You Take the Good,
You Take the Bad

An Oral History of
The Facts of Life

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The cast of The Facts of Life stand together on the set

by Will Harris

During the late ‘70s and into the early ‘80s, NBC was, by and large, not the place to be: “Must-See TV” was still more than a decade away, and thanks to big-budget flops (Supertrain) and misguided variety show concepts (Pink Lady), the network’s ratings were floundering. Yet in the midst of myriad disappointments, a show premiered that would go on to become the network’s longest-running sitcom to that point: The Facts of Life.

Revolving around the goings-on at a private girls’ school in Peekskill, New York, The Facts of Life premiered on August 24, 1979. While always a comedy at heart, the series wasn’t afraid to get serious, featuring episodes that tackled racism, abortion, adoption, drug abuse, alcoholism, rape, and suicide at various points. Over the course of its nine-season run, viewers watched Lisa Whelchel, Mindy Cohn, Kim Fields, and—beginning with season 2—Nancy McKeon take their respective characters of Blair, Natalie, Tootie, and Jo from teenagers to adults, moving from high school to college and into the workforce. Along the way, they learned valuable lessons and took heartfelt advice from their oft-flustered housemother, Edna Garrett, played by Charlotte Rae. When Rae departed the series at the beginning of season 8, the vacuum was filled by Mary Tyler Moore and Mel Brooks cohort Cloris Leachman, who played Mrs. Garrett’s sister, Beverly Ann Stickle.

Although the series ended its 200-plus episode run on May 7, 1988, The Facts of Life remains in the public consciousness, aided by the recent arrival of a complete-series set from Shout Factory. In conjunction with the set’s release, members of the series’ cast and creative team spoke with EW about how it all began, the series’ evolution over the course of its run and its enduring fandom.

Cast of Characters

(in order of appearance):

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

  • Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Garrett)
  • Fred Silverman (president and CEO of NBC, 1978-1981)
  • Howard Leeds (writer)
  • Jerry Mayer (executive producer / writer)
  • Lisa Whelchel (Blair Warner)
  • Julie Piekarski Probst (Sue Ann Weaver)
  • John Bowab (director)
  • Alan Thicke (theme song co-writer)
  • John Lawlor (Mr. Bradley)
  • Sally Sussman Morina (writer)
  • Nancy McKeon (Jo Polniaczek)
  • Asaad Kelada (director)
  • Alex Rocco (Charlie Polniaczek)
  • Geri Jewell (Geri Tyler)
  • Pamela Adlon (Kelly Affinado)
  • Mackenzie Astin (Andy Moffett)
  • Diana Eden (costume designer)
  • Sherrié Austin (Pippa McKenna)
  • Mayim Bialik (Jennifer Cole)
  • Seth Green (Adam Brinkerhoff)

Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Garrett): Fred Silverman took over CBS and ABC as president of those networks, and then he took over NBC and was planning to make us the best. When I was on Diff’rent Strokes, he remembered me from Car 54, Where Are You?—I had the part of Sylvia Schnauser in that, playing the wife of Al Lewis, who went on to [play Grandpa on] The Munsters—and he knew I could deliver, so he decided he wanted to spin me off.

Fred Silverman (president and CEO of NBC, 1978-1981): Diff’rent Strokes was one of the few successful comedies we had on NBC, so I decided that would be the ideal choice as a vehicle for a spinoff, and Charlotte’s character was a natural: She was established on the show, but her absence wouldn’t mean the decline of the show. In other words, I thought there was enough there that we could weather her loss, and then she could still make guest appearances. So we effected a spinoff very, very quickly—I think we went on the air within a year of the time that Diff’rent Strokes premiered—and it was an instant success, which in those days was quite rare for NBC.

Howard Leeds (writer): Fred Silverman wanted a spinoff from Diff’rent Strokes—I was the producer for the show—and Norman Lear asked us to write it, so we did. I wrote the pilot with Ben Starr, and we did it as an episode of our show. It was no big deal at the time. It was just, “Well, here we have an opportunity to do a spin-off, so we’re looking forward to doing it, and we hope it works.” And, by God, it did, didn’t it? [Laughs.]

Rae: But I was really worried. I had just gotten a divorce from my husband, John Strauss, and we’d recently bought a house, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. But my manager got a deal where, if the show failed, I could go back to Diff’rent Strokes. Isn’t that a miracle? But I put everything into it with the girls. Everything. I just loved them. I still do. They’re extraordinary.

