Cut for Space: A few more “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.”
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. If you missed Part One, just click here. If you didn’t miss it, then let’s roll on!
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.