Charlotte Rae Interview: TV Icon Leaves No Stone Unturned in Memoir, "The Facts of My Life"
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Television, screen and stage actress, Charlotte Rae, recently released her new memoir, The Facts of My Life (co-written with her son Larry Strauss). Rae is best known for her role as Edna Garrett on the classic sitcoms Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life and appeared in two Facts of Life TV movies: The Facts of Life Goes to Paris in 1982 and The Facts of Life Reunion in 2001.
From Car 54, Where Are You? in 1961 to portraying Molly the Mail Lady on Sesame Street in 1971/1972 to her latest role opposite Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in Ricki and the Flash, Rae has indeed enjoyed a storied career in the entertainment industry. She married composer John Strauss in 1951, and they were divorced after 25 years of marriage when he came out as bisexual. The couple had two children, Larry and Andrew (an autistic son who died in his 40s from a heart attack).
"I kept asking this one little girl questions. She had this adorable way of talking and a funny little voice. She was kind of chubby, and she was Jewish. I thought, 'What a lovely complement she is to Lisa, Nancy and Kimmy.' I also thought that someone from the Jewish culture would fit in. It did work out beautifully because they had wonderful stories about her and episodes about her grandmother dying. Her grandmother was played by Molly Picon, who was an icon. Just a wonderful performer."
In 1992, Rae had a pacemaker implanted in her heart, and in 2009, due to the frequency of pancreatic cancer in her own family, she was screened, diagnosed early and is now in remission.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How are you today Ms. Rae?
Charlotte Rae: You’re from the South, right?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes ma’am. I’m in Birmingham, Alabama.
Charlotte Rae: Oh yeah, that’s South alright (laughs). Well, Melissa, I’m okay. I’m just fine because the reception of the book has just been wonderful. Thank you.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I’m glad. It’s an enjoyable read. You’ve led quite an interesting life.
Charlotte Rae: Most of us have. There will always be the wonderful stuff, and then there’s the stuff that’s tough. That’s life, you know.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of the tough part, you’ve said that the most devastating thing in your life was dealing with your son’s autism.
Charlotte Rae: That’s right. No one knew very much about it, and there were no services. Nothing. No rehab. Northing, except that we knew it was autism. We didn’t know much else but that it was some disorganization in the brain which may manifest itself in dreadful things that he was so fearful of, and it also made him sometimes violent. You never knew what was going to happen. But he was also very sweet and adorable in spite of that. There were moments of real sweetness and intimacy which I truly am grateful for.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And Andy had a good sense of humor.
Charlotte Rae: Yes (laughs). He had an Aunt Lolly who had a phobia to cats. Once in a while when she would come over for dinner, Andy would let the cat out of the bathroom. Naturally, the cat would go right for her ankles at the dinner table (laughs). In the middle of everything, there was something that was normal and mischievous about him.
That’s so funny that you say “yes ma’am.” That reminds of me Lisa Whelchel. When we first started working together on The Facts of Life, she kept saying “yes ma’am,” and I thought she was being sarcastic. I said, “Just call me Charlotte.” But then when we all went to Paris together for The Facts of Life Goes to Paris special, her grandmother came with us. When I’d talk to her, she’d say, “Yes ma’am.” Instead of saying Charlotte, she’d say “ma’am.” (laughs) I think it’s a southern thing, isn’t it?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I suppose it’s a form of politeness or respect. To be honest, I don’t really think about it.
Charlotte Rae: Right. I know, but even her grandmother said it to me (laughs). She was obviously from the South. Lisa was brought up in Texas.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It must’ve been so exciting for young actors in New York 50 or more years ago. Who would you say was the most fascinating person you met during that time?
Charlotte Rae: There were so many wonderful actors and actresses. I just admired them so much. I tell you, Larry Hagman and his wife and I had such a jolly good time when we did The Beauty Part, the play with Bert Lahr who was a tremendous star on Broadway. We all remember him from The Wizard of Oz. But Larry started out in that one. That was the first big part he had.