Jerry Mayer (executive producer/writer): I wasn’t hired until after they made the decision to do a spin-off from Diff’rent Strokes... Once they decided to move forward with the series, I was hired to produce it and write scripts and so on, by which point there were already a number of characters to work with who had been introduced in that initial episode.

Lisa Whelchel (Blair Warner): I’d done The New Mickey Mouse Club, and had auditioned for a few other shows when The Facts of Life came up. I had recently been cast for the series Hello, Larry because they were replacing the older sister, but I’d also gone out for The Facts of Life and got that part, too, so I had to choose between the two. I was dumb and naïve, so I didn’t take the bird in the hand: I chose the pilot that wasn’t a sure thing, but it seemed like the more fun part.

Julie Piekarski Probst (Sue Ann Weaver): At that time, The Mickey Mouse Club was kind of like American Idol is nowadays, where Disney went on a nationwide search. I had no agent or anything when I got that job, but I ended up getting one once I went to California. I was up for Little House on the Prairie at one point. I think what happened was that there were some contract renegotiations, and I don’t know if certain people were asking for more money or not, but I remembering going in and reading for Michael Landon. It ended up not happening, because everybody came back to the show, but it might’ve been because of that, as well as a couple of other things, that I was brought in for The Facts of Life. So it was kind of a general audition, but there was also an element of “send her in.” I don’t think I knew that Lisa was involved, though, until the very, very end, right before we started shooting. We’d kept in touch since we were on The Mickey Mouse Club, but we never had to read together for any of the auditions, so it was just, boom, there we were on the same show again. [Laughs.]

Whelchel: The character of Blair apparently evolved after the initial audition because of the way I delivered a line. As far as I can remember, I said something derogatory about a girl’s derriere. And because of the way I said it, the part changed from a naïve fast-talking girl from Texas into Blair as she ended up being.

John Bowab (director): Charlotte and Norman Lear went to Westlake [School, Los Angeles] to find out how girls that age act, and Mindy was so funny that Charlotte said, “That girl should be on the show!”

Mayer: I was at Westlake as well, and Mindy was the student who was showing us around, and she was so cute and had kind of a Jewish sense of humor, so we said, “Hey, she’d be great as one of the girls!” We got in touch with her mother, and her mother said, “Fine,” and the rest is history. But it was strictly dumb luck.

Probst: Talk about a show business moment like they had in the olden days, like Lana Turner being discovered at a soda fountain or whatever. [Laughs.] But we took Mindy in immediately, because there was no reason not to take her in: We all loved her right away. Her humor, her comebacks and one-liners—that is Mindy. I mean, it’s her character, too, and they definitely added more to Natalie that isn’t Mindy, but that quick wit is definitely her. She had us laughing all the time.

Bowab: In that first season, they had Tootie on roller skates all the time, and one of the reasons was that Kim was so tiny. Fortunately, they got rid of that.

Alan Thicke (theme song co-writer): Norman Lear and I became rather close when I was working on Fernwood 2 Night. Music had been part of my background before that. I started off in rock bands after college, and the reaction of the audiences quickly taught me that I’d do better with patter than the music, which is why I started talking more and singing less. But Norman’s familiarity with my music really came by way of the little comedy ditties and silly stuff that I wrote for Fernwood 2 Night. We had a mythical band on the show called Happy Kyne and the Mirthmakers, and I would write intentionally bad or corny songs for them, which amused Norman. He liked the style and respected my lyrical rhyme-scheming ability. [Laughs.] But all of that is what kind of led into my doing the theme for Diff’rent Strokes, and after that went well, he said, “You’re the guy we need for The Facts of Life.”

I must say, I was very proud of the internal rhyme scheme for that entire song. The opening lines are obviously the ones that everyone remembers, and, of course, you don’t get to hear all of the lyrics in the 30-second version—or however long it is—that’s at the beginning of the show. I don’t know how many of them I’ll remember right off the top of my head, but there’s also “If you hear them from your brother / Better clear them with your mother / Better get them right / Call them late at night.” I remember that one, and then there’s also, “There’s a time you’ve got to go and show / You’re growing now, you know / About the facts of life, the facts of life.” I mean, that was a pretty ambitious internal rhyme! [Laughs.]

Shot of the original Facts of Life cast

THE FACTS OF LIFE, (top row, from left): Lisa Whelchel, Felice Schachter, Molly Ringwald, (middle): Kim Fields, John Lawlor, Charlotte Rae, Julie Anne Haddock, (bottom): Mindy Cohn, Julie Piekarski, (Season 1), 1979-1988 © Embassy Pictures / Courtesy: Everett Collection

When The Facts of Life premiered, the predominant setting was the girls’ dorm, with Mrs. Garrett supervising not only Blair, Natalie, and Tootie, but also Cindy (Julie Anne Haddock), Molly (Molly Ringwald), Nancy (Felice Schacter), and Sue Ann (Julie Piekarski). The cast also included Miss Mahoney (Jenny O’Hara), one of the girls’ teachers at Eastland, as well as the school’s headmaster, Mr. Bradley, played by John Lawlor.

