TV actress Charlotte Rae passed away on Sunday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 92.
A star of the small and big screens alike, Charlotte Rae is perhaps best known for her performance on the 1980’s sitcom The Facts of Life, where she co-starred as Mrs. Edna Garrett alongside TV star and ABILITY Magazine contributor Geri Jewell.
Rae’s publicist Harlan Boll revealed this week that Rae had passed away. A cause of death has not been specified, though Rae had been diagnosed with bone cancer in 2017 and had struggled with pancreatic cancer for many years.
Charlotte Rae sat down with Geri Jewell and David Zimmerman for a two-part interview last summer (part 1, part 2), in which she discussed her storied career and her fight against pancreatic cancer. She and Jewell also reminisced about their time co-starring on The Facts of Life.
Rae’s star first rose on Broadway, where she starred in many roles throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. She was twice nominated for Tony Awards, both times for best actress, in 1966’s Pickwick and 1969’s Morning, News, and Night.
She would later go on to appear in a number of films and television shows, including Car 54, where Are You?, Sesame Street, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life. In more recent years, Rae’s credits included TV roles in Girl Meets World, Pretty Little Liars, and The King of Queens. She also appeared in Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan and countless other roles.
In her roles on Car 54 and as Molly the Mail Lady on Sesame Street, Charlotte Rae became a household name. She later went on to become Edna Garrett, the family housekeeper and matriarchal figure on Diff’rent Strokes. This role would eventually develop into a spin-off show, The Facts of Life, in which Rae delivered a seminal comedy performance, bringing her Edna Garrett character to the Eastland boarding school where she became a housemother and, later, a dietitian.
Charlotte Rae raised a son with autism, at a time when developmental disabilities weren’t nearly as understood as they are today.
Boll: There’s a generation out there that doesn’t think of you as Mrs. Garrett as much as they think of you as Molly, the Mail Carrier, from Sesame Street.
Rae: That was early television. What an honor, to be on that show, informing kids about learning and about music and everything. I loved it. It was a hard time for me, though. That was when I was with my older son, and we were having trouble trying to figure out what to do to make him better. We finally found out that he was autistic, schizophrenic and also developmentally disabled. It was a very hard time.
Zimmerman: I did love your story about when they first told you…
Rae: Yes, I was pregnant with Larry. John and I went to this doctor for a diagnosis of Andy, because I felt something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. And he was doing things with him, and he said, “Come back after you have your baby.” So I came back after Larry was born. I think John was at work. And he told me that he was autistic, and I thought, “Oh, thank God!” I almost got down on my knees.
Rae: “He’s artistic! That’s all! That’s the only thing that’s the matter with him! He’s just very creative!” And he said, “No, I said autistic. He has autism.” I never had heard that word in my life. Now you hear it all the time.
Jewell: I went to school with maybe one or two kids who had autism. But that was then. It’s not like it is today. I’m surprised he was diagnosed. He was my age, wasn’t he?
Jewell: That must have been in the ‘50s or early ‘60s?
Rae: My older boy is 58, and he’s three years younger than Andy would have been. Andy was three years older. He’d be 61.
They told me to wait another year or so, and if by the time he’s six, if he doesn’t improve, institutionalize him. I said, “What? I’m not gonna put my child in an institution.” That was the beginning of our searching, trying, and we did. We tried. We did the best we could. We really did. He got into a school at one point that a minister found on 12th Street and Fifth Avenue, and we paid $2,000 a year, which was a lot of money in those days. But transport was a problem. I went to a town hall meeting with the mayor, which was televised. I’d given up work because I wanted to do everything for Andy and for Larry. We made posters, and we marched in front of the building about transport for our kids.
Jewell: Such commitment and love!
Rae: I went into the meeting and said, “I am the mother of a handicapped child who is developmentally disabled.” And I explained all that we would want, and that we would pay for the education, because there were no opportunities in the schools at that time. No classes then.
Jewell: Especially on the East Coast, believe it or not. The East Coast was way behind the West Coast.
Rae: So I said, “We need transport so we can get our kids to and from school.” And Mayor Wagner said, “Aren’t you Charlotte Rae?” I said yes. He said, “I’ve seen you on Car 54. Yes, we will look into that, we certainly will.” And I thought, “Here I am, trying not to work. I’m just devoting myself to Andy, and because they know and have seen me on television, they’re helping us.” And his therapist, whom we found later on, said, “You should by all means work. It’ll be better for him and better for you to be part of something you love.”