The Facts of Life started out as a spin-off of Diff’rent Strokes, but it actually ended up outlasting its parent show. It ran from 1979 to 1988, becoming one of the most successful sitcoms of its era in the process. It focused on the character Edna Garrett and her job working at a girl’s boarding school in New York. And it made stars out of some of its cast members.
The show had a large cast when it initially began, but it eventually settled on just a handful of main characters: Charlotte Rae’s Edna, Nancy McKeon’s Jo, Lisa Whelchel’s Blair, Kim Fields’s Tootie and Mindy Cohn’s Natalie. Every episode, the gang of girls would have new adventures and learn new things.
The show set out to tackle some of the real problems teenage girls might actually face. Sometimes, it delved deep into some quite dark and difficult subjects. Among the topics it tackled were poverty, divorce, abortion and even child prostitution. However, as the characters grew from teens to adults, the show eased off on its “issue” episodes.
The show picked up more and more rating success as it went on, and eventually it ran for nine seasons, even though actress Charlotte Rae left at the beginning of season eight. A season ten was on the cards, but neither Mindy Cohn or Nancy McKeon wanted to return, so the sitcom came to an end.
To this day, The Facts of Life is still fondly remembered. There was actually a reunion TV movie in 2001, although Nancy McKeon and her character Jo didn’t return for it. But it’s now been over three decades since the show came to an end, so what are the former members of its cast up to these days?
Mindy Cohn – Natalie
Mindy Cohn was just 13 years old when she won the role of Natalie. She was noticed by the Facts of Life producers and Rae when they visited her school to get ideas for the show. In 2014, director John Bowab told Entertainment Weekly, “Mindy was so funny that Charlotte said, ‘That girl should be on the show!’”
Cohn always remembered the day she won the part. In 2013 she wrote for HuffPost, “It seemed that Charlotte Rae had fallen madly in love with me, in part because I reminded her of her best childhood friend Natalie – and I was irrepressible, charming, and hilarious. So she asked the producers to create a part for me in the show. Honestly, the whole thing seemed so fantastic I didn’t know what to think.”
Cohn played Natalie right up until the end of the show, but she hated that she was considered “the fat one.” In 2013 she recalled to People magazine, “The summer I turned 17, my metabolism changed. I became active. I came back from hiatus – looking good, mind you – and was told, ‘What happened to you? You have to gain that weight back.’”
Cohn continued, “I took offense because Natalie wasn’t defined as ‘the fat girl.’ People on the outside defined her like that, but there weren’t fat jokes about her on the show. I came home saying, ‘I have to gain 40 lbs.’ And my mother said, ‘That’s not happening.’ She told the producers to go to a school to see what normal girls look like at our age.”
That’s all behind Cohn now. In 2002 she started providing the voice of Velma Dinkley for the Scooby-Doo cartoons, and she kept that up until 2015. She’s also had various recurring and guest roles in TV shows such as The Middle, Bones, and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
In 2017, Cohn revealed to the media that for the past five years she had been fighting breast cancer. She kept her battle as private as possible, not knowing what the future held. Luckily, the treatments, which included a double mastectomy, were successful in the end. Now, she’s cancer-free and back to work.
Kim Fields – Tootie
Kim Fields already had a good few acting credits to her name, including the show Baby, I’m Back and Good Times with Janet Jackson, when she was cast as young Dorothy “Tootie” Ramsey in The Facts of Life. Her mother, actress Chip Fields, played Tootie’s mother on the show as well.
Fields was very young when the show started – she was only ten years old. The producers sometimes had her wear roller skates to hide the fact that she was shorter than the others. But she was one of the most memorable characters, thanks in part to her catchphrase of “We’re in troouu-ble!”
After The Facts of Life finished, Fields went to Pepperdine University in Malibu, and then headed back to the entertainment industry. She did a 1993 Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode, and then starred in the Fox show Living Single until 1998. At the same time, she began directing TV sitcoms and making music.
The actress and mother of two became a reality TV star in later years. In 2015 she joined the Bravo show The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and in 2016 she competed on the popular Dancing with the Stars. Fields is actually 50 years old now – but she still looks much younger.
Lisa Whelchel – Blair
Lisa Whelchel started off in The New Mickey Mouse Club in 1977, so she already had acting experience when she was cast as spoiled teenager Blair Warner. The Facts of Life ended up being full of both ups and downs for her, and she often talks about her experiences in interviews.
Whelchel experienced body-shaming while The Facts of Life was on the air, and it was frequently very hurtful. In 2013 she told People magazine, “Our bodies were a topic of conversation. There wasn’t the Internet, but we knew what people were saying. Joan Rivers called us ‘The Fats of Life.’”
The actress said that the producers had made her lose weight whenever the opportunity arose. She told People, “I’d say, “I’m going to Texas on my hiatus,” and they’d say, “Oh, no you’re not. We bought you a ticket to the fat farm!”… They were trying to figure out how to deal with our changing bodies.”
Whelchel’s Christian faith also ended up being an obstacle of sorts on The Facts of Life. During the final season, the writers planned an episode in which Blair lost her virginity, but Whelchel refused to do it because of her religion. Cohn’s Natalie had the storyline instead, and Whelchel didn’t appear in that episode at all.
In her interview with People magazine, Whelchel said, “My faith in God helps me. It’s empowering to realize that it’s not important how your body looks. If you’re healthy and focused on the inside, that’s what matters.” She does indeed look healthy, and she’s still working in the entertainment industry. In 2012 she competed on Survivor, and won “fan favourite.”
