Charlotte Rae, Mrs. Garrett on 'The Facts of Life,' Dies at 92

Courtesy of Photofest
Charlotte Rae

The bubbly comedienne earned two Tony noms and played Woody Allen's mother in 'Bananas' and a long-suffering wife on 'Car 54, Where Are You?'

Charlotte Rae, who endeared herself to a generation of TV fans as the affable Mrs. Garrett on the long-running NBC sitcom The Facts of Life, died Sunday at her home in Los Angeles, publicist Harlan Boll announced. She was 92.

Rae, who earlier earned two Tony nominations and played Woody Allen's mother in Bananas (1971) and a long-suffering wife on the classic sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?, revealed in April 2017 that she had been diagnosed with bone cancer, seven years after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

"Now, at the age of 91, I have to make up my mind," she said in a statement at the time. "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. 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.”

Rae originated the character of Edna Garrett in 1978 for NBC's Diff’rent Strokes and then went on to play her for seven seasons on the Facts of Life spinoff. In 1982, she received an Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series.

Debuting in 1979, Facts of Life revolved around a group of teenage girls attending a private New York boarding school. Guiding them through the trials and tribulations of adolescence was Edna Garrett, their no-nonsense, but always understanding, housemother. (A reboot is in the works at Sony.)

In a 1982 interview with the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald, Rae reflected on the character that had made her a star.

“I want to bring in as much humanity as possible, as well as the humor," she said. "I've tried to make her a human being with dimensions. The way they write her now is with a great deal of sensitivity and understanding. But I don't want her to be Polly Perfect, because she must have human failings and make mistakes.

“She's also a surrogate mother to the girls. I told them I wanted to be firm with the girls because I know it's important. Parents must lay down ground rules for their children to help them to grow up and to learn responsibility for their actions. They must learn to stand on their own two feet.”

Born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky in Milwaukee on April 22, 1926, she was one of three daughters of Russian Jewish immigrants.

Rae caught the acting bug early, performing with the Children's Theatre of Wauwatosa and acting on the radio. As a teenager, she won a summer apprenticeship with the Port Players, a professional summer theater company. She also was a regular on stage at Shorewood High School.

In 1944, Rae headed to Northwestern University and studied alongside the likes of Charlton Heston, Paul Lynde, Patricia Neal, Jeffrey Hunter, Agnes Nixon and future Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Her roommate was Cloris Leachman. (Decades later, Leachman would replace Rae for the final two seasons of Facts of Life.)

Around 1948, Rae made the decision to leave school to seek fame and fortune in New York. A versatile singer and dancer, she could often be seen at the Blue Angel or the Village Vanguard.

In 1951, Rae married film composer and music editor John Strauss. The couple had two sons, Larry and Andrew. Rae and Strauss stayed together for more than 25 years until he revealed that he was bisexual and wanted an open marriage. They divorced in 1976.

Rae made her Broadway debut in 1952 in the musical comedy Three Wishes for Jamie, then followed with a turn as Mrs. Peachum in the 1954 revival of The Threepenny Opera. The cast also included Bea Arthur, John Astin and Paul Dooley. In 1956, she created the role of Mammy Yokum in the original Broadway production of L’il Abner.

Rae received the first of two Tony noms in 1966, as best featured actress in a musical for Pickwick. The second came in 1969 when she was nominated as best actress in a play for Morning, Noon and Night.

In 1955, Rae recorded the album Songs I Taught My Mother. Subtitled Silly, Sinful and Satiric Selections, it featured songs by Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart & Richard Rodgers, Marc Blitzstein, Vernon Duke and Harnick.

Rae also began her extensive television career in the 1950s, with appearances on The United States Steel Hour and The Phil Silvers Show. A role that really brought her attention came in 1961 when she was cast as Sylvia Schnauser, the wife of Officer Leo Schnauser, played by Al Lewis, in the NBC sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?

“I was doing a lot of drama until I took the comedy role in the series Car 54, Where Are You?, and I've been tagged as a comedian ever since,” she said in 1985.

When not appearing onstage, Rae worked steadily in television throughout the 1960s and '70s on such series as The Defenders; The Partridge Family; McMillan & Wife; Love, American Style; All in the Family; Good Times; and Barney Miller. She played Molly the Mail Lady on Sesame Street and was a regular on The Rich Little Show. In 1975, she received an Emmy nomination for her performance in the telefilm Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.

