SHOW SUMMARY & INFORMATION
Ratings, History, and Information on The Facts of Life.


The Facts of Life Story

Article (Feb 2000): Tim's TV Tales With Tim Brooks

Show Ratings

Broadcast History

Televised Specials

The Facts of Life Story



The Facts of Life is an American sitcom that originally ran on the NBC television network from August 24, 1979 to May 7, 1988. A spin-off of the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes, the series' premise focused on Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae) as she becomes a housemother (and after the second season, dietitian as well) at the fictional Eastland School, a prestigious all-female boarding school in Peekskill, New York.

Production
The Facts of Life was produced first by TAT Communications, followed by Embassy Television, and then by Embassy Communications (Norman Lear's production companies) and Columbia Pictures Television (through ELP Communications) on the series finale. Sony Pictures Television currently owns the distribution rights to the sitcom.

From 1979 to 1982, the show was produced at Metromedia Square in Los Angeles, California. In 1982, production moved to Universal City Studios and then to Sunset Gower Studios in 1985.

Theme Song
The show's theme was composed by Al Burton, Gloria Loring, and her then husband, Alan Thicke. The well-known opening lyric "You take the good..." came later as the first season lyrics, some of them performed by Rae, differed from those that followed. The original lyrics eventually shifted to the closing credits before being dropped entirely. Burton, Loring, and Thicke had previously composed the theme to Diff'rent Strokes, which was sung by Thicke.

Premise
Originally a spin-off of Diff'rent Strokes, the series featured the Drummonds' housekeeper, Edna Garrett, as the housemother of a dormitory at Eastland, a private all-girls school. The girls included spoiled rich girl Blair Warner (Lisa Whelchel), the youngest gossipy Dorothy "Tootie" Ramsey (Kim Fields), and overweight, impressionable Natalie Green (Mindy Cohn). In the second season, Mrs. Garrett was promoted to school dietitian, and all the original cast members were dropped with the exception of Blair, Natalie, and Tootie. Nancy McKeon joined the cast as tough, streetwise Jo Polniaczek.

Pilot
The pilot for the show originally aired as the last episode of Diff'rent Strokes' first season and was called "The Girls' School (aka Garrett's Girls)." The plotline for the pilot had Kimberly Drummond requesting that Mrs. Garrett help her sew costumes for a student play at East Lake School for Girls, the school Kimberly attended in upstate New York, as her dorm's housemother had recently quit. Mrs. Garrett agrees to help, the student body of Eastlake and the school's headmaster. Mrs. Garrett helps put on a successful play, and keep things in order in the dormatory, which lands her new job as housemother in the school.

While Mrs. Garrett states she would rather remain working for the Drummonds at the end of the Pilot, it can be assumed that she later changed her mind. Following the pilot, the name of the school was changed to Eastland and the characters of Jennifer, Laura, and Mr. Crocker were replaced with Natalie, Cindy, and Mr. Bradley. This episode also features more girls living in the dorm than were seen previously. Although Kimberly Drummond is featured as a student at East Lake, her character did not cross over to the spinoff series with Mrs. Garrett. Instead, she remained with Diff'rent Strokes.

First Season (1979)
In the show's first season, episodes focused on the troubles of seven girls which was set in a large, wood-paneled common room of an Eastland Dormitory. Also appearing was the school's headmaster, Mr. Stephen Bradley (John Lawlor) and science teacher, Miss Emily Mahoney (Jenny O'Hara). The show was originally meant to be a summer series in 1979, but the head of programming decided to bring it back in early 1980. Miss Mahoney only appeared in the first few episodes of the show, and the character was dropped prior to the show returning in 1980.

Early episodes of the show typically revolved around a central morality-based or "lesson teaching" theme. The pilot episode attracted controversy due to the character of Blair Warner insinuating that her schoolmate, Cindy Webster, is a homosexual because she is a tomboy and frequently shows affection for other girls. It was one of the first times in television comedy that a teen was questioning his or her sexual orientation. Other first season episodes dealt with issues including drug use, sex, eating disorders, parental relationships, and peer pressure.

