For a generation of latchkey kids growing up in the 1980s, Charlotte Rae was more than just a sitcom actress. Her Edna Garrett was a surrogate maternal figure, raising her teenaged wards — first as a housekeeper on Diff'rent Strokes, then as a prep school administrator on its spinoff The Facts of Life — with a firm, if frazzled, hand.
But for Todd Bridges, who played Willis on Strokes, Rae — who died Aug. 5 at 92 — was no surrogate. She was the same nurturing and ebullient woman who appeared on the screen.
"She was always so bright and bubbly and had so much energy," recalls Bridges, now 53. "So much energy that we almost didn’t know how to deal with her. It was almost as if every time was the first time she was acting — that’s how excited she was."
Bridges is now the sole surviving member of the show's core cast. Conrad Bain, who played his wealthy adoptive father Mr. Drummond, died after a stroke in 2013 at age 89. Bridges' TV siblings are deceased as well: Gary Coleman was 43 when he died in 2010 of an epidural hematoma, while Dana Plato fatally overdosed on painkillers in 1999 when she was 34.
"I had a hard time last night when I learned about Charlotte," says Bridges. "When I hung up the phone, I just broke down. I'm the only one left. That's hard to deal with. It's really sad and emotional. I had one piece left from that show. Now I'm the only castmember left."
Later that night, Bridges got another call — from longtime friend Kim Fields, who played Tootie on The Facts of Life. "She knew I'd be tore up," he says. "She knew I was close to Charlotte, and she knew I'd be emotional because I was the last one."
Rae left NBC's Strokes after just two seasons to star in Facts of Life for the same network in 1979 — what was originally envisioned as a spinoff for Plato. "I think they wanted somebody a lot more stable to ground Dana, and Charlotte was a lot more stable," Bridges recalls. (Unlike Bridges, Plato's struggles with drug and alcohol addiction began while the show was still in production, not after it was canceled.) After shooting the pilot, the network decided that Plato would return to Diff'rent Strokes and Life became a vehicle for Rae.
"We were sad to lose Charlotte," says Bridges. But the shows filmed side-by-side on the same studio lot and so he "got to do a lot of crossover episodes."
During Strokes' run, Bridges, whose father was an alcoholic, saw Bain and Rae step in as parental figures. The two elder actors even got involved when a director grew abusive. "Dana and I were just 12 years old when the show started," says Bridges. "And this director was just so mean to us. He would scream at us and make us cry." After Rae and Bain complained to producers, the director was fired.
Long after the show ended, Bridges' TV guardians remained in his life, even as he was ravaged by crack and meth addiction in his 20s — serving nine months in prison for the shooting death of a drug dealer for which he was later exonerated.
"When I was going through my stuff, she was there. She and Conrad were both very much trying to get ahold of me and trying to do anything they could to help me. Charlotte came to see me when I was in jail. So did Conrad — he came a bunch of times, and so did Kim Fields," Bridges says.
"It’s like losing a grandmother," he says of Rae, whom he last spoke to one month ago. "It's losing somebody who cared about you. Not because you were on a show with them, but because they genuinely sincerely cared about you as a human being."