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.
Geri Jewell: These are for you. [Handing Charlotte Rae a vase full of flowers]
David Zimmerman: I saw that and it said, “This is for Charlotte.”
Charlotte Rae: Oh, thank you. Come on in. I’ve got a few goodies around.
Zimmerman: Oh, how yummy!
Jewell: I just turned 60 in September. Can you believe it? Where does the time go? Hey, here’s a new joke for you Charlotte: I’ve just been signed to a new series called The Alternative Facts of Life.
I knew you’d like it!
Rae: We’re so lucky. Let’s just look at the sky, look at the clouds.
Jewell: You have an amazing view.
Rae: I am so grateful, I cannot tell you. I can’t believe I’ve been able to make a living in this field.
Jewell: It can be a very difficult field, for sure.
Rae: I come out in the morning, I look out the window and I say, “Good morning, world!” It’s so nice.
Zimmerman: Where did you both first meet?
Jewell: I think we met the night I performed at the second Media Access awards, correct?
Rae: Yes. Fern Field had you do that role, right?
Jewell: Yes, Fern did! We met briefly, and then we didn’t see each other again until I appeared on The Facts of Life, and that was in December of 1980. I was a little squirt.
Rae: It was so important to have this terrifically talented girl. You added so much to the show.
Zimmerman: I was listening to your book, because I love to hear people tell their own stories. I was laughing, I was crying. And I felt the journey with you.
Rae: You mean you heard the—
Zimmerman: —the audio.
Rae: Oh my God!
Zimmerman: You lived it. It was like a roller coaster ride, but a beautiful one, you know? Although it had its up and downs.
Zimmerman: I so identified. When you talked about your dad, holding on to him, and he fell asleep and was snoring. It made me remember my dad. He would snore, and every time he snored, I would walk, and when he stopped, I would stop.
Coming into your home, too, and seeing the mezuzah.
Jewell: Yeah, I remember that.
Zimmerman: It makes me feel proud to be here, period, knowing that connection.
Rae: Thank you. How did you like the moment when my husband, John, wanted to introduce me to his new fellow and partner, Lionel? We met at Fromin’s and had a cup of coffee. And he called me there and said, “Well, what did you think of Lionel?” And I said, “Well!” Don’t you remember? I said something like, “I’m glad to see you have a nice Jewish boy.”
Zimmerman: I love that. You made huge history. You were like a mother to everybody and listening to this book and watching you on television brought that feeling.
Rae: I realized when I did the book signing that Harlan got me at Barnes & Noble, there were a lot of people there I didn’t know, and they had waited for hours to speak to me. They said that some of them were latchkey kids, and that I meant so much to them.
Jewell: You were everyone’s Mrs. G!
Rae: I had no idea. And it makes me feel terrific that show, which I always felt proud of.
Jewell: Absolutely. I feel the same way about my role on the show as well.
Rae: Wonderful issues. It meant something to those kids and to the parents as well.
Jewell: I heard that the recent Facts of Life reunion we did on the Home & Family Show was one of their highest rated episodes.
Rae: Really? No kidding?
Jewell: The Facts of Life is still in the hearts of millions of people who grew up with us.
Rae: Yes, and you were fabulous on that reunion show!
Jewell: Awe, thank you! So were you!
Zimmerman: And there was chemistry on the Home & Family Show that was still there from the series itself.
Jewell: I’ll never forget the first episode I did, maybe the second. In my naïveté, being such a newbie, we kept messing up on something, and so it was the second show, where they keep you over until you get it right. And what you didn’t know was, is that I had my theater arts department chairman from Cypress College in the audience that night, and she came to see me work. And, also, I can reveal this now: I had a huge crush on her.
Jewell: Her name was Kaleta Brown. I was so excited. And because I had a crush on her, that was where my mind was focused. I was like, “Oh, God! Kaleta’s here! Oh, my God!” I had never spent time with her outside of college. And on set, we kept having to repeat and perfect one certain scene, and I kept looking at my damn watch—my attitude was: “But I want to talk to Kaleta!” I’ll never forget what you said to me. “Geri! Geri!” And you had both arms on my arms, and you said, “Geri! Pay attention! We are trying to make you a star! You are an actress—act like one!”
Zimmerman: Oh, I love that.
Jewell: You did look out for me. And I so appreciate it now looking back. You really did.
Rae: Well, we were lucky to have you, let’s face it. I can’t get over what you’ve done with your life. It’s just incredible. The challenges that you have and that you still have. You’re amazing! I guess it’s because you’re very talented. That’s all there is to it.
Jewell: Well, thank you. That means a lot coming from you.
Rae: Well, we know how brilliant you are.
Zimmerman: I also want to know about Norman Lear and your connection with him. Tell that story.
Rae: Well, you know, I auditioned for Hot L Baltimore, which was one of his television series.
Zimmerman: And one of my favorite shows, even though it lasted, what, one season?
Rae: It didn’t last. It was a wonderful show, a little ahead of its time. Because the stars were two gays, two prostitutes, and I played Mrs. Belotti. But wait a minute.
I auditioned for a different part—an older woman. And the director, Rod Parker, said, “You’re too young.” But I said, “I’m a character actress, I can do it.”
