Pop Culture Den Mother: A Conversation with Charlotte Rae

One of the most beloved TV icons of the 1980’s, Charlotte Rae created the role of Edna Gareett on two giant NBC sit-comes, ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ and its even more successful spin-off, ‘The Facts of Life,’ where she became the ultimate den mother for a genration of fans.

Originally published in 2016 at popcutureaddict.com.

Charlotte Rae was the den mother of the children of the 1980’s.  Full of spunk and good advice, every kid wish they had someone as wise and understanding as Mrs. Edna Garret.  Introducing her beloved character in the first season of the ground-breaking all ages sit-com Diff’rent Strokes in 1978, Charlotte Rae made Mrs. Garrett a television icon when she was successfully spun off in her own sit-com, The Facts of Life, from 1979 until she departed the series in 1986.  Playing the house mother to a quartet of sassy private school girls, The Facts of Life was unique as it was one of the first television series to seriously, yet sensitively, focus on the issues surrounding modern young women growing up in the 1980’s.  With a wide range of topics including grades, sex, boys, divorce, pregnancy, disabilities and rape, Mrs. Garrett was the calming, but quirky, voice of comfort for not only the girls of Eastland, but to the viewers who watched her each week on television.

Studying theater at Northwestern University in the 1940’s, Charlotte Rae had a desire to become a serious stage actress.  However, through the influences of her friendships with future stars Paul Lynde and Cloris Leachman, she soon found success working as a comedic performance.  Relocating to New York after graduation, Charlotte found work in such stage productions as PickwickRomeo and Juliet and Lil’ Abner.  But when television hit New York like storm in the 1950’s, like most actors of the time Charlotte quickly found herself in front of the camera.

In 1961 Charlotte got her first series playing Al Lewis’ wife  Sylvia Schnauser in the classic cop spoof Car 54, Where are You?  Although the series would only last two seasons, it would be popular enough to make Charlotte Rae a favorite for writers and producers, which would create a direct line to eventually having the role of Edna Garrett created for her nearly twenty years later.

This winter Charlotte Rae, now 89 years old, released her new autobiography, The Facts of My Life, talking about her life on the stage and screen, as well as the personal trials that she in private.  Written alongside her son Larry Strauss, Charlotte talks about her life on screen and stage, but also about her battle with cancer, caring for her autistic son  Andy, and her heartbreak when she discovered that her husband, John Strauss, was gay in the 1970’s.

I had the great pleasure to talk with Charlotte Rae about her life, and some of the things that she talks about in her book.  Although she didn’t reveal everything, careful to leave something for the readers, the two of us had delightful and fast paced conversation about her memories as an actress working on the stage, television and movies.

Charlotte Rae:  I love your name!  Sam Tweedle!

Sam Tweedle:  It sounds like a name you’d give a Muppet, doesn’t it?

Charlotte: (Laughs)  Yes it does!  I love it!  It makes me smile!

Sam:  Well you make me smile!  I have so much I want to talk to you about!  You were the den mother of my generation.

Charlotte:  Yes.  That’s true.

Sam:  I watched you on Facts of Life every day after school and, if I remember correctly, Saturday nights.  It was Saturday nights, wasn’t it?

Charlotte:  I don’t remember.  I’m 89 now.

Sam:  But you know, another thing I remember you so fondly for was the film Hello, Down There!  It is one of my very favorite childhood films.

Charlotte:  It’s funny.  The guy who accompanies me when I sing has written a musical stage show of Hello, Down There but he can’t get it off the ground.

Sam:  That film had an incredible cast.

Charlotte Rae takes center stage in the 1969 cult comedy “Hello, Down There.” Also pictured are the eccelctic cast including Ken Barry, Janet Leigh, Tony Randall, Jim Backus, Merv Griffith and Roddy McDowell.

