Goodbye Mrs. Garrett: How Charlotte Rae Gave ‘Life' to TV

“The Facts of Life” actress, who died Sunday at age 92, transcended her material to become an unlikely sitcom star.

Reports last week of plans for a reboot of "The Facts of Life" probably shouldn't have surprised anyone, given television's growing recycling mania.

Sure, it's easy to envision new faces playing young characters, from poor-little-rich-girl Blair to not-so-tough-poor-girl Jo. But the thought of anyone besides Charlotte Rae in Mrs. Garrett's kitchen is as difficult to imagine as anyone but Gary Coleman asking, “Whatch-you talkin’ about?” on "Diff'rent Strokes."

In middle-age and late career, Rae found in both NBC shows ideal platforms for her seamless delivery of wisecracks and warmth. The actress, who died Sunday at age 92, rose above sometimes trite trappings to become an unlikely durable sitcom star.

In 1978, the veteran actress permeated the popular culture when she vied with then-newcomer Coleman for breakout status on "Diff'rent Strokes." After a season as the Drummond Family's housekeeper, Rae spun off to "The Facts of Life," playing house mom and dietitian to girls at a boarding school.

The job – as a performer – was harder than it looked. Yet Rae thrived as a character actor leading an ensemble, much like her sitcom contemporary Judd Hirsch did on "Taxi" and Bea Arthur later would on "The Golden Girls."

Rae, though, echoed the enduring appeal of another "Golden Girls" star, Betty White, who forged a strong bond with fans.

Rae also fostered chemistry with her younger co-stars Mindy Cohn (Natalie), Kim Fields (Tootie), Nancy McKeon (Jo) and Lisa Whelschel (Blair). Mrs. G provided steady enthusiasm, encouragement and earthy wisdom while guiding the youngsters through growing pains.

No one will ever confuse "The Facts of Life" with "The Golden Girls" or "Taxi" on the quality meter. But Rae transcended her material to connect with her then-young 1980s audience, which maintains a kitsch-tinged fondness for "The Facts of Life," the way a previous generation clings to memories of "The Brady Bunch."

"The Facts of Life" faded a couple of seasons after the great Cloris Leachman replaced Rae in the surrogate mom role. Whomever dares to take Rae’s place in any reboot might want to watch some episodes from her seven seasons – and see how she turned “The Facts of Life” into lessons on how to elevate a sitcom and form lasting ties to viewers.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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