He said, “I know you can do it, but this isn’t like film with the makeup and everything. It’s not going to work because you look too young.” And I said, “But I can play it.” And I went home and I cried and I cried. Later, a friend of mine said, “Don’t worry, God’s got something better for you.” And guess what?
Rae: The next week they called me to do a one-shot appearance on it as the part of Mrs. Belotti and her son Moose. So I went in to do a table reading, and Norman was there. And I sat, I listened and I read. And he said, “You were very funny.” He said, “I think we’re going to use you more.” Before I knew it, I was a regular. My friend was right, God did have something better for me.
Jewell: Yep, a universal truth!
Rae: Isn’t that amazing?
Zimmerman: What’s wonderful, too, about that story is it shows how you meet people, and then you’re working together.
Rae: I remember when I was signed to CBS, and they were looking for a series for me. I did not like anything. Understand, when you signed those things, you never knew what was going to happen. You might tie yourself up and miss something good.
Rae: I didn’t like anything they offered. I had a couple of weeks left on the contract, and I got a call from Jane Murray, the casting lady over at Norman Lear’s, to come in for Diff’rent Strokes. They said it was all cast; Mr. Drummond and the two boys, but they needed a housekeeper. So I went in. They asked me what I thought a housekeeper would be like. I told them I thought that since the kids were without a mother, they’d need a little mothering and a lot of affection. So… I went home, and I got a call that I was offered the job. I nearly fainted!
Rae: Especially since it was after John and I decided to have a divorce, and I was in this house, wondering if I should just get rid of it, because I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up the payments. I didn’t want any alimony. I just wanted both of us to mutually take care of the children’s needs.
I called Norman Lear on a Sunday, and he was always so available. That’s one thing about Norman. You can always get him.
Zimmerman: Isn’t he a blessing?
Rae: Yes, he is! I called him and told him the situation—that they wouldn’t release me from my contract with CBS. He said, “Oh, I know whatever his name is at CBS. He owes me a favor.” Most of the sitcoms were on CBS. He said, “I bet you a nickel I can get you out of that contract.” And he did!
Zimmerman: (laughs) But now you owed him a nickel!
Jewell: Wow! Now, in making the transfer from Diff’rent Strokes to The Facts of Life, how did that come about?
Rae: They brought the Diff’rent Strokes gang along with us. It was a very complex situation. But everyone was very cooperative. It was not easy, because there were so many of us. But everyone got along. It was nerve-wracking, but it all worked.
Zimmerman: Why was it nerve-wracking?
Jewell: Well, she was the only adult!
Zimmerman: Oh, right, the adult and kids.
Rae: Except for Mr. Drummond. But it worked.
Jewell: Yeah, I guess he was an adult too.
Zimmerman: Which reminds me, before I forget—Hank Garrett says Hello.
Rae: Oh, yes, from Car 54!
Zimmerman: “Car 54, Where Are You?”
Rae: Yes, exactly.
Zimmerman: We said we were going to visit you, and he said, “Please give her a hug from me!”
Rae: Thank you. Is he still working?
Zimmerman: He’s writing his book. In fact, I think he’s finished now.
Jewell: Yes, he is. I’ve become good friends with him. He’s very funny and such a sweetheart.
Rae: Car 54 was one of the funniest shows ever. Nat Hiken was a brilliant genius of a man. He should be in the Comedy Hall of Fame, along with Norman Lear and Gary Marshall. He belongs there, and they’ve never put him in there. And even though it’s—how do you say it?—posthumous, he still belongs there. He also wrote The Martha Raye Show, The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54. Before that, in radio, he had The Fred Allen Show.
I’m lucky. I’ll tell you when I was doing Li’l Abner in 1957 and played Mammy Yokum, I really didn’t want to do it. I really didn’t want to play a cartoon character.
Zimmerman: Why not?
Rae: I’m an actress. I wanted to do something that was real. So I told my lawyer to ask for more money, thinking they’d turn it down. “Ask for $750 a week, and I’ll never get it.” And they said OK! And I did it.
Jewell: Did you do stand-up comedy at any point?
Rae: Not like you. I started at the Village Vanguard in New York City, which is still there. It’s the famous jazz place.
Jewell: Oh, wow!
Rae: Judy Holliday. And the lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. They wrote so many musicals, including Bells Are Ringing.
Zimmerman: In high school, I played Dr. Kitchell, the dentist.
Rae: Oh, what a funny part!
Zimmerman: I loved it!
Rae: They were called the reviewers at the Village Vanguard. Then they all became very big, famous stars, and I went in there, and I think Barbra Streisand did, too.
Jewell: Not to interrupt, but did you consider you and Paul Lynde a comedy team?
Rae: Well, we did comedy sketches together in the musical at Northwestern University. He was so very funny.
Zimmerman: When growing up, I would watch him, and he would bring me so much joy, so much laughter.
Which reminds me, I was on the Internet, and I saw some of your stand-up there. There was a clip of your stand-up and singing.
Rae: Oh, you mean The Ed Sullivan Show?
(continued in the June/July 2017 Issue)