The extreme 1980s fashions, the rollerskates, the iconic theme song you know all the words to… for many of us, The Facts of Life was a key part of our childhood viewing experience. And thanks to Shout! Factory’s new The Facts of Life: The Complete Series DVD box set, we have the chance to relive all nine seasons of the 1979-88 comedy.
To get you in the mood for the sometimes goofy, sometimes “very special episode”-y teen angst antics of Blair, Jo, Natalie, Tootie, cousin Jeri, and their surrogate mama Mrs. Garrett, Yahoo TV talked to Facts stars Lisa Whelchel and Geri Jewell and gathered up a slew of Facts facts that are sure to relaunch your love of all things Eastland.
1. The Facts of Life was spun off from Diff’rent Strokes when the Drummond family’s housekeeper, Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae), took a new job at the all-girls Eastland prep school. The show was not an immediate hit, however, and when NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff decided to give it another chance and order additional episodes, he had to convince the show’s very successful producer to stick with the series. “Norman Lear, who didn’t want his name on the show, probably netted out about $30 million in his personal bank account for not wanting that show to exist,” Tartikoff told the New York Times in 1988.
2. The series was completely retooled for Season 2, with the large cast whittled down to four main girls — Blair (Whelchel), Jo (Nancy McKeon), Natalie (Mindy Cohn), and Tootie (Kim Fields) — and Mrs. Garrett. “There were too many to focus in on for a half-hour show,” Rae said. “Maybe if the show had been an hour, but for a half-hour, there were just too many characters.”
One of the actresses cut from the large Season 1 cast: future John Hughes movie superstar Molly Ringwald, who played Eastland student Molly Parker and later earned, with fellow fired co-stars Julie Anne Haddock, Julie Piekarski, and Felice Schachter, a 2008 TV Land Award nomination for Favorite Character(s) Who Went Missing (they lost to Randolph Roberts, aka Happy Days brother Chuck Cunningham).
3. The infectious Facts of Life theme song was co-written by Al Burton and former marrieds (and parents to pop star Robin Thicke) Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring. Rae lent her vocals for part of the song during Season 1, while Loring — a Days of Our Lives star who also co-wrote the Diff’rent Strokes theme song with her Growing Pains star ex-husband — sang it for Seasons 2-9.
4. Comedienne Jewell became the first performer with a disability to have a regular role on a primetime series when she made her first appearance in Season 2’s “Cousin Geri,” playing Blair’s cousin who has cerebral palsy.
Jewell had been cast by producer Lear, who saw her perform at the Media Access Awards in Los Angeles in 1980. “That particular night, Norman was in the audience,” Jewell tells Yahoo TV. “I got a standing ovation, and I ran into Norman in the elevator. He said, ‘You’ll be hearing from me really soon, kid.’ Three months later, he called me with the cousin Jeri episode, and I filmed it two weeks before Christmas that year.” Lear and Jewell have remained close, with Lear even giving her a shout-out in his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get to Experience. “Geri Jewell, who I’m proud to have cast in The Facts of Life, and who has been a great inspiration to me. If cerebral palsy couldn’t keep this enlightened comedienne down, nothing could,” he wrote.
5. Tootie’s trademark rollerskates — which she wore constantly throughout Season 1 — were more than a character gimmick; they were a way to make nine-year-old Kim Fields appear taller to play 12-year-old Tootie. Pre-Facts of Life, Fields had lost out on a guest role playing Arnold’s girlfriend on Diff’rent Strokes… because she was too tall for scenes with Gary Coleman.
6. Mindy Cohn was not an actress when she was cast in The Facts of Life. Rae and the series producers visited the prestigious private Westlake School for Girls, which has since merged with a private boys school to become Harvard-Westlake, to do research for the show. Rae chatted with Westlake student Cohn and fell in love with her spunky personality, and the role of Natalie was created just for Cohn. The character was named after one of Rae’s real-life best friends from her high school days.