Probst: They were trying to incorporate the school atmosphere and the teacher dynamics at first, but as the show went on, those parts ended up on the sidelines, and it was more about what went on in the house with the girls and Mrs. Garrett. I think the only episodes that were really about school were “I.Q.,” where all the girls take an I.Q. test, and “Emily Dickinson,” which was about cheating.

John Lawlor (Mr. Bradley): They got rid of Jenny O’Hara’s character three shows in. We only had half an hour, and you couldn’t have that conflict and mine with Mrs. Garrett at the same time. Also, I don’t know how much room they really had for a teacher: I remember in the second or third show I blew up on somebody, saying, “You know, this is our third show, and I have yet to see anybody with a book!” And then all of a sudden, bang, everybody’s got a book, which is good, and as it should’ve been in a show about a school. But it wasn’t really about the school.

Sally Sussman Morina (writer): After the first four episodes, they got an order for an additional nine more, and that’s when I came aboard as a writer’s assistant. I definitely brought some authenticity to the show that hadn’t been there, particularly during the first season, if only because I was female. [Laughs.] I mean, it happened to be a show that I could really sink my teeth into, which was good, but they needed my help, because the writers at the time were all men. They were also all older. I was closer to Tootie’s age than I was to the writers. There were a couple of much older writers on the show. One [Stan Dreben] actually died during the season. I think they started to make the decision about streamlining the show as those nine episodes were being done. They continued to try focusing on all of the girls in their own stories at one time or another—there were episodes that featured Molly, Cindy, Sue Ann, and Nancy—but the only ones that really got to pop were the three that they ended up keeping for season 2: Blair, Natalie, and Tootie.

Silverman: We did cut the number down, because some of the girls were just kind of faces in the crowd.

Mayer: I still think it’s funny that, of the girls they decided to cut, one of them was Molly Ringwald, who, even though they were all very talented, went on to be the biggest star of the bunch. I remember thinking, “God, I hate to lose her, because she really has talent!”

Whelchel: We were shocked when we came back for the second season and found that it had been pared down. They just said that there were too many characters to really get to know any of them, and so they pared it down to the three girls.

Lawlor: All I know is I got fired from that show—and that’s the word. They can say anything—they can say “let go,” they can say “downsized”—but it’s really, “You’re fired. You’re gone.” I remember my last show I had, like, 45 seconds of screen time, and I went, “Uh-oh, this is not good.”

Rae: John Lawlor and I supported each other on the show. It was a big gang of people at the beginning, a large cast, and he and I were each other’s rock.

Silverman: I felt that, in looking at the mix, we needed some contrast there, and I had seen Nancy McKeon—I don’t remember for sure where—but I was very impressed with her. She’s a very, very good actress. So I said, “You know, we ought to put her in there. She’d provide enormous contrast to the other girls in attitude.” We had ethnic differences, but I didn’t think that was enough. I thought we needed more attitudinal conflict. So we brought her in, and it made an enormous difference. It added new life to the series.

Nancy McKeon (Jo Polniaczek): I’d actually done a pilot for NBC where I played a similar kind of character—it was a one-hour drama, however—so they knew of me. The pilot didn’t get picked up, but they did bring me in for The Facts of Life. But there were a lot of people auditioning for the show. It wasn’t, “Bring her in. She’s our gal!” [Laughs.]

Rae: I wanted to read with Nancy McKeon, to make it as easy as possible for her, and she was so wonderful when she did the reading.

McKeon: I got to do the scene with Charlotte, who was just so generous and so kind. It was sort of an emotional scene, and she was just so brilliant to be there and be so present for such a young kid who was just auditioning. She and I still talk about that. I’ll never forget how wonderful she was.

Bowab: Nancy’s screen test was terrific. There was a phone call that she had to make in it, and I distinctly remembering asking Nancy, “Even though it says cry, don’t cry. I want you to hold back and make the audience cry.” And she did. Everybody in the control room was shattered. Nancy was an original. We just knew that she could hold her own with Lisa, and that was basically what they were looking for: someone to slap Blair down every so often. [Laughs.]

