Hollywood lost one of its surrogate mother figures over the weekend, as Charlotte Rae passed away at the age of 92. Rae had an accomplished career on the stage and on the screen, earning two Tony nominations (for Pickwick and Morning Noon and Night) and one Emmy nod (for Queen of the Stardust Ballroom). Of course, it was her delightful turn as quirky, kindhearted housekeeper-turned-housemother Edna Garrett — a.k.a. Mrs. Garrett, a.k.a. Mrs. G, who first appeared on Diff’rent Strokes in 1978 and then anchored the 1979-1986 spin-off The Facts of Life — that propelled Rae to her highest levels of fame, not to mention the warmest of places in fans’ hearts.
Speaking with EW back in 1995, Rae charmingly recalled how the role prompted fans — including middle-aged ones — to approach her on the street and ask if she could “put [her] arms around them and give them a hug.” Which, by the way, she says she always did willingly. “Gee whiz, I know that some movie stars don’t like to be bothered, but I don’t mind,” she explained. “I think it’s part of the package and it’s not a bother… Frankly, I feel blessed because when I walk along the street and people see me, their faces light up. They smile when they see me. It’s a very loving sweet kind of gift, really, in this world where people are so preoccupied with troubles. It’s just very beautiful, and I feel very blessed.”
Plus, that worldwide recognition came in handy every now and then. She recalled a trip to France in which her friend ventured across the street to find a taxi for them. “I was stuck with all this luggage which I couldn’t possibly transport,” she said. “These French girls kept going back and forth, back and forth. Finally, they said, ‘Are you Meesis Garratte?’ I said ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘Oh, may we please take a picture with you?’ I said, ‘Of course, I’ll tell you what — could you help me move the luggage through the station across the street and then we’ll take a picture?’ It was very helpful, if you know what I mean. That was one of the perks.”
Long after her time at Peekskill had passed, she remained proud of the socially conscious series, which tackled tough issues ranging from sexual assault to depression. “It was a very sweet show and we didn’t do anything that was too racy,” she said. “We were interested in opening dialogue between parents and children. I’m very proud of it. It was concerned with communicating to parents and children and everybody. When I see people who are in their 20s, they say they never missed it, they loved it, and they grew up with me. It was a wonderful experience and a lot of people say that shows today are not as dear and sweet, they’re different. There’s nothing wrong with them — they’re terrific — but they’re different.”
And what did Rae think that Mrs. G would be up to today? Her moving answer did not involve running Edna’s Edibles. “She’d probably be working with senior citizens or be working with babies who have AIDS,” Rae said at the time. “Or maybe working [to combat] world hunger and creating a soup kitchen and feeding the homeless and organizing it. Getting the food out every day. Or maybe she’d be busy with the Meals on Wheels, cheering up the elderly, the sick. She’d be doing something in service and trying to get everyone’s spirits up.”
That’s something that Rae was always successful in doing every time she appeared on TV.