Actress Charlotte Rae, who played the kindly maternal surrogate Mrs. Garrett on two hit ’80s sitcoms, has died at age 92.
Rae died at her Los Angeles home Sunday with her family at her side, said her publicist, Harlan Boll. A cause of death was not immediately available, but Rae was diagnosed last year with bone cancer after beating pancreatic cancer, Boll said.
“I’ve had a great life, but I have so many wonderful things happening,” she told People at the time of her diagnosis. “I’d like to choose life. I’m grateful for the life I’ve already had.”
The Milwaukee native, who attended but did not graduate from Northwestern University, was a Tony-nominated Broadway star and successful TV character actress when she was hired on “Diff’rent Strokes.” She played the maid of a rich white businessman (Conrad Bain) who adopted two young black brothers (Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges).
The next year the character was spun off into a series of her own: “The Facts of Life,” set at a boarding school where Mrs. Garrett was the house mother, mentoring the girls on their adolescent issues. Rae won a Prime Time Emmy Award nomination for the role in 1982.
Mindy Cohn and Kim Fields, who played members of Mrs. Garrett’s brood, recalled her lovingly.
“She was my champion, a teacher, a proud example of the tenacity and perseverance needed to live as a creative, along with your talent and gifts. i love you char,” Cohn, who played Natalie, posted on Instagram.
“Sorry, no words at the moment just love and tears… and yeah, smiles,” tweeted Fields, who portrayed Tootie.
Edna Garrett provided kind if sometimes wry counsel to her “Facts of Life” charges (which, besides Cohn and Fields, included Lisa Whelchel, Nancy McKeon and Molly Ringwald) on a series that was praised for dealing with such sensitive issues of teenhood as sex, drug use, eating disorders and peer pressure.
“I wanted to bring in as much humanity as possible, as well as the humor,” Rae told The Associated Press early in the show’s run. “I don’t want her to be Polly Perfect, because she must have human failings and make mistakes.”
Earlier she won an Emmy for her work in the 1975 TV movie “Queen of Stardust Ballroom.”
During her Northwestern years, she performed in the school’s annual musical comedy revue known as the Waa-Mu Show and moonlighted on the Chicago-based radio soap opera “Pepper Young’s Family.”
“I wanted to be a serious actress and do all the classics,” Rae told the Sun-Times in 1989. “And I got to Northwestern and someone said, ‘Why don’t you try out for Waa-Mu?’ And I did, and I ended up getting the lead. It just blew me away.”
At the time of that interview, Rae was acting at Chicago’s Briar Street Theatre in the role of Daisy Werthan, the irascible heroine of “Driving Miss Daisy.”
After leaving Northwestern, she moved to New York where she quickly found work doing satirical sketches in Greenwich Village clubs. Later she appeared in a landmark production of Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” and as Mammy Yokum in the hit musical “L’il Abner.”
In 1961 she became a semi-regular on the New York-based cop sitcom “Car 54, Where Are You?” as the wife of the NYPD officer played by future “Munsters” grandpa Al Lewis.
She received Tony nominations in 1966 for “Pickwick” and in 1969 for “Morning, Noon and Night.”
In the early 1970s, Rae moved to Los Angeles with her then-husband, composer and music editor John Strauss, and their sons Andy and Larry. There she was cast in the short-lived Norman Lear sitcom “Hot L Baltimore” and a similarly unsuccessful variety show hosted by Rich Little before scoring “Diff’rent Strokes,” on which Mrs. Garrett was the family’s housekeeper.
Her last feature film credit was “Ricki and the Flash” with Meryl Streep in 2015. That same year she released her autobiography “The Facts of My Life,” co-written by her son Larry Strauss.
Contributing: Associated Press