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NBC

15 Facts of Life About The Facts of Life

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NBC

As anyone over the age of 30 can tell you, the recipe is this: You take the good; you take the bad; you take 'em both—and there you have The Facts of Life. NBC’s long-running sitcom is a fondly remembered part of ‘80s nostalgia, and with all nine season on DVD, it’s easy to take a trip down memory lane with Blair, Tootie, Natalie, Jo, and good ol’ Mrs. Garrett. To make the journey even more edifying, here are some things you might not know about everyone’s favorite all-female ’80s sitcom.

1. THERE WERE SEVEN GIRLS IN THE FIRST SEASON: BLAIR, TOOTIE, NATALIE, AND FOUR OTHERS.

Things were rather crowded at Eastland School those first 13 episodes, with Felice Schachter, Julie Anne Haddock, Julie Piekarski, and Molly Ringwald (yes, that one) in the mix with the others. A couple of school administrators were regular characters as well. Predictably, it soon became apparent that there wasn’t enough for all of those characters to do, and the show’s ratings were lousy. For the second season, producers stripped it down to the elements that were working best, dumped everyone else, and brought in Nancy McKeon as tomboy, blue-collar Jo.

2. WHELCHEL, FIELDS, AND COHN DIDN’T KNOW THAT THE OTHER GIRLS HAD BEEN FIRED UNTIL THEY SHOWED UP FOR WORK ON SEASON TWO.

“Everybody was shocked,” said Whelchel. “Nobody knew—that I know of—that they were going to make this major cut.” Three of the four castoffs came back as guest stars a few times in seasons two and three, and again for a season eight reunion episode called “The Little Chill.” Ringwald was the one holdout.

3. GEORGE CLOONEY WAS JUST ONE OF MANY GUEST STARS WHO WOULD LATER BECOME A BIG-TIME CELEBRITY.

It’s a widely known bit of trivia that Clooney played a handyman in 17 episodes sprinkled throughout seasons seven and eight. Other not-yet-famous guest stars who appeared on the show include Helen Hunt, Juliette Lewis, Mayim Bialik, Seth Green, Richard Dean Anderson, Richard Grieco, Dennis Haysbert, Crispin Glover, David Spade, and Bridesmaids director Paul Feig.

4. WHEN THE SHOW ENDED IN 1988, IT WAS THE LONGEST RUNNING SITCOM IN NBC’S HISTORY.

Nine seasons and 201 episodes were enough to set the record at the time. (Yep, it even outlasted Diff’rent Strokes, the show from which it was spun off.) It has since been surpassed in NBC’s record books by Cheers, Frasier, and Friends.

5. MINDY COHN WAS PLUCKED FROM A REAL GIRLS’ SCHOOL TO PLAY NATALIE—A PART CREATED SPECIFICALLY FOR HER.

Before The Facts of Life began production, Charlotte Rae and some of the show’s producers visited Westlake School in Bel Air to observe real teens. Cohn was one of several students who volunteered to meet with the TV people and answer their questions. (“Getting out of class sounded good, and the additional enticement of free doughnuts sounded better,” Cohn later wrote.) Rae apparently fell in love with Cohn, saying she reminded her of a childhood friend named Natalie. “She was so cute and had kind of a Jewish sense of humor, so we said, ‘Hey, she’d be great as one of the girls!,’” executive producer Jerry Mayer recalled. “We got in touch with her mother, and her mother said, ‘Fine,’ and the rest is history. But it was strictly dumb luck.”

6. KIM FIELDS WAS ONLY 10 WHEN THE SHOW PREMIERED.

Mindy Cohn was 13, and Lisa Whelchel was 16. (Nancy McKeon didn’t join until season two, but she’s the same age as Cohn.) One of the reasons Tootie was usually on roller skates in the first season was to disguise how much shorter she was than the other girls.

7. IT WASN’T JUST A SPINOFF OF DIFF’RENT STROKES, IT WAS A HASTY SPINOFF OF DIFF’RENT STROKES.

NBC was struggling in the late 1970s. Of the top 30 network shows of the 1977 to 1978 season, 15 were on ABC, 11 were on CBS, and only four were on NBC (Little House on the Prairie, Project U.F.O., and the Sunday and Monday night movies). So when Diff’rent Strokes premiered in the fall of 1978 and became a hit—it placed 27th for the season—NBC moved quickly to capitalize on its success.

The season finale of Diff’rent Strokes’ first season, “The Girls School,” had housekeeper Mrs. Garrett helping out at the private school Kimberly attended, and ended with her being offered a job as housemother. The Facts of Life premiered three months later, in August of 1979, for a four-episode trial run, then returned permanently in March of 1980. Mrs. Garrett continued to appear on season two of Diff’rent Strokes in the meantime before leaving the Drummonds for good.

8. THE SHOW TRIED (AND FAILED) TO LAUNCH SIX OF ITS OWN SPINOFFS.

These were all what they call “backdoor pilots,” where an ostensibly normal episode of an existing show is really a tryout for a new series. (The Facts of Life, of course, had started out as a backdoor pilot itself.) The season two episode “Brian & Sylvia” would have led to a show about an interracial marriage (featuring Tootie’s aunt). Season three’s “The Academy” introduced an all-boys military school near our girls’ school; they showed up again in a season four episode. Also in season three, “Jo’s Cousin” had Jo’s tough-talking, streetwise relative living in a family full of men. The season four finale “Graduation” tested the idea of sending Blair and Jo off on their own, now that they’d graduated from Eastland. “Big Apple Blues,” in season nine, had Natalie hanging out with odd SoHo characters (including David Spade and Richard Grieco) and considering starting a new life there. And the series finale had Blair buying Eastland, making it co-ed, and essentially starting over as the new Mrs. Garrett, in the hopes that NBC would greenlight The Facts of Life: The Next Generation (or something like that).

