know what my Rocco likes. Because he was living an hour and a half or so away when he would come in, and…he’s my dad! He can’t eat at a hotel, he’s gotta have a homemade meal! And my whole family just adored him, and subsequently his family as well, and I knew if I said, “Breaded chicken, a little sauce,” he was in. He was there. I still call him when I make it today. “Guess what I’m makin’? I’m thinkin’ of you!”
Mack (Astin) is such a dear. I had kind of a mini-relationship with his family, because I had worked with his mom. His mom and I and Sean, actually, were in one of the first things that Sean ever did, and I had met John, so I kind of knew the family already. I’d met the entire family before I met Mack! [Laughs.] So getting to know him and work with him was fun.
Charlotte and Cloris (Leachman) are both spectacular. I just love Charlotte so much. I don’t think I’ll ever adequately be able to sing her praises enough or be grateful enough for just how special that woman really is, and how wonderful she was to us. It was her show, she was the star of the show, but she was so professional, and she never treated us like these afterthought kids. She always treated us like peers. She’s just a remarkable role model. She was then, and she still is.
And Cloris… I have to say, Mary Tyler Moore was my favorite show growing up. I had my lineup when I was a kid – probably it was beyond my years – but I watched them and love them to this day: Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. They were school for me, watching these amazing actors. So when Cloris came on… She’s just fantastic as well. And I needed her to do the famous line from Mary Tyler Moore that she did as Phyllis – “Oh, Mary…dear, funny Mary” – and finally, in the middle of a restaurant, she stood up and did it for me. I think I was a bit of a pest. [Laughs.]
When we shot at Sunset Gower, I think it was, there was a little restaurant on the corner, and she liked to go and eat there between shows. And she would get in her bathrobe and walk over there. [Laughs.] She’s in her bathroom, and there are people dining, but…okay! So she’d always say, “Come on, come on, you’ve got to eat good!” And one week I joined her, and there she was in her bathrobe, eating very well – a nice piece of fish and veggies or what have you – and we were just laughing, because I thought this was hysterical.
Normally you don’t go out between shows. They bring in a caterer, and you have something there. And I couldn’t really ever eat in between shows, because it’s hard to do a live show when you’re full! So I’d usually just hang in my room and just do whatever I was doing. Anyway, I went with her that time, and it was funny. I think Lisa Whelchel came with us, too. It was a funny little dinner. Great fun. She’s a character, Cloris. She’s awesome.
But she had us over to her house for dinner, she was very warm, always willing to share. It’s very difficult to walk onto a show in its seventh year, but she did it with ease and grace and great humor. She’s just so talented. So I have to say, for me, I had the best of both of these extraordinary ladies. Who gets a master class like that every day? Not many people.
We didn’t really have a lot of the issues that were or may have been plaguing some other shows at the time. But, again, it goes back to the fact that we had a great leader. I’m not saying that other shows didn’t, but we had a great leader in Charlotte. And we had a series of directors that were strong and fun and helpful. I think managing all of these emerging personalities going through what we were going through, I think everybody did pretty good! They did they best they could do.
Sheldon Leonard played my grandfather. That’s just extraordinary! And any time you can say you were on a show produced by Norman Lear’s company is, I think, a great day for you. He really had a great format, and he set the bar really high, and it was really wonderful to be able to sneak into some of the other shows and watch some of these great actors every now and again. It was great. But I do think it came to its conclusion at its natural time.
Geri Jewell (Geri Tyler): Joel Kimmel and Ann Gibbs were responsible for writing my first episode of The Facts of Life, and to this day I’d say it was my favorite episode of Facts that I ever did. The jokes that I told, though, weren’t written by the staff. They were mine, oddly enough. They were from my act at The Comedy Store that they saw and wrote into the episode.
I had that “I’m Not Drunk, I Have Cerebral Palsy” shirt made for my comedy act in late 1979, I think, and I was wearing it every time I performed. By the time The Facts of Life came around, the t-shirt was totally worn out. I mean, it had B.O. stains and everything. [Laughs.] So the wardrobe department decided to make me two new t-shirts that were like mine that they’d seen me wearing at The Comedy Store. Well, when they brought the t-shirts to my dressing room, I started laughing, and I just couldn’t stop laughing. And the wardrobe person said, “What’s so funny?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been using this joke in my routine for over a year, and apparently I never knew how to spell ‘cerebral palsy’ right until now!” The Facts of Life spelled it right on the t-shirt, but on the t-shirt before that – which I still have – it’s actually spelled wrong. I had it, and I didn’t know how to spell it!
