On a beautiful Los Angeles afternoon in a high-rise overlooking the city, contributing writers Geri Jewell and David Zimmerman had a wonderful visit with the legendary actress Charlotte Rae. Both Jewell and Rae starred in the 80s sitcom The Facts of Life. They were joined by publicist and friend, B. Harlan Boll, for a loving get-together of memories with a woman who became a light for any kid that was alone and who needed a mom.
Zimmerman: You did the film, Ricki and the Flash, with Meryl Streep. Did you enjoy that?
Rae: Oh, yes. She was very kind to me. I was very nervous. I felt so comfortable, because she made you feel comfortable. I said, “You know, I’m scared shitless because I have this little scene with you, just you and me.” And she said, “Oh, I know how you feel, because I was in a movie that this actor directed, and he asked me to do this last little bit in the last scene of the picture, and everybody knew everybody. And I was coming in at the last minute, and I made a mistake, and I could see them all looking at each other, and that made me feel worse. And then he did it again, and I made another mistake. So I know exactly how you feel.” She couldn’t have been warmer or more adorable. That made me feel completely relaxed.
Zimmerman: When I mention Carl Reiner…
Rae: I love Carl. He used to come over for dinner with Estelle, all the time. And what a wonderful raconteur. And then she died, and he used to come a couple of times. But now he doesn’t want to go out very much. He had an apartment in New York. I think he doesn’t go any more. But the thing that keeps him alive is writing. He writes one book after another book after another book.
Boll: He just finished one. He and Mel Brooks have become kind of a couple. It’s very funny to watch.
Rae: I saw Annie Reiner sing. She’s wonderful. I went to see her at the Catalina Bar and Grill. She’s a psychoanalyst and a writer, but she sings and loves singing. She sings Leonard Cohen and all sorts of songs. She really enjoys it. All of her father and mother’s friends, Mel Brooks and everybody, they all show up.
Rae: The opera singer.
Zimmerman: Oh, I loved that! And then right after that I saw the clip of you in Hair, dancing on the table!
Rae: I worked the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel, like Orson Bean did, and I would do a takeoff on the Milwaukee Garden Club ladies. I would do songs that Sheldon Harnick wrote. Sheldon went to Northwestern, and he wrote a little number that I sang in the musical there. When I went to New York, I kept looking for people to write special music, you know. And they weren’t half as good as he was. I went to the Broadway musicals, and I called him and said, “You really should come to New York.” He was playing the fiddle. He was from music school. He had written this wonderful number. It was during the war. I was a factory worker in the defense plant. It was called, “I’ve Got This Gotta Go Home Alone Tonight Blues.” Wearing overalls and everything. I said, “Come on, why don’t you come to New York? You’re more talented than most of the people here.” He said, “No, I’ll just stay here and play my fiddle.”
And then I saw Finian’s Rainbow, and said, “Oh, my God, I’m going to send this album to him.” I said, “You’re made of the same stuff. Come to New York.” He listened to it, and said, “That’s what I want to do with my life!” He finally came to New York. And still to this day he mentions that I sent him the album that focused him on what he wanted to do with his life. So there you are.
Jewell: You know what surprises me, and I didn’t know this until I did the TV Land Awards with you, was your relationship with Cloris Leachman and the fact that you were roommates.
She took your place on The Facts of Life. I’m not religious, but I’m very, very spiritual, and I don’t believe in any accidents. I believe that things happen for a reason. And I found it fascinating that you had this history with her. How do you feel about that, that you were connected in some way?
Rae: It was just amazing, because I was busy, busy, busy. We were roommates, and we had a great time together, but then we—
Jewell: —drifted apart?
Rae: Yeah. I wasn’t busy thinking of who would replace me. And she was not part of my life at that time. But we had a mutual friend, Jan McCrady, and Jan kept connected to me and very connected to Cloris. I told her I was leaving the show, so Jan told her, and Cloris got her agent on it, and got cast.
Zimmerman: When I was listening to the book, one of my favorite stories was when you were—
Jewell: No! (laughs)
Zimmerman: It was when you were—is that OK? (laughs) I just loved it, about the orgasm. I couldn’t stop laughing.
Rae: I thought it was kind of sweet to share.
Zimmerman: It was such a human story, and that’s what I loved about your book. I identified with so much of it, like I said before, too, about the Jewish side of it, for me. It’s a story for everyone. You were so open with it. I got something, and since you had that little sweet story, I have a little sweet something for you.
Rae: My goodness, the flowers are enough!
Zimmerman: I have one for you and one for Geri! It’s a fun little gift. I hope it’s OK! (laughs) Geri said you’d like it.
