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In “The Facts of Life,” Charlotte Rae played the unflappable Mrs. Garrett, a girls’ school housemother who smoothly guided her charges through crises and comedy.
Rae says she implored the TV show’s producers to let her character “lose her temper, yell at the kids. Let her be a human being.”
They declined. But as Rae, 89, recounts in her new autobiography, her own life bore little resemblance to the sitcom-grade serenity of Edna Garrett’s, instead marked by challenges that included son Andy’s autism and her husband’s late-in-life disclosure that he was bisexual and wanted an open marriage.
“The Facts of My Life” paints Rae as a woman determined to face the world with grace and humor, come what may, and one dedicated to her family, friends and a career that stretched from 1950s TV to Broadway.
That’s partly why she decided to do the book, to bolster others tackling their own difficulties and dreams, Rae said in an interview.
And because her other son, Larry Strauss, a writer and teacher, said she should.
“He said, ‘Ma, I think it’s time we did your memoir. You talk to me and I’ll do it,”” she recalled. “He was very sensitive to what I was talking about and wonderful (writing about) his brother, very sensitive and beautiful.”
The book, to be published by BearManor Media on Nov. 1, opens with what’s described as a “nightmare come true,” then 16-year-old Andy Strauss locked in the juvenile ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital because he’d been deemed dangerous.
Andy’s diagnosis of autism had been long in coming at a time when there was far less understanding of or attention to the disorder, Rae said. Her son, who had other conditions including epilepsy, died in his mid-40s of a heart attack.
She saw his illness as the “most devastating thing” in her life, said Rae, who has also faced alcoholism and heart problems. Then her husband of 25 years, composer and sound editor John Strauss, who like Rae had turned to Alcoholics Anonymous for help, was urged by his AA sponsor to be honest with himself and his wife about his sexuality.
“I felt there was something wrong with me and took it personally,” Rae said. “But I gradually realized what he was going through. My God, the poor guy, hiding it and being ashamed.”
The pair divorced, and John Strauss died in 2011. He had found a long-time partner (the nice Jewish man of his dreams, Rae said) but she has remained single.
“Between the children and my career, I just didn’t have time. It didn’t happen,” Rae said. “There were people I had little flings with that were lovely, but nobody I wanted to marry.”
Son Larry, his family and others keep her busy and content, she said.
“I have wonderful friends. I’m not just a lonely old lady,” said Rae, a Wisconsin native who splits her time between Los Angeles and New York.
Her career has been divided between screen, stage and cabaret appearances (fans may recall Mrs. Garrett singing “O Holy Night” on a holiday episode). Her extensive TV work ranged from “The Phil Silvers Show” in the 1950s to “Car 54, Where Are You?” in the 1960s to “Girl Meets World” in 2014.
After introducing Mrs. Garrett on “Diff’rent Strokes,” Rae carried her over to “The Facts of Life” spin-off in 1979. The long-running series brought her an Emmy nomination, financial security and lasting friendships with co-stars Nancy McKeon, Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields and Mindy Cohn.
(She recalls, with delight, visiting McKeon and her husband at their ranch near Austin, Texas, and having a “jammie party” with their daughters.)
Rae also appeared in movies, with her latest role this year in the Meryl Streep-starring “Ricki and the Flash.” On Broadway, she earned two Tony nominations in the ‘60s for “Pickwick” and “Morning, Noon and Night.”
But it’s an off-Broadway play, Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” that she considers her career highlight and most challenging role, “like ‘Hamlet’ to a man,” Rae said, paraphrasing British actress Peggy Ashcroft’s description of it.
The play is essentially a monologue, its primary character a woman who is stuck in an onstage mound of earth but keeps her chin up, literally and otherwise.
“It’s going through life and getting through life with joy and anticipation and acceptance. She’s a noble soul,” Rae said.
Perhaps like the actress herself?
“I try. I try. And most of the time I’m pretty good at it,” she said.