It has been reported that during the first season, Tootie was often shown on roller skates to make her appear taller and to prevent difficult camera angles due to Fields' height. This was also done in part because the character of Tootie was twelve, while Kim Fields was only nine, and it was thought the extra height would make Fields appear older.

Retooling The Show
After the first season, the show was retooled extensively. The producers felt that there were too many characters given the limitations of the half-hour sitcom format, and that the plot lines should be more focused to give the remaining girls more distinct personalities. Four of the original actresses Julie Anne Haddock (Cindy), Julie Piekarski (Sue Ann), Felice Schachter (Nancy), and Molly Ringwald (Molly) were written out of the show (although the four did make periodic appearances in the second and third seasons, and one "reunion" in the eighth season). Coincidentally, Felice Schachter was the first actress hired when the show was in its initial stages, and was the first actress to be let go following the retooling. Further, the character of Mr. Bradley was also dropped, and replaced with an occasionally seen headmaster.

In addition to being housemother to the girls wealthy, spoiled Blair Warner, chubby, fun-loving Natalie Green, and nosy, gossipy Tootie Ramsey Mrs. Garrett became the school dietitian as the second season began, and Jo Polniaczek a new student originally from the Bronx, who was street-wise and rough-around-the-edges, arrived at Eastland on scholarship. A run-in with the law forced the four to be separated from the other girls, and forced to work in the cafeteria and live together in a spare room next to Mrs. Garrett's bedroom. The focus of the show shifted to the four itinerant girls, and the action shifted to the school cafeteria and lounge.

The series was given a berth on the 1980-81 American network television schedule, and the show was a constant Top 30 hit for most of the early and mid-1980s. Memorable episodes included Tootie's meeting with Jermaine Jackson, an all-night study session, Tootie's encounter with a teen prostitute, and Jo and Blair's trip to New York City, where spending time with old friends leads them to realize how Eastland has changed them. The series tackled many serious topics, including: suicide, censorship, date rape, alcoholism, drug addiction, breast cancer, and abortion. In 1983, Jo and Blair graduate Eastland Academy while Natalie and Tootie are still attending school there. To keep the four girls under one roof, the plot involved Raymond, Mrs. Garrett's son, buying a bakery for her and convincing her to go into business for herself; she names it Edna's Edibles. The four girls come to work for her and live in one of the rooms at the attached house.

The show became part of NBC's much-watched Saturday night lineup in 1985, but by this time, the main actors were now in their late teens and early twenties, and public interest was starting to wane. In an attempt to increase ratings, Mrs. Garrett's store, Edna's Edibles, was burned to the ground and was replaced with a pop culture-influenced gift shop that the girls ran together, called Over Our Heads. In addition to inflatable palm trees, the gift shop sold a few records, and this offshoot business was the springboard for many appearances by popular groups and singers, such as Jermaine Jackson, El DeBarge, Michael Damian, and Stacey Q. This phase of the show is notable for including a then-unknown George Clooney as a supporting actor. During season 9, a young Mayim Bialik, future star of Blossom, appears in the final two episodes of the show, as did Seth Green and Juliette Lewis.

Departure of Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Garrett)
At first, Charlotte Rae reduced her role in both the 6th and 7th seasons and later decided to leave the series completely. The network offered her millions to stay on the show a couple more years, but in the eighth season premiere, Mrs. Garrett announces that she is getting married to the man of her dreams and will be joining her new husband in Africa while he works for the Peace Corps. The episode introduces Mrs. Garrett's sister, Beverly Ann Stickle (Cloris Leachman), whom Mrs. Garrett convinces to take over the shop and look after the girls. During this time, Beverly Ann legally adopts "Over Our Heads" worker Andy Moffett (Mackenzie Astin) and Australian exchange student Pippa McKenna (Sherrie Krenn), who attends Eastland Academy.