Charlotte:  It really did.  We all had a warm and loving time doing it.  We did it down in Florida, and it was so beautiful down there.  I was living in New York at the time, and I had my mother come down and visit me because we filmed it was in the wintertime, and it was so nice in Florida.  My mother was living in Milwaukee, so I got an apartment and brought my Mom down there and we all had a good time.

Sam:  Now we are not here to talk about Hello, Down There.  Let’s talk about your new book.  How long did it take you to put together a book about your life?

Charlotte:  If I had to do it by myself, it would have taken forever.  I don’t think I would have done it.  But my son Larry is a writer and he said “Mom, it’s about time.  Let’s do it before you forget everything.”  He’s written a lot of novels.  Some of them have been optioned for a movie.  He is also a teacher that works in South Central Los Angeles and he works with lots of Latino and African American kids and helps them get scholarships for college.  He’s very involved.  So he said, “Let’s do it Mom.”  It was wonderful.  I remembered quite a bit, but there was lots of stuff I forgot to put in.  But nevertheless, it’s a story about not only desperately wanting to be “a star,” but I also wanted people to know my real life.  It’s been challenging, like most people’s lives.  There’s the good stuff, and then the heavy-duty stuff.  I wanted them to know that I am still here, and so grateful to be here.

Sam:  I read that you dropped out of college to come to New York to become an actress.

Charlotte:  No.  I graduated first.  Patricia Neal dropped out and Cloris Leachman dropped out, but I did graduate first.

Sam:  Yes.  You were in college with Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman, as well as Paul Lynde.

Charlotte:  Oh yes!  Paul and I graduated together.

Sam:  It must have been wonderful to have all four of you in the same program together.

Charlotte:  Well, Pat was a year ahead of us.  But Cloris and Paul and I were in the same class.  Cloris became Ms. Chicago and went to New York and never came back.

Sam:  What year did you go to New York?

Charlotte:  I graduated in June 1948, and in August Paul and I moved to New York.

Sam:  What was it like to be a young actress trying to make it in New York at that time?

Charlotte:  I was just gung-ho and ready to go into all the offices and look for a job, and it was the dead of August and Cloris said “Charlotte, no one is in their office in the dead of August so just relax.”  Sometime in the fall I think I got a job in a little bar called the Sawdust Trail, which was on 46th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue.  They  paid me sixty bucks a week and I stood on the bar and sang, and then I went upstairs into the dressing room and then Teresa Brewer would come down and sing.  Teresa was 16 and I was 21.  There was a wonderful piano player, and old vaudevillians would wait on the tables and sing.  We didn’t have to mix with the customers.  Some saloons made you drink with the customers, but they treated us very nicely.  It was so exciting because I was a half a block from Broadway.

Sam:  Now initially you wanted to be a dramatic actress, but you became known as a comedian.

Charlotte:  Yes.  In college I wanted to do classical plays.  I still love to do them – Shakespeare, Chekov, O’Neal.  I wanted to be a real legitimate actor and do all the serious plays.  I really had a lot of feelings and emotions and I wanted to project them in these wonderful roles.  But when I was a sophomore, somebody said “Why don’t you try out for the musical?”  I said, “No, I only want to do drama.”  But Paul Lynde said he was going to try out for the musical, and he convinced me to go out with him.  Well I did, and I got all these wonderful sketches to do.  So I played it very seriously, and they were very well written and very funny.  So Paul and I played off of each other, and we were called Lebowski and Lynde.  There is a picture of the two of us as freshmen which Al Burton gave me, and I think it’s in the book.  Paul was very chubby at the time, and I was kind of chubby too.

Sam:  I’ve always had a real love for Paul Lynde.

Charlotte:  He was one of a kind, and he had a great sense of humor.

Sam:  One role that you originated on Broadway was the role of Mammy Yokum in Lil’ Abner.  That show has become a staple, despite the fact that the comic hasn’t been published since the 1970’s.

Charlotte:  Michael Kidd was the director and choreographer, and he did a wonderful job.  It was a great cast, and a very satirical show.  But I really was not interested in doing it.  Mammy Yokum is a cartoon character.  But I was the shortest person in the show.  I was 5’2 ½.

