12 Very Special Facts About Punky Brewster

Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

Sitcoms about kids abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves are few and far between. Fortunately, Punky Brewster, which ran from 1984 to 1988, was able to fill that need. Starring Soleil Moon Frye as the aggressively optimistic Punky and George Gaynes as her adoptive father, Henry, the show was famous for Punky’s distinctive fashion palette and its obsession with Very Special Episodes. (In “Urban Fear,” Punky learns a serial killer is stalking her neighborhood; in another, Punky learns a valuable lesson about peer pressure and drug use.)

On the 30th anniversary of the series' finale, check out these 12 facts on alternative casting, a failed spinoff, and the real origin of the infamous refrigerator episode.

1. PUNKY IS A REAL PERSON.

Though she probably didn’t dress like a rainbow vomited on her. In the mid-1980s, the Federal Communications Commission insisted that networks use the 7 and 7:30 p.m. slots on Sunday for news or children’s programming. Instead of competing against CBS’s 60 Minutes with more topical content, NBC President Brandon Tartikoff decided to counter-program with a show about a spunky little girl. He wanted to name her after a teacher's daughter he knew in prep school, Peyton “Punky” Brewster: Peyton gave NBC lawyers her approval. As reported by Mental Floss's own Stacy Conradt, the "real" Punky even appeared in a later episode as a teacher.   

2. VICKI THE ROBOT AUDITIONED FOR THE ROLE.

When NBC’s casting call went out for Punky, more than 3000 adorable, elfin actors campaigned for the role. Among them was Tiffany Brissette, who later appeared as the monotone Vicki in the kid-robot series Small Wonder; Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Explains It All) was also a contender. But producers knew the relatives of Soleil Moon Frye, a 7-year-old with three TV movies under her tiny belt, and decided she had sufficient Punky Power.

3. HERMAN MUNSTER WAS UP FOR THE HENRY PART.

Before actor George Gaynes (Police Academy, Tootsie) was awarded the role of Punky’s adoptive father, Henry, producers were fielding another possibility: Fred Gwynne, best known as Herman Munster on The Munsters. Gwynne was said to be eager to distance himself from Munster and agreed to audition with Frye. But when the actress asked if he was Herman Munster, a disappointed Gwynne slinked out.   

4. THE SHOW WAS KIND OF GRIM.

When Tartikoff had the idea for a kid show, he passed it along to writer David Duclon, a producer on the network’s hit series Silver Spoons. Duclon told TV Guide in 1986 that he researched topical issues and found an alarming number of girls were victims of abandonment. It was decided Punky’s parents would be deadbeats; future episodes threatened to have her locked away in an orphanage, helping Henry cope with a bleeding ulcer, and addressing his sleeping pill addiction—unless, of course, she was busy tending to her dog, Brandon, who was hit by a car.

5. COLUMBIA PICTURES SUED SOLEIL MOON FRYE FOR $80 MILLION.

Being precocious apparently isn’t enough to keep a battalion of lawyers from trying to devour you. According to the Associated Press, Columbia Pictures (which took over production of the show when it went into syndication for its third season) sued Soleil Moon Frye for $80 million in 1986. The reason? Frye failed to report to work. Her attorney, Dennis Ardi, asserted Frye was under no legal obligation to perform once the series left NBC. Since the show ran for two more years, it's safe to say things were worked out and no Punky punitive damages were assessed.

6. THE INFAMOUS FRIDGE EPISODE WAS THOUGHT UP BY A KID.


NBC

To help stir up publicity for the series, NBC ran a contest in 1985 that solicited story ideas from kids. The winner was Jeremy Reams, who submitted a premise that involved Punky having to perform CPR on her friend, Cherie, who had gotten trapped inside an abandoned refrigerator. While this was an actual danger for older appliances with latches that couldn’t be opened from the inside, by 1956 the government mandated magnetic handles. In New York State, it was also illegal to discard a fridge without removing the door.

7. SOME EPISODES WERE ONLY 15 MINUTES LONG. (THANKS, KNIGHT RIDER.)

While Punky usually occupied the normal 30-minute sitcom slot, the fall arrival of football on NBC prompted some format changes. Because games airing in the afternoon often run late, NBC decided to avoid joining a program in progress by scheduling 15-minute mini-Punky episodes to follow NFL broadcasts; it also guaranteed their hit Knight Rider would start on time at 8 p.m. Three episodes were structured to be “broken" in half, making for six truncated installments. It was the first time a major network had aired a 15-minute show since news programs in the 1960s.  

8. T.K. CARTER (A.K.A. “MIKE FULTON”) WAS ARRESTED FOR STEALING A CAR.

Fans may remember actor Thomas Kent Carter as Punky's “cool” teacher Mike Fulton. According to the Associated Press, Carter behaved in a very uncool manner when he approached a woman in December of 1991 and demanded her car. She refused; he allegedly punched her in the stomach before speeding away. Carter was arrested after a high-speed chase and having taken out two highway dividers. He was released on $10,000 bail.

9. PUNKY RETURNED AS A WEB COMIC.

Punky Power could not be suffocated for long: In 2014, publisher Lion Forge obtained the license to a number of 1980s series (Miami Vice, Airwolf) and began churning out a line of digital comics. The prequel sees Punky homeless in Chicago after being abandoned by her mother, “sleeping in empty apartments and mattress stores.” Eight issues have been released.   

10. IT ADDRESSED THE CHALLENGER EXPLOSION.

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986—killing all seven people on board—it left a lot of people shaken. The producers of Punky Brewster quickly packaged an episode with the help of psychologists that depicted Punky watching the telecast with her classmates and then struggling to cope with her feelings over the tragedy. Buzz Aldrin appeared in the episode as himself.    

11. THERE WAS A SPINOFF ABOUT AN ORPHANAGE.

During Punky’s first season, NBC considered a spinoff, Fenster Hall, about an orphanage full of wayward kids. T.K. Carter was set to reprise his role as Mike Fulton; producers also invited a pre-Saturday Night Live Dana Carvey to join the cast. (He declined.) The series was considered for a fall 1985 premiere but never made it to air.

12. IN 2009, FRYE DRESSED AS PUNKY FOR HER TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

After hitting a milestone 1 million followers on her Twitter account in 2009, Frye celebrated by dressing in her signature Punky gear. The then-33-year-old filmed a five-minute video thanking her fans and pointed out that Punky’s many bandanas were “gangster before there was gangster.”

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

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