Cancellation
By the fall of 1987, the show, which had ranked in the Top 30 just the year before, now lagged behind, barely ranking above #40, and it dragged down the rest of the night's lineup as a result (which, at the time, had Top 20 hits like The Golden Girls and 227). In a last-ditch attempt to raise the ratings, the show's writers created a storyline in which Natalie became the first of the girls to lose her virginity. Originally, Lisa Whelchel was offered the storyline, but she was a devout born-again Christian and premarital sex conflicted with her morals. (Ironically, it also conflicted with the first season episode titled "Facts of Love" in which Blair wanted to treat sex in a casual manner, but her boyfriend wanted to have a committed relationship with her prior to having sex.) Finally, Mindy Cohn volunteered to Blair's part and Whelchel was not in the credit in that episode.

Three of the girls who were cut from the show after the first season returned in the second-to-last season for a "reunion of friends" in an episode titled, "The Little Chill." Julie Ann Haddock, Julie Piekarski, and Felice Schacter reprised their roles of Cindy, Sue Ann, and Nancy, mentioning that Molly was unable to attend the reunion because she was so busy (a nod to actress Molly Ringwald's successful film career after her departure). However, the ratings showed little improvement, and the show was eventually cancelled in the spring of 1988. The producers had hoped to keep the show going by using the final episode as a backdoor pilot for a potential new spinoff in which Blair impulsively bought Eastland Academy, made it co-ed, and became the new headmistress.

Recurring Characters
A key recurring character was Geri Tyler (Geri Jewell), Blair's cousin who had cerebral palsy. Other recurring characters included the judgment-impaired Miko Wakamatsu (Lauren Tom), the snobbish Boots St. Clair (Jami Gertz), and the royal princess Alexandra (Heather McAdam). Shoplifter Kelly (Pamela Segall) was billed as a regular during the fifth season. Other guest roles included the boyfriends of the girls, Jo's parents, played by Alex Rocco and Claire Malis, Blair's parents, played by Nicolas Coster and Marj Dusay (Blair's mother was played by Pam Huntington in one episode during the first season), Tootie's parents (Tootie's mother was played by Kim Fields' real life mom, actress Chip Fields, and her father was played by Robert Hooks), and Natalie's parents, played by Norman Burton and Mitzi Hoag. Characters from Diff'rent Strokes also appeared in some first and second season episodes.

Tim's TV Tales With Tim Brooks


February 2000 One prominent critic called it "worthless and barren"; another said it was the kind of show that made his teeth grind and his right eye twitch. But what do middle-aged male critics know? The Facts of Life touched a whole generation of kids (young and old) who watched TV in the '70s and '80s. TV Guide was closer to the truth when, in 1986, it called it "TV's little show that could."

The Facts of Life got off to a rough start, and would easily have been canceled if it had been on another network, or debuted at another time. Yet it went on to become one of the longest running situation comedies in television history (nine seasons), and one of the most fondly remembered shows of the `80s. Moreover its tight little cast - four girls and one den mother for most of the run - proved that not all child stars have to wind up forgotten, in jail or dead at an early age. Each, in her own way, has had a remarkably successful life since the series left the air in 1988.

Facts was a spin-off from the hit NBC comedy Diff'rent Strokes (1978-1986), in which Phillip Drummond's excitable housekeeper, Mrs. Garrett (played by Charlotte Rae), became a housemother at the prestigious Eastland School for young women near Peekskill, New York. There are a variety of stories about the show's origins. One version has it that Fred Silverman, head of NBC and a big fan of spin-offs, was anxious to create one from Diff'rent Strokes - his only hit sitcom at the time - and that he suggested something along the lines of "Kotter girls" (a female equivalent of the popular Welcome Back, Kotter). So the writers at Norman Lear's production company, which produced Diff'rent Strokes, came up with the idea of an exclusive girls' school with Mrs. Garrett as the focal point. Charlotte Rae didn't want to leave her current hit, however, and Lear had to guarantee she would get her old role back if the new show died.