7. The series was originally titled Garrett’s Girls.
8. Future Oscar winners who hung with the Facts of Life crew: Paul Haggis, an executive producer who also wrote 13 episodes of the series before winning Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscars for Crash; Helen Hunt, who guest starred in the Season 1 finale “Dope” before she won a Best Actress Academy Award for As Good as It Gets; Grant Heslov, who guested in Season 7’s “The Reunion” before sharing a Best Picture Oscar with Ben Affleck and George Clooney for Argo; and, most memorably, Clooney, who played handyman George Burnett on Season 7 and 8 of Facts before winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Syriana and sharing the Best Picture Oscar for Argo.
9. Other Facts of Life guest stars: Larry Wilmore, Jami Gertz, The Young and the Restless star Michael Damian, Brady Bunch alum Eve Plumb, Chip Fields (who played mom to daughter Kim Fields’s Tootie), Charo, John Astin, Paul Feig, Dennis Haysbert, Crispin Glover, Family Feud host Ray Combs, El DeBarge, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jermaine Jackson, Days of Our Lives star Peter Reckell, Jean Smart, Peter Parros, The Sopranos alum Al Sapienza, Moon Unit Zappa, Penelope Ann Miller, Doug Savant, Dick Van Patten, and Susan “Mulva” Walters.
10. David Spade and Richard Grieco guest-starred in the Season 9 episode “Big Apple Blues,” which producers envisioned as a Facts spinoff series about a group of NYC college students. The spinoff, ultimately, was a no-go.
11. Another spinoff idea: Mayim Bialik, Seth Green, and Juliette Lewis guest-starred in the two-part Facts of Life series finale “The Beginning of the End” and “The Beginning of the Beginning,” playing new Eastland students. With the school in financial trouble, Blair bought it and turned it into a co-ed institution — with her taking over headmaster duties. This spinoff, too, was vetoed.
"I think they’re probably still kicking themselves, because the cast was incredible, as far as the kids that they cast for the next generation," Whelchel tells Yahoo TV. "I think it was probably the right time to end the original Facts of Life, because we went out when it was still popular. But I do think the new generation of cast would have done well.”
12. Throughout Facts of Life’s run, four other spinoff series were considered, including one that would have revolved around an all-male military school near Eastland (and would have starred Soap alum and Scott Baio cousin Jimmy Baio), one focusing on Blair and Jo and their college life at Langley, one focusing on Jo’s family in the Bronx, and one focusing on Tootie’s cousin’s interracial marriage, in which MacGyver star Richard Dean Anderson played the husband.
13. Clooney has been named the Sexiest Man Alive twice, but Whelchel says she doesn’t even remember kissing him in the Facts Season 7 episode “The Reunion.” “I am all for repressed memories, but why I repressed that one I don’t know!” she said at the 2014 Paley Center cast reunion that marked the series’ 35th anniversary. She also admitted she’s since watched a YouTube clip of the kiss many times and does remember that Clooney was a fun addition to the Facts set. “It was wonderful to have such a fun big brother type join the cast,” she tells Yahoo TV. “Just to even have the testosterone on the set after years of estrogen dominance made it fun to come to work. It was already fun because we had a great time, but he added this spark to the mix.”
14. Meanwhile, another two-time Sexiest Man Alive failed to make a lasting impression on another Facts star. Jewell says her publicist, Harlan Boll, reminded her of a night long ago in Cloris Leachman’s Facts of Life dressing room. “All I could remember was standing in Cloris’s dressing room with a bunch of other people and listening to Cloris tell some really funny stories,” Jewell, who recently played a TV executive on Glee, tells Yahoo TV. “Harlan said, ‘But do you remember who I introduced you to that night?’ So I took a wild guess, and I said, ‘George Clooney?’ He said, ‘No, Lisa introduced you to George Clooney. I introduced you to Brad Pitt!’” A pre-famous Pitt, it turns out, was not only Boll’s client at the time, but also a fan of Facts of Life, and he was attending a taping of the show that starred his future Ocean’s 11 co-star and friend.
15. Before she was doling out important lessons as Mrs. Garrett, Rae was teaching kids about important things like the letter “M” when she played Molly the Mail Lady on Sesame Street.