Sam:  How did you make the transition into television?

Charlotte Rae as Sylvia Schnauser, with on-screen husband Al Lewis, on “Car 54, Where Are You?”:

Charlotte:  Well I loved the stage, but all of a sudden in New York television came around and I started to get invited to do things.

Sam:  Were you doing a lot of the live shows?

Charlotte:  I did a lot of that, and a lot of stuff on PBS too.  Terrence McNally did this wonderful three-part series for New York Television Theater that I did.  The first one was called Apple Pie with Jimmy Coco, where he was signing up for the army.  Then we did one called Bocce, and then there was one with John Becher and me called The Immovable Gordons where I played a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown because my son was missing in action in Viet Nam.  It was very heavy duty.  We did a lot of things on public broadcasting, and then there were all these shows like US Steel and Play of the Week.  Jack Klugman and I did one where we were boyfriend and girlfriend.  He was a dear dear darling man.

Sam:  Was Car  54, Where Are You? shot in New York or Los Angeles?

Charlotte:  That was in New York.  We did that show at the Biograph Studios, which is the famous old studio in the Bronx where Mary Pickford used to do her silent films.  I used to be in awe because I thought maybe there was some dust left over from Mary Pickford’s days in that studio.  I got into Car 54, Where Are You? after doing some appearances on The Phil Silver Show.  I played in The Twitch episode where they made a bet to see how many times during my speech that I’d pull my girdle down.  Nat Hiken, who write and created The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You? was an amazing talent.  He should be in the hall of fame of comedy.

Sam:  It seems the writing for sit-com comedy has changed so much.  One man who is a true master of it is Norman Lear, and I know he had a huge part in your career.  I’m in awe of Norman Lear.

Charlotte:  I don’t blame you.  When I was living in New York, Norman Lear and Ed Simms were partners and they were producing and directing and writing The Colgate Comedy Hour.  I was on it once, and they knew me because they were living in New York.  They eventually moved to Los Angeles, and when I moved out to California with my husband and my kid’s years later, they had me do an episode of All in the Family.  I played a Tupperware lady for Edith.  This is when Carol O’Connor was off the air because he was fighting for more money.  This was an alternate script in case Carol didn’t show up.  The episode was called Where’s Archie?  Norman Lear was there, and there was a director there that wanted me to do this funny little thing where I had to pick my nose.  Jean Stapleton, bless her heart, went to Chicago with me and Phil Donahue and Margo Thomas for a woman’s march.   Then I did the series Hot L. Baltimore.  Norman Lear loved that.  It was with James Cromwell and Conchata Ferrell.  Norman handled this gay couple in the hotel with such sensitivity.  He was way ahead of his time.

Sam:  It was amazing what Norman Lear was doing at that time.  He was one of the first writers to write realistic gay characters, and to present them in a positive light.

Charlotte:  Norman presented things in a positive way.  In a sensitive way.

Sam:  Obviously your relationship with Norman Lear brought you into Diff’rent Strokes.  How many seasons did you do Diff’rent Strokes?

Charlotte Rae won the role of a lifetime when she took the part of housekeeper Edna Garrett on the sit-com “Dif’rent Strokes” in 1978. She’d play the role until 1986 on her own spin-off “The Facts of Life.” Pictured alongside Rae are Conraad Bain, Gary Coleman, Dana Plato and Todd Bridges.

Charlotte:  Just one.  I thought I was going to get fired!

Sam:  Why did you think you were going to get fired?

