Truth Behind The SitcomsNarrator: In The mid 70's NBC was in a programming plot, desperate for ratings, the looked for successful comedies for inspiration. They found it in Diff'rent Strokes.
Charlotte Rae: I was doing Diff'rent Strokes and there was a big big big fit. I had no idea that they were going to go like this to me and say we would like to spin you off as soon as possible.
Narrator: Mrs. Garrett would be the housemother at the prestigous Eastland School for young women. The Facts of Life debuted on August 24th, 1979, the ratings are less than spectacular and the reviews even worse. The Washington Polls called the show worthless and barren even predicting it would help finish off the already weak NBC network.
Lisa Whelchel: The producers were kind enough to not tell us, and broadcast them. So thats the first one I have heard about that one.
Mindy Cohn: We didn't really know, I guess how bad it was.
Charlotte Rae: The critics can be wrong, thank god it didn't kill us.
Narrator: The Facts of Life was in trouble. Having too many featuring girls seemed to be the problem, the solution, the axe.
Charlotte Rae: Well, it was just a lack of focus some how there was no way to manage all the stories it was just too much of a gang of people.
Narrator: Julie Piekarski, Julie Haddock, and Lisa Whelchel were all considered the pretty girls. There were two too many. Piekarski and Haddock were fired.
Lisa Whelchel: There were other girls. (laughs)
Narrator: The next decision of who to keep was between the youngest. Kim Fields and Molly Ringwald.
Kim Fields: I was the black girl and you know the black girl was always the first to go.
John Bowab (Directer): You know I liked Molly, I think that there was a feeling that all of us conspired in to let her go.
Al Burton (Producer): It was a stunning choice to pick Kim Fields to stay.
Narrator: The cast changes proved just what Facts of Life needed, but they felt there was room for a trouble maker, entered Nancy Mckeon.
John Bowab: The reason for Nancy was for someone to give it to Blair, to Lisa, and I think that, that was the turning point in the show.
Narrator: The cast changes proved to just what Facts of life needed. Turning it into a solid hit. The fact that there were more people watching the show. There were more eyes on the young cast. Which what turned the girls into cruel jokes.
John Bowab: The sad thing that I think got out of hand is that there was to much pressure put on them. I think that there was cruelty at the time.
Charlotte Rae: I heard they were called the fats of life.
Al Burton: Kim Fields has now got an ample figure, well what is little Kim Fields doing with an ample figure. And Lisa was more than uncomfortably built and Mindy was Mindy, but she was supposed to be stout. And Nancy herself was becoming a quote, big girl.
Kim Fields: We had a meeting with an executive and he was the executive. He said are you doing alright, a lot of people eat because they are unhappy and would you like to talk about it. I said Iím not crazy Iím hungry and I eat.
Lisa Whelchel: Well there was food all over the place and I was chowing down and saying this is fun.
Mindy Cohn: Ok girls get five and goto the trope and it is like oh my god.
Al Buton: We took away all the Oreo cookies and sweets from the craft services table where the girls would snack and we put in carrot sticks and celery.
Lisa Whelchel: But it was to late by the time they took all the doughnuts away, it had already done its damage.
Charlotte Rae: The girls would take peanut butter and fill it up in a celery stalk.
Lisa Whelchel: I was in the Hollywood Christmas Parade and I was going down the street and somebody yelled, Blair your getting fat.
Mindy Cohn: In the second season they brought a scale to rehearsal hall. I know I said something, I said itís not okay to do that here, do it in a dressing room, please do not do it here, because that is not okay.
Charlotte Rae: It was outrageous and kind of a joke because it wasnít going to do any good.
Lisa Whelchel: Everybody was in a panic, especially the Blair character, because they had hired me to do a certain character and I was out growing my role.
John Bowab: Lisa rebelled that way, I think she probably had snickers under the pillow. She said, if I am getting on the scale I am going to put on.
Lisa Whelchel: They sent us to fat farms, personal trainers, hypnotists, hypnotists, and boy they tried everything.
Narrator: While the rest of the cast weight was boluting up, the one girl hired for her ample figure was doing just the opposite.
Mindy Cohn: You know when you can tell one season from the next that looks pretty good ya know. And I was told that it would be helpful and beneficial for everyone else if I gained weight and I said absolutely not.
John Bowab: So they put baggy sweaters and things on her to maintain the chubby.
