Although she originally planned to concentrate on dramatic acting, Charlotte Rae’s career soon deviated down the path to comedy at college, eventually leading to a prominent role in the popular 80’s TV series “The Facts of Life.”
“I grew up in Wisconsin and couldn’t wait to get to drama school at Northwestern University,” said Rae, whose autobiography “The Facts of My Life” will be released by BearManor on November 1. “All I ever wanted was to do the classics like Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Eugene O’Neill.”
But a friendship with a fellow Northwestern student and future comedic star set Charlotte’s comedy career in motion.
“Paul Lynde encouraged me to try out for the Woman’s Athletic Association and Men’s Union annual musical production,” recalled Rae. “So I ended up doing these musical, dance and comedy sketches which were so much fun.”
After Rae fine-tuned her talents at college, she worked on radio and early TV in Chicago.
An excellent singer, she also appeared as a nightclub performer and did stand-up comedy. She found success on Broadway in the 1950s and had numerous TV guest roles. Her first regular series was the New York based “Car 54, Where Are You?” in the early 1960s with future Munsters’ stars Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis.
Commercial work also helped pay the bills.
“The ad agency would tell me the product theme, like ‘This girdle is killing me,’ and to make up my own script and improvise,” said Rae, who remembers a rather delightful shower scene for a heating oil commercial in the 60s (available on YouTube).
“I really studied for that one and did it in one take. It’s quite cute when I drop the soap and disappear for a few seconds. When I finished, all the crew applauded me!”
TV audiences also quickly warmed to Rae’s housekeeper character, Edna Garrett, on “Diff’rent Strokes” in 1978.
When the opportunity arose after one season to take the character to a new series, Rae didn’t hesitate and transformed Mrs. Garrett from housekeeper to housemother at a private boarding school in “The Facts of Life.” Rae’s popularity soared as she dispensed motherly advice on social issues to four girls under her charge.
“Young girls who watched the show got a lot out of it because many were going through the same problems as the characters, so it made me happy that we were there for them,” she said.
After seven years on “The Facts of Life” Rae decided it was time to move on, handing over the role of Mrs. Garrett to her old college friend, Cloris Leachman.
Rae continued in film and TV roles, and still appeared on stage. She says performing in a 1990 Samuel Beckett play was among her favorite professional experiences.
“For many male actors, the pinnacle career role is Hamlet,” Rae said pointedly. “For women, many feel it’s playing ‘Winnie’ in Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’ because it’s very challenging.”
Rae, who turns 90 next year, continues to work. “I had a small role this year in ‘Ricki and the Flash’ with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline and it was great fun.”
Rae will be attending a book signing on Nov 3 at New York’s Sardi’s Restaurant, and at the Los Angeles Barnes & Noble at The Grove on Nov 11. She says her book, co-written with her son Larry Strauss, contains some surprises.
“There are some heavy-duty facts about my life but also some fun stuff,” she said. “I’m a survivor which I hope will inspire readers.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers. Follow @TinseltownTalks