9. THE FACTS OF LIFE PREMIERED AROUND THE SAME TIME AS ANOTHER SHOW WITH A SIMILAR PREMISE.

Dorothy, starring Broadway’s Dorothy Loudon (Annie’s original Miss Hannigan), was about a free-spirited former showgirl who becomes a music and drama teacher at a snooty east coast girls’ school. It ran on CBS for a total of four episodes in August of 1979, overlapping with the premiere of The Facts of Life by one week.

10. NANCY MCKEON WON THE ROLE OF TOUGH GIRL JO BY ... BEING REALLY TENDER.

Her screen test was an emotional scene that involved a phone call. Director John Bowab later recalled, “I distinctly remember asking Nancy, ‘Even though it says cry, don’t cry. I want you to hold back and make the audience cry.’ And she did. Everybody in the control room was shattered.”

11. PRODUCERS COMPLAINED THAT LISA WHELCHEL WAS GETTING TOO FAT AND MINDY COHN WAS GETTING TOO THIN.

In a 2013 interview with People, Whelchel and Cohn discussed the challenges producers faced in (in Whelchel’s words) “trying to figure out how to deal with our changing bodies.” “Weight was always an issue back then,” explained Cohn. “An everyday battle,” added Whelchel. “Our bodies were a topic of conversation. There wasn't the Internet, but we knew what people were saying. Joan Rivers called us The Fats of Life … The producers sent me to quite a few fat farms! I'd say, ‘I'm going to Texas on my hiatus,’ and they'd say, ‘Oh, no you're not. We bought you a ticket to the fat farm!’” Meanwhile, Cohn was losing weight. She later told E! True Hollywood Story that the producers asked her to quit it because so much of her character was tied into being fat. The solution: Put Cohn in baggy clothes to make her look heavier than she really was.

12. BLAIR’S COUSIN GERI WAS THE FIRST DISABLED CHARACTER TO APPEAR REGULARLY ON A PRIMETIME TV SHOW.

She was played by Geri Jewell, a comedian with cerebral palsy whom producer Norman Lear had seen perform at the Media Access Awards in 1980. “I got a standing ovation, and I ran into Norman in the elevator,” Jewell later recalled. “He said, ‘You’ll be hearing from me really soon, kid.’ Three months later, he called me with the ‘Cousin Geri’ episode [in season two].” Jewell was on the show a dozen times over the next few years. More recently, Jewell was a regular on HBO’s Deadwood and had a guest spot on Glee.

13. FOR AS LONG-LIVED AS IT WAS, AND AS FONDLY REMEMBERED AS IT IS, THE SHOW WAS NEVER A HUGE HIT.

It ranked 74th in its first season, barely surviving cancellation. Streamlining the cast helped, and the show was popular from season two onward, especially among young viewers. But while the show often won its time slot and had occasional episodes crack the weekly top 20, the season average was never any higher than 24th place. It didn’t get much respect from the TV academy, either, earning just three Emmy nominations (no wins) over its entire run: one for hairstyling, one for technical direction, and one for Charlotte Rae as lead actress.

14. SNOBBY RICH GIRL BLAIR WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE A NAIVE, FAST-TALKING TEXAN.

That’s how the script read, anyway. But when Whelchel auditioned, “There was one line in the script and I read it very snidely and condescendingly and sarcastically,” she recalled. “And I didn’t realize until I got the part and came back later that they had rewritten the character to be the snob.”

15. THE THEME SONG HAS SEVERAL VERSES.

The jaunty opening tune, written by Alan Thicke, Gloria Loring, and Al Burton, only appeared in truncated form on the show. Season one went as follows:

“There’s a place you gotta go for learnin’ all you want to know about
The facts of life, the facts of life.
When your books are what you’re there about but looks are what you care about,
The time is right to learn the facts of life.
When the world never seems
To be livin’ up to your dreams,
It’s time you started findin’ out what everything is all about.
When the boys you used to hate you date, I guess you best investigate
The facts of life, gotta get ‘em right, the facts of life.”

Subsequent seasons used the more familiar version, the one that’s been in your head for 35 years:

“You take the good, you take the bad; you take ‘em both and there you have
The facts of life, the facts of life.
There’s a time you gotta go and show you’re growin’, now you know about
The facts of life, the facts of life.
When the world never seems
To be livin’ up to your dreams,
And suddenly you’re findin’ out the facts of life are all about you.
It takes a lot to get ‘em right
When you’re learnin’ the facts of life.”

But there were even more verses, as found in the published sheet music and on Loring’s 1984 album A Shot in the Dark. To wit:

“When there’s someone that you care about, it really isn’t fair; they’re out
To slow you up, when you’re growin’ up.
When you let ‘em flirt and then you hurt, or waitin’ ‘cause your date is late
Showin’ up, and you’re growin’ up.
When it’s more than just the birds and the bees,
You need someone tellin’ you, “Please.”
There’s only one conclusion, there will always be confusion over you.

“You’ll avoid a lot of damage and enjoy the fun of managing
The facts of life; they shed a lotta light.
If you hear it from your brother, better clear it with your mother,
Better get ‘em right. Call her late at night.
You got the future in the palm of your hand;
All you got to do to get you through is understand.
You think you’d rather do without; you’d never make it through without the truth.
The facts of life are all about you.”

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Ape Meets Girl
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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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