E! True Hollywood Story: Facts of Life Girls (Part Two)
This is part two of the one-hour program which aired November 28, 1999 on the E! channel. It covered the NBC TV series "The Facts of Life" from its inception in 1978 to the end of its run 10 years later in 1988. The Mindy Cohn segments were from 1995 (courtesy of the USA Network) and the other interviews are from 1999. The show was narrated by Bruce Chandler. For pictures of this event please visit our photo galleries.


Narrator: In the Spring of 1982, Season Three wrapped on "The Facts of Life." The show tackled tough issues and a host of critics. Four of the girls, 19-year-old Lisa Whelchel, 17-year-old Nancy McKeon, 16-year-old Mindy Cohn and 13-year-old Kim fields struggled with their weight while 24-year-old Geri Jewell faced an ongoing battle with an even bigger stigma.

Geri Jewell: He called me in his office and he literally had tears in his eyes and he said "I have done everything under the sun to try to get you work."

Narrator: "The Facts of Life" cast members experienced their share of ups and downs but the girls did not fall prey to the perils endured by many child stars.

John Bowab: When you realize "Diff'rent Strokes" was shooting right next door to us and you look at the trouble, you'd look at Gary and Todd and the young lady, they were in trouble.

Narrator: Troubled circumstances plagued the lives of Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges and the young woman, Dana Plato. Coleman and Bridges landed in jail while Plato later died of a drug overdose in a small town in Oklahoma.

Lisa Whelchel: You know, a lot of people ask why the girls made it when other child stars didn't, and I look at each family, and each one of us have been blessed with great, solid families.

Narrator: The girls were well adjusted and so was their onscreen mother figure, Charlotte Rae. In the Fall of 1982, the veteran performer was recognized for her work on "The Facts of Life." Rae was nominated for an Emmy as Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series. "Taxi" star, Carol Kane, won the award. The Fall of 1982 also marked the beginning of Season Four. Millions of teens tuned in for their weekly dose of the "Facts." Clearly, the girls were growing up before the eyes of America and the storylines had to follow. By the Spring of 1983, Blair and Jo, played by 20-year-old Lisa Whelchel and 18-year-old Nancy McKeon, graduated from Eastland and headed off to another fictional school, nearby Langley College.

[Showed "Graduation" clip]

Tim Brooks: Mrs. Garrett left the Eastland School and set up a small shop in the nearby town and the girls went with her to help her run the shop. And the show took on a whole different kind of context.

Narrator: Predictably, all four girls moved into Mrs. Garrett's attic.

Margie Peters: We eventually got them under one roof and we felt this would bring interesting people into the shop, it would bring them out in the world a little more . . .

Narrator: The friendship on camera was also evident away from the set. Lisa and Nancy became roommates while Nancy began dating the popular 22-year-old star of "Family Ties," Michael J. Fox.

Lisa Whelchel: We were all shocked when she was dating somebody and somebody so cute and talented and wonderful.

Hamilton Cloud: It probably helped both of them at that particular time in their lives because they could both understand what the other one was going through because they had huge fan followings and there's a lot of stress working on a television show. It's hard work.

Narrator: But the hard work paid off. in April 1984, as the fifth season ended, "The Facts of Life" made a giant breakthrough joining the ranks of television's Top 25 shows. As year six, the 1984-85 season took shape. More changes were in the air. But the news was not good for 26-year-old Geri Jewell.

Geri Jewell: "Facts of Life" offered me one episode for the season of 85 and my new managers told me to turn it down. They felt that it was a slap in the face.

Narrator: Despite Geri's notable performance on "The Facts of Life," her career took a nosedive. She couldn't find work and manager Richard Liven was helpless in finding Jewell another role.

Geri Jewell: He handed me a check for $10,000 that he saved for me and he said "I can't do it and I wish you the best of luck."

Narrator: Geri's luck went from bad to worse. She landed an occasional stand-up comedy gig, but her performances were few and far between.

Geri Jewell: The irony of this whole thing is that in 1985 I was asked to the White House to perform by Nancy Reagan and I was considered the highest visible person with a disability in the United States and I couldn't even pay my rent.

Narrator: 18-year-old Nancy McKeon also had a beef about money. But for a very different reason. Nancy's ex-manager, Greg Sims . . .

Greg Sims: When she went in, she was a 14-year-old girl making the absolute drop-dead minimum that they could get somebody to do a contract with. But the show was generating hundreds of millions of dollars in profits and she should have been paid more.

Narrator: After five seasons on "The Facts of Life," McKeon was the most popular member of the cast. Her demands for more money hardly seemed unreasonable.

John Bowab: Nancy had probably the strongest affect on young women, a lot of young women who felt lost and alienated from family and unsure of who they were, what they were. Nancy received hundreds of letters a week.