Asaad Kelada (director): I had directed one episode when the series first began, and it was difficult then, because there were so many characters and there was so much going on. When I was given a call and asked to go back in the second season, I actually had a little trepidation because of that first experience. But then I read the script and went back, because suddenly the show just had this focus, and it was the start of what went on to become an iconic series.

Morina: Those four girls all literally grew up on television, and that’s always a gutsy thing to do.

Lawlor: A lot of the heat came down on Lisa, and all the time: for her hair, for her weight, for everything. But she never, ever cracked. She never told anybody anything. She just sucked it up and did what they asked. She was a very tough, wonderful girl.

Whelchel: It was a drag, sure, inasmuch as it would be for any girl in whatever she’s doing to feel unattractive and feel pressure to look a certain way. But I think it’s been overhyped a bit. There just wasn’t much drama on the set, so they had to find whatever they could to make it seem more dramatic. It was pretty normal for a bunch of girls going through puberty. It’s not like it’s outside the lines of understanding. But there wasn’t much else to spark up any kind of articles, so everybody turned to that.

McKeon: We were young, it was a different time, and there wasn’t the social media or the micromanaging every second of what people do and where they are. I don’t know how some of the younger actors do it today. There’s always going to be issues with one thing or another. I think that, in retrospect, Lisa… I mean, there’s just no controversy about how beautiful she is. And to know her, she’s just a doll, just so kind and sweet and wonderful. But businesses have their visions of whatever they think things should be. Unfortunately, when you’re casting girls that are going through puberty, they’re, uh, going through puberty, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] There has to be some allowance for human grace there. But I think Lisa handled herself beautifully whenever anything came her way.

Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner

Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

While all four girls attended Eastland together, the five core cast members remained constant, but a few recurring characters began to enter the mix, some of whom became so successful that their number of appearances entered the double digits by the end of the series’ run.

Mayer: Casting the show was always a lot of fun in general, because as executive producers, we had a certain amount of power. We got who we thought would be good, but we also tried to get actors who had some substance in the business. Not only did it make the episode they were in better, but the show itself seemed more important when we were getting important actors as guest stars.

Alex Rocco (Charlie Polniaczek): I think I got the job playing Jo’s dad because my agent at the time had heard about it and told them I’d be perfect for it. And he was right: I had the same coloring and looks at Nancy McKeon, and she was a tough girl from Westbury, and I was a tough guy from Boston. It was easy to play. I mean, look at my wardrobe: I wore a leather jacket, an open shirt, and Nikes, I think. It wasn’t much of a stretch for me!

McKeon: All these years later, I still remember that first episode with Alex Rocco, and doing those scenes with him where he was in prison, so we were behind the glass, talking on the phone. The fact that he’d actually been in prison didn’t come up until later. [Laughs.] I don’t think he wanted to scare anybody. I mean, I was 14, so I think he felt like there were some things better left for later on, when we could have that discussion fully. So good on him that he was a dad enough in his own right to think, “You know, maybe I’ll wait on that.”

Rocco: When I was doing Facts, I was living in Carpinteria, up in Santa Barbara, about a hundred miles from L.A., so I stayed at the Sportsmen’s Lodge while I was shooting. Nancy’s family fed me every Sunday evening and every other night in their home. I mean, we’re talking yummy mashed potatoes, stuffing and turkey—the McKeon family was so f---ing nice to me! Nancy and I really became like father and daughter. We’re ham and eggs, the two of us.

Whelchel: Blair softened as a character as the series went on. There were so many stories that you could perhaps start to understand why she was the way she was, which also softened the hearts of the viewers as well.

Geri Jewell (Geri Tyler): I was asked to perform at the second annual Media Access Awards in 1980, and Norman Lear and Charlotte Rae were in the audience at that. Shortly after my performance, I was introduced to Norman by Fern Field and Norman Brooks, and Norman Lear said to me, “You’re a very, very funny kid, and you’ll be hearing from me soon.” It was Norman who came up with the idea to write me in as Blair’s cousin, and it was perfect, because my character kind of humanized her character. It gave her a bit of heart.

Whelchel: Working with Geri was wonderful. I loved that they were breaking new territory, and Geri was very talented. She brought great heart and sensitivity to the show.

Kelada: I remember when Geri joined the show, and how extraordinary that experience was for me. I learned a lot from Geri, because she helped me, in her own way, to learn about how to deal with a person who is “different” from who I am, and to not let them be devalued, because we all go in with self-conscious, preconceived notions. With The Facts of Life, there always seemed to be an overlap between life and art.

Morina: They got more serious later on down the road. You know, with the “very special” Facts of Life episodes. But they really did deal with a number of issues about young girls growing up, which I don’t think any other shows had really dealt with prior to that, yet they still managed to be funny.