Rae: Oh, thank you, thank you!
Zimmerman: You’re welcome!
Jewell: Oh, it’s a chocolate woman! A chocolate diva! Cute, David.
Rae: And the perfect chocolate man! (laughs) I like it. I like it.
Jewell: I’d like to ask you about the fact that you overcame cancer. I think we need to talk about that, because this is ABILITY Magazine, and you are a survivor. You’re amazing.
Rae: I’m not amazing. I’m just so incredibly grateful. It’s a miracle they discovered it in time, because they find pancreatic cancer when it’s stage four or worse, and then it’s inoperable. My mother, my older sister Beverly, and my uncle all died of pancreatic cancer—it is genetic. In fact, just recently we lost the wonderful actor, John Hurt, who played The Elephant Man.
Zimmerman: And Patrick Swayze.
Rae: And because I was a celebrity in my hometown, Milwaukee, this doctor, who had taken care of my sister and my mother, asked, “Would you come to Milwaukee and talk to people about getting a checkup if they have this history in their family?” And I said, “Sure, I’ll be glad to.” After doing radio, television and other PSAs, I asked, “Could I get a checkup myself? And he said, “Sure.” And I said, “What about my younger sister Mimi? Could you do her?” “Yes, we’ll do her.” We had to pay, of course, with our Medicare, but it was the test that saved my life!
Zimmerman: Did they put a tube down your throat?
Rae: Yes, down to my pancreas, and they did find something—they were cysts. So the next day, they did it again, and they said, “No, it’s not cancer. It’s benign. Just get it checked in six months in LA, and we’ll give you a place to go.” Then six months later in LA, I went to this doctor and I didn’t like him because he kept saying, “Mrs. Garrett,” and I thought, “I don’t like him.” Stupid, stupid. So I thought I’d wait six months—
Zimmerman: You mean another six months?
Rae: Yes, and go back to Milwaukee a year later. When I got there, they checked it, and they kept me hanging around for hours and hours. Everyone was leaving their offices, and I was still there, and I had pancreatic cancer, either third or fourth stage. They talked to me and said, “Do you want to have it taken care of here or in LA?” And this is very important for people to know. I want to give the exact name of the organization: Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PCAN). I have been in touch with this organization, and they were very, very helpful. I said, “I need to do some research. I have to find a surgeon and determine the best course of action. I called PCAN, and they said, “We won’t recommend a doctor, but we’ll give you the name of doctors we know who have done the most surgery.”
Zimmerman: Did you have symptoms?
Rae: None. That’s the problem. So anyway, I called and did research. I guess I auditioned them for the part. I went to St. John’s and I met a wonderful doctor there, and he asked for the résumé of what went on in Milwaukee. They sent it to him, and he said, “You’re operable.” With that, I went to UCLA, and I met Dr. Howard Albert Reber. They did the surgery right away. It was not the head of the cancer, it was the tail of advanced cancer. They cut it off and they took out the spleen, and I had six months of chemo.
Anyway, a friend of mine who is a survivor of esophageal cancer, she and her husband supported me. I had a positive attitude. I’d heard that Marilyn Horne, the opera singer, was a survivor of pancreatic cancer, so I asked Tyne Daly, who’s a friend of mine, if Marilyn would speak to me. And Tyne connected me with her. I said, “I’m scared about the operation.” She said, “Of course you are. Why don’t you do what I did? I went to a wonderful hypnotist, Cheryl O’Neil, and she helped me imagine good stuff.”
Jewell: Oh, I love that!
Rae: So I went to Cheryl, and she made some recordings. By the time I went in, I was in such good shape. I was ready for the operation. I came out of it saying, “I’m still alive!” They were wonderful. I did the chemo, and I kept imaging all sorts of things they were getting rid of, bad cells and all that, and I’m here today. It’s a miracle.
Zimmerman: The power of the mind is so important.
Rae: And spirituality.
Jewell: Yes, absolutely. Let go of all negativity from our consciousness.
Rae: And it’s so important anyway, because life is tough. Let’s face it. But it’s also beautiful. We all have to deal with it one day at a time. With our political division at hand and stuff like that, we have to constantly reaffirm our positivity. We take action when we can, but in the meantime, we must savor the day, absolutely savor the day, and be grateful for our lives.
Jewell: I think I know a good friend of yours, Rosemary Forsyth. We’ve become very close.
Rae: Oh, I love Rosemary! She’s a lovely lady!
Jewell: Indeed, she is! I’m so blessed to have become friends with her. She’s a wonderful human being. She always speaks so highly of you.