It almost did. NBC was so nervous about the project it ordered only four episodes as a test, and aired them on Friday nights at the end of the summer of 1979, before the regular season began. Mrs. Garrett was surrounded by a regular cast of seven girls, plus a headmaster (Mr. Bradley, played by John Lawlor) and a teacher (anybody remember Miss Mahoney, played by Jenny O'Hara?). It was far too busy, and the scripts were lightweight. NBC executive Garth Ancier remembers it as a "gaggle of girls." Nevertheless, audience testing indicated that the show had potential, and ratings-starved NBC didn't want to walk away from a producer as successful as Norman Lear, so the network ordered nine more episodes, which ran between March and May, 1980. The ratings still weren't good. The Facts of Life ranked number 74 among all shows for the season, trailing the time-period leader, The Incredible Hulk, by a wide margin.

Then came the "Facts of Life massacre." NBC, still desperate for a hit, agreed to give the show one more chance, but only if there was a major overhaul. Four of the original seven girls were dumped - Nancy (Felice Schacter), Sue Ann (Julie Piekarski), Cindy (Julie Ann Haddock) and Molly (Molly Ringwald, who went on to a notably successful film career). Mr. Bradley was also shown the door. Miss Mahoney had disappeared after the first four episodes, and, in fact, the girls were seldom seen in class after that. Writers were also fired, and a new pair of female head writers brought in. They were determined to make the show less frothy and more realistic, at least in TV terms. The girls were to be depicted not as kids, but as intelligent young ladies; their orders to the writers were, "write them as if they were 25."

The surviving cast now consisted of one adult and three students. Edna Garrett, the rubber-faced, slightly nutty, but always-caring housemother (who soon became the school dietician), was the center of the show. Blair Warner (Lisa Whelchel) was beautiful, rich, and spoiled; Natalie Green (Mindy Cohn) was plump and impressionable; and Dorothy "Tootie" Ramsey (Kim Fields), the youngest, was the resident gossip.

One more element was needed. The producers realized they needed someone with a little more edge to spice up the rather predictable cast. NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff told Creative Supervisor Al Burton to check out the girl in a failed NBC pilot called Dusty, the one who had played a Fonzie-like character called "Slugger." The girl turned out to be Nancy McKeon, sister of young Philip McKeon of the hit CBS series Alice. She was cast as Jo Polniaczek, a tough street kid from the Bronx who roared in on a motorcycle and proceeded to give her classmates little lessons in petty thievery and evading authority. Her tough exterior masked her insecurities, however, and like the Fonz on Happy Days, underneath she had a heart of gold. To many viewers - including this writer - Jo "made" the show.

The new, re-tooled Facts of Life was relaunched in the Fall of 1980 in one of NBC's most desirable time slots, Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. following Diff'rent Strokes. The network's faith in it was finally rewarded as Facts rocketed from #74 to #26 in its second season, handily winning its time period against ABC's Soap and The CBS Wednesday Movie, and retaining most of the audience from its hit lead-in. The tight little ensemble of Blair, Jo, Natalie, Tootie and Mrs. Garrett began to jell. Jo was haughty Blair's frequent nemesis; Natalie learned to deal with many insecurities; and little Tootie went buzz-buzz in everybody's ear. The girls did seem to become a little more mature. Tootie got to give up her omnipresent roller skates of the first season, although it seemed that her dental braces would never come off.

The real question was whether Facts could survive on its own, without the considerable support of Diff'rent Strokes preceding it on the schedule. The third season proved that it could. In the fall of 1981 Strokes moved to another night and Facts became NBC's Wednesday 9 p.m. "anchor" program, with ratings virtually unchanged. It remained there for four years.

Like most successful, long-running series, Facts of Life evolved over time. Mr. Bradley was succeeded by the seldom-seen Mr. Harris, and then by Mr. Parker, whose callousness toward Mrs. Garrett finally drove her to quit Eastland in 1983. Much to her surprise, her beloved but rather distant son Raymond, an accountant, then bought her a run-down store in Peekskill, which she transformed into a gourmet food shop called Edna's Edibles. Blair and Jo (who had just graduated and entered nearby Langley College) and Tootie and Natalie (still at Eastland) moved in to help out.