Rae: I loved the issues we tackled. But there was one time when they had a joke about someone wearing tights and being a sissy—it was implying that they were gay—and I called NBC and said, “This is a no-no. We don’t make fun of people because of their sexuality.” That was a long time ago.

George Clooney as George Burnett, Charolette Rae as Edna Garrett, and Kim Fields as Dorothy 'Tootie' Ramsey

George Clooney as George Burnett, Charolette Rae as Edna Garrett, and Kim Fields as Dorothy 'Tootie' Ramsey Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Not coincidentally, the fifth season was when The Facts of Life was forced into the next stage of its evolution. With Blair and Jo having graduated from Eastland and entering Langley College, a premise needed to be concocted to keep them all under the same roof. The solution: Set Mrs. Garrett up with her own catering business—Edna’s Edibles—and have it connected to an old house, thereby providing the girls with a place to stay and Mrs. Garrett with a team of live-in employees. Season 5 was also when the series began to expand the roster of series regulars by searching for new characters who could fit into the existing mix and stick around for the long haul.

Pamela Adlon (Kelly Affinado): I was so excited to be cast in The Facts of Life because, of course, I worshipped the show, being a teenage girl. I couldn’t believe I was going to be on The Facts of Life! But here’s the thing. They were having an audition for a pilot called Jo’s Cousin, and they wanted it to be exactly what it sounded like: Jo had a tough little cousin. Whatever. They ended up not going forward with the series.

Either way, though, I auditioned for it, which is probably how I ended up on The Facts of Life, and I think the intent was that I was going to be a new tough girl. They wanted to kind of feminize Jo a little bit on the show, and I was going to be the new butch girl at the place. Originally, I was going to be this kid who had no money, and they took me in and everything, but then they turned the storyline around and made me a rich girl who stole, which, don’t know what that was about, but... [Hesitates.] I don’t think that Nancy McKeon—with all due respect—felt like having somebody come in. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think she was really on board with the new character, so I guess that’s what changed the role so much. I mean, they turned me into this awful person who ended up friggin’ robbing Edna’s Edibles! [Laughs.] It was terrible! I felt so bad!

Bowab: They tried to bring in new characters as the show went on. The truth is, they never really wanted to see anybody but the girls and Charlotte.

Whelchel: They wanted to grab the next generation of girls behind us, and they thought a cute boy would be the way to do it, so they’d done that a few times in the past, trying to find somebody who really grabbed the audience. So when they brought Mackenzie aboard, it didn’t feel odd, because it wasn’t something new.

Mackenzie Astin (Andy Moffett): As an ancillary character, I had a lot of bits throughout. Each episode, there would be a certain bit that Andy had, or I’d help move the plot along in some ancillary way. There were a couple of episodes, though, that were Andy-centric, and those were particularly great for me as a performer, just because there was a little more meat on the bone. I have described being on that show as being like a kid in a candy store, and once they changed the shop from Edna’s Edibles to Over Our Heads, it actually was a candy store. So being a kid there, it was perfect.

McKeon: I think Mack enjoyed it when George Clooney came on. He had a pal to kind of hang out with for a moment or two.

Astin: George came along and did something like 13 episodes, but I can tell you his influence was felt much further than just those 13 episodes. I think we were all better off just for having been exposed to him—or, I think I can say, for him having exposed himself to us. [Laughs.]

Bowab: They never knew what to do with George. He hadn’t found who he was, and they certainly didn’t know what he was, but cutesy and dumb was not what George was best at playing. He should never have played that.

McKeon: I’m not surprised that he went on to be George Clooney. He’s wonderful. But they never wrote for him. I don’t know that they ever really did the best by Mack’s character, either. I think it was hard for guys on the show in general. If you were a boyfriend, you got more of a storyline because it would involve one of us in a bigger sort of way, but that was about it. My heart went out to Mack just because, well, there were a lot of girls. The poor thing. [Laughs.] But I have to say, not only was he really good, he was a good sport and a sweetheart. I hope he had a good time, because that many girls in a room can sure be a little overwhelming, I would imagine.

Astin: Which of the girls did I have the biggest crush on? That’s like asking to pick your favorite child. [Laughs.] It’s an impossible choice!

Cloris Leachman in Edna's Edibles

Cloris Leachman Alice S. Hall/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

At the beginning of the eighth season, The Facts of Life was forced to endure the most significant cast change of its run: the departure of Charlotte Rae. Not that the series didn’t find a formidable comedic figure to fill the vacuum—Cloris Leachman—but the differences between the two actresses, not to mention their characters, was undeniable. (Leachman is in production and was unable to comment for this story.)

