PaleyFest’s Fall TV Previews wrapped Monday night with Fall Flashback: The Facts of Life 35th Anniversary Reunion, a celebration of the coming-of-age sitcom’s lasting legacy (as well as its upcoming nine-season box set, to be released in January).
The event, held at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, began with a screening of the season 2 episode “Cousin Geri,” which originally aired December 24, 1980. The episode explores Blair’s relationship with her cousin (played by Geri Jewell), a comedian who has cerebral palsy. It was framed by loud applause during the sitcom’s opening and closing credits, which nearly drowned out the show’s catchy theme song.
When the applause died down, the evening’s moderator—Entertainment Weekly senior west coast editor Danielle Nussbaum—took to the stage to introduce the night’s panelists: cast members Charlotte Rae, Mindy Cohn, Lisa Whelchel, and Nancy McKeon, who played Mrs. Edna Garrett, Natalie Green, Blair Warner, and Jo Polniazcek, respectively.
The show was known for confronting controversial issues like sex, drugs, and teen suicide. Cohn, Whelchel, and McKeon admitted that these topics could be intimidating—but by supporting each other and with Rae as their fearless leader, these contentious moments provided thrilling acting opportunities. “These were challenging things, but as young actors they were fantastic,” McKeon said.
Growing up onscreen had its challenges.”Obviously I did not peak in high school,” Cohn joked, adding that she thinks a few of her younger years would be better left offscreen. McKeon agreed in some respects, but had a positive outlook: “The hardest thing we had to do was find the funniest way to tell a story,” she said. “What a privilege.”
At the time, that task was perhaps most unfamiliar for Cohn. Rae had the part of Natalie written for her after meeting Cohn while doing research for the show. It’s true, everyone: She didn’t have to audition. What’s more, Cohn, who dreamed of being a doctor at age 12, had never acted prior to her big network break. “You must have been scared sh–less,” Rae exclaimed, prompting uproarious laughter from the audience.
McKeon joked that Rae didn’t have such a foul mouth when they were shooting. Rae’s cheeky retort: “I’m not Mrs. Garrett!” Even so, she can’t shake that image. Rae said that the thing fans—and even fellow actors—most often ask her for is a hug from Mrs. Garrett.
Considering how young Cohn, Whelchel, and McKeon were on the Facts of Life set, you might expect that they engaged in some behind-the-scenes mischief. On the contrary: Rae was actually the troublemaker. She often smoked offset, much to the girls’ dismay, prompting them to literally pull the cigarettes out of her mouth. “All these girls on set and you got in trouble for smoking,” Nussbaum quipped.
On the subject of trouble: The group claimed that even if the paparazzi and/or social media had existed then in the way it does now, they probably wouldn’t have been an issue. “If there was paparazzi then, we wouldn’t have been caught doing anything,” Cohn said. She explained that while the cast spent a lot of time together, they also all had their own separate lives. They all went to work, then all went home. She joked that if she had been up to something, it would have been at home, not with her cast members.
That’s not to say there wasn’t anything juicy worth sharing from the set. Guest stars were constantly circulating through the show. “If you were an actor in the eighties, you did an episode of The Facts of Life,” Cohn said. McKean chose Alex Rocco as her favorite, while Cohn picked Charo and Rae went with Molly Picon. You might imagine Whelchel’s favorite to be then-hunk, now-superstar George Clooney, whom she kissed on the show. She recently confessed, however, that she doesn’t even remember the kiss. “I’m all for repressed memory,” Whelchel said. “Why I repressed that I don’t know!” Beats us too.
The night also held a few surprises. Less than 10 minutes in, the cast and audience members watched a video from Kim Fields (a.k.a. Dorothy “Tootie” Ramsey), who could not make it to the panel. She said it was an honor to be part of PaleyFest and thanked her former cast members. Second, about halfway through, Geri Jewell came out to discuss her experience on the show. Jewell was the first actor with a disability to have a regular role on a primetime sitcom. “It changed my life 180 degrees,” she said.
When asked if the show would make it on TV today, the group was divided. Rae thought so, likening the show to Modern Family. “This could be just as wonderful, only updated in certain ways,” she said. Whelchel agreed, calling the show “timeless.” Cohn, however, has her doubts: “I think we’d be laugh out of a pitch meeting.”
But whether The Facts of Life would have worked today or not, the show has made it. As Rae, speaking as wisely and sincerely as Mrs. Garrett, summed it all up: “I don’t think any of us realized how much impact at the time it had on people. But we’re getting the message now.”