Blair was initially portrayed as the "bad girl" of the series. When the show was retooled for the second season and Nancy McKeon joined the cast, Jo took over the "bad girl" persona. At the same time, Blair was transitioned into her more familiar vain, spoiled rich girl image.
Mindy Cohn wasn't an auditionee for the show. When the producers visited a girls' school to see how the girls interacted, she was a social magnet just being herself, and they created Natalie based on Cohn. She was then tested in the role.
Kim Fields was only nine years old when she started playing Tootie, who was supposed to be twelve. In an effort to make her appear taller (and older) her character was always in roller skates for the first year of the show.
When she left after the seventh season, Charlotte Rae recommended Cloris Leachman to replace her. Rae and Leachman were classmates at Northwestern University and were roommates when they were young struggling actors in New York City.
The character Jo was suggested by then-NBC Chief Fred Silverman after he had seen the film "Little Darlings". He felt a streetwise scholarship student would contrast well, and add conflict, against the rich, spoiled Blair character.
During the final season, producers made a controversial decision to shake things up by having one of the girls lose their virginity. Initially Blair was to be the character, but Lisa Whelchel protested it as the idea went against her deep-seated Christian beliefs. Whelchel further explained she didn't want her character to be seen as such an improper role model for the show's young viewers. Mindy volunteered to have her character lose her virginity instead because writers felt it was time for one of the characters to experience this and Natalie was in a long term relationship so Mindy felt it made sense for it to be her and the writers agreed.
Originally, the premise of the series was that Edna Garrett, the housekeeper on Diff'rent Strokes (1978), became the headmistress at the school that Kimberly Drummond (Dana Plato) attended. But after the pilot episode, the producers decided to keep Plato on Diff'rent Strokes (1978) and there was never any mention of Kimberly being a student at Eastland again.
For the second season, the entire concept and plot of the show was changed from a large boarding house of several young girls, to a tighter knit group of older adolescent women. This was done since the producers felt that a plot change from comic relief to serious adult issues would help boost ratings. The cast of girls was reduced to only four, including the new character of "Jo".
Eastland was located in the Westchester County town of Peekskill, New York, which is located roughly forty miles north of Manhattan. With a commute of less than forty five minutes to Manhattan, this explains the relative ease in which Manhattanite Blair and Bronx-born Jo are able to go home as often as they do, and also helps to explain the continuous interaction between the Drummond family and Mrs. Garrett after her departure from their household.
Midway throughout the sixth and seventh seasons, Charlotte Rae had missed several episodes due to her health problems. This led her leaving the show at the end of the seventh season, although she did make two more guest appearances at the beginning of the eighth season.
During the last season, David Spade was in an episode that was supposed to be turned into a spin-off series called "Big Apple Blues" about college roommates living in New York City but it never materialized.
Even though Kimberly Drummond never ended up at Eastland like the original plot of the series had planned, the show still was connected to the "Different Strokes" universe with Mr. Drummond and Arnold making a few guest appearances. In addition, some of the Facts Of Life characters, mostly Tootie, made crossover appearances on Diff'rent Strokes in which they were seen visiting Kimberly.
During the course of the show it was revealed that Mrs. Garrett and Beverly Ann hailed from Appleton, Wisconsin; Blair and Natalie hailed from Manhattan; Jo hailed from the Bronx, and Tootie from Washington D.C.
During the 9 year run of the series the producers made multiple attempts to Spin Off "The Facts of Life" by producing 6 Back-Door Pilots that were to serve as possible pilots for a new series. In chronological order the episodes are "Brian and Sylvia" "The Academy" "Jo's Cousin" "The Big Fight" "Big Apple Blues" and the Two part series finale "The Beginning of the End" and "The Beginning of the Beginning" In the end none of these attempts was successful.
In the first season, there were seven students in the main cast. After the first season, the producers decided to drop four characters from the main cast: Molly Parker (Molly Ringwald), Cindy Webster (Julie Anne Haddock), Sue Ann Weaver (Julie Piekarski) and Nancy Olson (Felice Schachter). But Haddock, Piekarski, and Schacter continued to appear occasionally until the third season.