As the story has been relayed to me, that “Cousin Geri” episode, the first episode I did, was the highest rating that The Facts of Life had gotten since it had been on the air. When the Nielsen ratings came in so powerful, they approached me the following season as a recurring character, bringing me back, so over the course of a four-year period, I did 12 episodes. I don’t know all the plans that were made, I only know that…well, how do I say this? It’s, like, how many times can Blair’s cousin visit her, you know what I mean? It was a little awkward. And I think they were planning a spinoff, but for some reason – I’ll never know the reason why – it got nixed.
I know that they asked for Emmy consideration every time I did an episode of Facts, and I think Facts of Life was disappointed that I didn’t get a nomination any time they asked for consideration. And I think the reason is that back then – you’ve got to put yourself in the ‘80s frame of mind – if they had written an episode that was more dramatic than comedic, it would’ve gotten an Emmy nomination, because back then the Emmys didn’t really recognize comedy, especially around disabilities. The whole concept was brand new. So I think that’s kind of what happened. And even Norman Lear would tell you that I was way before my time. I mean, he said that even then. He said, “You are so funny, but you’re just way before your time!” [Laughs.] And I was! I was the first person with a visible disability ever to be cast in a prime time series. Now, as far as acting ability, it was not a stretch between my character and me. I’d be the first person to admit that!
Everybody was wonderful to me on the show, all the girls – in fact, I actually became roommates with Lisa Whelchel for about nine months – but the thing you have to understand is that I wasn’t a teenager, so I was kind of by myself a little bit. It was the same with Charlotte, who was a lot older than all of us. But I was 23 when I did my first episode of The Facts of Life, and Lisa had just turned 18, and all of the other girls were younger than Lisa, a couple of them a lot younger. So there wasn’t really a lot of common ground. But I did look like a teenager, so I used to say to Al Burton, “Why didn’t you just cast me as one of the students and have a student with a disability on the show? That would’ve been totally groundbreaking!” And his answer was, “It would’ve been a brilliant idea, and we actually tossed the idea around, but the problem was, we’d just gotten rid of so many girls because we had too many cast members, and we’d just hired Nancy McKeon, so we couldn’t go back to hiring a bunch of students again when we’d just let a bunch go.” So that’s why that didn’t happen, but I feel that that would’ve been really groundbreaking. It just didn’t work out timing-wise.
I received tons of fan mail in the ‘80s, and in the ‘90s, when I was doing stand-up comedy at colleges all over the country, students would come up to me and say, “Oh, my God, I saw you on The Facts of Life, and it changed my life 180 degrees.” Yes, there were a lot of people with cerebral palsy who came up to me and said, “Wow, I saw you on TV, and it changed my life.” But it wasn’t just people with cerebral palsy. It was people who were different, people who were bullied, who didn’t have good self-esteem, who were made fun of. Truthfully, though, I was just an instrument. I was totally oblivious to my impact until years later. But The Facts of Life will always have a special place in my heart.
Pamela Adlon (Kelly Affinado): (The Facts of Life) was an experience for me. And it was lucrative. I was too young to really understand what that meant at the time, but I was able to later help my parents out, which was a big deal in our lives. But I remember I loved Charlotte Rae so much. Kim (Fields) was my baby, and Mindy and I, we hung out.
It was a very exciting time. We were at Universal Studios at the time, and I think One Day at a Time had just wrapped production, but it was us, Diff’rent Strokes, and Silver Spoons, and we were all in that area together, hanging out. It was very much a case of, like, “What’s happening? Is this really happening? This is crazy!” It was a very privileged thing to be on a show like that.
