“You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have, The Facts of Life.”
Long before the good and the bad, there was the different, or rather the “Diff’rent.” Believe it or not, even Diff’rent Strokes’ Kimberly Drummond had problems. When her school’s housemother abruptly quit with the campus play just one day away, who would make the costumes for Eastlake Academy? Kimberly asked the family maid, Mrs. Edna Garrett, for help. With her well-honed domestic skills, Mrs. G did such a smashing job that the all-girls boarding school’s headmaster, Steven Bradley, offered her the position of housemother. So Mrs. G said goodbye to Arnold, Willis and Kimberly (Kimberly, who commuted to the Peekskille, New York school, was rarely seen in the new show) and hello to one of the most enduring sitcoms of the eighties.
The Facts of Life chronicled the lives of the girls of Eastland (the name was changed after the pilot) and the joy and difficulties of straddling the line between childhood and womanhood. Among the students were the rich, beautiful and totally self-absorbed Blair Warner, her main boy-chasing competitors Sue Ann and Nancy, tomboy Cindy, chubby funny girl Natalie, shy girl Molly (Molly Ringwald of mid-80’s John Hughes teen flick fame) and roller-skating gossiper Tootie.
This format ended at the beginning of the next season with the introduction of the “new girl”, street-smart Jo Polniazek. The first episode had tough-girl Jo convincing Blair, Natalie and Tootie to join her in hot-wiring the school’s car and driving to a local bar called the Chug-a-lug. Needless to say, more facts of life were learned as the four girls were caught and sentenced to live above the school cafeteria and work in the kitchenunder the watchful eye of Mrs. Garrett, who had been promoted to school dietician. The majority of the show now took place in the kitchen and dining room of the school cafeteria, and the rest of the girls were written out of the series.
Forced to live together, these four very different girls were often at odds but usually learned something about each other and themselves as a result. Jo and Blair’s relationship was especially dynamic: Jo came from a working class neighborhood in the Bronx, attended Eastland on scholarship and didn’t care about girly things like hair and make-up. Blair, on the other hand, was a spoiled heiress who was well versed in the art of vanity: “I just came up with another one of my brilliant ideas.” The dichotomy provided equal helpings of conflict and humor, and usually resulted in Mrs. Garrett coming to the rescue.
Indicative of sitcoms of the eighties, the show often dealt with Issues (with a capital “I”). Tootie, the only African American character, objected to her cousin’s going out with her best friend, Natalie, because of their difference in race. Natalie also had to deal with being an adopted child, and toward the later years, the death of her father. In one particularly memorable episode, Jo was attacked by a date and uncharacteristically accepted the comfort of Mrs. Garret. Comedienne Geri Jewel played Blair’s cousin, Geri Tyler, who suffered from cerebral palsy. Although the rest of the students found Geri to be delightful, Blair was initially embarrassed by her disabled cousin. In the end, Blair reveals that she always felt jealous of and threatened by her disabled cousin, because she had so much to live up to. Through Blair’s eyes, we learned tolerance, acceptance and respect for Geri, who returned for several more memorable episodes.
This format remained basically unchanged until the fifth season, when Jo and Blair began attending Langley College. By this time, Mrs. Garret had given up the world of girls’ school to open her own gourmet shop, Edna’s Edibles. Fortunately, the shop was attached to a house big enough for everyone, including Natalie and Tootie, who still attended Eastland.
In the seventh season, the shop burned down and Mrs. Garret hired a local handyman (George Clooney) to rebuild it. The result was a new, trendy boutique called “Over Our Heads.” Also this year, the girls befriended a young latchkey kid named Andy.
The next major change occurred at the start of the eighth season as Mrs. Garrett left her girls to live in Africa with her beau. She was replaced by her sister, Beverly Ann. The final season had the women taking care of a young Australian girl named Pippa, who attended Eastland. As the show came to a close, Natalie was pursuing her dream of becoming a journalist, Tootie was an aspiring actress, Jo married her boyfriend Rick, and Blair bought and became headmistress of good old Eastland. This last episode (which featured then-unknowns Seth Green, Mayim Bialik and Juliette Lewis) was intended to be a spin-off, but Lisa Whelchel decided that nine seasons was long enough to play Blair Warner.
The show boasted a large audience comprised mostly of pre-teen and teenaged girls. This is hardly surprising, since no other show had dealt with the specific challenges of being an adolescent girl in the in-depth way that The Facts of Life did.
Over the course of nine seasons, a generation of viewers grew up with Blair, Jo, Natalie and Tootie, and saw a little bit of themselves up there on the screen.
As Alan Thicke wrote in the catchy theme song, “The facts of life are all about you!”
USA / NBC – Embassy Pictures Television / x25 minute episodes / Broadcast 24 August 1979 – 10 September 1988
Charlotte Rae as Mrs. Edna Garrett (1979-86)
Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner
Nancy McKeon as Jo Polniaczek (1980-88)
Mindy Cohn as Natalie Green
Kim Fields as Dorothy “Tootie” Ramsey
Cloris Leachman as Beverly Ann Stickle (1986-88)
Paul Provenza as Casey Clark (1987-88)
John Lawlor as Stephen Bradley (1979-80)
Jenny O’Hara as Miss Emily Mahoney (1979-80)
Molly Ringwald as Molly Parker (1979-80)
Julie Anne Haddock as Cindy Webster (1979-80)
Julie Piekarski as Sue Ann Weaver (1979-80)
Felice Schachter as Nancy Olson (1979-80)
Hugh Gillin as Howard (1980-81)
Pamela Segall as Kelly Affinado (1983-84)
MacKenzie Astin as Andy Moffet (1985-88)
George Clooney as George Burnett (1985-86)
Sherrie Krenn as Pippa McKenna (1987-88)
Robert Romanus as “Snake” Robinson (1987-88)
Todd Hallowell as Jeff Williams (1987-88)
Scott Bryce as Rick Bonner (1987-88)