Narrator: The stand-off continued as Season Six got under way in late Summer 1984. Nancy was a no-show at the first two tapings. Embassy Television, which produced the series for NBC, sued McKeon for breach of contract, but cooler heads prevailed. Nancy was given a substantial raise, the lawsuit was dropped and the popular actress returned for the third episode. McKeon, however, wasn't the only cast member looking for more cash.

Greg Sims: I would say that all of them successfully renegotiated some higher pay schedule.

Hamilton Cloud: I think that they survived it fairly well, it was dealt with fairly quickly so that it didn't damage the show irreparably.

Narrator: With that bullet dodged, the time was right to add a new ingredient to the mix. In late 1984, auditions were held and 11-year-old MacKenzie Astin walked away with the role of Andy Moffet. The son of actors Patty Duke and John Astin, MacKenzie was no stranger to show business and he was excited about joining the all-girl cast.

MacKenzie Astin: I was watching a bunch of young ladies really assert themselves in society that had not allowed ladies to assert themselves for a long, long time. And here were four smart, creative, vibrant young ladies who people were paying attention to.

Narrator: On January 16, 1985, MacKenzie Astin made his debut on "The Facts of Life."

Narrator: Coming up, Charlotte Rae says goodbye.

Charlotte Rae: I felt that my role as their main confidante was going to be diminished.

[commercial]

Narrator: By the Summer of 1985, "The Facts of Life" was still thriving with Season Number 7 just around the bend. The show outlasted most of its competition and continued to evolve with new characters and some hard-hitting episodes, but the series was also showing its age and the end was in sight.

Tim Brooks: NBC was very successful and they didn't need a declining show like "The Facts of Life" anymore.

Narrator: Millions of American teens vicariously became friends with the girls on "The Facts of Life." They shared good times and bad with Blair, Jo, Natalie and Tuttie.

Eve Brandstein: A whole generation grew up with "The Facts of Life" and could identify and could find, you know, the girl they liked, the girl they identified with.

Narrator: In real life, 19-year-old Nancy McKeon split with her boyfriend of three years, Michael J. Fox.

Lisa Whelchel: It was right after "Back to the Future" and everything, I think, that they broke up before he became like a huge star.

Narrator: But life went on and so did the series. In the Fall of 1985 during the seventh season, a 24-year-old actor appeared on the show. He was destined for stardom. TV editor for the New York Post, Michael Starr . . .

Michael Starr: George Clooney at that point had already been on several TV shows, had yet to hit it big and was again considered a working actor who could fit in well into that show.

Narrator: But Clooney's character, George the handyman, never really fit it.

John Bowab: You'd bring George in, he'd make the smart ass remark and then he'd be out. But he'd never be part of the thread of the show.

Narrator: The final episode of Season 7 in April 1986 was also George the handyman's last hurrah on "The Facts of Life." During the summer hiatus, 20-year-old Nancy McKeon ventured out on her own as star and co-producer of the made-for-TV movie "Firefighter." While Nancy chased new career opportunities, 17-year-old Kim Fields pursued her education. Kim enrolled at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, majoring in Communications. "Firefighter" starring Nancy McKeon, aired on CBS in late September 1986. But Nancy wasn't the only member of the cast who wanted to branch out. 20-year-old Mindy Cohn made her feature debut in "The Boy Who Could Fly." 22-year-old Lisa Whelchel meanwhile was embracing her spiritual side and her relationship with Associate Pastor Steve Cauble. In the Fall of 1986 as "The Facts of Life" started Season 8, Charlotte Rae said goodbye. The diminutive actress was the foundation of the series and virtually impossible to replace.

Charlotte Rae: I felt like the girls were grown and they were beginning to start confiding in each other. I had seven great years with them and I wanted to move on.

Narrator: Seasoned-actress Cloris Leachman joined the cast as Mrs. Garrett's sister, Beverly Ann Stickle. Leachman was best known for her role as Phyllis on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Leachman's impressive acting credits span four decades. Cloris Leachman's talent, however, could not overcome time. "The Facts of Life" was simply wearing out its welcome. The series slipped badly throughout 1986 and into 1987. The slide continued into the ninth and final season which began in the Fall of 1987.

Tim Brooks: It was no longer a top-rated show in 20s or 30s, it was back down to the 50s or 60s in the rankings by that time.

Narrator: In an effort to bolster sagging ratings, producers pitched an idea for a controversial episode, "The First Time." The script called for Blair, played by Lisa Whelchel, to lose her virginity. Executive Producer Irma Kalish . . .

Irma Kalish: I wanted Lisa to be in this show because she could represent the cons, she could state the reasons why this was not a good idea, why she was against it. And so she would be the voice of the audience in some sense who agree.

Narrator: But Lisa chose not to appear in the show that conflicted with her strong religious beliefs.

