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‘Facts of Life’ stars reunite for 35th anniversary

Posted at 1:09 PM, Sep 18, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-18 19:58:48-04

A little good, a little bad and a whole lot of nostalgia were in play at the Paley Center’s “Facts of Life” reunion in Beverly Hills, California, on Monday.

It’s been 35 years since the ’80s sitcom, about four boarding school girls and their house mother, debuted as a spinoff from “Diff’rent Strokes.”

Although “Facts of Life” has been in reruns since 1988, an upcoming DVD release brought the series’ stars together again. Nancy McKeon, who played Jo, joined Lisa Whelchel (Blair), Mindy Cohn (Natalie) and Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Garrett) at the reunion event. Kim Fields, who’ll always be known as Tootie to some, made an appearance via video.

The sitcom still has plenty of fans (and the theme song can still get stuck in your head after one listen), but the stars of the series don’t think “Facts of Life” would work on the air today.

During the panel, Cohn said the networks would probably pass on a show with a lesson in every episode, while Rae thinks it could be updated.

And the religious Whelchel, who says she wouldn’t let her character lose her virginity on the show, is pretty sure “Facts of Life” could happen today … if it were handled very differently. Maybe “if we were all naked,” Whelchel joked.

The cast was just as wholesome off-set as they were in front of the camera. In fact, there was just one cast member who affected life on set with an addiction problem: Rae. The older actress’ smoking habit apparently drove the cast crazy.

“The girls didn’t want me to smoke,” Rae said. “I used to smoke five cigarettes a day, and they’d pull them out of my mouth.”

But Rae, who let some profanity slip while on stage during the reunion, reminded the crowd that she’s not Mrs. Garrett.

Geri Jewell, who played Geri Tyler on the show, also made an appearance with the cast. Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, was the first person with a disability to be featured on a TV series, and she credits the show with changing her life.

“That first episode was so special to me,” she said. “It was a dream come true.”

Jewell wasn’t the only actor to get a break on “Facts of Life.”

The show had a long list of notable guest stars, and the list of unknown actors who later achieved success is just as impressive. It includes Helen Hunt, David Spade, Dennis Haysbert, Juliette Lewis, Seth Green, Mayim Bialik, Larry Wilmore and some other guy who has done OK for himself, George Clooney.

The cast said Clooney has come a long way since the days when he and McKeon sported similar mullets. But he may not have left much of an impression, as Whelchel said she has to refer to YouTube to recall an onscreen kiss she and Clooney shared.

“I am all for repressed memories,” Whelchel joked, “but why I repressed that one, I don’t know!”