Charlotte Rae, American actress, comedian, singer, and dancer, died Sunday, Aug. 5 at her home in Los Angeles, California. She was 92. Her death comes one year after being diagnosed with bone cancer.
The celebrated actress gained nationwide acclaim for her role as Edna Garrett, first on Diff'rent Strokes, and then on the beloved spinoff The Facts of Life.
Rae was born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 22, 1926 to Russian Jewish immigrants. She and her three sisters, along with their parents, lived above her father’s tire and appliance store in the city. As a teenager, Rae quickly got involved with a local radio station as well as the local children’s theater, and further sculpted her talents during an apprenticeship with a traveling professional theater company. She went on to attend Northwestern University where she met fellow actress Cloris Leachman, who would later succeed Rae on The Facts of Life for its final two seasons, and the late Paul Lynde, best known for his role as Uncle Arthur in Bewitched.
Although Rae always wanted to be a dramatic actress, she initially gained notoriety for her stand-up comedy routines. "When I started out, I wanted to be a serious actor," she told OnMilwaukee in 2016. "I never thought I'd get into comedy."
Hoping to advance her career, Rae dropped out of college and moved to New York City in 1948, where she began a career as a stage actress. She showed off her voice and comedic chops in theaters and nightclubs like Village Vanguard and the iconic Blue Angel, where other well-known talents like Barbra Streisand and Mike Nichols also got their start.
Rae married TV and film producer John Strauss in 1951, and was finally given a chance to shine soon after, making her Broadway debut in the musical comedy Three Wishes for Jamie in 1952. She would then appear in a revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera alongside Bae Arthur and John Astin, as well as in the musical Li'l Abner, based on the popular comic strip of the same name.
Anxious to market herself as a multi-talented star, Rae released her first (and only) solo album in 1955, Songs I Taught My Mother. Her husband worked as director on the project, recording the music and managing the band during the process.
In addition to all of her work in music and musical theater, the 1950s brought Rae’s first television spots. She appeared on the United States Steel Hour, The Phil Silvers Show, and Look Up and Live, leading to her first significant sitcom role on the police comedy Car 54, Where Are You? as Sylvia Schnauzer, the wife of Al Lewis’s Officer Leo Schnauzer, in 1961. Juggling her love of TV with passion for Broadway, she returned to the stage at the same time, earning her first Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical her work on the original music Pickwick in 1966, and another for Best Actress shortly after for her role in Morning, Noon, and Night in 1969.
In 1974, Rae moved to Los Angeles with the hope of becoming a serious actress. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for her supporting role in 1975’s drama Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, and guest-starred on shows like Good Times and Norman Lear’s productions All in the Family and Hot I Baltimore. Lear quickly took Rae under his wing, eventually hiring her to co-star on the series Diff’rent Strokes. As the housekeeper for the wealthy New York businessman Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), Rae’s character Edna Garrett was so popular that in 1979, NBC launched a spinoff focused on her character called The Facts of Life.
The series launched Rae to stardom. The Facts of Life followed Garrett as a housemother presiding over a private, all-girls boarding school called Eastland. Under her care were young girls played by Mindy Cohn, Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields, and even a very young Molly Ringwald. The series ran for nine seasons, with Rae parting ways with the show at the beginning of the eighth in 1986. She was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Comedy for the part.
“People of a certain age still remember me as Edna Garrett,” Rae said of her defining role. “They often want to give me a hug because the character was so warm and nurturing. I don't mind at all. I think it's very nice.”
Over the course of her six-decade long career, the actress had recurring roles on beloved shows like The Love Boat, St. Elsewhere, 101 Dalmations: The Series and ER. She starred alongside Adam Sandler in the film You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Most recently, she appeared on Pretty Little Liars in 2011 and an episode of Girl Meets World in 2014, followed by a role in the Meryl Streep musical dramedy Ricki and the Flash in 2015.
In 2015, Rae opened up to ET about her time on The Facts of Life in light of releasing her memoir, The Facts of My Life, which she co-wrote with her son Larry. She admitted that many of the actresses on the show suffered behind the scenes, feeling body-shamed by the producers. Apparently, the show had a scale backstage to weigh the girls on a regular basis.
"The more they tried to pressure them and weigh them and threaten them, the more they would eat," Rae said. "It's not the way you handle adolescence. You don't do that."
In 2017, Rae revealed to People that she had been diagnosed with bone cancer, seven years after battling pancreatic cancer, which her mother, uncle, and elder sister died from. At the time, she offered some advice to people as they get older.
“Every day is a birthday," Rae said. "I want to tell everybody to celebrate every day, to savor the day and be good to yourself, love yourself, and then you can be good to others and be of service to others.”
She is survived by her sister, Miriam Guten as well as her son Larry, whom she shared with ex-husband John Strauss. She and Strauss also shared another son, Andrew, who died of a heart attack in his mid-40s.