Charlotte:  Well, it was a male dominated environment.  The directors were wonderful, but the writers and producers were another thing.  Norman wasn’t involved too much with that show.  They never made me feel like I was important or relevant for the show.  I want to warn young people that sometimes they do that because they don’t want to give you a raise.  They don’t want you to think that the audience likes you and that you are doing a good job.  But I really thought I was going to lose my job because in one episode I only had twelve lines.  Then, when I only had twelve lines, Al Burton was beckoning me in between shows, and I thought “This is it.  They are saying goodbye.”  Al said that Fred Silverman is here and he remembers you from Car 54, Where Are You? and he wants to spin you off on a series.  So Fred Silverman wanted to know everything about Mrs. Garret and her background, her history and everything and a very wonderful writer, Roland Barber, had proposed to Al Burton and Norman Lear that I be a housemother to a co-ed dorm.  They said they were not interested.  So then they said, how about a house mother to all girls.  I had just gotten my divorce, and it was wonderful.  I could have stayed on with Diff’rent Strokes, and I had a wonderful deal that if The Facts of Life didn’t work out that I could go back to Diff’rent Strokes.

Sam:  A few years back I picked up the first couple of seasons of The Facts of Life on a whim when I saw it for sale, and I was delighted to see how well the early seasons had stood up against the test of time.

Charlotte:  Well, shows were filled with wisdom that you don’t get today.

Sam:  Now in the first season of The Facts of Life there were way too many characters.  Too much time seemed to be made in introducing who each girl was in every episode.  The cast was cut down considerably in the second season to only four girls who would make up the primary cast throughout the rest of the run.  How did they decide who to keep and who to let go?

Charlotte:  I don’t know.  I really wasn’t involved as a producer, but I did discover Mindy Cohn and I did read with Nancy McKeown for season two and I wanted her to be in it.

Sam:  As an adult rewatching the series, I realized that Mindy is my favorite of the girls.  She is so funny and has so much personality.

Charlotte:  I discovered Mindy at a real school.  Al Burton’s daughter had gone to this school in West Lake Village and we visited the school which is where I met Mindy.  She wasn’t an actor.  She was just a student, but I kept asking her questions because she had that funny little voice and I thought “God, we need someone like this girl.”  First of all, she was Jewish.  Second of all, she was chubby.  And third of all, she had a wonderful voice.  She was witty and had personality.  I think it was really gutsy of her to go on a coast-to-coast broadcast.  What a challenge!  She was just amazing.  They did a lot of wonderful stories about Natalie.  They did a story about divorce, and at one point they made the grandmother die and there was a death in the family and getting all these things for the parents and children to see together.

Charlotte Rae with the original cast of The Facts of Life in 1979. Although it was popular immediately, one of the problems with the first season of The Facts of Life was that there were too many characters. The show was retooled in season two, and whittled down to a cast of five characters, eventually eclipsing the popularity of Diff’rent Strokes..

Sam:  The chemistry you had with the girls on The Facts of Life seemed to be more realistic and richer than the chemistry you had with the kids on Diff’rent Strokes.

Charlotte:  I was only on that show for one year.  The boys were so adorable.  Dana Plato was flakey.  But both of those boys had parents that were so self-involved, but I won’t go into it.

Sam:  I used to love the episodes where the cast of Hello Larry would come over to visit.

Charlotte:  Oh yes!  McLean Stevenson went to Northwestern Collage as well, but that was after me and Paul and Cloris were there.  He’s younger than me.  McLean never should have left MASH.

Sam:  Well, what made you decide to leave The Facts of Life?

Charlotte:  I just felt that as the girls grew older, they didn’t really need me that much anymore.  I was having less and less and less to do.  As an actor, I was just standing around.  It wasn’t enough, and as an actor there were so many wonderful roles to play on the stage.  People would say to me “Get every nickel out of that series.”  I just felt that I wasn’t needed the way it was in the beginning.

Sam:  I felt that after you less the series, that’s when the series lost its magic.  What was the reaction amongst the cast and crew when you said you weren’t coming back?

Charlotte:  They loved me, and they didn’t understand, but I just had to move on.  They offered me a lot of money to stay.  It would have added up to millions.  But I don’t know.  I just felt that it was important to move on.  How many pair of pants do you need?  At that point of my life I wasn’t interested in being a big star anymore.  I was interested in doing work and not just saying “Come on girls, let’s eat dinner” or “Pass the salt.”