Rae: That’s nice. I saw her at somebody’s birthday party last Friday. She picked me up, and we went.
Jewell: What a small world! I want to share something with you. I think it was three years ago that someone contacted me on Facebook and said, “I have a scrapbook that belongs to you, and I’d like to return it.” I wrote him back, “No, you don’t. I never had a scrapbook.” “Yes, you did, and it’s yours,” the person wrote. “Well, then, upload photos,” I said. He uploaded cards that I had saved from you, greeting cards and Christmas cards and notes and a telegram from Brandon Tartikoff, from Norman Lear, my first episode of Facts, TV Guide, and I said, “How in the world—?” Because I had mentally blocked that I had ever even had a scrapbook. And I said, “How did you get it into your hands?” He was in a celebrity memorabilia shop that he ran in Las Vegas, and he said about 30 years ago, a woman came in with several things, and that’s one of the things she gave him. It was stolen from someone who was in my life. The reason I’m sharing this with you is because I saved every note you ever wrote to me. I was looking through it like a little kid. “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” I had gone through so much pain later in the ‘80s that I mentally blocked so much of the good, so much of the joy, and it was handed to me 30 years later. I wanted you to know that.
Jewell: I saved everything!
Zimmerman: I have to say, she talks about you a lot and about the joy you have brought her.
Rae: I’m just in awe of her. I don’t know how you do it.
Jewell: Same as you do. I think you and I believe in God, believe in a higher power, in the Spirit, and that’s what keeps me going. I try not to get into the earthly stuff. I know that’s a part of it, but my heart and soul and spirit are so far from that, and that’s what allowed me to be a survivor. And I’m a survivor, and you know that.
Rae: Oh, for sure! Let’s have a grape. What’s that famous thing that May West said? “Peel me a grape.”
Boll: I thought it was, “Come up and see me some time.”
Zimmerman: So you can come up and peel me a grape. You can do both!
Jewell: “Never give a sucker an even break”?
Rae: Once I forgot—I was pregnant, and the director had rehearsed us and rehearsed us. Joe Papp was the assistant director at the time. He was not the producer of “Shakespeare in the Park” and all that, but this was in New York. We kept running through this thing called Appointment with adventure so many times, and I thought we were finished, and I was going to go home and take a nap. I said goodbye to everybody, including Joe, and gave everyone a hug, and went out of the studio on to Fifth Avenue near Harlem. I hailed a cab and was just about to get in the cab, when Joe Papp said, “There’s one more scene.” So they rushed me in, ripped off my clothes, threw something on me, and poor Sheila Bond, she was in the room looking for me. She didn’t know what to—she was looking in closets and drawers. Finally, I came in and we finished. And then Bea Lillie and Reginald Gardiner—they were on The Ed Sullivan Show. I’ll never forget this. They did this sketch, and he had to go behind the screen to change his clothes and come out again, and he came out again, and his fly was open.
Jewell: (laughs) Oh, my God!
Rae: It was before they taped shows. And all of a sudden they saw this arm go out and zip him up!
And Milton Berle, he used to get very nervous. I remember when we were in Florida with The Jackie Gleason Show. I was so nervous about doing the show early on that I got psoriasis from nerves. They flew me down to Florida, and he didn’t rehearse. He came on and did it live without rehearsing. That’s the way he felt comfortable. But Milton Berle was nervous, and he had to do this thing with the diners on the show, they had to lift him and do something. He was very nervous and was screaming and telling them how to do it, and finally they said, “Look, if you’re gonna keep doing this, we ain’t lifting you. You better shape up, ‘cause we’re not gonna do it. We don’t like the way you’re talkin’ to us.” He had to behave. He got so nervous. But lots of television was not taped. Steve Allen was so wonderful.
Jewell: Oh, I love Steve!
Rae: I was a big fan. He gave me about 12 books he wrote.
Jewell: I remember I became very close to Steve Allen, Jr. We were in Canada and Steve, Sr. was there, and he invited us to dinner. We ate at a Chinese restaurant. All of a sudden, Steve started laughing and nobody could understand what the joke was. And Steve, Jr., said, “Dad, what’s so funny?” And he said, “I just realized something. If Geri was born in China, she’d be anorexic! She can’t use chopsticks!” And he couldn’t stop laughing.
Rae: Steve Allen?
Jewell: Yes! How does someone eat in China with cerebral palsy?
Zimmerman: It would fly into somebody else’s mouth.
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.”
Jewell: She was right. And I’m so glad you did.
Rae: Yeah, me, too.
Zimmerman: Thank you so much Charlotte. What a wonderful afternoon.
Rae: Thank you for my flowers and the candy!