Lisa Whelchel Remembers 'Facts of Life' Star Charlotte Rae: "We Were a Family"

Photofest
From left: Mindy Cohn, Lisa Whelchel, Charlotte Rae, Nancy McKeon and Kim Fields in a 'Facts of Life' publicity photo

The actress, who played Blair on the comedy, remembers the series matriarch, who died Aug. 5 at age 92.

I was a teenager when I first met Charlotte Rae. At 16 is when you’re individuating from authority, and so I think the first couple years of our relationship I was a bit rebellious. I would play practical jokes and I think I drove her crazy. Keep in mind I was older than the other Facts of Life girls. They were in the tutoring trailer and I was on set with the stand-ins. Between 12 and 16 there really is a big difference. Sixteen is when you think you know everything. We laughed in the later years about our dynamic.

But we were friends for almost 40 years. The last time we spent some time together, I really got to experience more of what most people presumed our relationship to be. And as I’ve gotten older, I learned to really appreciate so much of the wisdom that she had, wisdom that really came from life experience. I'm 55 now. The last time I saw her I was probably as old as she was when I first met her. There was a real coming home in our last meeting.

We were kids and we really didn’t take it that seriously, and she was a serious actor. Looking back, I missed out on learning from her — but I was too immature to know that at the time. It was in the last 25 years that my relationship with Charlotte was a real, vulnerable, authentic meeting of two people. At that point, I had already gone through some stuff, and she’s gone through a lot in her life. And when you’re a kid and haven’t really gone through stuff, it’s hard to meet at common places.

I reached out to the other stars of the show about Charlotte's passing. What was most meaningful to me in processing this is realizing that we were a little family. Especially when you grow up together — and she was such a big part of those growing-up years — we need each other right now to process this. We will make an effort to reunite. I’m doing my best to make it to the memorial service. Hopefully the others will, too. But we’ve also talked about that, if we can’t, we can get together on our own and memorialize her from our little Hollywood-stage-family perspective.

And now there's a Facts of Life reboot on the way. I didn’t know that was coming. There was talk of one happening over the years, but this was the first time it seemed like there was some legitimacy to the conversation. Even so, when I first heard about it I thought, "Really? Is this real news?" With Leonardo DiCaprio producing it?" That almost sounds too ludicrous to even think it’s real.

But it’s wonderful. They are timeless characters, and it captures a timeless period in every person’s life. When you’ve got those two components, I think it’s going to be cross-generational. I do think there’s something about relationships that you have as children, when the heart is most malleable, that the imprint is most lasting. That’s one enduring aspect of the show.

And we all just long to belong. And here we are, four girls and a mother figure. Everybody wishes that they have that sense of belonging. A lot of times we live vicariously through things we don’t have.

A version of this story appears in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.