Lisa Whelchel: I know that the audience that watches our show really does learn from us. And I don't want them to get the impression that it's OK, just one more character having sex before they're married shows that it is part of growing up.

Mindy Cohn: I thought it was time that one of them went out into the world, sort to speak, and everybody was being nervous about doing that, you know which character would do it. And I totally volunteered!

[Showed "The First Time" clip]

Narrator: The episode was moving, but nothing could save the series. In the Spring of 1988, the writing was on the wall.

Tim Brooks: NBC had finally found the secret of success in a gentleman named Bill Cosby and so NBC didn't need a declining show like "The Facts of Life" anymore. So it left the air in 1988.

Narrator: The show some credits said would bring NBC to its knees lasted nine years, longer than such classics as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "All in the Family." "The Facts of Life" was over, but the series enjoyed a marvelous run.

Narrator: Coming up, life after the "Facts" . . .

John Bowab: She didn't want to be thought of as everybody's chubby best friend.

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Narrator: The last original episode of "The Facts of Life" aired in May of 1988. Since then, Lisa Whelchel, Nancy McKeon, Mindy Cohn and Kim Fields have not only grown up, they've become very successful women.

Lisa Whelchel: We had millions of friends, even if we didn't know them. And these are girls that watched the show and felt like we were their friends.

Narrator: Lisa Whelchel, who wed Associate Pastor Steven Cauble in 1988, is happily married with three young children. Like her religion, Lisa takes the role of motherhood very seriously.

Lisa Whelchel: I love home schooling the kids, it's just so much fun. I never really thought about home schooling then looked further into it and actually realized there's a whole underground movement of home schoolers.

Narrator: 36-year-old Lisa is also an author. She is currently writing a book "Beyond Bible Stories." Kim Fields continued her studies at Pepperdine University, graduating in 1993. Kim then landed a starring role in the highly-successful Fox TV series, "Living Single" which lasted 5 years.
Michael Starr: Kim Fields has just managed to do one of the hardest things in show biz which is go from one popular show to another.

Narrator: Kim was married during the run of "Living Single" to sports marketing executive Jonathan Freeman. When the show went off the air in 1998, 29-year-old Fields moved behind the camera as writer, producer and director. Mindy Cohn followed a similar path, graduating from Loyola Marymount in 1995 with a degree in Sociology and appearing in sitcoms including "Suddenly Susan."

John Bowab: She didn't want to be thought of as everybody's chubby best friend, you know, because she's terribly bright. She has an education, she has all kinds of talent.

Narrator: When the nine-year run of "The Facts of Life" ended in 1988, Nancy McKeon went on to make a name for herself in television movies. In 1995, 29-year-old McKeon returned to the world of television sitcoms as producer and actor on "Can't Hurry Love." Unfortunately, the series was short-lived and ended in August of 1996. A couple of years later, Nancy formed her own production company to develop projects for television and film. Charlotte Rae went back to her first love, the stage. Today, Charlotte works only when she wants to work.

Charlotte Rae. I'm having a wonderful time with my social life. And with my children and my granddaughter.

Narrator: Charlotte's replacement on "The Facts of Life," Cloris Leachman, found a home on the sitcom "Thanks" on CBS. While MacKenzie Astin continues to act, appearing in the 1996 feature "Love and War" with Sandra Bullock and Chris O'Donnell. George Clooney went on to star in "ER" before launching his career in feature films. Then there is Geri Jewell who did not let cerebral palsy stop her from becoming a comedienne and actress. Geri hit the skids soon after her short stint on "The Facts of Life" while the disease continued its relentless assault on her body. In 1999, 43-year-old Geri faced an agonizing decision risky surgery or certain paralysis.

Geri Jewel: I had a bruised spinal cord. My neck finally wore out. There was bone against bone and I had been in pain for so many years and for the first time in my life, I'm in no pain.

Narrator: These days, Geri is a motivational speaker but acting remains her passion. In 1993, 14 years after "The Facts of Life" first aired, the series found new life on cable and in world-wide syndication. A whole new generation became friends with the young girls at Eastland Boarding School.

Al Burton: It affected kids in a way that made them understand that they weren't alone, so I believe "The Facts of Life" will have an extremely good reputation in the future, the fact that it lasted so long and that there's no place in the world where it isn't shown.

Narrator: But what made "The Facts of Life" a success more than anything else was the cast. A talented groups of actors who will not soon be forgotten.

Charlotte Rae: I can't even go to Barbados without people wanting to hug me and "Oh, Mrs. Garrett!", you know, it really had an impact on their lives.

Narrator: And one more thing, Lisa, Nancy, Mindy and Kim proved that child stars are not all doomed to a life of misery and mayhem, a fact that proves these women are very special.

Felice Schachter: We really turned out to be a good group of people, and I think it's really refreshing to see that in Hollywood that you can have a good story come out of a TV show . . .

THE END