The character of Blair, was originally conceived as a down-home charming Texas girl. However, during her audition for the role Lisa Whelchel read several of Blair's lines sarcastically. Producers were so impressed by Whelchel's audition that they re-wrote the character to be that of a self-involved New York blue blooded socialite.
The girls made frequent topical references on the show, name-checking celebrities and mentioning different current and historical events in a humorous context. These came from the writers; cast members often didn't actually know who or what their lines were about, or what made them funny. Years later, Mindy Cohn discussed watching reruns, and laughing all the harder because now she understood the jokes.
Over the course of the series, Eastland was shown having four Headmasters, Mr. Bradley, Mr. Harris, Mr. Parker and in the final episode, Blair. In addition, the Diff'rent Strokes episode which served as a Pilot for the series featured a Headmaster named Mr. Crocker.
Originally the school was to be called Eastlake Academy, a take on the name of Westlake Academy, a LA area school that was said to be the inspiration for the show. The Eastlake name was used in the Diff'rent Strokes episode which introduced the series.
In early episodes Natalie and Blair had to tape down their developing chests so their appearance remained that of adolescents. Lisa Whelchel said later, "The facts of life were not allowed on 'The Facts of Life'."
After The Facts of Life, Kim Fields starred in another sitcom about 4 young women living together, growing up and getting through life together called Living Single. She played Regine, the primadonna-ish one (cut from the same cloth as Blair Warner.) In one episode she tells another woman visiting the apartment that she looks familiar, and asks her what school did she go to. The woman says "Eastland." Then Kim/Regine smiles, looks directly into the camera and says "Never heard of it!"
When Diff'rent Strokes became an instant hit, it was also at the time one of NBC's few viable series. As a result,Fred Silverman believed that the network could capitalize from a Diff'rent Strokes spin off. It was ultimately determined that Charlotte Rae had the proper ability and experience to be able to carry her own series. In addition, it was felt that since Mrs. Garret wasn't central to Diff'rent Strokes her departure wouldn't negatively effect the series.
Geri Reischel, best known as "Fake Jan", was offered the role of Blair but couldn't take the role due to her contract with General Mills. Eve Plumb (the real Jan Brady) appeared as Blair's step-sister, Meg, in season 4.
Actor Thomas Byrd played two different characters on episodes of Facts of Life. Both of these characters were boyfriends of Blair, coincidently enough. In "Different Drummers" he played Leo, a mentally handicapped musician that befriends Blair. In "With a Little Help From My Friends" he played Nick, a drug addict that is dating Blair.
Lisa was sent to a fat farm during a couple of the hiatuses, because as the "pretty one" she was seen as getting too fat. Conversely, Mindy Cohn was told she was getting too thin, because she was the "fat one", so they forced her to wear baggy clothing.
Nancy McKeon appeared in a Hallmark commercial where she had to cry on cue in 1979-1980 when producers spotted her. The producers were retooling the show at this point and NBC Chairman Fred Silverman who had just seen the summer hit "Little Darlings" had suggested finding a Kristy McNichol type to round out the new cast, when the casting director spotted Nancy. It was at this point they decided to cast her as Jo.
Tootie wore roller skates for the whole first season. She wore them inside, outside, walking up and down the stairs, even riding a horse in a flash flood in one episode. When she showed up for season 2 for the first episode "The New Girl ", she wasn't wearing roller skates, and no one said a word! They never mentioned her skates again except once, 6 years later, in the "Little Chill" reunion episode when one of the girls suggested bringing them out for old times sake.
According to the recent Entertainment Weekly article on The Facts of Life there was at one point an anti-gay joke in the script, where one of the male characters was slammed for being effeminate. But Charlotte Rae vetoed the joke, saying "we do not make fun of people's sexuality on this show".
In an interview with Dish Nation Kim Fields says she was close friends with Janet Jackson when she was a kid, starring on Facts of Life. She said she, Michael and Janet all went to Disneyworld together during that period, and it was one of the highlights of her life.