A number of other regulars and semi-regulars were seen in the early 1980s, most notably Geri Jewell as Blair's "Cousin Geri," a remarkably upbeat young woman with cerebral palsy. Despite her handicap, Geri aspired to be - of all things - a standup comic, making fun of her own condition ("I'm one of the few people who drive better than they walk ... I've been pulled over once for speeding and four times for walking ... I've had some really high scores bowling - only never in my lane..."). Some audiences found this uncomfortable, but more applauded her determination and willingness to bring handicaps into the open (in one episode she remarked to the girls, "questions don't hurt, ignorance does"). Unfortunately she was never really integrated into the cast. The arrival of Cousin Geri usually signaled that Facts was about to get preachy and, after three years of occasional appearances (1981-1984), she left the show.

More changes took place in 1985 as Edna's Edibles burned down, and was rebuilt as a completely new business - an updated version of a 1950's malt shop and novelties store called "Over Our Heads." Mrs. Garrett and the girls were partners. Joining the cast were Andy (MacKenzie Astin, son of actors Patty Duke and John Astin), the young errand boy, and George Burnett (George Clooney), the hunky carpenter who helped with the rebuilding. George lasted only one season, but Andy stayed for the rest of the series' run. In 1986, Mrs. Garrett remarried and tearfully moved away. Actress Charlotte Rae, now 60 years old, financially secure, and feeling that there was little more to do with the role, had decided to leave. It was a crossroads for the series, but ratings were still reasonably good, and the rest of the cast was strong, so NBC renewed the show. Veteran actress Cloris Leachman was brought in as Mrs. Garrett's chatterbox sister Beverly Ann, who became the new mother hen to the girls and step-mom to Andy.

Ratings declined during the last two seasons (1986-1988), but only gradually. However, the network that had done so much to support the show in its early years now had higher expectations. In 1985, NBC had moved the show to Saturday night, against soft competition on CBS and ABC - shows like Downtown, Life with Lucy and Once a Hero. NBC's own Saturday night lineup (227, Golden Girls, Amen, Hunter) had become a powerhouse. Although The Facts of Life was the #1 show in its time period for its last three years, ironically it was the lowest-rated program in NBC's Saturday lineup, presumably hurting the shows that followed it.

In an effort to boost the ratings, Facts aired some pretty dramatic episodes, including one in which Natalie was the first to lose her virginity, to boyfriend Snake. (The central character was supposed to be Blair, but the strongly religious Lisa Whelchel vetoed that storyline for her character.) It was to no avail. As the series came to an end, Natalie got her first taste of life as a writer in New York City; Jo married freewheeling musician Rick and was headed for a business career; and Tootie, engaged to Jeff, enrolled in the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. In the final episode, a dismayed Blair, watching her alma mater slide into bankruptcy, decided to buy the school and become headmistress.

Several spin-offs were planned from Facts of Life during its long run, and although none materialized, several aired as episodes of the series. Among them were The Parkers (1980, starring Richard Dean Anderson and Rosanne Katon as an interracial couple), The Academy (1982, seven boys at a military academy near Eastland), Jo's Cousins (Donnelly Rhodes as a gas station owner with three kids), High School U.S.A. (1983, Michael J. Fox and other, mostly older, sitcom stars populate a high school), and an unnamed spin-off in which Blair runs Eastland. A series was also considered following Natalie's career as a writer. Ah, what might have been!

Aside from the memories, perhaps the most refreshing aspect of The Facts of Life is how well the young stars survived their early stardom. Kim Fields graduated from college in 1993 and promptly landed the starring role of Regine in Living Single, which ran from 1993-1998. She married, and is now a writer, producer and director. Nancy McKeon has appeared in a number of TV movies, and co-starred in Can't Hurry Love (1995-1996) and Style & Substance (1998). She recently formed her own production company. Mindy Cohn graduated from college in 1995 and has guest starred in sitcoms such as Suddenly Susan; she also had a supporting role in the series Second Half (1993-1994). Lisa Whelchel seems to have little interest in a further show business career. Deeply religious, she married a minister in 1988, has three rambunctious kids, and is the picture of a vivacious, contented suburban mom. She is also writing a children's book called Beyond Bible Stories.

