|E! True Hollywood Story: Facts of Life Girls (Part One)|
|This one-hour program aired November 28, 1999 on the E! channel. It covered the NBC TV series "The Facts of Life" from its inception in 1978 to the end of its run 10 years later in 1988. The Mindy Cohn segments were from 1995 (courtesy of the USA Network) and the other interviews are from 1999. The show was narrated by Bruce Chandler. For pictures of this event please visit our photo galleries.|
Tom Shales: The very first episodes of the show – they weren't about anything early on in terms of – they had no real story to them, they were kind of silly.
Narrator: But on the fast track to nowhere, "The Facts of Life" suddenly came to life.
Michael Starr: The show got off to a little bit of a rocky start but then got its sea legs, so to speak, and before you knew it, it was a prime-time smash.
Narrator: The critics ate their words and "The Facts of Life" went on to become one of the longest-running comedies in TV history.
Natalie Cohn: There was a character for everyone to relate to. Our show just happened to appeal to the masses.
Tom Shales: It always held its own, a very solid second in the time period against very, very hot shows that lasted nowhere near as long as "The Facts of Life" did.
Narrator: In the next hour, we'll look at the underdog that overachieved and the charming cast who refused to quit.
Asaad Kelada: I don't think anybody quite knows what it is that makes a cast truly mesh.
Narrator: We'll meet a special member of the cast who carved out her own piece of television history . . .
Geri Jewell: It was an incredible experience to be seen in public and be stared out for a different reason.
Narrator: We'll explore the struggles of four teenage girls coping with fame and Hollywood's relentless obsession with perfect.
Lisa Whelchel: They sent me to these places to get the weight off. The diets never worked, the diets actually made it worse.
Narrator: We'll examine the impact of "The Facts of Life" on an entire generation.
Charlotte Rae: We touched on drugs, sex, death in the family, divorce in the family. I mean, parents were able to talk to their kids.
Narrator: And finally we'll watch a real-life Hollywood success story unravel. And catch up with stars of "The Facts of Life," two decades after the series launched.
Eve Brandstein: I give them a lot of credit that they didn't crack and they've gone on, each one individually, to have very fulfilling adult lives.
Narrator: This is the making of a television series, the way it was meant to be. This is the story of "The Facts of Life," the E! True Hollywood Story . . . .
Narrator: In the mid-70s, NBC executives were on the prowl for a breakthrough comedy show to compete with popular sitcoms on rival networks, ABC and CBS. Hamilton Cloud was the V.P. of Comedy Programming.
Hamilton Cloud: NBC was really struggling for hits. It was hard to find anything that would work. In fact, we were more known for our failures than for our successes.
Narrator: But NBC hit pay dirt in 1978 with "Diff'rent Strokes," created by the master of television sitcoms, Norman Lear. Lear's company, Tandem Productions, cranked out one hit show after the other including "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times." Television historian, Tim Brooks . . .
Tim Brooks: Norman Lear, of course, was one of the most successful producers of the ‘70s and his production company was responsible for many hits.
Hamilton Cloud: "Diff'rent Strokes" was an immediate hit. Gary Coleman was clearly a star and the premise worked really well, and they had a housekeeper on "Diff'rent Strokes" played by Charlotte Rae. And Norman Lear pitched the idea to do a spinoff of "Diff'rent Strokes."
Narrator: Less than a year after Charlotte Rae first appeared on "Diff'rent Strokes," she was offered a pivotal role on the spinoff series.
Charlotte Rae: I thought it would be just wonderful if it would go and I wanted – since I was the main centerpiece, it meant a great deal to me.
Narrator: "The Facts of Life" had a simple premise. Charlotte Rae, as Mrs. Garrett, takes over as housemother at Eastland, a fictitious private girl's school located in Peekskill, New York. The cast also included a headmaster and seven young girls. John Lawlor was cast as the offbeat headmaster . . .
John Lawlor: I auditioned for "Hello, Larry," it was done by the same studio, but I didn't ever read for Mr. Bradley. They just said, "Look, if you can do ‘Hello, Larry," you can probably do Mr. Bradley.