Rae also popped up in features, taking on comedic roles in Bananas as well as Hello Down There (1969), Jenny (1970),The Hot Rock (1972) and Hair (1979).

Rae was a favorite of legendary TV producer Norman Lear. The two had met in the 1950s when he was writing for The Colgate Comedy Hour. In addition to giving her guest shots on his sitcoms, Lear cast her as Mrs. Bellotti in Hot L Baltimore, the short-lived 1975 adaptation of Lanford Wilson’s hit 1973 play.

In 1978, Fred Silverman, then president of ratings-laggard NBC, was high on a sitcom concept called 45 Minutes From Harlem, about a wealthy, white New York industrialist who becomes a foster parent to two orphaned African-American boys who were children of a former employee. The show was being fashioned for Maude co-star Conrad Bain and a newly discovered child actor, Gary Coleman.

Silverman wanted Lear to produce. To entice him, Silverman cast Rae as the household’s wisecracking maid. The ploy worked, and Lear’s company, Tandem Productions, produced the show.

Rae remembered the unusual meeting where she secured the part. At the time, she was filming a guest spot for The Eddie Capra Murder Mysteries and showed up in costume to audition for the role of Mrs. Garrett. "They didn't have me read, we just talked, and they asked me about how I felt this housekeeper should be with these two boys and with Mr. Drummond [Bain's character], and I told him the way I felt. The next thing I knew, I had the part.”

Rounding out the cast were Todd Bridges as Willis, the older brother of Coleman’s character Arnold, and Dana Plato as Kimberly, the biological daughter of Drummond.

Diff’rent Strokes became a hit shortly after debuting in November 1978. Coleman was the breakout star as his catchphrase, “Wha’chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?” became part of TV history. But as the first season unfolded, the growing popularity of Edna Garrett became apparent. The producers designed an episode with an eye towards a spinoff.

The season's last entry, "The Girls School," found Mrs. Garrett meeting and bonding with a group of youngsters at East Lake School for Girls, a prestigious prep school that Kimberly was attending. NBC execs liked what they saw and ordered a series. The Facts of Life debuted the following August.

Though the basic premise of Edna Garrett guiding the girl’s through life’s traumas remained throughout its run, the sitcom evolved throughout its nine seasons. The first season featured seven young girls in the cast, including a young Molly Ringwald. By the second season, four of those girls were gone. The three that remained included Lisa Whelchel as Blair, the spoiled rich girl; Kim Fields as gossip Tootie; and Mindy Cohn as the naive Natalie. Nancy McKeon was added as Jo, a rough-around-the-edges Bronx girl. Mrs. Garrett also transformed from housemother to the school’s dietician.

In season five, Mrs. Garrett went into business for herself, creating Edna’s Edibles, a gourmet food shop. Season seven saw the introduction of Blair’s cousin Geri Tyler, who had cerebral palsy. Played by Geri Jewell, who also had the disorder, it marked the first time a character with a disability had a recurring role on a series.

By season seven, Rae was feeling that her character was getting stale and asked that her role be reduced. The producers decided to write her out entirely, marrying off Mrs. Garrett and sending her to Africa to work in the Peace Corps. Leachman was introduced as Garrett’s sister, Beverly, who came in to take over the shop and watch over the girls.

After leaving Facts of Life, Rae remained busy, with work on TV shows including 101 Dalmatians: The Series; ER; The King of Queens; Murder, She Wrote; Sisters; and Girl Meets World; and such films as You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008), Love Sick Love (2012) and Ricki and the Flash (2015).

As syndication fueled the popularity of Facts of Life, Rae was lured back to play the character that had made her a star. She revisited Mrs. Garrett in 1982 with The Facts of Life Goes to Paris and in 2001 for The Facts of Life Reunion. Rae skipped 1987’s The Facts of Life Down Under (that one featured Leachman as her sister).

In 2015, Rae released her memoir, The Facts of My Life. Written with her son Larry Strauss, it revealed her struggle to come to grips with her husband’s sexuality and her battle with alcoholism.

In addition to her son Larry and his wife, Eleanor, survivors include her sister, Miriam, and grandchildren Sean, Carly and Nora. Her other son Andrew died in 1999 of a heart attack.

In lieu of flowers, her family asked that donations be made to The Actors Fund, Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (Pan-Can) or the Clare Foundation.