Rae: Towards the end, I felt that I really wasn’t needed that much. The girls seemed to be self-sufficient, and I felt like my part had become… Well, it’s like my friend Jean Stapleton said about her character [Edith Bunker on All in the Family]: She felt like she’d done all of the different areas of the woman’s life, and she really felt like it was about over, that there was nothing more. For Mrs. Garrett, they always kept it in the same mold, but the girls were growing up, and I felt very comfortable about them being strong and powerful. So I left. But I felt good about it, because I knew that the girls were well-loved and the popularity would continue because of them and their connection with the audience.

Whelchel: When Cloris Leachman stepped in it was a totally different energy, which was wonderful, but because of that, there was never any kind of comparison. She sent notes to us even before she came on the set, so from day one it was, like, “Oh, great, it’s another chapter—and this one will be fun, too.” But when Charlotte left, I don’t think we quite understood why. I don’t know if we knew it was for health reasons or what. I mean, I’m sure she made it clear at the time, but in hindsight, I look back and it’s kind of foggy.

Rae: The producers were shocked when I told them I was leaving. They offered me millions to stay. But I thought it over and said, “What are they gonna do, sprinkle money on my grave?” Because not only was I older than the girls, but I had a pacemaker with a mitral valve. When we came back from France—remember The Facts of Life Goes to Paris?—I had it put in. Over that Labor Day weekend, I had it done, and then I went back to work. We kept it a secret, and all was well, but I just didn’t want to overtax myself. I wanted to have a career and continue to act, because it’s such a privilege and I love it, but I didn’t want to kill myself. So I thought it was time to move on. And they did well without me, didn’t they? They went on for another couple of years.

The girls plus Rae posing in The Facts of Life goes to Paris special episode

Rae in The Facts of Life Goes to Paris episode Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank

Bowab: They certainly brought in a “name” and a wonderful actress to replace Charlotte, but Cloris just never had the connection with the girls that Charlotte had. I don’t think the writers knew what to do with her, either, because it was past the point of the girls being given advice to. Cloris is a tremendous actress, but the writers couldn’t say, “Well, you tell the girls to do this,” because the girls would say, “Why? Who are you to tell us?”

Astin: I think the writers had a lot of fun writing for Cloris. Her bit—for lack of a better word—throughout a lot of the episodes was that she would have the girls sit down, and then she would make them listen to some cockamamie story. I got the feeling that the writers had started to have a really good time just seeing how crazy they could make her, or how silly the stories could get. And God bless Cloris, because I learned a whole lot about how to be an interesting actor, or how to come off as a real person even if they give you crazy stuff to say.

Diana Eden (costume designer): Cloris Leachman was wonderful to dress. She was not an easy person in many ways, but I learned a great deal from her. She is a force of nature. She is very opinionated and very strong-willed, but her instincts as an actor are so right on, and I found when I stopped being defensive and really listened to her, she was always right.

Astin: Towards the end of the show, they started to have a lot more fun with the episodes. They did several themed episodes. There was a flashback episode called “62 Pickup,” with Fabian and Bobby Rydell as guest stars, and it was a flashback to the ’60s. In one scene, I got to play kind of a Beaver Cleaver character called Badger, which was okay, but then there was another scene where Beverly Anne—or Ms. Krebs, as she was in the episode—is a beatnik, and she’s doing some beat poetry, and I was lucky enough to be the fellow in a goatee next to her on the bongos, underscoring her poetry. That was an absolute ball. Any of the episodes where it was a little bit wild and a little bit crazy were so much fun to do, just because they were different.

Meredith Scott Lynn as Ashley Payne, Sherrie Krenn as Pippa McKenna, Marissa Mendenhall as Sara Bellanger

Meredith Scott Lynn as Ashley Payne, Sherrie Krenn as Pippa McKenna, Marissa Mendenhall as Sara Bellanger Alice S. Hall/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The ninth season of The Facts of Life would be its last. Though the cast and creative team might’ve sensed that the time was right to wrap things up, there were still continuing efforts to breathe new life into the series.

Sherrié Austin (Pippa McKenna): They wanted to add a bit of color to the show since it was in its ninth season, so they decided they wanted to do an international storyline. I’m not sure if the Australian thing was something they set out to do or if they ended up going with Australia since it was hot at the time—Crocodile Dundee had been a huge success, so there was just kind of a fascination with all things Australian—but they ended up auditioning for talent there. But I don’t think The Facts of Life even ran in Australia. If it did, I never watched it up where we lived. I’d never heard of the show before I auditioned.