Charlotte Rae, 73, is now semi-retired, and acts only occasionally. Having begun her career in the 1950s, playing such roles as Mammy Yokum in Broadway's L'il Abner (1956) and Sylvia Schnauser on TV's Car 54, Where Are You? (1961), she seems bemused by the fact that she is best known for her role on that silly little sitcom. "I can't even go to Barbados without people wanting to hug me, (and saying) ... 'Oh, Mrs. Garrett!'"

2000 Tim's TV Tales With Tim Brooks, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nielsen Ratings: The Facts of Life 1979-1988


Season YearTimeslot Nielsen
Rating*
Rank among
all TV shows
11979-1980Fri. 8:30 p.m.4.5#74
21980-1981Wed. 9:30 p.m.19.3#26
31981-1982Wed. 9:00 p.m.19.1#24
41982-1983Wed. 9:00 p.m.17.1#32
51983-1984Wed. 9:00 p.m.17.3#24
61984-1985Wed. 9:00 p.m.16.3#34
71985-1986Sat. 8:30 p.m.17.7#27
81986-1987Sat. 8:00 p.m.16.3#31
91987-1988Sat. 8:00 p.m.14.6#37
*Percent of all television homes in the U.S. that were watching, on an average night.


Broadcast History



Network Date Type
NBC August 1979 to September 1988 Network
USA Network September 13, 1993 to September 11, 1998 Network
FOX 1999 and 2000 (Various) (Screen Gems) Network
Nick At Nite September 4th, 2000 to June 2001 Network
The Hallmark Channel July 1, 2002 to November 1, 2002Network
Comcast Video-On-Demand August 8, 2005 to July 31, 2006;
August 6, 2007 to December 31, 2009
On-Demand
Crackle/Hulu Launched July 16, 2008Online/Internet
Nickelodeon (Teen Nick) March 12, 2012 to April 3, 2012Network
The Hub Network April 2, 2012 to March 2013Network
Logo April 11, 2015 to PresentNetwork
TVLand September 7, 2015 to PresentNetwork
These only reflect United States Networks


Marathon History


Name Date Network
16th Anniversary Special August 1995 USA Network
Unhidden Mystery MarathonSeptember 2000 Nick At Nite
The Blair and Tootie Project October 2000 Nick At Nite
Revenge of the 80'sMarch 2001 Nick At Nite
Fandemonium MarathonNovember 1719, 2001TV Land
Labor Day MarathonSeptember 7th, 2015TV Land
These only reflect United States Marathons


Various Related Televised Specials/Documentaries
  • Cast Confessions: The Facts of Life (October 14, 2009) Biography Channel
  • Facts of Life Biography -- (Filmed 2002) - (July 25th, 2004) A&E
  • E! Rank: 25 Shows We Secretly Love -- #20 The Facts of Life (2002) E!
  • E! True Hollywood Story: Facts of Life Girls (November 1999) E!
  • Truth Behind The Sitcoms 6: Welcome Back Kotter, The Facts of Life, Roseanne (May 2000) FOX
  • Inside TV Land: Theme Songs (2002) TV Land
  • Intimate Portrait: Cloris Leachman (July 7th, 2003) Lifetime Television
  • Intimate Portrait: Nancy McKeon (Premiere Date??) Lifetime Television
  • Intimate Portrait: Kim Fields (Premiere Date??) Lifetime Television
  • 25 Greatest Rock Star Cameos: #21 Facts of Life -- Jermaine Jackson (June 2003) VH1
  • I Love The 80's: 1985 (2003) VH1
  • One Hit Wonders: Stacy Q (Premiere Date??) VH1