Mackenzie Astin (Andy Moffett): I’d had a couple of jobs before The Facts of Life, so it was in some respects a standard audition. But my dad (John Astin) had done an episode of the show eight months or so before, and I had visited him on the set briefly. I don’t think that had anything to do with me getting the job, but they were at least slightly familiar with me in some respects because of that. Also, my mom (Patty Duke) had worked with a couple of the folks on the production team – in particular the director, John Bowab – in the not too distant past by the time I came in to audition. But it was still the standard procedure: you go in, you pass the first round, you pass the second round, and then you get to the big auditions, where you go in for the studios and the network. And I got lucky, I suppose.
I don’t know Andy was always supposed to be a long-term character, but I would think so. In retrospect, it seems as though they were trying to add a little younger blood, in that that was the original appeal of the show. By the time I got there, they had been running on all cylinders for six years, and it was a full-fledged successful television show. I think it was one of the top-rated shows on NBC at the time. I don’t know, but it seems like it would’ve been their intention to bring in a younger character because the girls were getting slightly older. It’s funny to say “older” from this perspective, because they were still babies themselves, really. But thankfully I was able to stick around. It took a little while, though. I did four episodes in the sixth season of the show, I think, maybe 10 in the seventh season, and then I was a regular regular in the eighth and ninth.
It was incredible. It was a blast. It was really a terrific, terrific experience. It took me a number of years, I think, to recognize just how gracious they all were to me as an 11-year-old, and then when I was 12 and 13 as a regular, in allowing me into their space and sharing their space. Because that was their space, and it had been established as their space for six years before I was around all the time. I’ve certainly realized it since, though. That dynamic is a powerful one, when people have a successful television show, and when you start adding ingredients to a successful television show, it’s very easy to upset that dynamic. I was very, very fortunate that all the girls were lovely and gracious enough to be accommodating to this young whippersnapper. Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, I’m extremely grateful time for that grace.
Ryan Cassidy and I showed up at the same time – we both did four or five episodes in that first season for us – and then Ryan moved along and George Clooney showed up at the beginning of the next season. At the time, George drove a red Jeep Wrangler. It may have been a CJ-5 or CJ-7, I can’t remember specifically, but there was no top, and it had a fantastic sound system. So anytime I hear the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing,” I’m immediately back in the parking lot of Sunset Gower, looking at this guy roll up in his red Jeep, top out, and being literally the coolest man on the planet. Like, this is something we all knew back in the middle ‘80s. It took just took the rest of the world awhile to catch up.
The guy was a dream. Everywhere he went, people were in a better mood. He amplified all of our existences. He really made it easier to be where we were, made it more fun, and…he just set a really good example about how one can carry oneself and have a great time while still getting the work done, which I think he continues to do. And not just in the business of show, but outside. He’s had some influence in the political sphere, in terms of setting a good example about how people might do themselves better by behaving.
After The Facts of Life finished, Dad was doing Return of the Killer Tomatoes! down in San Diego, and I went down to visit him and George. It was great to see him, because I was in sort of a transition at that point. I’d gone back to high school to be a so-called normal kid. My mom had been down a lot on her childhood because she was working so much, and I wanted to take the opportunity to not miss out on mine, so I was back in school and having an interesting experience. And I got to spend just a couple of hours hanging out with George, because he was working with Dad, and he continued espouse fantastic advice and have a good time while he was doing it.
I also had an experience with him as a slightly older actor, when George was executive-producing a show for HBO (the pilot Kilroy, which never went to series) and I went in to audition for one of the parts on the show. It was great to see him – we hadn’t seen each other in a few years by that point – and there was a big hug in the audition room before I performed the audition scene, but then I went home and waited to hear. About 4:30 or 5 that afternoon, I got a call from my representatives, who said, “Look, we don’t know anything yet, and we won’t know anything ‘til Monday.” So I said, “Great.” But about an hour later, there was a knock on the door, and it was a messenger delivering an envelope with George’s initials on it. I opened the envelope, and there was a letter from him – handwritten – that said, “Listen, you didn’t get the job, but I wanted you to know now, so you didn’t have to wait through the weekend. It had nothing to do with your acting ability. It was all about your physicality.” Something like that. I think I didn’t have enough muscles or whatever. But the kind of guy who would take the time to write a note and get it delivered by a messenger service late on a Friday afternoon, just to let a guy that he’d worked with before know that he didn’t get the job so he didn’t have to wait all the weekend, is a testament to the kind of class act that that guy is and was and ever shall be. He’s just a classy, classy dude. And a great example for young actors to look to and say, “Wow, that’s how I want to carry myself!” Whether the work comes as much as it has for him, you have no control, in some respects. But to carry oneself like that, that’s really the way to do it.