In a recent Huffington Post article Mindy Cohn lamented that she could not audition for Saint Elmo's Fire while she was on Facts of Life in 1985 because NBC would not let her out of her contract. She was up for Wendy Beamish, the role that went to Mare Winningham. She said she missed out on many opportunities because of Facts of Life's rigorous schedule for 9 nine years.
"The First Time" episode, which featured a storyline having one of the girls lose her virginity, was supposed to happen in one of the earlier seasons, two or three, and it was supposed to focus on Blair, not Natalie. Lisa Welchel vetoed the idea, due to her strong Christian beliefs, and the idea was tabled for a few years anyway, till the last season when the producers brought up the idea again. Lisa Welchel again refused; but this time Mindy Cohn jumped in and said her character could be the one that loses her virginity. Then Welchel famously boycotted the episode, saying it was sending the wrong message to the young girl audience; although ironically she did appear in episodes where the girls experimented with drugs, drinking and shoplifting.
The Diff'rent Strokes gang pay Mrs. Garrett a visit in the pilot episode "Rough Housing". As they're leaving, Mr. Drummond asks Mrs. Garrett, "This house mothering thing. It isn't permanent, is it?" "Oh no!" she says. "I'll be back! I promise!" As we all know Mrs. Garrett doesn't keep that promise because she never does return to the Drummonds.
All the cast members sang a song on the show. They all performed numbers in "Christmas in the Big House", and Natalie and Tootie both sang "Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair" from South Pacific in "Green Eyed Monster". The only one who didn't do a musical number was Mrs. G/Charlotte Rae, but she did sing the theme song in Season 1.
The other Facts of Life alum to star in a John Hughes movie, besides Molly Ringwald, who starred in Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink after doing one season of Facts of Life, was Alexis Kenin, who played Jesse on the " New York New York" episode, and then later starred in Pretty in Pink with Molly Ringwald, where she played one of Molly's friends.
Continuing the Facts of Life/ John Hughes connections, after Molly Ringwald and Alexis Kennin who both starred on Facts of Life and Pretty In Pink, is Jami Gertz, who played Boots St. Clair, a recurring character on the Facts of Life in 1983 and 1984, and then in 1984 starred in Sixteen Candles with Facts of Life alumn Molly Ringwald.
"The New Girl" , the episode where Jo and Blair finagle their way into a bar, with fast talking and phony I.d.s, because of a bet over who can allure the most men, was inspired by the hit movie "Little Darlings", which had just come out a couple months before this episode aired and was a big hit. NBC programming chairman Fred Silverman had even suggested hiring a Kristy McNichol type to round out the revamped cast, which is why Nancy McKeon was there.
At one point on the TV show "Roseanne" the Connor family is sitting around watching "The Facts of Life" and Dan says "You know, this show was really the 80s version of 'Friends' if you think about it! " That comment is particularly ironic since both Lisa Welchel and Nancy McKeon were both seriously being considered for roles on 'Friends' ! (Nancy was up for Monica and Lisa was up for Rachel!) This is also ironic because George Clooney would star on both Facts of Life and Roseanne!
Both George Clooney and Mackenzie Astin are children of famous people: George is the nephew of Rosemary Clooney, the famous singer, and Mackenzie is the son of Oscar winning actress Patty Duke and TV actor John Astin.
During the first season there was always clapping at the end of the first segment. This was the format for all Norman Lear sitcoms, where the first segment was treated like the first act of a play; the clapping was supposed to signify the end of that first act. Then, as with all his other sitcoms in 1980, Lear changed his format, and they stopped adding pre-recorded clapping at the end of each segment. You can see the change in format on all his shows that season, Archie Bunkers Place, The Jeffersons, Different Strokes, and One Day at a Time.
Here's the rarely seen or heard second verse to the Facts of Life theme song, which can be found on Gloria Loring's LP "Shot in the Dark": When there's someone that you care about, Who really isn't there enough to slow you up, When you're growing up. When you let him flirt and then you hurt, waiting 'cause your date is late for showing up, then you're growing up! Well it's more than just the birds and the bees, you need someone telling you please! There's only one conclusion There will always be confusion over you! You-hoo-hoo-hoo! It takes a lot to get 'em right, when you're learning the facts of life!