Narrator: If "The Facts of Life" was going to work however, casting director Eve Brandstein needed just the right mix of girls.
Eve Brandstein: This was a brand-new cast, we had to find new people. There weren't really any established actresses, so it had to be a national search.
Narrator: In the Summer of 1979, 15-year-old Felice Schachter was cast for one of the leads. Ironically, Schachter was once considered for a starring role on "Diff'rent Strokes."
Felice Schachter: They wanted like a more All-American type or whatever it was, so that didn't work out. But they said they were going to find something for me to do, then came "The Facts of Life."
Narrator: One down, six to go. But not for long. Creative supervisor, Al Burton, met Lisa Whelchel and immediately knew the 16-year-old was perfect for the show.
Al Burton: Lisa Whelchel came in and she was the most beautiful teenage girl I'd ever seen.
Narrator: Burton was smitten by Whelchel, but he wasn't alone. Suddenly, Lisa was in demand.
Lisa Whelchel: I'd auditioned for "Blair" and got that part. Blair was supposed to be a fast-talking girl from Texas. But there was one line in the script and I read it very snidely and condescendingly and sarcastically and I didn't realize it until I got the part and came back later and they had re-written the character of "Blair" to be the snob.
Narrator: Lisa grew up in a suburb outside Fort Worth. She took acting lessons as a child. In 1975, the pretty 12-year-old learned the Walt Disney Company was holding a nationwide talent search for "The New Mickey Mouse Club."
Lisa Whelchel: When we found out, it was too late, they were finished with the auditions. I wrote a letter saying my Dad said he'd fly me out if I could audition.
Narrator: Lisa made the trip and landed the role. A few weeks later, the New Mouseketeer and her Mom packed her bags and flew to Hollywood. With Lisa Whelchel on board as Blair Warner, "The Facts of Life" cast was taking shape. Next up, was a relative newcomer to the acting business, 11-year-old Molly Ringwald. Ringwald was spotted during a performance in the musical "Annie."
[Molly in 1979 with fellow "Annie" cast members]
Eve Brandstein: I saw this cute this girl with this little bit of a lisp come out and did her part and I remember I looked it up in the program and she was "Orphan 5."
Narrator: Molly Ringwald was hired. Another fresh young talent was Kim Fields who hailed from Harlem. The vivacious 10-year-old garnered national attention in a syrup commercial.
Al Burton: She just was so energetic and such charisma and so intuitively smart in comedy.
Narrator: Kim was cast as the series' resident gossip, Dorothy "Tootie" Ramsey. Ironically, the fifth member of "The Facts of Life" cast was discovered at Westlake School for Girls in Bel Air, California, the prototype for the fictional Eastland School depicted in the series.
Al Burton: We had lunch with a whole roomful of girls. They were the most beautiful young women I had ever seen in one room. But in among them there was a girl who didn't look like she fit there and she was adorable, but she was stout and she was funny.
Narrator: The adorable girl with the great sense of humor was 13-year-old Mindy Cohn.
Mindy Cohn: I actually had no acting experience. Charlotte Rae, who plays Mrs. Garrett, came up to the school I was at to try and authenticate scripts. She basically came up to me and said "I'd really like to write a part for you on my show."
Narrator: A native of Los Angeles, Mindy Cohn's outgoing personality more than compensated for her lack of acting experience. Mindy was cast in the role of impressionable Natalie Green. Five of the seven Facts of Life girls were in place. Number 6 was 15-year-old Julie Piekarski from St. Louis, Missouri. Julie and co-star Lisa Whelchel were graduates of "The New Mickey Mouse Club." The last girl to join the Facts of Life ensemble was 14-year-old Julie Anne Haddock from Los Angeles. By mid-summer 1979, casting was complete and the cameras were ready to roll.
Narrator: Coming up, the cast from "The Facts of Life" experiences a major cutback.
John Lawlor: It was a shock to me, but for many of these girls, it must have been a bit of a jolt.