I have literally described being on that show as being like a kid in a candy store, and once they changed the shop from Edna’s Edibles to Over Our Heads, it actually was a candy store! So being a kid there, it was perfect. I really had a terrific experience. I had interesting, unique relationships with all the gals. I think Mindy and I made each other giggle the most, and I think that actually is still true. But I was lucky enough to pal around with Nancy – she took me to a bunch of Kings games back when they were still in purple and gold – and Lisa and I went to a Jackson Browne concert. That’s pretty fortunate. She drove us in her Maserati, which was so exciting to ride in. And Kim and I were actually in school together for one season, because she’s the youngest of the girls, and she was still I guess in her senior year of high school, so she still had to do three hours of school. So we also had a kinship, I think, because we were slightly closer in age. And we share a birthday!
Charlotte Rae and Cloris Leachman are vastly different people, as are their characters, but Charlotte brought something to the show that I think people still pine for, that sort of mother hen who, no matter how far down the chips were, could always make everything feel all right. And then Cloris was just so zany and interesting and…just nuts! [Laughs.]. She was always so busy with props or with the blocking, and there was always something going on other than what she was saying, and it just added a layer that…well, I think she made us all better actors.
Cloris is amazing. She has an amazing energy, and it is not to be trifled with. I am currently a smoker – I was not a smoker back then – but it became very clear that, if you were a smoker, Cloris would find you, and she would tell you that you shouldn’t be, in no uncertain terms. It was amazing how far away people could be from Cloris while they were having a cigarette and yet she’d still notice and track them down and implore them to knock it right the hell off. She maintains that she’s allergic to them, and that became a very handy way for people to tell smokers that they couldn’t smoke around the show. Before secondhand smoke became a social pariah, labeling one as being allergic to cigarettes was a valuable way to get your point across, but Cloris has been doing it for 35 years. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t really matter. You just shouldn’t smoke around her. At all. It’s just in your best interest…and she’ll tell you that it’s in the best interest of everyone else, too! She was just fun. She was fun to be around, and engaged and lively and…crazy! [Laughs.] In the best of ways!
When the show first started, if I remember correctly, it was often heavy on the message. Along with having situations that were comedic, there was a message for many of the episodes. And I think they started to move away from that as the girls got older and the writing staff changed. The writing staff was incredible. You have people on that stuff who are Academy Award winners and Emmy winners now. Martha Williamson was a writer on that staff. Paul Haggis was a writer on that staff. I don’t know if you would have the opportunity to speak with them, but I’m sure their experiences would be interesting to hear. The show was a part of a lot of our youths. [Laughs.] But I think they had the freedom to have a little more fun because the gals got older, and, you know, there’s only so many storylines you can do when you’ve got four girls wearing the uniform of a private school. But as the girls got older and had different jobs and different functions in their characters’ lives, there was more stuff to do, and I think there was more freedom toward the end as a result. That was a ton of fun. I don’t remember anybody ever getting ticked off about one of those kinds of episodes, because they were just so much fun to do.
The Facts of Life Down Under, what a good time. Are you kidding me? “Hey, Mackenzie, you’re 13 years old, we’re gonna take you out of school, and we’re gonna send you to Australia for a month and a half. And you only have to work about two weeks of that month and a half, and we’re gonna give you money to spend while you’re down there. Oh, and by the way, you’re gonna be with a film crew, so everybody’s gonna be excited to see you. And here’s a bunch of good-looking people to surround yourself with!” [Laughs.] Not a bad experience for a young man.
