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Original Series Information/Summary
A very detailed summary of the nine season show.


*** Visit Our Facts of Life Series Site !***


February 2000
—One prominent critic called it "worthless and barren"; another said it was the kind of show that made his teeth grind and his right eye twitch. But what do middle-aged male critics know? The Facts of Life touched a whole generation of kids (young and old) who watched TV in the '70s and '80s. TV Guide was closer to the truth when, in 1986, it called it "TV's little show that could."

The Facts of Life got off to a rough start, and would easily have been canceled if it had been on another network, or debuted at another time. Yet it went on to become one of the longest running situation comedies in television history (nine seasons), and one of the most fondly remembered shows of the `80s. Moreover its tight little cast - four girls and one den mother for most of the run - proved that not all child stars have to wind up forgotten, in jail or dead at an early age. Each, in her own way, has had a remarkably successful life since the series left the air in 1988.

Facts was a spin-off from the hit NBC comedy Diff'rent Strokes (1978-1986), in which Phillip Drummond's excitable housekeeper, Mrs. Garrett (played by Charlotte Rae), became a housemother at the prestigious Eastland School for young women near Peekskill, New York. There are a variety of stories about the show's origins. One version has it that Fred Silverman, head of NBC and a big fan of spin-offs, was anxious to create one from Diff'rent Strokes - his only hit sitcom at the time - and that he suggested something along the lines of "Kotter girls" (a female equivalent of the popular Welcome Back, Kotter). So the writers at Norman Lear's production company, which produced Diff'rent Strokes, came up with the idea of an exclusive girls' school with Mrs. Garrett as the focal point. Charlotte Rae didn't want to leave her current hit, however, and Lear had to guarantee she would get her old role back if the new show died.

It almost did. NBC was so nervous about the project it ordered only four episodes as a test, and aired them on Friday nights at the end of the summer of 1979, before the regular season began. Mrs. Garrett was surrounded by a regular cast of seven girls, plus a headmaster (Mr. Bradley, played by John Lawlor) and a teacher (anybody remember Miss Mahoney, played by Jenny O'Hara?). It was far too busy, and the scripts were lightweight. NBC executive Garth Ancier remembers it as a "gaggle of girls." Nevertheless, audience testing indicated that the show had potential, and ratings-starved NBC didn't want to walk away from a producer as successful as Norman Lear, so the network ordered nine more episodes, which ran between March and May, 1980. The ratings still weren't good. The Facts of Life ranked number 74 among all shows for the season, trailing the time-period leader, The Incredible Hulk, by a wide margin.

Then came the "Facts of Life massacre." NBC, still desperate for a hit, agreed to give the show one more chance, but only if there was a major overhaul. Four of the original seven girls were dumped - Nancy (Felice Schacter), Sue Ann (Julie Piekarski), Cindy (Julie Ann Haddock) and Molly (Molly Ringwald, who went on to a notably successful film career). Mr. Bradley was also shown the door. Miss Mahoney had disappeared after the first four episodes, and, in fact, the girls were seldom seen in class after that. Writers were also fired, and a new pair of female head writers brought in. They were determined to make the show less frothy and more realistic, at least in TV terms. The girls were to be depicted not as kids, but as intelligent young ladies; their orders to the writers were, "write them as if they were 25."

The surviving cast now consisted of one adult and three students. Edna Garrett, the rubber-faced, slightly nutty, but always-caring housemother (who soon became the school dietician), was the center of the show. Blair Warner (Lisa Whelchel) was beautiful, rich, and spoiled; Natalie Green (Mindy Cohn) was plump and impressionable; and Dorothy "Tootie" Ramsey (Kim Fields), the youngest, was the resident gossip.

One more element was needed. The producers realized they needed someone with a little more edge to spice up the rather predictable cast. NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff told Creative Supervisor Al Burton to check out the girl in a failed NBC pilot called Dusty, the one who had played a Fonzie-like character called "Slugger." The girl turned out to be Nancy McKeon, sister of young Philip McKeon of the hit CBS series Alice. She was cast as Jo Polniaczek, a tough street kid from the Bronx who roared in on a motorcycle and proceeded to give her classmates little lessons in petty thievery and evading authority. Her tough exterior masked her insecurities, however, and like the Fonz on Happy Days, underneath she had a heart of gold. To many viewers - including this writer - Jo "made" the show.

The new, re-tooled Facts of Life was relaunched in the Fall of 1980 in one of NBC's most desirable time slots, Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. following Diff'rent Strokes. The network's faith in it was finally rewarded as Facts rocketed from #74 to #26 in its second season, handily winning its time period against ABC's Soap and The CBS Wednesday Movie, and retaining most of the audience from its hit lead-in. The tight little ensemble of Blair, Jo, Natalie, Tootie and Mrs. Garrett began to jell. Jo was haughty Blair's frequent nemesis; Natalie learned to deal with many insecurities; and little Tootie went buzz-buzz in everybody's ear. The girls did seem to become a little more mature. Tootie got to give up her omnipresent roller skates of the first season, although it seemed that her dental braces would never come off.

