15 Facts of Life About The Facts of Life

NBC
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 as today marks the 30th anniversary of the series' finale, it’s time 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 during 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. LISA WHELCHEL, KIM FIELDS, AND MINDY COHN DIDN’T KNOW THE OTHER GIRLS HAD BEEN FIRED UNTIL THEY SHOWED UP FOR WORK ON SEASON TWO.

“Everybody was shocked,” Whelchel said. “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. 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 WHELCHEL WAS GAINING WEIGHT AND COHN WAS LOSING IT.

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 nearly 40 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.”

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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