I have considered myself extraordinarily lucky throughout my life, but that experience in Australia was one of the things that really helped hammer it home. I got to see Ayers Rock. I watched the sun set on Ayers Rock, which was an incredible experience. I got to hang out in Sydney and Kings Cross for a little while, which was a lot of fun. It’s a bit like Times Square used to be, and that was spectacular. And I got to hold a koala, for crying out loud! [Laughs.] It was pretty exciting. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. I, uh, probably got up to a little bit of mischief. Well, no, I did get up plenty of mischief while I was down there…but out of respect for the fella who was my legal guardian, I’m not allowed to disclose that information!
No, I was a pretty good boy during the show. I inherited from my mother a wonderful sense of professionalism, and I inherited from my father a wonderful sense of respect or reverence for the job, so I was always on time, I always knew my lines, and that’s still the number one thing for me. I had plenty of gossipable or unprintable experiences off of the set, away from The Facts of Life, especially after the show ended. I was lucky enough to go through every single one of the things that you see other so-called “child stars” go through, but to do so under the radar. So I was able to gain the knowledge from those experiences, from overcoming those experiences, but without having to have it plastered across the media. Which is lucky.
The weird thing is, I have very little recollection of anything that was shot when I was on the show. And I don’t know if it’s a function of being sort of a heightened experience with a live studio audience or whatnot, or being 30 years in the past, or any number of formerly illegal behaviors that I took part in in the ‘90s. [Laughs.] But I have very little memory of the actual episodes themselves. I remember a lot of stuff around the perimeter and the people I worked with, but the actual shooting of the episodes I have very little recollection of. So watching the episodes now, it’s interesting because it’s like I’m watching it for the first time. I see and hear stuff coming out of my mouth that I don’t remember saying. It’s interesting and bizarre.
I don’t know why (the backdoor pilot for a new Facts of Life series with Blair as the new headmaster of the Eastland School) didn’t go. I’m sure we can be thankful in some respects, because I don’t know if Juliette (Lewis) would’ve been able to get out of her contract in order to get (Robert) DeNiro’s thumb in her mouth! But that was a really talented group. I remember that they were all young enough to have to go to school on set, and for three and a half years, I had been the only guy in the set school, save for a couple of guest actors. So all of a sudden, what had been a one-on-one experience with a fantastic teacher named Reuben Vaughn Greene became poor Reuben trying to corral four or five of the greatest rascals this generation had to offer! It was real interesting to suddenly find myself defending my set teacher from paper airplanes and other high jinks.
I’d only been on the show for about a third of its run (when it ended), so I was still raring to go, and it was an interesting introduction for me to the business of show, because it seemed to me that girl-crazy Andy would be a perfect candidate to attend the co-ed Eastland School. But I found out during the second-to-last episode that I wasn’t in the last episode…and, consequently, wouldn’t be involved in the planned spinoff. And it was a really unfortunate way for me to discover it, because I got the script – they gave out the script to the next episode on the night we taped the preceding episode – and I scanned through it…and there was no Andy! And I thought, “What the heck?” And then it sort of dawned on me that… Well, I still don’t know the reason why, because it seemed to make sense with the context of the story that the character would continue. But the story that takes place on camera is not always the whole story. So it was a very, very abrupt and stark introduction to the business side of show business…and it only took me about 20 years to remember the lyrics to the theme song and get over it. [Laughs.]
Diana Eden (costume designer): The Facts of Life was my very first full-time prime-time television series as a designer. I had been working as an assistant designer for a few years, but a man at NBC had spotted me working, and when Rita Dillon, the producer, was looking for a new designer, he recommended me. So I went in for an interview – I remember it vividly – and, happily, I got the job. So that was the very beginning of my television career: I did the show from 1985 until it ended in 1988.
We didn’t have the (Eastland) uniforms except occasionally, in a flashback or something, so they were in contemporary clothes, so there was a lot of shopping involved and a lot of fittings and try-ons. They all had very unique styles and unique shapes to fit, so it was kind of nonstop. Sitcoms do kind of bend a few rules. The main thing was to make them look as attractive as they could – and I don’t mean that that was a hard task – and so that they felt attractive and fun and colorful. But they each had their unique styles. With Lisa, we obviously had to dress her for her character, which wasn’t the way she dressed personally, so everything was a little more proper, but she had a tiny waist, so that was something that we always liked to show. And she was so charming and appreciative, and I used to get these lovely little thank-you notes from her, especially if she really liked an outfit. That was nice. Nancy had a mind of her own. She was going through kind of a tomboy phase, so she would not wear anything but sneakers at the time. [Laughs.] Reeboks high-tops were the big thing. Kim was the most hip: she really wanted the latest fashion. And then Mindy was just fun-loving, sweet, kind, and had a great sense of humor.
