On August 24, 1979, the Facts of Life made its debut on television screens and growing up never looked the same.
As the housemother of the private girls' school Eastland, Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae) watched over seven girls (among them, future teen queen Molly Ringwald) on the show's first season. However, the cast was tweaked in its sophomore debut when only three of Mrs. Garrett’s original charges remained: rich, snooty Blair (Lisa Whelchel), smart, sensitive Natalie (Mindy Cohn) and dramatic Tootie (Kim Fields). They were then joined by a new addition to the cast, tough girl Jo (Nancy McKeon).
With these alterations, the Facts of Life took off until the show ended its run in 1988. Viewers watched the girls grow up, pursue careers, get boyfriends and even learn life lessons in special episodes that tackled topics like race, suicide, and losing one’s virginity. (The cast also got to work with a young George Clooney, who played a handyman in two of the show’s later seasons.)
Child stars don’t have the best track record after a popular show ends its run, as the cast of Diff’rent Strokes demonstrated. But don’t worry—not one of these women have gone off the rails. Maybe because they took the good and took the bad just like their Facts of Life characters did!
The adult anchor of the cast, Charlotte Rae had acted on Broadway and in numerous television shows before stepping into her iconic role as Mrs. Garrett. The character first appeared on Diff’rent Strokes, as the Drummond family’s housekeeper. Given her popularity, Rae was given the chance to headline the Facts of Life.
Rae would remain at Eastland—doling out words of wisdom, loving advice and delicious food—until 1986. At that point, though the show was still going strong, and had earned her an Emmy nod, Rae decided that she needed to take a break. As she said in 1988, “I really needed to renew myself. I think I owed it to myself. So I honored myself—and quit.”
Onscreen, Mrs. Garrett got married and trotted off on a Peace Corps assignment (Cloris Leachman stepped into the adult role on the show, portraying Mrs. Garrett’s sister). Offscreen, Rae quickly returned to her theatrical roots, touring in a national production of Into the Woods in 1988-89. She later introduced audience members to some adult-level facts of life by appearing in The Vagina Monologues for a six-week run in 2002. And in 2008, even Adam Sandler’s title character couldn’t resist Rae’s charms when she was cast as a love interest in Don’t Mess With the Zohan.
Rae was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. Though she had no symptoms, a family history of the disease prompted her to take part in early screening, which led to successful treatment. Fortunately, today Rae is healthy and is even taking selfies with former co-stars.
Before landing her career-defining role as Blair Warner, Lisa Whelchel had appeared on the New Mickey Mouse Club. After that ended, she received two job offers around the same time. One was for a sitcom that was already on the air, the other was to join the cast of the Facts of Life. In her autobiography, Whelchel wrote that she’d either been “too stupid to pick the safe bet,” or that God had been looking out for her career because she chose to take a chance on the as-yet-unaired show. It turned out to the be the right decision.
Post-Facts of Life, Whelchel wed a minister, wrote several books, worked as a Christian speaker and homeschooled her three children. (Whelchel’s Christian faith was so important to her that it affected one of her storylines during the show’s run, as she asked producers not to show Blair having sex outside of marriage.)
In 2012, Whelchel demonstrated how true her declaration that “I am nothing like Blair” was by getting down in the mud as a contestant on Survivor: Philippines. Blair never would have approved of the mess but likely would have congratulated Whelchel for taking second place in the reality show (she was also voted player of the season by the show’s viewers). This year, she reunited with Kim Fields (Tootie) for a Hallmark made-for-TV movie, For Better or For Worse.
Whelchel and her husband divorced in 2012, shortly before she began working on Survivor. She recently admitted in an interview with People magazine that she’s back on the dating scene, so all you Blair male fans—now’s your chance!
After starting out in show biz on the East Coast, Nancy McKeon headed to Los Angeles with her family when her brother landed a part on Alice. She landed guest spots on numerous shows and also made a warm-hearted Hallmark commercial that caught the attention of a Facts of Life casting director.
McKeon joined the show in its second season. Her character, tough-talking tomboy and scholarship student Joanne “Jo” Polnaiczek, was the perfect foil to Lisa Whelchel’s snooty Blair. While on the Facts of Life, McKeon also acted in several made-for-TV movies, and she continued to appear in such films after the show ended in 1988.
A few years later, McKeon had a close brush with another successful sitcom—Friends. When that show was casting the role of Monica, the producers narrowed their choice down to two actresses: Courteney Cox or McKeon. Obviously McKeon didn’t end up on the monster hit, but she remained a busy actress. After appearing in short-lived sitcoms, she found a home on Lifetime’s The Division (2001-2004). More recently, McKeon recurred as Demi Lovato’s mother on the Disney Channel comedy Sonny With a Chance.
Though she was invited to do the Facts of Life Reunion movie, McKeon opted not to join the others in that 2001 made-for-TV film. However, in 2011 she did make it to a cast reunion at the TV Land Awards.
In her personal life, McKeon has two children with husband Marc Andrus.
A successful child actress, Kim Fields had appeared on ‘70s sitcoms like Good Times and Mork & Mindy before taking on the part of Dorothy “Tootie” Ramsey when she was nine years old. Tootie was known for her roller skating with Fields explaining in 2011, “I was small for my age and they put me on roller skates to make me taller. I'm grateful to the wheel.”
After the Facts of Life ended, the actress received a degree from Pepperdine University. In a 1994 interview, she told the Los Angeles Times, “I needed to learn how to do something else, so I wouldn't be 20 years old and sitting around, waiting for my agent to call. I would have gone crazy sitting in my apartment doing that. I learned how to direct and produce.”
However, Fields needn’t have worried about whether she’d be able to continue acting—she soon landed a part on another popular sitcom, Living Single (1993-98), where she worked alongside Queen Latifah. Even with this success, Fields also continued to develop as a director—in addition to helming episodes of Living Single, she has directed House of Payne and Meet the Browns for Tyler Perry’s production company.
Fields is married to Christopher Morgan, with whom she has two children: Sebastian and baby Quincy, who was born in 2013. Fields considers Quincy a “blessing,” as she had experienced two miscarriages prior to his birth.
If you enjoyed Mindy Cohn’s turn as aspiring journalist Natalie Green, there’s one delicious treat you have to thank: doughnuts. Before the Facts of Life premiered, the show’s producers decided to talk to real-life private school students. Cohn went to the meeting in part because she’d been promised free doughnuts.
When Cohn met Charlotte Rae, the two clicked—Cohn has written that she reminded Rae of a childhood friend, also named Natalie—and Rae asked producers to create a part for Cohn on the show. Though Cohn had never acted before, she took the leap, and ended up staying on the Facts of Life for its entire run.
Since leaving the Facts of Life, Cohn has been less visible than her co-stars, but she remains a working actress. She’s well-known as a voiceover artist and has been voicing Scooby Doo’s Velma for years. Cohn has also appeared on Secret Life of the American Teenager and in independent films.
In a 2013 Huffington Post entry, Cohn declared herself to be “freakishly well-adjusted,” with a life that’s “filled with love, collaboration, inspiration, humor, and adventure." Considering other child star outcomes, that’s a great place for her to be.