Narrator: Mindyís weight loss only emphasized a serious physical problem.
Mindy Cohn: With nothing to do with anything professional, I decided to go through breast deduction surgery. It wasnít, Iím so heavy what should I do, should I just lop off my breasts, ya know. It wasnít like Iím so unhappy, it was, this is was did it for me, there was this episode where Natalie had to fall down on the table And I seriously had to put my breasts on the table first and then fall down okay.
Kim Fields: There was this on time when I started developing my chest area, one of the producers asked me if there was any way to tape them down. We were like what, are you kidding me, this is a show about girls growing up, and this happens when you grow up, no you can not tape them down.
Lisa Whelchel: The normal facts of life were not allowed on The Facts of Life.
Narrator: While most peoples a memory of Facts of Life was of a life hearted sitcom, the show actually confronted some controversial issues.
[Showed clip of Cousin Geri episode]
Narrator: Geri Jewell a comedian with cerebral palsy was one of the first handicap people to get a regular role on prime time. And while Geri was welcome by the cast members with open arms, she felt her presence was an uncomfortable reminder for one of her fellow actors.
Al Burton: In terms of Charlotte and Geri getting along, there were colors into the relationship, which the fact that Charlotte had a son that was autistic.
Charlotte Rae: I was glad that she was there.
Geri Jewell: I think that in a certain respect, I reminded Charlotte of her son, she would accept me then she wouldnít. It was like come here, go away, come here, go away.
Charlotte Rae: She was uncomfortable around me, then I think it must be her problem.
Narrator: There was no doubt, however, that Geriís presence on Facts of Life cause difficulty for the creative staff.
Al Burton: The writers couldnít figure out what to do with this person.
Geri Jewell: They were afraid to have me on a weekly basis because they felt every time I entered a room it was going to be a cerebral palsy story.
Narrator: Geriís appearances on Facts of Life was suvirly reduced and a chance for her to remain on the show was vertually non exisistant.
Geri Jewell: They offered me one episode, it was a calculative move that I would have probably rejected, instead of firing me personally, I turned them down.
Narrator: Every show has its disagreements, but when the cast is four rapidly maturing women, tensions can run a bit higher than usual.
Mindy Cohn: Four teenage girls on a certain cycle shall we say, I mean I had some seriously catty moments.
Kim Fields: I was the kind of professional you know, so I did no wrong. [laughs]
John Bowab: When Kim was about sixteen or seventeen we had a real blow out open script, it was not a personal thing, it was just something she didnít want to do. And something I felt she had to do and there was a real temper.
Kim Fields: I can get pissed off like the next person, but when she blows, yo, itís on.
Mindy Cohn: There are just moments where you walked in the room and you didnít like who you were sitting across from.
John Bowab: Next week youíre my best friend.
[Showed The First Time clip]
and the next week your not.
[Showed The First Time clip]
Mindy Cohn: And so you steered taught, and I did that, I plead guilty.
Charlotte Rae: I think sheís a drama queen.
Narrator: In 1986 Charlotte decided to leave the series feeling that the girl had out growen their need for Mrs. Garrett, her replacement, Emmy and Acadamy winning actress Cloris Leachman, the transition was not an easy one.
Kim Fields: Youíve got eight years of one thing that your used to and suddenly this gust of new energy come in and at the same time youíre a little teritorial. Like this is our grove we donít have to get used to you.
Narrator: To make matters worse the producers and directors decided to add many new cast members.
Kim Fields: I do recall getting really pissed off because they kept adding these people and it was like remember when we started this in Ď79, you had to cut some folks because there were to many people. You canít do L.A. Law in a half hour, that is why that show is an hour and we are a half hour show.
Narrator: However, there was one cast addition that Kim Fields was completely behind.
Kim Fields: Hey I was easy having George Clooney.
I was mad that they didnít you know let Tootie and George hook up, but they werenít doing the interracial thing so I guess I just had to wait on that.
Narrator: By the eighth season Facts of Life ratings had hit a steady decline in order to boost the shows ratings the producers decided on a very controversial issue.
Lisa Whelchel: They said Blair was going to loose her virginity this year.
John Bowab: It was one of those things that you knew had to happen, but not to a facts of life girl.
Lisa Whelchel: So I went in at the end of the meeting to talk about it and said I couldnít do that.