All four of them had completely different bodies, and that was a challenge. In fact, it became a challenge in the third show I designed, when I was still really, really terrified of the whole thing. When they opened their shop, Over Our Heads, the producers said they wanted them all in matching red sweatshirts with the logo “Over Our Heads.” Well, nobody looks good in a sweatshirt. And the girls fought it and fought it and said, “I can’t wear this, I look dumpy, I look horrible.” And I couldn’t personalize. I couldn’t shape one in or make one extra-long. We were just stuck with them. It was quite a battle.
Whenever you have three or four or five women, they each need a particular style. When I started in the sitcom world, we would do a full dress rehearsal at four o’clock, and then there would be notes upstairs, so we’d go up to the meeting room, and I thought the notes would be from maybe the director and one or two producers. But I walked in, and there were, like, 20 people in the room, and about a dozen of them were network. You had to take notes from all levels of producers and network executives, and it was really hard, because they all had opinions, and sometimes they would argue, “Wouldn’t she look better in pink?” Or, “Can you find that dress in turquoise?” And I would sit there wondering, “Who do I listen to? Who’s the top dog?” And eventually it would be filtered down, and we’d make a decision on whether we wanted to change this outfit or if it was really okay and we’ll go with it. So that was a learning curve for me, to have so many people giving opinions on how everything should look.
I don’t cringe (at the ’80s fashions). Let them cringe. [Laughs.] That was what was going on at the time: lots of shoulder pads and leggings and tunics. For me, my challenge wasn’t to be at the height of fashion. It was to have four women or, very often, five women in every scene, which meant I had to make sure they weren’t in the same color, they weren’t in the same style, and…that’s a lot of women to have on camera at one time! And very often, even though it was only a half-hour show, they would have four or five changes, so there could be as many as 20 outfits just for my principals. So it was a little bit of a juggling thing to keep everybody happy. Nancy had her favorite outfits, and so did the others, so you’d hear, “Why can’t I wear blue in this scene?” “Because so-and-so is wearing blue.” That kind of thing.
As a designer for a TV show, I go out and do all the shopping, I know their styles, I know their tastes, I bring in a lot of things, and then we meet in the fitting room. They always had a once-a-week fitting, usually right after the table read, and we’d try things on. I would have selected everything that I wanted them to try on, so in that sense I was making the selection, but then we would fine-tune it with them, and they’d take to one outfit more than another, or something wouldn’t fit as well as something else.
We all got to be a pretty tight-knit family. It was such a routine. By the time I joined the show, the show had been running for six seasons, and it was amazing. We’d be up in the rehearsal hall at the beginning of the week, starting to block it out, and the girls would be hanging out, having coffee or whatever, and the moment John (Bowab), the director, would say, “All right, let’s block this scene,” instantly they’d go into their characters. It was just automatic. They knew who these characters were, they’d been with them for five years, and – boom! – there they were.
George (Clooney’s) wardrobe was really easy. He was the neighbor next door who was a carpenter, so he was in jeans and plaid shirts. Really, all I had to do was to select a bunch of plaid shirts or t-shirts for him. He was just as you’d think he was: he was mellow and charming and laid-back and funny. Of course, we all tease him now, because in all the pictures he’s got this mullet. [Laughs.] It’s a far cry from his elegant look now.
It was a wonderful, wonderful period, because we had the same crew throughout, pretty much, and the same director. I mean, John Bowab, he directed all of the episodes for the later seasons, so we were like family. The stage manager, C.J. “Rapp” Pittman, she was a petite blonde, but she was as strong and tough as you need to be for that job. [Laughs.] And Bob Devicariis, the property manager, he’s another one. We were all family. We celebrated everybody’s birthdays during rehearsal, and the ironic thing was that Kim Fields, Mackenzie Astin, the lighting designer, Don Morgan, and myself all had the same birthday: May 12. Can you imagine? Four people on the show! But we were always on hiatus, so we never got our birthday celebration!