Sam:  Edna Garrett became such an iconic character; did you face any typecasting when you tried to move on from that part?

The classic cast line up of The Facts of Life – Charlotte Rae as Ms. Garrett, Nancy McKeown as Jo, Mindy Cohen as Natalie, Kim Fields as Toote and Lisa Wechel as Blair:

Charlotte:  I don’t know, but one of the roles I loved playing afterwards was in Driving Miss Daisy.  It’s a wonderful play, and I think I’m the only Jewish woman who has done it.  I loved that role.  Then I did a very challenging role by Samuel Beckett.  It’s called Happy Days, but it’s not very happy. It’s about a woman, Winnie, and I got wonderful reviews.  Dame Peggy Ashcroft said that the role is a challenge like Hamlet is for a man.

Sam:  So by leaving The Facts of Life, you were able to finally pursue the kind of roles that you wanted in college?  That’s fantastic, isn’t it?

Charlotte:  Yes it was.  So that was wonderful.  I also did a lot of benefits, and some singing, and some cabaret work again, like I did early on in my career.  I’ve been able to travel and have a lot of fun.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

Sam:  Your book isn’t all about your moments in show business though.  There are a lot of more serious aspects to your life.

Charlotte:  Well, my son Andy has autism, and having a child who is challenged in many ways, mentally and physically, was a very agonizing but enriching experience.  It was filled with joys, but it could sometimes be hard.  I talk about my battle with pancreatic cancer in the book.  And my husband, John Strauss, and finding out that he was gay.  We became very good friends afterwards, but it was very hard on me at the time.  I felt very inadequate as a woman, but when you look at the whole picture you begin to understand what he must have been going through.  I have compassion to him.  I finally met the guy that he partnered up with.

Sam:  Was that an interesting experience for you?

Charlotte:  It was, but they became part of the family.  They were always part of the holidays.  That’s the way it was, and my kids were very accepting and loving.

Sam:  That’s wonderful.  So you really cover a lot of things in the book.

Charlotte:  I do.  It’s been quite a life I have. I’m just so thankful that I am still here to enjoy it!

Charlotte Rae passed away in 2018 at the age of 92, but remains beloved by a generation of fans for the compassion and wisdom she exuded in the role of Edna Garrett.

Charlotte Rae is everything that you would want her to be.  She is funny, witty, wise and sharp.  I could have spoken to her for hours, and obviously, with a career as long and varied as the one she has had, there are hundreds of more stories to tell in her book, The Facts of My Life.  I really didn’t get to ask nearly half the things I wanted to know.  But what Charlotte Rae left me with was a certain glow, as if I just had a heart to heart with a dear friend from my childhood.  Whether she realized it or not, Charlotte Rae was a mentor to an entire generation of kids who grew up in the 1980’s.  When we couldn’t, or didn’t want to, listen to the wisdom of our parents and teachers, we always had Edna Garrett giving us words of wisdom to use instead.  Television characters from our childhood become like old friends from the past, and Charlotte Rae was amongst the best friend any kid could have.

PCA NOTE:  Special thanks to Harlan Boll for arranging my visit with Charlotte Rae. It was a career highlight to visit with this icon from my childhood and thank you for giving me that opportunity.  For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.

About the author

Since 2013, Sam Tweedle has been writing as an arts and culture journalist for kawarthaNOW, with special attention to Peterborough's theatrical community. However, his career as an arts writer goes back further via his website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict where Sam has interviewed some of the entertainment world's most notable and beloved entertainers. Sam's pop culture writing has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The National Post, CNN.com, Filmfax Magazine and The New Yorker. You can follow Sam on Instagram at sam_tweedle_z where he posts about his four greatest loves: cats, comic books, movies, and records. Sam no longer uses Twitter because, as far as he's concerned, it's no longer a thing.