It’s hard to believe that one of the most game-changing sitcoms to ever air on TV debuted 30 years ago. When The Facts of Life first premiered in 1988, it paved the way for oh, so many series to come, while celebrating female friendships in fine form.
While we may not have seen the show a lot lately, luckily it’s now available to stream on the newly launched CTV Throwback alongside other classics like The Jeffersons and Charlie’s Angels (yes, the original with Farrah Fawcett). Before you dive into the world of Blair, Tootie, Natalie, Jo and Mrs. Garrett though, check out these ‘Facts’ that you probably didn’t know about the long-running show.
It was a (quickly devised) spin-off of Diff’rent Strokes
OK, maybe you knew this one. Once upon a time spin-offs were all the rage, and The Facts of Life was no different. When it debuted in 1979, NBC was hoping to continue the success of Diff’rent Strokes. So it called upon Charlotte Rae as Edna Garrett, and graduated her from a housemaid to a housemother.
This is the show that first gave us George Clooney
We remember George from ER, and even from his Roseanne gig, but long before those roles he had a recurring spot on The Facts of Life as handyman George Burnett.
Alan Thicke co-wrote the theme song
Be honest: as soon as we mentioned the show, you had the theme song in your head, didn’t you? But did you know the song was actually co-written by late Canadian actor (and popular TV dad) Alan Thicke? He and his former wife Gloria Loring are credited alongside Al Burton.
A pre-teen Molly Ringwald starred in the first season
When the show first debuted, the cast was infinitely larger than the four girls featured throughout the rest of the series. But writers quickly found there were too many people to write for, and it axed most of the cast after the first season. Among those let go? Molly Ringwald, before her John Hughes days.
At one time it was the longest running sitcom on NBC
When The Facts of Life went dark on NBC after nine seasons (and several new premises), it was actually the longest-running sitcom in the network’s history. Of course that’s now been topped by shows like Cheers, Frasier, Friends and Night Court, but it was a pretty impressive feat at the time.
There was almost a tenth season
When the show did end, there was still an audience appetite for more. Sadly, cast members Mindy Cohn and Nancy McKeon had other plans and they chose to leave, which eventually halted another season.
Mayim Bialik, Seth Green, and Juliette Lewis almost starred in one of six potential spinoffs together
Given the show’s success, you can’t blame producers for wanting lightning to strike twice. That’s why they investigated six (yes six) potential spinoffs, none of which actually wound up taking flight. One we would have killed to see would have starred Mayim Bialik, Seth Green, and Juliette Lewis as the show’s “new class.”
Many of the characters were named after people in Charlotte Rae’s (Mrs. Garrett) life
Mrs. Garrett certainly had an impact on the girls, but she also had an impact on production. Many of the characters were named after people in her real life, including Natalie, who was named for one of her best friends. Meanwhile, Andy (Mackenzie Astin) was named after her autistic son and Cloris Leachman’s character, Mrs. Garrett’s sister, was named after her real-life sister, Beverly-Ann.
Producers completely changed Blair after meeting Lisa Whelchel
We know Blair as a snobby New Yorker, but that wasn’t the original character concept. In fact, until producers heard Lisa Whelchel, they had pictured Blair as a fast-talking Texan. Obviously, they went with some rewrites.
Tootie’s signature roller skates were designed for a specific reason
When Kim Fields was cast in the role of Tootie she was much, much shorter than the rest of the cast. So to make up for awkward camera angles the producers often featured her in roller skates early on in the series.
Fields was the only black actress to audition for Tootie
Speaking of Tootie, she wasn’t written as a black character. When Fields showed up to audition she was so overwhelmed, looking around, that she wanted to go home. Her mother convinced her to stay, and was even later cast herself as Tootie’s onscreen mom.
It was the first show to feature an all-female cast
What makes those last two facts even more impressive is that this was the first show of its stature to feature an all-female cast, proving that funny females are indeed (and always have been) a thing.
It featured the first character with a disability to regularly appear on prime time TV
Remember Blair’s cousin Geri? She was played by Geri Jewell, a comedian with cerebral palsy. She was discovered by producer Norman Lear, who saw her perform at the Media Access Awards in 1980.
One of the girls was plucked from a real-life high school
Mindy Cohn didn’t exactly have the acting bug when she was cast as Natalie. Instead, producers discovered her when they went on a field trip to a real all-girls school to do some research. Cohn decided answering questions for TV people sounded better than going to class; little did she know it would lead to a career.
Jo was supposed to be the female version of Fonzie
McKeon’s tough girl character had some tough shoes to fill; she was originally created as a female version of Henry Winkler’s Fonzie character on Happy Days. But producers knew she was the girl for the role when she tackled tender scenes during her audition.
Blair was originally going to lose her virginity first
When NBC aired the ninth season’s “The First Time,” producers originally wanted Blair to be the first of the girls to lose her virginity. But Whelchel, who was very religious, refused. So Cohn volunteered and Whelchel asked not to be included in the episode. It was the only one she ever missed.
Following the show’s success, Whelchel was almost Rachel Green on Friends
When the pilot for Friends was being cast, Whelchel was specifically asked to read for the part of Rachel Green. We have a feeling she would have gotten it too, had she not declined to continue the audition process because the character was more sexual than she was comfortable with. (As we all know, Jennifer Aniston got the part.) Meanwhile, McKeon came pretty close to landing the role of Monica, but she was eventually beat out by Courtney Cox.