Narrator: In early 1979, executives at NBC cash in on their hit sitcom, "Diff'rent Strokes," by spinning off a new series, "The Facts of Life." Veteran actress Charlotte Rae reprised her "Diff'rent Strokes" character playing housemother to seven girls at a private boarding school. An exhaustive search for the right talent brought together a gifted cast, but rough waters lay ahead.
Asaad Kelada: The show had still not found its clear voice, even the production elements of the show hadn't yet found their groove.
Narrator: On Friday night, August 24, 1979, the characters on "The Facts of Life" were introduced in a special one-hour episode of "Diff'rent Strokes." NBC executives knew the spinoff was a long shot to duplicate the success of the venerable hit series. Garth Ancier was Manager of Comedy Programs during this period.
Garth Ancier: When it first started, it really was not as good a show as it turned into. And most shows aren't. I mean, most shows grow a lot in the first season or two.
Narrator: Ancier and his colleagues were willing to be patient, but they had reservations about the new series. The decision was made to air nine episodes of "The Facts of Life" during the 1979-1980 season, then gauge the results. Television historian, Tim Brooks . . .
Tim Brooks: It was not premiered as a Fall series, rather it was a try-out series at the end of the summer. NBC wasn't too sure about the program.
Narrator: Much of the concern was over the number of people in the cast. John Lawlor played the headmaster . . .
John Lawlor: We had so many people and pretty soon people started counting their lines. "How am I doing? Oh my God I have nothing this week. Oh, they hate me!"
Narrator: The size of the cast wasn't the only problem. The lightweight scripts did little to help the series pull an audience.
[showed "Rough Housing" clip]
Garth Ancier: The very first episodes with the show they weren't about anything early on, in terms of they had no real story to them, they were kind of silly, they had all seven girls in them who were ill-defined. It was sort of a gaggle of girls.
Narrator: Director Asaad Kelada . . .
Asaad Kelada: The character of Tootie was on rollerskates and that seemed odd to me at the time, she was just rolling in and out.
Narrator: Kim Fields on rollerskates was not exactly compelling television. An issue that would flair up at the beginning of the second season. When "The Facts of Life" finished its first season run in the Spring of 1980, the ratings left much to be desired, but NBC executives, including V.P. of Comedy Programs Hamilton Cloud, stuck with the show and gave the green light to a second season. They had little choice.
Hamilton Cloud: Because NBC was in such a third-place position, they didn't have to be great to keep them on. It was in the 30s or the 40s for the week, but it was enough of a hit for NBC.
Narrator: Not without changes, however, including new writers and a drastic cut-back in the cast, starting with John Lawlor.
John Lawlor: It was a shock to me, but that's show business. But for many of these girls, it was their first shot at anything. So it must have been a bit of a jolt.
Narrator: The "jolt" was felt by four of the girls. Felice Schachter was the first to be cast, she was also the first to go. Julie Piekarski and Julie Anne Haddock were then shown the door. Molly Ringwald left the series to appear in the movie "The Tempest." The survivors of the re-vamped series were Charlotte Rae and three of her young charges, 17-year-old Lisa Whelchel, 14-year-old Mindy Cohn and 11-year-old Kim Fields. Producers believed one more casting change was needed to provide the right send off for Season Two.
Al Burton: I remember Brandon Tartikoff calling me and said "Watch a Hallmark commercial." And this girl came on and I started crying.
Narrator: 14-year-old Nancy McKeon from Long Island, New York, fit the bill as the new character, Jo.
Narrator: Coming up, the writers put some life in "The Facts of Life."
Margie Peters: Jo talks about getting people fake I.D.s and getting them into bars and they steal Mrs. Garrett's kitchen van . . .
Narrator: "The Facts of Life" launched on NBC in the Summer of 1979 with big hopes and a bigger cast. But after a run of nine episodes, the only fact that matter was the ratings, which were abysmal. Network executives, however, were not ready to throw in the towel. The cast was cut in half and a new team of writers was summoned to give the series a distinct point of view.
Al Burton: These were outstandingly clever writers and we established a rule that these girls had to be written as if they were 25.
