Cut for Space: A few “Facts of Life” anecdotes you haven’t read before
[This post originally appeared on News, Reviews & Interviews (R.I.P.) on February 2, 2016.]
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weren’t of a mind to reminiscence about the days when they played Natalie and Tootie, but you will get some heretofore-unpublished anecdotes from Charlotte Rae (Mrs.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.