Charlotte Rae, best known as wise and lovable house mother Mrs. Garrett on The Facts of Life, died Sunday at her home in Los Angeles, representatives for the actress confirmed. She was 92.
Rae revealed she’d been diagnosed with bone cancer at the end of April 2017. “Last Monday, I found out I have bone cancer,” she said in a statement. “About seven years ago, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer — which is a miracle that they found it because usually, it’s too late. My mother, sister, and my uncle died of pancreatic cancer. After six months of chemotherapy, I was cancer-free. I lost my hair, but I had beautiful wigs. Nobody ever knew. So now, at the age of 91, I have to make up my mind. I’m not in any pain right now. I’m feeling so terrific and so glad to be above ground. Now I have to figure out whether I want to go have treatment again or opt for life.”
She continued to share her decision, “I love life. I’ve had a wonderful one already … I’ve had a great life, but I have so many wonderful things happening. I’d like to choose life. I’m grateful for the life I’ve already had.”
Born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Rae got her start doing theater and radio (where she was told to drop her last name). She broke into television playing Sylvia Schnauser, the wife of Al Lewis’ Officer Leo Schnauser on Car 54, Where Are You? While she earned Tony nominations Pickwick, Morning Noon and Night, and an Emmy nom (Queen of the Stardust Ballroom), it wasn’t until 1978 when Norman Lear, a longtime fan, cast her in Diff’rent Strokes, that Rae’s career took off.
Rae played the kooky but kind housekeeper Edna Garrett, unmissable thanks to that mound of bright orange hair, on Diff’rent Strokes, and when she became a popular breakout character, Rae herself proposed the spin-off. That spin-off became The Facts of Life, a sitcom about a girls’ boarding school and their (once again) kooky and kind house mother. Rae’s Mrs. Garrett (or Mrs. G, as Nancy McKeon’s Jo liked to call her) helped guide the girls through every very special episode theme imaginable, from depression to dating, AIDS to alcohol. Rae left the show in 1986 for health reasons, and though Cloris Leachman stepped in as Mrs. Garrett’s sister, the show was canceled two years later.
Rae went on to guest star on TV shows like ER, Pretty Little Liars, Sisters, and The King of Queens, and appeared in movies such as Don’t Mess with the Zohan and Tom and Jerry: The Movie. Her final regular gig was voicing “Nanny” in the animated 101 Dalmations: The Series, which aired from 1997-98.
As much as she was beloved by TV watchers throughout the ‘80s, she remained associated with the beloved character of Mrs. Garrett thanks to reruns. In 2011, The Facts of Life cast reunited for the TV Land Awards, where she took home the Pop Icon award. That night, her Facts of Life costars Kim Fields and Nancy McKeon gave speeches in her honor. For the show’s 35th anniversary in 2014, they again got together for the closing night of PaleyFest in Los Angeles.
Rae shared many of her Hollywood experiences — including 44 years of sobriety and discovering that her husband, John Strauss, was bisexual — in her memoir, The Facts of My Life, released in 2015.
In her April 2017 statement, Rae also said, “At 91, every day is a birthday. [In my book] I want to tell everybody to celebrate every day, to savor the day and be good to yourself, love yourself, and then you can be good to others and be of service to others.”