Monday, August 06, 2018

A story about Charlotte Rae and Mrs. Garrett

Jim Brochu and I were at her apartment. She was sitting in the kitchen, worrying over a job offer from a late night comedian. A small skit that would end with Mrs. Garrett saying a terrible curse word.

I suggested it was a funny idea. She was always looking for work. It would have put her in the headlines for a few days and give her a new image. Like Betty White’s bitchy Sue Ann Niven on Mary Tyler Moore revived her career, no longer seen as a goody two-shoed panelist and housewife from 50s TV.

Charlotte gave me a horrified look and said, “NO! I could never do this.”

“Why not?”

She said, “To this very day, I get letters from girls all over the country who tell me their personal stories and ask my advice. Many tell me that they didn’t have a mother, and that Mrs. Garrett had been the one person they could look up to. Never!”

Jim and I once wrote a show about the connection between religion and show business. Sometimes you’re in show business. Sometimes, in church. But it can be hard to know which is which when they confusingly swap venues.

The Facts of Life was just a cheesy sitcom to me. I didn’t need a mom and I wasn’t a girl, so if I ever accidentally did tune in, five minutes was enough.

I had not thought of The Facts of Life as a ministry.

I felt ashamed in that moment in the kitchen, at the table where she answered the letters from those girls. Charlotte was not an easy person. She was irascible and as self-centered as any actor I’ve met, myself included. And dinner with her could turn into nightmare. One time, Jim said they changed tables three times before Charlotte was happy, and getting her to order! She had to make a change on every item.

But heres’s the thing, especially in New York. The people adored her. At 54 Below one night, every theater queen in town came by and rattled off how they had seen her in Yiddish theater, early TV, etc. Charlotte Rae had a distinguished theatrical career. One time, she came to visit from L.A. and there had just been an episode of Car 54, Where Are You?, with Charlotte dressed up as a countess holding a fan.

We talked her into posing and took the picture. She was always game for goofing around.

I’m gonna miss the box of See’s Candy for Christmas we would get from Charlotte every year (too embarrassed to tell her we didn’t eat candy). She always reminded us that she loved us.

But, unsentimentally, the real gift was a herself. A professional actress from the old school. Charlotte as Mrs. Garrett to the end, teaching us that when we go out and dance a jig, there are real people watching.