Actress Charlotte Rae Gives Us ‘The Facts of My Life’
Writer Larry Strauss once composed an ode to his mother, actress Charlotte Rae, who is perhaps best known for her starring role in the 1980s TV comedy calledThe Facts of Life.
There is a lady with a very nice face
you’ve seen it on TV, but don’t remember which place;
simple things she likes, snobbery she ain’t got a trace …
Now Strauss and his mother have co-written Rae’s autobiography, The Facts of My Life. This Emmy- and Tony- nominated actress remains one of those rare personalities who is loved by generations of television fans.
Written in an enthusiastic, conversational tone, the book reads like a personable exchange that one might enjoy with a favorite aunt or an old family friend. More than 30 pages of photos from Rae’s personal collection add to the intimacy, and she and Strauss tell her story in a compelling, charming way.
Few actresses have achieved the kind of long, vibrant and versatile career that Rae, now 89, has. This book explains what was really going on behind her welcoming smile, making her story all the more valiant.
Born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she is a first-generation American, the daughter of two Jewish immigrants from Poland. Her father, who immigrated at the tender age of 13 (but told officials he was 16), later served his new country in World War I, where an Army buddy suggested he start a correspondence with his sister. After the war, the two met face to face, fell in love and married.
Rae’s father, a former auto mechanic, opened up a prosperous tire store in Milwaukee, living over the shop until he was able to move his wife and (by then) their three girls to the suburbs.
Rae describes how her parents always encouraged her creative aspirations — providing her and her two sisters with solid musical educations. At Northwestern University, she continued to develop these skills, becoming a regular in regional summer stock productions and local radio. It was the producer of a local radio show on which she was making a guest appearance who suggested shortening her name from Charlotte Rae Lubotsky to the simpler (and less “ethnic”) Charlotte Rae.
At Northwestern, her fellow students included more than a few who were destined for show-biz success, including Paul Lynde, Patricia Neal, Cloris Leachman and composer Sheldon Harnick — a classical music major who, she explains, had little interest in musical theater until Rae urged him to join her in New York City. She sent him a cast LP of Finian’s Rainbow to encourage him to consider writing for Broadway. Harnick’s later Broadway credits included the lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof in 1964.
She enjoyed a terrific reciprocal relationship with many of these former classmates once she headed off for the big city, being guided and assisted by them when she was one of the new faces in town, then helping them after she became established.
Rae initially found success as a nightclub performer and theatrical actress. She made her Broadway debut in the musical comedy Three Wishes for Jamie, then appeared in a noteworthy revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (performed at the height of this country’s infamous Red Scare of the 1950s), along with Bea Arthur (who would later make a splash in TV’s Maude and The Golden Girls) and John Astin (Gomez in the sitcom The Addams Family). Rae went on to originate the role of Mammy Yokum in the musical Lil’ Abner (based on the popular comic strip).
Later she received the first of her two Tony Award nominations as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her part in Pickwick, a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. The renowned shows she almost became a part of – like The Pajama Game, Funny Girl and New Faces of 1952 – that are just as much fun to read about.
Eventually, Rae and her husband, John Strauss, felt the urge to relocate to the “other” coast, where Hollywood success was hers to be had. She might not have been a household name when she was cast as the lovable housekeeper on Diff’rent Strokes, but she certainly was a recognizable face, having appeared in many episodic TV shows and some well-known commercials. Among the best and most memorable of these had her chiding us “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” (long before Mr. Whipple took up the call) and introducing viewers to the various kinds of “Excedrin headaches.”
Her role as Edna Garrett on Diff’rent Strokes and later her own spinoff, The Facts of Life, made Rae a TV legend.
“I still meet people who just want me to put my arms around them and give them a hug," she once told Entertainment Weekly concerning her character’s continuing popularity.
Aside from the engrossing stories she shares about being a part of what many regard as the Golden Age of both Broadway and television, Rae opens up about what it was like to be the mother of Andy, her autistic son, at a time when most people – including medical professionals – had never even heard of the term. These passages show Rae as a genuine pioneer when one considers the efforts she and her husband made in seeking out or inaugurating programs to help their son.
She doesn’t sugarcoat her experiences, which include battling alcoholism before finding sobriety with AA. Her husband of 25 years and the father of the couple’s two sons initially resisted that 12-step program, but later his own work with it led to his coming out to her as bisexual.
Although Strauss proposed that they stay together in an open relationship, Rae opted for divorce in the mid-1970s (she notes, though, that the two remained close until his death in 2011).
After leaving The Facts of Life in the late 1980s, Rae returned to her onstage roots, touring in the popular Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical Into the Woods, where she got big laughs as the eccentric mother of Jack (of giant-killing beanstalk fame).
Then, in 2006, she appeared in a Los Angeles production of 70, Girls, 70 with Olympia Dukakis.
Today, Rae continues to work on television and in the theater, most recently appearing opposite Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield in the movie Ricki and the Flash.
“Who has time for hard feelings?” she writes. “Life keeps happening. Why miss out on anything? And there was plenty for me to be present for.”
The Facts of My Life is published by BearManor Media and is now available wherever books are sold.