It’s hard to believe it’s been 35 years since The Facts of Life premiered. In fact, the cast would prefer you not even mention that at all.
“That’s a terrible way to start things off,” Lisa Whelchel, who played Blair Warner, teased the moderator at the start of Monday night’s 35th anniversary reunion at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.
In what became a running joke, Nancy McKeon, who played Jo Polniaczek, also gave anyone who brought up that number a (good-natured) hard time. “Why is everyone saying that so slowly?” she quipped. “Say it faster.”
The cast — which also included Charlotte Rae (Edna Garrett), Mindy Cohn (Natalie Green) and Geri Jewell (“Cousin” Geri) — kept the audience laughing throughout the two-hour event. (Kim Fields, who played Tootie Ramsey in the 1979-88 sitcom, couldn’t be there in person but recorded a video message for the fans.)
Case in point: When asked about kissing George Clooney for a scene, Whelchel said she had no memory of it. “I am all for repressed memories, but why I repressed that one, I don’t know.… I pulled it up on YouTube and it’s Blair pretending to be his fiancee, and she comes in and lays one on him. I’ve since watched that several times,” she added with a laugh.
While behind-the-scenes drama is a common occurrence on some sets, it wasn’t the case on The Facts of Life. In fact, the most rebellious thing to happen was apparently McKeon and Whelchel’s decision to put on someone’s brother’s underwear and go trick-or-treating at around age 18 or 19. “How sad that this is our ‘bad’ thing!” McKeon joked.
The girls were so squeaky clean that not only did they not smoke, but they finally convinced Rae to give up her five-cigarettes-a-day habit. “They kept pulling them out of my mouth,” she recalled.
Yet the actresses acknowledged that The Facts of Life aired in a much different time, when there were no paparazzi or tabloids following stars’ every move. “Honestly, I would not be here [if it had been that way back then],” Cohn said. “I’d have to move to a faraway island.”
Added McKeon: “You have to learn and grow. Everybody makes mistakes out there. I don’t know how the younger ones do it.”
The panel was divided over whether they believed such a show would make it to air — much less be a hit — today.
“If we were all naked, maybe,” Whelchel laughed. “TV is so edgy now; you have to go outside the norm to get a show. It would be four girls and a housemother, but in a totally different situation.”
Cohn agreed: “If you were to pitch the idea of [a Norman Lear-type comedy] where there’s a moral at the end.… I think we’d be left out of the pitch meeting.”
Joked Jewell: “You could pitch a new show called The Change of Life.” Cohn responded: “I think that’s called Hot in Cleveland.”
Still, Rae thinks it’s the kind of comedy series that’s missing in the TV landscape today. “I don’t watch sitcoms — I do watch Modern Family — but I don’t like all that [other] crap.”
For her part, Whelchel is developing a sitcom with her 21-year-old daughter, Clancy, called Like Mother, Like Daughter.
“It’s basically our lives: We are 25 years apart but are experiencing the same things,” she told The Hollywood Reporter before the event. “I just went through a divorce, and we’re both entering [the] dating [world], going back to school, finding new jobs, and they are different roles than we’ve both been in. We’re very different, and that makes for some funny situations. And also the generations have changed so much. And then the two of us make for the comedy part.”
Meanwhile, Cohn and Rae regaled the audience with the story of how the former came to be cast in the show despite having no acting experience. Rae, Lear and Alan Horn, the current Walt Disney Studios chairman who was a production supervisor on the show, visited Cohn’s high school to get some real-life insight into teenage girls. They happened to talk to Cohn, with whom Rae became intrigued.
“They asked me questions, and the next day…they told me, [Rae] wants to write a part for you,” Cohn said. Added Rae: “You must have been scared shitless.”
Meanwhile, Jewell also acknowledged her groundbreaking role as the first person with a disability to have a regular role on a primetime series, and as the first actor with cerebral palsy to be featured on a TV show. (She has more recently appeared on series including Deadwood, Alcatraz and Glee.)
“It was the most amazing thing to have happened to me, and I think everybody was surprised that America embraced me,” Jewell told THR. “It was like, ‘What do we do with cerebral palsy? We can’t talk about cerebral palsy in every episode.’ So they let me be me; they let me be Blair’s cousin. And that was a stepping stone to the mainstreaming that we’re seeing today with people with disabilities in the industry. We have a long way to go, but I was first, and I am very proud of having that be a part of who I am.”