Eden: I don’t know how much Sherrie really enjoyed her time on the show.

Austin: My favorite episode was probably my first one. It was fun having my Australian dad turn up, there were a lot of funny lines, it was well written, and it was just really cool. The girls showed me the ropes a little bit, but Cloris Leachman was the most gracious when it came to that. I had just graduated from school and had no acting experience other than school plays, so this was a brand-new experience for me. I did not know anything, so I learned pretty much everything about television from that show.

Whelchel: When the show ended at the end of the ninth season, I feel like it probably had some more run in it, but it’s always better if you can leave at that point. They did try to do a spin-off, which in hindsight they should have because the cast they had on it has all turned out to be pretty successful.

Astin: Look at that last episode, the one that was supposed to bring the show back to Eastland: The cast included Seth Green, Juliette Lewis, Mayim Bialik…

Mayim Bialik (Jennifer Cole): When the audition for The Facts of Life came in, I had just started acting—but I’d watched the show religiously as a child, so it was very exciting. They were looking for a motley crew of kids, so I think a lot of it was, “Let’s see what we get at the audition.” There was, I think, a certain amount of skill to assembling a group of characters with enough variety that in theory could’ve been the foundation of a show.

Seth Green (Adam Brinkerhoff): I grew up on that show, so it was exciting to work with all of those people on those actual stages and sets. They were tremendously generous. I was young and stupid, so I had a lot of people being really nice to me and gently correcting me when the opportunity came up.

I was in drag for my first scene in the episode, though. [Laughs.] A classic rite of passage for male comedians, right? My character was supposed to be kind of a cross between Steve Guttenberg and Harry Anderson. They wanted someone who was wild and silly that wasn’t entirely offensive.

Bialik: I remember in the script that they were always teasing me that I was flat-chested. I was always in a leotard—and I was a very tiny, scrawny little thing—and I carried a trumpet. I was a trumpet player, so they worked that into the show. And I think that Seth Green’s character was always trying to go out with me, but my character thought he was creepy. [Laughs.]

Seth Green as Adam Brinkerhoff with Mayim Bialik as Jennifer Cole

Seth Green as Adam Brinkerhoff, Mayim Bialik as Jennifer Cole Alice S. Hall/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Green: My character was the definitive creep. [Laughs.] But that would’ve been the fun of it as it went on, to see him evolve. Because that’s what that show was about. We got to watch all of those girls grow up, and they were super honest about whatever their flaws were, so you got to see them struggle with those flaws week after week in real situations. That’s what we all hoped our characters would get to do, because we were young and going through the same kind of process.

I feel like it’s okay to tell you this story because I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has probably passed, and I think the person involved will see it as the compliment I intend it to be. In our first week of putting the show together, we were all gathered in one of the dressing rooms, and Mindy Cohn pops into the doorway. I don’t even remember the conversation. I just remember that everybody else was looking away, because she’d already sort of said goodbye. But she grabbed my attention by saying, “Hey, Seth” or whatever, and she f---ing flashed me! She wasn’t wearing a bra. And nobody else saw it. But then she maniacally laughed and ran off down the hall, and I’m left going, “Did…anyone else just see that?” But, no, it was just me. I thought, “This is a really, really great job.” [Laughs.]

Bialik: I think all of our lives would’ve been different if that show had been picked up. I remember being really disappointed when it wasn’t, because, well, that was what you wanted, you know? To get your pilot picked up. Obviously, that’s the whole ridiculousness of being a child actor. You’re setting yourself up to be rejected, and your parents have to help you through it, right? [Laughs.]

Whelchel: They were definitely onto something there. It could’ve been a really great spin-off just because of the people involved in it. Plus, it would’ve brought everything full circle.

Austin: I think they kind of knew it was nearing its end, and they were just trying to find ways to maybe make some spin-offs work, to keep it going. There was also [a backdoor pilot] where Natalie would’ve moved into the city, and one of her roommates was David Spade. But the girls had grown up, and everyone had watched that happen, so I think it had just run its course, as things do in life. It had been nine years.

McKeon: I think we had all gotten to a point where trying to find reasons for all of us to live together in the same house became somewhat difficult. [Laughs.] It was a good time to end. We had a great time doing it, we got to work with some amazing people, and it came to sort of a natural conclusion. Nine years is a long time to spend formative years with people. It’s quite a chunk of time. But what a great opportunity, a great learning ground, a master class working with all these wonderful people.