In Big Fish Little Fish Jo and Blair do a ventriloquist act at the party. In real life Lisa Welchel did have a ventriloquist act before she signed on to Facts of Life. She sang We Go Together from Grease with a dummy and appeared on many talk shows circa 1977. Clips of this can be seen on YouTube.
Mindy Cohn met Lucille Ball when she was out to dinner with Cloris Meaghan. Miss Ball grabbed her hand and said "You and that Tootie remind me of me and Viv. You are a very funny lady Miss Cohn. You keep it up 'cuz you have a lot to offer!"
Mindy Cohn didn't actually audition for the show. She met Charlotte Rae and the Tandem producers when they were at Westlake School for Girls doing research for the show. Charlotte met Mindy at this point, when they were talking to some of the students trying to get a feeling for boarding school life, and fell in love with her. She convinced the producers to add her into the show even though she wasn't originally one of the characters in the cast, and she told them to call her "Natalie" after an old friend of hers from childhood that Mindy reminded her of.
The show moved from Wednesdays to the Saturday Night comedy block, so it dropped its serious issue oriented tone and became broader, more slapstick oriented, to fit in with shows like "The Golden Girls". It was at this point that Geri Jewell, who used to be a regular reoccurring character, was limited to one or two appearances, to fit in with the comedy heavy format. She was told that every time she appears it becomes a " very special episode," and they were trying to be less serious. It was at this point that she quit, because she did not want to be on only one or two episodes.
George Clooney would go on to a appear in Roseanne as Fisher, Roseanne's boss and Laurie Metcalf's bofriend, a year after he was fired from Facts of Life. After that it was ER, and then the movies, and then A-List stardom.
Though the Facts of Life was a Norman Lear production, and though it was a popular and successful show, still the longest running program featuring an all female cast, Norman Lear never put his name on the credits, opting for the more generic "Tandem Productions," and he also never mentions it in interviews.
It's significant Molly Ringwald did not return for the "Little Chill" reunion episode when all the other girls did. Molly was in essence fired from the show during the 1980-1981 season. She went from being a series regular during the 1979-1980 season to a reoccurring character who made only one appearance during the next season, before then vanishing all together. She has said this was "humiliating." She had the last laugh because as everyone knows she became a superstar during this period, starring in three classic John Hughes movies. In 1986, when they shot the "Little Chill" episode Molly was on the cover of Time Magazine.
In addition to featuring 3 members of the cast who are Academy Award winners, 3 members of the Facts of Life cast were also arrested. The Diffrent Strokes kids were all arrested for criminal activities, and they all also made cameos on the Facts of Life.
Both "Dope", the episode when Sue Anne experiments with drugs, and "Breaking Point", the episode when new student Cynthia kills herself, rarely get shown in reruns due to the controversial subject matter.
The Facts of Life episode "Legacy", where Blair learns her grandfather Carlton Blair was in the Ku Klux Klan, and has to decide if money from his estate should go to build a library at Eastland, is very similar to the Different Strokes episode "The Ancestor" where Phillip learns one of his ancestors was a slave trader, and has to decide if money from his estate should be used to build a community center.
After all of Mr. Bradley's unprofessional and subpar teaching methods displayed in Emily Dickinson,. IQ and Running, it's no wonder he was replaced after only a year! Although the next two headmasters, Mr. Harris and Mr. Parker, weren't much better!
Felice Schacter was the first girl cast. The Tandem producers promised her a role after she was turned down for the Kimberly Drummond role on Different Strokes. She was also the first girl who was fired when the show was rebooted the second season.
At the end of "Cupid's Revenge" Natalie, after waiting all episode for her date Snake to appear, and when he finally beeps her in his car off screen at the tail end, breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience. She says "You'll just have to trust me!" to the audience that suspects that she might have made up Snake like Blair accused her of; ala Jan Brady's George Glass; or like Tootie did in the "Dear Me" episode. This is the only time someone breaks the fourth wall in the series.