When we were on the road before we opened in New York, Larry and his wife Maj who was from Sweden, and I, had so much fun. Then years later when I came to California, they would come over for dinner. They had a place in Malibu Colony when he was doing J.R. on Dallas. But before that, he did I Dream of Jeannie. He was so sweet and adorable, thoughtful, open and expansive, and she was, too. I just loved the joy of life. I loved it and we had such fun together.
You probably didn’t see Larry in Harry and Tonto with Art Carney, sidekick of Jackie Gleason. Art was a wonderful actor. I loved working with him. Jackie Gleason was terrific, but he wasn’t very personal. He never liked to rehearse and would just go on. You were with him once and that was when it was filmed. Jackie just knew how to do it and didn’t want to be bothered that much. But art was a dear man. I’ll never forget Larry. Watch Harry and Tonto again and see how good he was in it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall during the “orgasm” conversation you had with Cloris Leachman (laughs).
Charlotte Rae: (laughs) I know. That was so funny. Can you imagine? I was so naïve! (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you and Cloris remained friends?
Charlotte Rae: Yes, but we don’t see each other very often. We did have good times together. I liked her boyfriend when I first came to New York. He really was a nice guy. I was just so new to all of it. Cloris was having this wonderful relationship with him, and I was a virgin. I just thought, “This is opening up a whole new world for me!”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You just wanted to know what all of it was about (laughs).
Charlotte Rae: Yes (laughs). That is crazy, isn’t it?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You and Paul Lynde were good friends. Back then, was it known that certain actors were homosexual?
Charlotte Rae: The industry knew it. We did. All of us knew it in the industry. But there was all this “hush hush.” Their careers would’ve been ruined, so it was all kept under the blanket. It was too bad. I’m really happy that it’s out in the open so they can live like other people, like normal human beings, with dignity and grace and not feel so ashamed or have to hide who they are.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And can get married?
Charlotte Rae: Yes and to have a family. That’s okay. A lot of couples who are not gay don’t know how to raise kids. These people are very conscientious and very loving. Love counts a lot.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How did you decide to remain friends with your ex-husband after he came out?
Charlotte Rae: It took a while. I never said anything negative to my children. Never said anything negative about their father. No. I learned acceptance. You have to learn acceptance about things. Otherwise, you’re really destroying yourself. So I went through the process, which took time. It took time. We spent holidays together. Then when he had a partner, Lionel, I’d invite them for Thanksgiving. We’d all have Christmas and everything. That’s the best way to go. It is, and that’s all there is to it.
I never remarried, but I had many wonderful friends. I’ve always had wonderful friends – and a couple of lovely, loving relationships that didn’t lead to marriage. I was just so busy with my life, or maybe I didn’t have the capacity for it again. I was busy with the kids, and I was busy with the work. I have so many male and female friends, most of them actors in the business. I have my sister and certain members of my family that I love. I am so grateful and so blessed. You have no idea.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That is really great. Were you nervous to become a regular on a TV series when Car 54 came around in the early 60s?
Charlotte Rae: Oh Car 54? Oh yeah. I was so excited! The guy who wrote it was a genius, and I wish they would put him in the Hall of Fame for comedy. His name is Nat Hiken. He wrote The Phil Silvers Show and The Martha Raye Show with Rocky Graziano. Remember? Oh you’re too young (laughs). He was so brilliant and funny, and he put me in more and more scenes with Al Lewis who played Leo Schnauser.
I played Leo’s wife, and we had such fun (laughs). We had to be man and wife, and every Thursday night, we had such an argument. There was such a racket in the neighborhood, and people couldn’t stand it. So the police precinct decided they’d make us think that Thursday night passed. That was going to be our first episode together as husband and wife.