The real question was whether Facts could survive on its own, without the considerable support of Diff'rent Strokes preceding it on the schedule. The third season proved that it could. In the fall of 1981 Strokes moved to another night and Facts became NBC's Wednesday 9 p.m. "anchor" program, with ratings virtually unchanged. It remained there for four years.

Like most successful, long-running series, Facts of Life evolved over time. Mr. Bradley was succeeded by the seldom-seen Mr. Harris, and then by Mr. Parker, whose callousness toward Mrs. Garrett finally drove her to quit Eastland in 1983. Much to her surprise, her beloved but rather distant son Raymond, an accountant, then bought her a run-down store in Peekskill, which she transformed into a gourmet food shop called Edna's Edibles. Blair and Jo (who had just graduated and entered nearby Langley College) and Tootie and Natalie (still at Eastland) moved in to help out.

A number of other regulars and semi-regulars were seen in the early 1980s, most notably Geri Jewell as Blair's "Cousin Geri," a remarkably upbeat young woman with cerebral palsy. Despite her handicap, Geri aspired to be - of all things - a standup comic, making fun of her own condition ("I'm one of the few people who drive better than they walk ... I've been pulled over once for speeding and four times for walking ... I've had some really high scores bowling - only never in my lane..."). Some audiences found this uncomfortable, but more applauded her determination and willingness to bring handicaps into the open (in one episode she remarked to the girls, "questions don't hurt, ignorance does"). Unfortunately she was never really integrated into the cast. The arrival of Cousin Geri usually signaled that Facts was about to get preachy and, after three years of occasional appearances (1981-1984), she left the show.

More changes took place in 1985 as Edna's Edibles burned down, and was rebuilt as a completely new business - an updated version of a 1950's malt shop and novelties store called "Over Our Heads." Mrs. Garrett and the girls were partners. Joining the cast were Andy (MacKenzie Astin, son of actors Patty Duke and John Astin), the young errand boy, and George Burnett (George Clooney), the hunky carpenter who helped with the rebuilding. George lasted only one season, but Andy stayed for the rest of the series' run. In 1986, Mrs. Garrett remarried and tearfully moved away. Actress Charlotte Rae, now 60 years old, financially secure, and feeling that there was little more to do with the role, had decided to leave. It was a crossroads for the series, but ratings were still reasonably good, and the rest of the cast was strong, so NBC renewed the show. Veteran actress Cloris Leachman was brought in as Mrs. Garrett's chatterbox sister Beverly Ann, who became the new mother hen to the girls and step-mom to Andy.

Ratings declined during the last two seasons (1986-1988), but only gradually. However, the network that had done so much to support the show in its early years now had higher expectations. In 1985, NBC had moved the show to Saturday night, against soft competition on CBS and ABC - shows like Downtown, Life with Lucy and Once a Hero. NBC's own Saturday night lineup (227, Golden Girls, Amen, Hunter) had become a powerhouse. Although The Facts of Life was the #1 show in its time period for its last three years, ironically it was the lowest-rated program in NBC's Saturday lineup, presumably hurting the shows that followed it.

In an effort to boost the ratings, Facts aired some pretty dramatic episodes, including one in which Natalie was the first to lose her virginity, to boyfriend Snake. (The central character was supposed to be Blair, but the strongly religious Lisa Whelchel vetoed that storyline for her character.) It was to no avail. As the series came to an end, Natalie got her first taste of life as a writer in New York City; Jo married freewheeling musician Rick and was headed for a business career; and Tootie, engaged to Jeff, enrolled in the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. In the final episode, a dismayed Blair, watching her alma mater slide into bankruptcy, decided to buy the school and become headmistress.

Several spin-offs were planned from Facts of Life during its long run, and although none materialized, several aired as episodes of the series. Among them were The Parkers (1980, starring Richard Dean Anderson and Rosanne Katon as an interracial couple), The Academy (1982, seven boys at a military academy near Eastland), Jo's Cousins (Donnelly Rhodes as a gas station owner with three kids), High School U.S.A. (1983, Michael J. Fox and other, mostly older, sitcom stars populate a high school), and an unnamed spin-off in which Blair runs Eastland. A series was also considered following Natalie's career as a writer.


The Facts of Life: Ratings History

Nielsen
Rating*
Rank among
All TV shows
1979-1980Fri. 8:30 p.m.4.5#74
1980-1981Wed. 9:30 p.m.19.3#26
1981-1982Wed. 9:00 p.m.19.1#24
1982-1983Wed. 9:00 p.m.17.1#32
1983-1984Wed. 9:00 p.m.17.3#24
1984-1985Wed. 9:00 p.m.16.3#34
1985-1986Sat. 8:30 p.m.17.7#27
1986-1987Sat. 8:00 p.m.16.3#31
1987-1988Sat. 8:00 p.m.14.6#37


*Percent of all television homes in the U.S. that were watching, on an average night.