Nancy McKeon – Jo
Young soap opera actress McKeon came to the attention of the Facts of Life producers when they saw her tearful turn in a Hallmark advert. They decided to cast her as Jo Polniaczek in the second season of the show, as it was undergoing a major reshuffle, with four of the original actresses leaving.
In 2014, show director John Bowab told Entertainment Weekly, “Nancy’s screen test was terrific. There was a phone call that she had to make in it, and I distinctly remembering asking Nancy, ‘Even though it says cry, don’t cry. I want you to hold back and make the audience cry.’ And she did. Everybody in the control room was shattered.”
After The Facts of Life, McKeon lost out on two roles to actresses who went on to be huge. First, she was passed over for the TV version of Working Girl in favor of Sandra Bullock. Then in 1994 she auditioned for the role of Monica in Friends, but it went to Courteney Cox instead. However, McKeon never bore a grudge about it.
From 2001 to 2004 McKeon starred in female cop series The Division, and became pregnant with her first child during her last year on the series. In 2009 McKeon, a mother of two by that point, began playing the title character’s mother on the Demi Lovato Disney Channel show Sonny with a Chance.
McKeon appeared on Dancing with the Stars in 2018, after a hiatus from entertainment that lasted several years. However, she’s always had nothing but nice things to say about the TV show that made her famous. In 2014 she told Entertainment Weekly, “What a great opportunity, a great learning ground, a master class working with all these wonderful people.”
MacKenzie Astin – Andy
MacKenzie Astin comes from a famous acting family – he’s the half-brother of Lord of the Rings star Sean Astin – and as a youngster he was cast in The Facts of Life as Andy, the adopted child of Cloris Leachman’s character. He played Andy for four seasons of the show in the end, starting in 1985 and ending in 1988.
In 2014 Astin spoke to Entertainment Weekly, “Though I have done quite a bit more work, mostly people remember me for being an ancillary character on a popular television show. But I have found eventually that the more I love that, the more it loves me.” Indeed, Astin’s had steady work since – he’s played recurring characters in Scandal and Homeland, among others.
Geri Jewell – Geri
Geri Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, was cast in The Facts of Life after producers saw her doing stand-up comedy. This made her the first person with cerebral palsy to star on a television program, and the first ever visibly disabled person to play a recurring character on a prime-time show.
Jewell went on to star in other TV shows. Her biggest role was in Deadwood — she appeared in 23 episodes of the critically lauded show, and the 2019 television movie. In 2019 Fox News asked her, “What has it meant for you to be the first person with a visible disability in a hit primetime show?” and she answered, “I’m proud of the fact that I was able to open the first door.”
Cloris Leachman – Beverly
Cloris Leachman was already a very much established actress when she began playing Beverly in The Facts of Life. She’d starred in the The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis, and more. She even had an Best Supporting Actress Oscar under her belt for her role in 1971’s The Last Picture Show.
Leachman took over from Charlotte Rae when she wanted to leave the show, playing her sister (who took on a similar role) for the last two seasons. But her Facts of Life role was just one more on a very long, illustrious CV. The now-93-year-old actress has 22 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and eight wins overall.
George Clooney – George
Future A-list actor George Clooney played his namesake George Burnett throughout seasons 7 and 8 of The Facts of Life. In 2014 Bowab revealed to Entertainment Weekly, “They never knew what to do with George. He hadn’t found who he was, and they certainly didn’t know what he was, but cutesy and dumb was not what George was best at playing.”
But everyone knows what happened to George Clooney in the end. He went on to be absolutely massive. He has two Oscars so far, plus three Golden Globes and an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. If that wasn’t enough on its own, he’s also married to human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and is considered one of the most influential people in the world.
Molly Ringwald – Molly
Future star Molly Ringwald went from Diff’rent Strokes to The Facts of Life, but her time on that show didn’t last. When it was revamped ahead of season two, she was written out. In 2010 she told the Advocate, “They were trimming down the cast to just four girls, and originally I was going to be one of those girls. But then they changed their mind, decided to go with Nancy McKeon, and booted me out.”
Luckily, though, that setback didn’t hurt Ringwald’s career in the end. In 1984 she made her breakout performance in the movie Sixteen Candles, following that up with hits The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. Those roles helped make her a massive teen star of the 1980s, and in 1986 she was even on the cover of Time magazine.
These days, Ringwald isn’t in the spotlight quite as much, but she still acts. Currently, she plays Mary Andrews on the television show Riverdale. She’s also branched out into other work – she’s released a jazz music record, had an advice column in The Guardian, and translated Philippe Besson’s bestselling French novel Lie With Me.
Charlotte Rae – Edna
Charlotte Rae started off on Diff’rent Strokes playing housekeeper Edna Garrett, but then she was given her own spin-off. It was, in fact, Rae’s idea – and she had it written into her contract that she could return to Diff’rent Strokes if the spinoff flopped. The character headed to Eastland School in order to become a housemother.
Of course, The Facts of Life turned out to be a huge success in the end. Rae didn’t stay for the entire run, however. She left the show at the beginning of season eight, saying she had done all she thought she could do with her character. However, Rae and Edna Garrett did return for the 2001 reunion TV movie.
Sadly, Rae passed away in 2018, having had health problems including cancer for years prior. She was 92 years old, and according to news reports she died at home surrounded by her family. Her heartbroken castmates from both The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes paid tribute to her on social media.
Another tribute to Rae was made when the four main girls of The Facts of Life – Cohn, Fields, McKeon and Whelchel – reunited for a (non-Facts of Life related) Lifetime film called Light Up My Christmas in 2019. The ice rink in the movie was named after Rae, showing her co-stars hadn’t forgotten her.