Narrator: In the Fall of 1980, "The Facts of Life" entered its second season on NBC. The sitcom, which fared poorly in the first year, showed signs of improvement with a scaled-down cast and one talented newcomer. Casting director, Eve Brandstein . . .
Eve Brandstein: They all were girls of similar background. Then we changed it by getting Nancy in who had more of a blue-collar background.
Narrator: A native of Long Island, New York, Nancy and her older brother, Philip, took acting lessons as children. In 1976, Philip was cast in the role of "Tommy" on the popular CBS sitcom, "Alice." Soon thereafter, the McKeons moved West to Los Angeles. Four years later, after small parts on TV's "Starsky & Hutch" and "The Love Boat," Nancy landed her own sitcom, "The Facts of Life." Former manager, Greg Sims . . .
Greg Sims: Nancy in real life had real strength and real edge and would be different and a complement to the other girls.
Narrator: Good talent, however, could not overcome bad writing which plagued the series in its first season. Enter Margie Peters, sitcom writer from "One Day At a Time" and "The Love Boat." Margie and her writing partner, Linda Marsh, agreed to head up the writing team, but not without some major changes.
Margie Peters: There were two things about the show that we really had a problem with, and the first thing was that the show took place in Peekskill, New York, and girls were wearing halter tops and short shorts in the middle of winter.
Narrator: That was an easy one compared to the other issue. Marsh and Peters were strongly opposed to the racial overtones that permeated the show.
Margie Peters: We also had a problem with Tootie being on rollerskates. At the time, rollerskating was big but it was also associated strongly with African-American culture. And we felt that it was a bit stereotypical.
Narrator: The producers agree to a more realistic dress code and to drop the rollerskating routine. Marsh and Peters meanwhile wasted no time introducing Nancy McKeon as the rebel with a cause . . .
[Showed "The New Girl" clip]
Margie Peters: Jo talks about getting people fake I.D.s and getting them into bars and they steal Mrs. Garrett's kitchen van and they go to a bar and they get busted.
[Showed "The New Girl" clip]
Margie Peters: And the school says "You can't be in the dorms. You have to be under closer supervision" and Mrs. Garrett volunteers to give them a home in the attic above the kitchen.
Narrator: The girls were no longer innocent teenyboppers. But that wasn't the only difference. Peters and Marsh also wanted more substance to Charlotte Rae's character. Mrs. Garrett transformed from housemother to school dietician. Rae may have been a dietician on screen, but off screen, she reverted to her role as housemother to four teenage actresses. The bond helped pull the cast together and provided material that often made its way into scripts.
Asaad Kelada: She cared about these four young people as her children and so that was part of what Mrs. Garrett was, but it also was Charlotte Rae.
Narrator: Rae identified with her character, to a point.
Charlotte Rae: They very seldom let me lose my cool. They made me like I was Polly Perfect, which was ridiculous so that when I bump into kids on the street they'd say "I wish my Mom were like you."
Narrator: Lisa Whelchel, Nancy McKeon, Mindy Cohn and Kim Fields settled nicely into their onscreen personas as Blair, Jo, Natalie and Tootie. And the storylines began to click with viewers. In the second season, the series introduced a unique element, the addition of a physically-challenged character.
Geri Jewell: I was the first person with a disability ever to be cast in a prime-time series, it was never done before.
Narrator: 23-year-old Geri Jewell from Fullerton, California, was born with cerebral palsy, a brain disorder that affects the ability to control movement and posture. But Geri wanted to be recognized for what she could do, not what she couldn't do. Jewell turned to stand-up comedy to shed light on her disability. Geri was performing at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles when she was spotted by Norman Lear. Former NBC Vice President of Comedy Programs, Hamilton Cloud . . .
Hamilton Cloud: One of the beauties of "The Facts of Life" is they took the time to go out and try to find an actress who had the real handicap and they found Geri.
Narrator: In December 1980, Geri Jewel made her acting debut in the episode "Cousin Geri." Jewell portrayed a relative of Blair Warner, played by Lisa Whelchel.
[Showed "Cousin Geri" clip]
Narrator: Coming up, Lisa Whelchel looks fine, but Blair's weight becomes an issue.