It was such a well-oiled machine. It really was. I can only remember one show where we got halfway through and they pulled the show because it just wasn’t working. It was a show with George where… I don’t know, he came over and he was replacing all of their furniture that he’d made, and somehow the script was not working, and they actually said, “We’re not going to do this one. We’re just going to cancel it and bring up another script.”
When we did Mrs. Garrett’s wedding, we actually postponed the filming, and part of it was my fault, actually, because I was trying to find a wedding look for Charlotte and the four girls that looked like a wedding. I actually designed Charlotte’s dress, because obviously she wasn’t going to be a bride in white, but that was a bit of a challenge, as was what to put the girls in. The producers said, “Well, they must be in bridesmaids’ dresses,” and I said, “Well, I don’t know…” So I bought one set or made them, I can’t remember, and they just all looked awful. I mean, the dresses looked terrible. And I bought another set, which I think were orange lace or something truly awful, and that’s when they said, “We can’t film this wedding.” And we went on hiatus for a week, and I came back and said, “You’ve got to let them all be individual.” So that’s when I went shopping for dresses. They were Matte Jersey dresses, where each of them would have their own style. And even then Nancy refused to wear heels. [Laughs.] She just insisted on wearing flats. And the producers said, “Well, she must wear heels!” And I said, “Well, she’s not going to.” And they said, “Well, we’ll talk to her.” And when they called me back, they said, “Well, I guess she’s going to wear flats!”
It was a really good time. The girls were going through all of their changes, growing up and dating, so it wasn’t always easy. Growing up never is. But all in all we were really a tight-knit family. I used to have all of the girls over for lunch once a year, for about three or four years afterwards, and they’d all come up to the house. Then we had a big 10-year reunion at John Bowab’s house, but I think that was the last of the reunions, because everybody’s kind of gone their separate ways.
Maurice LaMarche (Rod Sperling): As I recall, Meg Liberman, the casting director, knew my work from the Comedy Store, when I used to end my standup act with a Rod Serling impression. She had me in to her office, I read, and next thing I know, I’m at my very first real live sitcom table reading, sitting across from this nice new young actor named George Clooney. I truly had never watched the show at that point. I had met Nancy McKeon in Vancouver doing Alan Thicke’s afternoon talk show for Canadian TV, so there was a feeling of not-total unfamiliarity, but other than her, I had that sense of attending a Thanksgiving dinner at a home where I’d wrangled an invitation because it was just discovered I was a distant cousin.
Plus, I was completely unfamiliar with the dynamics among the characters, and I knew it was a “family” show, so as an “edgy” – or so I thought then – young comic, I was not their target audience. I was not expecting, and was delighted by, the extremely clever script we started with, with lots of in-jokes and sly cultural references, including some great Frau Blucher bits for Cloris. There were big guffaws at the table read, and thank goodness my Serling impression was good enough to garner a few good laughs from those assembled as well. The surprise for me was as the week went on, watching these really clever, funny bits get excised from the script with each rehearsal. “Too hip for the room” was the reason one of the frustrated writers conveyed to me. I thought it was a shame.
In terms of interacting with the cast, though, it was pure delight. Everyone was wonderful. A few of the girls even came down to catch me at the Comedy Store after the second day of rehearsals. I was really honored by that. On the last day, we all went up to… I think it was Nancy’s dressing room, and all the girls, and even George, brought cassette recorders, and I recorded greetings for their answering machines in different voices from my act. Hey, it was the ‘80s: there was no voicemail, let alone iPhones! [Laughs.] I bumped into George in 1999 on the Warner Bros lot, and he remembered that day. He’s a truly nice guy. Unlike George, however, I have not maintained my svelte physique of 1986, so my look has changed a lot. Not to mention, being a voiceover actor, the airwaves are not bombarded with my physical likeness daily…although I daresay a day doesn’t go by when you don’t hear me on your TV or radio. But once in a very great while, someone will actually just come up to me and intone, in their best Rod Serling, “Tootie. I just love saying…Tootie.” I totally love that.