16. The cast was often the butt of cruel jokes about their fluctuating teenage weights, with Joan Rivers once referring to them as “The Fats of Life.” Cohn has said producers encouraged her not to lose weight, because carrying extra pounds was part of Natalie’s character. They even dressed her in baggy clothing to mask her loss when she did drop 40 pounds in later seasons of the show, after she refused their request to regain the weight. But Whelchel wrote in her 2009 book The Facts of Life: And Other Lessons My Father Taught Me that when she returned to the Facts set for Season 2, after a summer spent eating a lot of pizza and Dairy Queen with her friends in Texas, the producers “hired nutritionists, therapists, and hypnotists. The sent me to fat farms, exercise trainers, and health spas. They even brought the scale to the rehearsal hall and had me weigh in every morning, while everyone gathered around to see if I had gained or lost any weight.”
17. Nancy McKeon said her character, Jo, who became an Eastland student in Season 2, was modeled on one of the most iconic characters in TV history. “Jo originally was a lot like the Fonz; then they wanted to take away some of her dominance, which I didn’t want to do,” McKeon told People magazine in 1982. “So we talked about it, and came up with the way she is now. She’s not the Fonz, she’s not a wimp; she stands out alone.”
18. Meanwhile, Cohn and Fields’s performances as BFFs Natalie and Tootie earned them comparisons to a legendary TV comedy team, by one of the legends herself. Cohn wrote at HuffingtonPost.com that she ran into Lucille Ball in a restaurant during FoL’s run, and Ball grabbed her hand and told her, “You and that Tootie remind me of me and Viv. You are a very funny lady, Ms. Cohn. You keep this up now, ‘cuz you have a lot to offer.” “I thought, ‘Kill me now, it’s not going to get any better than this,’” Cohn wrote.
19. Mrs. Garrett and the girls were among the sitcom characters spoofed in the short-lived 2002 NBC sketch comedy series The Rerun Show, in which actual episodes of classic sitcoms were re-enacted by a Rerun Show cast that included future MADtv stars Paul Vogt and Daniele Gaither. The Facts of Life episode poked fun at “Shoplifting,” a Season 2 Facts ep where Jo steals a blouse so she can give Mrs. Garrett a special birthday gift, which Mrs. G discovers when she tries to exchange the top. Vogt as the excitable, head-shaking Mrs. Garrett is hilariously spot on.
20. Whelchel was asked to audition for the role of Rachel Green on Friends, but didn’t pursue it after deeming the pilot the funniest she’d ever read, sure to be a hit, but too focused on sex for her comfort. Meanwhile, Facts co-star McKeon did audition for a role on Friends… and lost out to Courteney Cox.
21. Whelchel had already turned down what she considered a risque storyline on her show, when Facts of Life’s writers wanted her Blair to be the first of Mrs. Garrett’s girls to lose her virginity. “Parental guidance is so loose these days. A lot of young girls get their lessons on life and discipline from TV,” she told People in 1984. “I don’t believe in premarital sex, and I don’t want to condone it to any young person who’s watching.” The storyline eventually played out on the series, though, in Season 9’s “The First Time,” when Natalie lost her virginity to boyfriend Snake (Fast Times at Ridgemont High star Robert Romanus). Whelchel declined to appear in the episode.
22. Rae left the series when Mrs. Garrett got married and joined the Peace Corps in the Season 8 premiere. The actress had grown tired of the TV schedule, and she thought her character had grown stale and was repeating herself. But she didn’t leave the show without a personal recommendation for her replacement: She suggested producers cast one of her best friends — Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe winner Cloris Leachman — who was Rae’s classmate at Northwestern University and later her roommate in New York. Leachman joined the cast in Season 8 as Beverly Ann, Edna Garrett’s sister and the new co-owner of the Over Our Heads gift shop.
23. The 2014 Paley Center reunion (which is included on the new Facts of Life Complete Series DVD box set) and a reunion of Whelchel and Fields in the 2014 Hallmark TV movie For Better or for Worse aside, Whelchel says fans will probably be waiting a long time for the entire cast to reunite in a Facts of Life TV movie. “Mostly because I think everybody has just really enjoyed going in different directions,” says Whelchel, who will star in another Hallmark movie, The Mommy Blogger, with her daughter Clancy later this year, and is also developing a new sitcom, Like Mother, Like Daughter, with Clancy. “It’s nice not to get stuck in a little box. As wonderful as that box was, and as grateful as, I think, we all are for it, it’s just good to move on.”
The Facts of Life: The Complete Series is available on DVD from Shout! Factory.