I asked my dear friend and acting teacher, Mary, if we could rent her studio and just walk around to get to know each other and kind of “argue” together. We did that. Al started yelling at me and finally called me a “retard.” I thought of my son, and it really made me lash out at him. I really gave him hell! By the time we did that episode, we were really scrapping away at teach other. It really worked well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And shortly after Car 54, Al Lewis and Fred Gwynne starred together in The Munsters.
Charlotte Rae: They were just two of the sweetest guys. I just loved them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you mind forever being known as Mrs. Garrett on The Facts of Life?
Charlotte Rae: No. I tell you, we had a book signing at Sardi’s in New York, and then we had one at Barnes & Noble at The Grove in LA. There were these long, long lines the whole length of the buildings. Most of them were people I had never met. They were people who grew up watching The Facts of Life and connecting with Mrs. Garrett, the character I played. I heard it from so many people that Mrs. Garrett meant so much to. A lot of their parents were working, and they were latchkey kids. They grew up with Mrs. Garrett, and they felt warm and secure because of her. I was very touched by them really.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You discovered Mindy Cohn who played Natalie Green?
Charlotte Rae: Oh yes. Mindy was at Westlake, a private school in Bel Air. Now it’s connected with Harvard School for Boys. But at the time, it was just a girl’s school. One of the producers of the show had a daughter who had been at Westlake, so we got permission to go and talk to the girls about what they wanted to do with their lives. It was so interesting to find out what they wanted to do.
I kept asking this one little girl questions. She had this adorable way of talking and a funny little voice. She was kind of chubby, and she was Jewish. I thought, “What a lovely complement she is to Lisa, Nancy and Kimmy.” I also thought that someone from the Jewish culture would fit in. It did work out beautifully because they had wonderful stories about her and episodes about her grandmother dying. Her grandmother was played by Molly Picon, who was an icon. Just a wonderful performer.
At one point on the show, they had her grandmother die with all the customs and everything. Another time, her mother and father divorced so we had an experience about divorce. I thought the writers did an excellent job on all those episodes, bringing in things that families go through. It was wonderful for children and parents to sit and watch together.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Flash forward to 2015. How did you become involved in the Meryl Streep film Ricki and the Flash?
Charlotte Rae: Well, I live in California and it was made in New York, but they were looking for someone to play Kevin Kline’s mother and Meryl Streep’s former mother-in-law because they were divorced. They asked me to read, and I did it by Skype. My grandson held the iPhone, and my brother-in-law read the Meryl Streep part.
They shot me doing the scene and sent it to the director, Jonathan Demme, who did Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs. He told my agent that he’d like to meet and have a cup of coffee with me. So I said I could fly from California to New York, but a couple of days later he said, “You don’t need to bother. You got the part.” What a wonderful experience it was
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you sort of picking and choosing the roles you want now?
Charlotte Rae: Picking and choosing, but also if I’m offered anything that looks interesting, yeah. In the spring I’m going to do a play at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. It’s a very esoteric, interesting play by Samuel Beckett. I did a play of his about 25 years ago called Happy Days, not like the series at all. I played Winnie. It’s a very challenging play, and it all came out beautifully. Now this one is called Endgame, and I’m playing Nell. I live in an ashcan. Alan Mandell is in it, and the play starts rehearsing March 29 and is finished on May 22. If I’m still here, I turn 90 on April 22.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any plans for a big celebration?
Charlotte Rae: I’m just so glad to be above ground, oh my goodness. Angela (Lansbury) turned 90 in October. She’s a friend of mine.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How is your health?
Charlotte Rae: I’ve had my experiences with health, and I’ve been very grateful. I have a pacemaker, and I have a mitral valve. Can you believe I’m a survivor of pancreatic cancer? I am so incredibly grateful.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That’s so wonderful to be a pancreatic cancer survivor!
Charlotte Rae: I know. They found it in time. I need to start exercising again. I’ve been lax, and that’s naughty of me because God helps those who helps themselves. And if you don’t use it, you lose it.
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