How The First Season Of Facts Of Life Was Like A Whole Different Show

The show that made household names of Blair, Natalie, Tootie, Jo, and Mrs. Garrett had humble beginnings. "The Facts of Life" started as a four-episode spinoff from "Diff'rent Strokes." It starred beloved actor Charlotte Rae (formerly one of the cast members of "Sesame Street") as Mrs. Garrett, the Drummond family's housekeeper, who leaves to accept a position as a dormitory housemother at an all-girls school.


Fred Silverman, former president and CEO of NBC, explained to Entertainment Weekly why the character was the perfect choice to spin off from "Diff'rent Strokes." "She was established on the show, but her absence wouldn't mean the decline of the show," he said. "In other words, I thought there was enough there that we could weather her loss, and then she could still make guest appearances."

Rae herself seemed less confident regarding the new show, saying in the same interview, "But my manager got a deal where, if the show failed, I could go back to 'Diff'rent Strokes.'"

The spinoff was far from an instant hit. In a 1979 review titled, "'The Facts of Life': Formula for Mediocrity," The Washington Post called the new show a "feeble burble of frivolity" set at a "girls' school located somewhere beyond the boundaries of belief." At the end of Season 1, in the 1979–1980 Nielsen ratings, "The Facts of Life" ranked 74th out of 79 TV shows on the air.


So how did "The Facts of Life" change after Season 1?

The Facts of Life had to make changes for Season 2

Despite the poor reviews for the first four episodes of "The Facts of Life," NBC ordered an additional nine. According to writer Sally Sussman Morina, who came on board at that point, the network started thinking about making major alterations to the show for Season 2.


"I definitely brought some authenticity to the show that hadn't been there, particularly during the first season, if only because I was female," Morina told Entertainment Weekly. "They needed my help, because the writers at the time were all men. They were also all older. I was closer to Tootie's age than I was to the writers."

Incidentally, actor Kim Fields was very young when she first donned Tootie's trademark roller skates. "I was nine years old and I was playing 12," she told Page Six. "So that's what it took me to have the job. I was on skates till I grew."

Director John Bowab said to Entertainment Weekly, "In that first season, they had Tootie on roller skates all the time, and one of the reasons was that Kim was so tiny. Fortunately, they got rid of that."


Many characters were cut after Season 1

In addition to the housemother, Season 1 of "The Facts of Life" featured a large cast of characters: a teacher, a headmaster, and seven main girls. NBC trimmed the central cast considerably for Season 2 to focus on Mrs. Garrett's relationship with just a few students.


Actor Julie Piekarski Probst, who played schoolgirl Sue Ann, told Entertainment Weekly, "They were trying to incorporate the school atmosphere and the teacher dynamics at first, but as the show went on, those parts ended up on the sidelines, and it was more about what went on in the house with the girls and Mrs. Garrett."

Actor John Lawlor, who portrayed headmaster Mr. Bradley, was less sanguine about the casting changes. He said in the same interview, "All I know is I got fired from that show — and that's the word. They can say anything — they can say 'let go,' they can say 'downsized' — but it's really, 'You're fired. You're gone.'"

In her book "The Facts of Life and Other Lessons My Father Taught Me," Lisa Whelchel wrote about how upsetting it was to lose so many cast members all at once. 


"Someone needed to enlighten us as to why our original cast had dwindled from seven girls to three over the summer vacation. They explained that there were too many girls to get to know in a thirty-minute time slot, so they had trimmed the cast, leaving Natalie, Tootie, and Blair."

Molly Ringwald was fired from The Facts of Life

One of the girls let go after Season 1 was 12-year-old Molly Ringwald. She told Entertainment Weekly, "What they said is, they wanted something closer to Lisa Whelchel, who played Blair, they wanted something closer to her age and I was too young at the time. I was a little bit of a different generation." 


NBC did ask Ringwald if she'd like to appear on "The Facts of Life" occasionally, but she found the demotion from series regular humiliating, so she declined. Her career clearly recovered as she went on to star in 1980s hits such as "The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles," and "Pretty in Pink" (per IMDb).

Jerry Mayer, one of the executive producers and writers for "The Facts of Life," told Entertainment Weekly, "I still think it's funny that, of the girls they decided to cut, one of them was Molly Ringwald, who, even though they were all very talented, went on to be the biggest star of the bunch. I remember thinking, 'God, I hate to lose her, because she really has talent!'"

The character Jo was introduced in Season 2

Even though producers were busy cutting characters, they also added an important newcomer in Season 2: Jo, played by Nancy McKeon (who went on to become a Lifetime movie actor). Tough and rebellious but secretly sensitive, scholarship student Jo roared into Eastland Academy on her motorcycle, immediately livening up the school — and the struggling show.


"It made an enormous difference," Fred Silverman, former president and CEO of NBC, told Entertainment Weekly. "It added new life to the series." Director John Bowab added, "We just knew that she could hold her own with Lisa, and that was basically what they were looking for: someone to slap Blair down every so often."

In her book "The Facts of Life and Other Lessons My Father Taught Me," Lisa Whelchel wrote, "Nancy McKeon was such a delightful addition to the cast that it took some of the sting out of losing so many new friends."

In the show's Season 2 premiere, Blair, Natalie, Tootie, and newcomer Jo got into trouble for stealing the school van and using fake IDs at a bar. They were forced to work in the cafeteria with Mrs. Garrett (newly promoted to school dietician) to pay for the wrecked van. They also had to live together above the cafeteria, where Mrs. Garrett could keep an eye on them.


Why The Facts of Life is still adored today

After the focus of "The Facts of Life" shifted to Mrs. Garrett's relationships with Blair, Natalie, Tootie, and Jo, the show found its footing.

Director Asaad Kelada told Entertainment Weekly, "I had directed one episode when the series first began, and it was difficult then, because there were so many characters and there was so much going on. When I was given a call and asked to go back in the second season, I actually had a little trepidation because of that first experience. But then I read the script and went back, because suddenly the show just had this focus, and it was the start of what went on to become an iconic series."


The show also found its audience. Season 2 reached #26 in the Nielsen ratings, while Season 3 climbed to #24. "The Facts of Life" ran for nine seasons, racking up more than 200 episodes (per IMDb), and it still has many fans today.

Lisa Whelchel told Today in 2020 that the show endures because of its timeless themes. "It's relationships; it's friendships; it's things that girls go through as they're growing up," she said. "And no matter what generation you're in, you're going to be going through the same things. And you're going to want that same kind of relationships."

So could the show return someday? "We've been talking about a reimagining of 'Facts of Life' and bringing it back again," Whelchel told Fox News in 2022. "Nothing is set yet, but it's been really fun to talk about it."