R.I.P. ‘Mrs. Garrett’

Charlotte Rae, the actress best known for her role as Edna Garrett, den mother to a group of rambunctious teenage girls on the long-running 1980s sitcom “The Facts of Life,” has died at 92.

A spokesperson said Rae died Sunday at her Los Angeles home. A cause of death was not immediately provided, but she was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2017.

“She was a dear, dear friend for many years, one of a kind, and it was such a joy to be able to work with her,” says Alan Mandell, who directed and co-starred with Rae in the May production of “Endgame” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It was Rae’s last performance.

Charlotte Rae Lubotsky was born in Milwaukee, the middle of three daughters raised by first-generation Russian and Polish Jews.

Music and performance were an integral part of Lubotsky family life. Older sister Beverly was a talented classical singer, while baby Mimi was a piano prodigy. Rae’s dreams of stardom were ignited at age 10, when she got her first paid gig as a performer: Neighbors she baby-sat for paid her an extra dime to sing “Blue Moon” and complimented her voice.

“Somehow the small coin made my whole life seem worthwhile,” Rae wrote in her 2015 autobiography, “The Facts of My Life.” “Suddenly, I thought, this is my future — become famous and people won’t notice how inferior I really am.”

Rae enrolled at Northwestern University where her acting continued to develop.

She later moved to New York, singing and performing comedy at legendary nightclubs.  On Broadway, she starred in several musicals, even receiving an Emmy nod for “Pickwick”.

TV work followed, including memorable roles as underappreciated housewife Sylvia Schnauser in the sitcom “Car 54, Where Are you?” and Molly the Mail Lady in early episodes of “Sesame Street.”

Despite aspirations of being a Shakespearean actress, Rae primarily worked in comedy — a fate she accepted happily. “There’s nothing wrong with making people laugh,” she told The Times in 1989.

Mega-producer Norman Lear took notice of Rae’s talents, casting her in guest parts on “Good Times” and “All in the Family”.  But it was the Lear-produced “Diff’rent Strokes” that would finally help her break through. She played Mrs. Garrett, housekeeper for a wealthy Park Avenue widower who adopts two black orphans.

Midway through the second season, the popular character got her own spin-off, “The Facts of Life” on NBC. Set at an all-girls boarding school in Peekskill, N.Y., the sitcom followed housemother Mrs. Garrett and her teenage charges, including streetwise Jo and prissy Blair.

With her cooing voice and ornate red bouffant, “Mrs. G” was a steady maternal presence amid the adolescent drama, ready to dole out clear-eyed wisdom and tough love.

“We really presented issues that were wonderful for opening up dialogue between parents and their kids,” Rae said in a 2008 interview.

“The Facts of Life” turned Rae into a star and earned her an Emmy nomination.

 After leaving the show, Rae remained busy, with guest roles on shows on “King of Queens” and “ER,” and continued to work in regional theater. She reprised the role of Mrs. Garrett in a reunion special.

Shortly after her 91st birthday in April 2017, Rae announced a diagnosis of bone cancer. Having already beaten pancreatic cancer, she told People magazine that she was uncertain about undergoing treatment again.

“I’m grateful for the life I’ve already had,” she said.

Source: Meredith Blake/LA Times

Photo: Paul Hawthorner / Associated Press

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