Lisa Whelchel: More attention was on me just because my character was expected to be, to look a certain way.
Narrator: "The Facts of Life" endured a rocky start and blistering reviews. But in 1980, during Season Two, new writers infused the series with a fresh perspective while producers created a television first, the casting of 23-year-old Geri Jewell, she was no ordinary actress. Geri lived with cerebral palsy.
Asaad Kelada: I was immediately struck not only by her courage but by her talent and by her strength.
Narrator: Season Three of "The Facts of Life" launched in the Fall of 1981. With the promise of more scripts that mixed laughs with serious issues, such as cerebral palsy.
[Showed "Cousin Geri" clip]
Narrator: Geri Jewell was at ease on camera, and away from the set, she enjoyed a new sense of self-confidence.
Geri Jewell: It was an incredible experience to be seen in public and to be stared at for a different reason. For the first time in my life.
Narrator: Geri brought an honest quality to "The Facts of Life" but her presence opened some old wounds for Charlotte Rae.
Geri Jewell: I reminded her sometimes of her own grief and pain that she had over her own son who had a disability. Charlotte saw her own son in me.
[Show "Cousin Geri" clip]
Geri Jewell: She would have emotions and feelings that really had nothing to do with me.
Narrator: The bittersweet relationship between Rae and Jewell eventually turned into friendship. In fact, Geri touched the lives of many people on the set. Director Asaad Kelada . . .
Asaad Kelada: She taught me how to respond to somebody who is different from not only who I am but from what we all automatically consider to be the way we're supposed to be.
Narrator: Geri's colleagues and fans cared a great deal for her. But image-obsessed Hollywood wasn't so kind.
Geri Jewell: I was like a "special" celebrity. Most people didn't know how to accept me because Hollywood is a very perfect place. I think some people had a very hard time with that.
Narrator: Not 18-year-old Lisa Whelchel. Lisa and Geri became friends and moved into an apartment together.
Lisa Whelchel: I'm very thankful that I was able to have that experience with Geri. We were just two young girls and having our first apartment and it was fun.
Narrator: By early 1982, Season Three was rolling along. "The Facts of Life" offered more hard-hitting episodes and the audience responded with lots of mail. One especially poignant show dealt with the issue of teen suicide.
Mindy Cohn: This girl, she was 14 at the time, wrote us all a letter thanking us for the episode, that she was very suicidal at the time and after watching our show actually went to her principal, talked to him and explained how depressed she was. And I don't want to say we saved her, but I realized what an impact we were making and it really was an amazing experience.
Narrator: 16-year-old Mindy Cohn was the focus of many emotionally-charged episodes.
Mindy Cohn: I do think we had a responsibility to approach these subjects and I hope that we handled them well.
Narrator: What the girls didn't handle so well was their weight. And the demands of a weekly show didn't help. Director John Bowab . . .
John Bowab: They weren't fat. They were not the image that Hollywood was used to seeing. They were teenagers, they were full-figured girls for awhile.
Mindy Cohn: There's a few years there that the fact that my weight and my acne got seen by millions of people does not thrill me.
John Bowab: There were the jokes. Joan Rivers referred to them as "The Fats of Life" because the girls went through a bad period.
Narrator: 18-year-old Lisa Whelchel, the beauty from Texas, especially felt the pressure.
Lisa Whelchel: More attention was on me just because my character was expected to look a certain way. And their characters, it really wasn't that critical. So there wasn't the pressure on them to get the weight off.
Narrator: A devout Christian, Lisa relied on her faith to pull her through.
Lisa Whelchel: I remember talking to a friend of mine and he said "Well, Lisa, I know it sounds awful out there and you're lonely and a lot of pressure, but let me ask you, are you drawing strength from the Lord during all this?" I had nowhere else to turn. There was nothing in my own strength I could do to get the weight off.
Narrator: The girls' weight issue became less of a concern when other matters took center stage.
Narrator: Coming up, Geri Jewell falls on hard times.
Geri Jewell: I was considered the highest-visible person with a disability in the United States and I couldn't even pay my rent.