Both Lisa Welchel and Nancy McKeon were up for roles on Friends after Facts of Life wrapped; Lisa was approached to play Rachel and Nancy auditioned for and was being considered for Monica. Ironically, Lauren Tom, who played the reoccurring character Miko on Facts of Life, also wound up being a regular character on Friends as well; she played Ross's love interest Julie for one season.
According to a Biography documentary about The Facts of Life, when head writers Margie Peters and Linda Marsh were hired at the beginning of the second season to help revamp the show, they had a list of complaints to Tandem Productions and NBC about the show during the first season that they wanted changed. First was that the girls were too "sexed up" during the first season; their clothing was too tight and revealing, and that the show almost looked like "kiddie porn" as a result. Second was that it was unrealistic that Tootie would wear roller skates 24/7 even in the house, and that her character came off as a racist caricature as a result. Third was that there were too many characters for the audience to keep track of, and that some of them had to be eliminated. Marsh and Peters were the main reason that much of the cast was fired from the first season, that Tootie lost the roller skates in Season 2, and that the girl's costumes and style of dress became more conservative in Season 2 as well.
Nancy McKeon's character was originally going to be named "Foxy". That was until head writers Linda Marsa and Margie Peters vetoed the idea. Then NBC network Executive Producer Fred Silverman, seeing that there were 4 girls and a house mother in the cast suggested Jo. This was a reference to Jo March from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, also a story about 4 girls and a house mother. Everyone, including Marsh and Peters, liked that idea and it stuck.
When Charlotte Rae was originally asked by Norman Lear to be on "Different Strokes", an NBC production, she had to decline, complaining that she was still stuck in an exclusive contract with CBS. Norman Lear bet her a nickel he could get her out of the contract, and used his pull as the Executive Producer of such big CBS moneymakers as "All in The Family", "One Day At a Time" and "The Jefferson's" to void the contract with CBS. Charlotte Rae wound up paying him a nickel for the deed.
David Coburn would play Carl, Tootie's dance partner and Fred's rival in the "Who Am I" episode. He would also play Jimmy in the Different Strokes episode "The Slumber Party", where he was Willis's friend and one of Tootie's rivals. He would also go on to play Captain Planet in the Captain Planet TV series for many years.
It would have been funny if Jo and Roy wound up becoming boyfriend/girlfriend at some point, after Jo cruelly rejected Roy for so many years! She does in fact date him at one point in the "Cupid's Revenge" episode; they go to a Peekskill dance together.
The Facts of Life was honored at the TV Land Awards. In a speech to the audience Charlotte Rae praised the girls from the cast for "turning out straight.". Little did she realize Geri Jewell was a lesbian.
Tootie calls Blair a gem in Emily Dickinson, she says Blair's been a gem of a maid after she's blackmailed Blair into doing personal chores for her after learning Blair plagiarized her poem. Blair calls Tootie a gem in the Who am I episode when Tootie makes a dress for her.
Mayim Bialik starred in the last episode "The Beginning of the Beginning", which was meant to be a spin-off episode with her and co-stars Juliette Lewis and Seth Green playing the next generation of Eastland students and Lisa Welchel/Blair stepping into the mentor role that Mrs. Garrett previously played. This was in 1988, the same year Mayim Bialik starred in "Beaches".
The "Sex Object" episode where the normally innocent Natalie pretends to be promiscuous to attract everyone's attention is similar to the "Barbara's Emergence" episode on One Day at a Time where Barbara pretends to be slutty for a few days to attract the attention of boys. Ironically, Natalie would be the first character on Facts of Life to lose her virginity, making the "Sex Object" episode prophetic.
If Mr. Bradley is this big poetry aficionado why didn't he recognize that Blair plagiarized her poem in the Emily Dickinson episode? Since Emily Dickinson is one of the most celebrated poets ever? And shouldn't the judges in the poetry have picked up on this also, before Blair and Mrs. Garret spilled the beans?
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
In "Sex Object" Natalie pretends to be promiscuous to break away from her innocent, goody-two-shoes image. Ironically, Natalie would be the first of the regular cast to lose her virginity in "The First Time" episode 8 years later.