Mindy, Nancy, Kim, and Lisa

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

It’s been more than 25 years since viewers last saw Blair, Jo, Natalie, and Tootie together—aside from a Jo-less reunion TV movie in 2001—but for the cast, crew, and fans, The Facts of Life remains a landmark show.

Bowab: The Facts of Life was never considered a prestige show compared to the other shows that were on the air at the time, but it was a show that, even if you’d wanted to kill it, you couldn’t. They shifted it from one night to another night, from Wednesday to Saturday, but it had a tremendous fanbase—young girls, mostly—and they followed it. All of these girls would come to tapings, and they’d literally stomp the floor, they were so excited.

Morina: Over the years, I’ve met and worked with a lot of people, and they always gave me credibility because I worked on that show.

Mayer: As I go through life, whenever I tell someone I was an exec producer of The Facts of Life, they always go, “Oh, my God, that was my favorite show! That was such a great show!”

Bowab: It’s amazing: I’ve done a lot of shows since then, but people will still come up to me and say, “Oh, my God, you did The Facts of Life!” With Google, there’s no hiding it. Your name’s out there, and if they’re fans, they’ll find out.

Kelada: Several years later, when I was working on Dharma and Greg, I think it was, I was approached by one of the writers, who was obviously younger, and she said that she knew my name because she used to watch The Facts of Life with her mother. They used to watch it together just before she went to bed, so whenever the episode was over, her mother would say, “Okay, it’s Asaad Kelada time!”

Thicke: I’m always proud when I see [the opening lines of the theme song] show up as a spoken line in a sketch on television. I mean, I’ve seen it on Saturday Night Live, I’ve seen it on 2 Broke Girls, and someone referred me to its use on The Goldbergs. There have been a number of shows that—flatteringly—will liberally quote lines from the song like they actually meant something. I take that as a tribute to that demographic that grew up watching that show and to whom that lyric must’ve resonated. But when stuff like that comes up and I’m sitting with my teenage son, I usually elbow him and say, “See? Your dad wasn’t such a stiff back then. I had a couple of things that stuck!”

Jewell: I did 24 episodes of Deadwood on HBO—twice as many episodes as I did of The Facts of Life—but to this day, more people come up to me on the street and say, “Oh, my God, you’re Cousin Geri!”

Astin: Not long ago, I watched the episode where Natalie loses her virginity. That was a big deal. But I’d forgotten how great Robert Romanus was as Snake—just so, so good. He’s somebody who’s just a terrific actor, but I guess for a guy like him, when you play a part that’s as memorable as Mike Damone [in Fast Times at Ridgemont High], it’s hard for people to shake that. It’s like my old man [John Astin] with Gomez Addams. It’s hard for people to see him as anything but that. It’s curious, because it’s a testament to your talent, but if you look at it in a negative light, it can also be a curse.

But my old man is pretty much known for one character, and he—to me—has been an incredible example of how to make the best of that, because he allows the love that people have for Gomez to exist within him, and now there’s nothing negative about the fact that people know him as that. And though I have done quite a bit more work, mostly people remember me for being an ancillary character on a popular television show. But I have found eventually that the more I love that, the more it loves me.

Probst: When people come up to me, a lot of times they’ll say, “God, you look so familiar,” and when they do, I never tell them why they might recognize me, because the times that I’ve done that, they look at me like I’m crazy. “No, that’s not it…” [Laughs.] But after they think about it, I usually get something along the lines of, “I loved you on The Facts of Life, because you were just an all-American girl, and I could completely relate to you.” And then right after that, it’s usually, “Why did they get rid of you?“ and I’m, like, “Well, I don’t know. You’d have to ask them.” But then I end up defending the show, first of all because that’s show business, but also because obviously it ended up running longer and ended up making a difference in so many young girls’ lives.

McKeon: I’m grateful for my fellow ladies. It’s an experience that is unique to us. We have all those memories that are ours to share. I’m happy that other people found joy in watching the show or help in watching the show or whatever, and my life is so completely better for having had that experience. Anything else, you’ve got to let go.

Whelchel: In the middle of doing the series, being young, I don’t think I had the kind of perspective to realize or appreciate what kind of an impact it was having. But with age and time and now having that perspective from meeting women who watched the show when they were younger, it’s made me so incredibly grateful to have been a part of something that’s been able to bring so much joy to so many people.

Rae: People still come up and tell me how much Mrs. Garrett and the girls meant to them when they were growing up. And some people who really didn’t have much of a family life will tell me that it felt like I was their mother, because of the warmth of Mrs. Garrett. Knowing that I was doing a service to some children who were in need, that I was there for them with what they felt was an unconditional love, that makes me so happy.