Born on April 22, 1926, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Charlotte Rae worked as a singer, Broadway performer and television actress before landing the part of housekeeper Mrs. Garrett on the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes in the late 1970s. She starred as the same character on the spinoff hit series The Facts of Life, which ran for nine seasons and earned Rae two Emmy Award nominations.
Actress and singer Charlotte Rae was born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky on April 22, 1926, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Loved by generations of television fans for her work on sitcoms Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life, Rae initially found success as a nightclub performer and theatrical actress. She started singing as a child and performed on a radio show in high school.
Rae continued to pursue her interests in music and acting while attending Northwestern University near Chicago. In addition to performing in summer stock productions, she found work on television and radio programs in Chicago. In the late 1940s, Rae made the move to New York City to advance her career. She created a nightclub act and played such venues as the Village Vanguard, showing off her voice and comedic chops.
Eventually Rae was given a chance to shine on the stage, making her Broadway debut in the musical comedy Three Wishes for Jamie in 1952. Two years later, she appeared with Bea Arthur and John Astin in a revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera. She went on to originate the role of Mammy Yokum in the musical Lil' Abner, based on the popular comic strip, in 1956.
Around this time, Rae also recorded an album called Songs I Taught My Mother, which featured several songs written by college friend and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Rae's husband, John Strauss, served as musical director on the project, managing the band worked on the recording and arranging the music. Filled with satirical and light-hearted fare, the album was released by Vanguard Records.
In addition to working in music and musical theater, Rae landed many television guest spots in the 1950s. She appeared on the United States Steel Hour, The Phil Silvers Show, and Play of the Week. In 1961, Rae became a series regular on the police comedy, Car 54, Where Are You? Before the show even ended its run in 1963, she was back on Broadway. She appeared in The Beauty Part, a comedy, with Alice Ghostley and Bert Lahr.
Rae earned her first Tony Award nomination for her work on the original musical Pickwick in 1965. Four years later, she garnered another nomination for her role in Morning, Noon, and Night. The play was in three acts, each written by a different author; Rae appeared in "Israel Horovitz's Morning." The other two sections were written by Terence McNally and Leonard Melfi.
'The Facts of Life'
Tackling her best-known role, Rae first appeared as Edna Garrett on Diff'rent Strokesas a housekeeper for the wealthy New York businessman Philip Drummond (played by Conrad Bain). Drummond had a daughter, Kimberly (Dana Plato) and adopted the two African-American sons, Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis Jackson (Todd Bridges), of his late, previous housekeeper. Rae was only on the series for the first season as her flighty but caring character was spun off into a new show called The Facts of Life.
For the new series, Edna Garrett went from housekeeper to housemother to a group of girls at a private girls' boarding school called Eastland. In the first season, there were a number of girls in her care, including a very young Molly Ringwald before she found success in films. But the show soon focused mostly on four very different students: the smart, but insecure Natalie (Mindy Cohn), the wealthy and vain Blair (Lisa Whelchel), the talkative and energetic Tootie (Kim Fields) and the tomboy Jo (Nancy McKeon). Rae actually helped discover Cohn, whom she met while researching her role at a private school in Bel Air, California.
On the show, Mrs. Garrett—as the girls called her—was the de facto mother figure, dispensing sage advice and helping to resolve disputes. Over the years, Mrs. Garrett's role evolved from housemother to school dietician to local gourmet food shop owner. Rae left the series in 1986 and was replaced by Cloris Leachman who joined the show as Beverly Ann Stickle, Edna Garrett's sister. But it was Rae's character who made a lasting impact on the show's audiences. "I still meet people who just want me to put my arms around them and give them a hug," Rae later told Entertainment Weekly.
Since The Facts of Life, Rae has tackled an array of TV, film and stage projects. She has made guest appearances on such shows as St. Elsewhere and Murder, She Wrote, and landed parts in a number of TV films, including Crime in Connecticut: The Alex Kelly Story (1999). Rae also had a recurring role on the family drama Sisters. On the big screen, she voiced one of the characters in Tom and Jerry: The Movie (1992). Proving herself as a dramatic actress, Rae took on the challenging role of Winnie in a New York production of Samuel Beckett's play Happy Days in 1990. She also toured with her one-woman show, An Evening with Charlotte Rae.
In 2001, Rae starred in the television movie The Facts of Life Reunion, allowing her slip back into her most famous role one more time. And she got a chance to work with several of her Facts of Life co-stars again, including Cohn, Whelchel and Fields. Nancy McKeon declined to participate in the project.
Today Rae continues to work on television and in the theater. She has appeared on the sitcom King of Queens and the dramatic series Strong Medicine. In 2006, Rae appeared in a Los Angeles production of 70, Girls, 70 with Olympia Dukakis.
In 2017, Rae revealed to People magazine that she was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 91. “Last Monday, I found out I have bone cancer,” Rae told the magazine. “About seven years ago, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer — which is a miracle that they found it because usually it’s too late. My mother, sister and my uncle died of pancreatic cancer. After six months of chemotherapy, I was cancer-free. I lost my hair, but I had beautiful wigs. Nobody even knew.”
“So now, at the age of 91, I have to make up my mind. I’m not in any pain right now. I’m feeling so terrific and so glad to be above ground,” she added. “Now I have to figure out whether I want to go have treatment again to opt for life. I love life. I’ve had a wonderful one already. I have this decision to make.”
Divorced since 1976, Rae has two sons from her first marriage. She has homes in both Los Angeles and New York City.
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