Sherrié Austin (Pippa McKenna): My first audition was over (in Australia), and then they brought us – there were two girls – to the States, and we auditioned again in Hollywood. They just gave me some pages out of an old script. I think I read one of Tootie’s parts from an episode from years prior. I auditioned for the whole network like that. There were, like, 30 people in the room when I came over. And then we went back to Australia, and when they made their decision, I think I moved about six months later, originally with my dad, and then the rest of the family came.
“(Pippa’s constant dropping of Australian slang), it’s authentic dialogue – they actually brought in an Australian writer, Kathy Lette – but it’s just really old-school. It would be like the equivalent of saying things that cowboys would use, so it wouldn’t be anything necessarily that a young girl might use. But if she grew up in the bush, which it’s quite possible Pippa did, and her father was so very Australian, I guess it makes sense that she could pick up some of those things from her dad. My mom, we always refer to her as Crocodile Dundette, because she’s got some brilliant sayings – most of them too dirty for TV – that are really old school Australian, so she knew everything that I was saying in the show. My mom knew all those sayings better than I did.
“Australians are very down-to-earth, laid-back people. I don’t think we really buy into the whole star system quite as much as Americans do, in a lot of ways. And I grew up a very normal kid, y’know? I went to school and climbed trees, and I didn’t grow up in the entertainment business. So it was a very intimidating experience for me, just in the sense that I’d never done it before, but we fit in really well, and my whole family moved over, so I wasn’t alone.
“Cloris Leachman stands out as someone that was really wonderful. The writers were lovely. All the studio people were great. I was very young. I was completely green. Mackenzie was wonderful, too. He became a good support system as well. I remember Cloris taking a million vitamins every day. She had this plastic container with a million vitamins. She’s a health nut. And she didn’t like smoking. But since I absolutely hate smoking, too, I didn’t have a problem with it! [Laughs.] She had more energy than the other four girls put together. She had a great attitude and was just a total pro, but her energy was just amazing. I’ve not been shocked at all that she has continued more than anybody else on the show as an actress. She’s just incredible.”
Seth Green (Adam Brinkerhoff): I don’t know how I ended up in the running for The Facts of Life – I had tested for Diff’rent Strokes, the role that Danny Cooksey did (Sam McKinney), so I don’t know if someone remembered me or what – but once I was in the running, I ended up doing network tests with Jason Naylor, the other guy in the episode, and he and I got to read together, then we got paired up with other people, and…it was just a whole day of network tests.
The day of our first table read, Lisa Whelchel took the new cast out to lunch and was just really kind to us. She told us some fun stories, gave us a couple of warnings, and just put us at ease for anyone who was terrified by this new experience. And we all were, even the ones who had already been working before that, because it was such a big deal. She was just incredibly…kind. That’s just the best word I can think of. She was super generous and present, and she just went out of her way to give information. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it really helped me, at least.
I was disappointed when it wasn’t picked up, sure, but you have to understand: I’ve done a lot of pilots. [Laughs.] So I’m no stranger to the way it works, especially when it comes to ad-sponsored network programming. That’s a very specific game. But I was just excited that I got to do it. It was a really cool experience, and I learned a lot just in those two months.
Mayim Bialik (Jennifer Cole): I have really positive memories of Lisa Whelchel. I think that some of the other cast members were ready to move on with their lives as adults, but the fact that Lisa was interested in continuing the show… She was very friendly, really sweet, and I think she’s a super-talented actress. I remember really respecting her as a comedian.
I was less than a year into professionally acting, and I think that may even have been the first thing I ever tested for, so it was all very new to me. But what I definitely remember is that my Beaches audition was during The Facts of Life. In fact, I specifically remember that I borrowed a red wig from the prop department to take – kind of as a gag – to my first Beaches audition, which was my mom’s idea. But I have pictures of me, actually, on set with that wig. [Laughs.]
And the prop guy who lent me that wig is still in the business! He worked on Conan O’Brien’s show. And when I was on Conan a couple of years ago – his name is John Boyajian– I saw him and remembered him, and I said to him, “You were the one who gave me the wig for my Beaches audition!”