Charlotte Rae’s son says ‘Facts of Life’ star 'never gave up' on his autistic brother: 'Greatest act of love'
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Fans of “Facts of Life” got a special treat when Lisa Whelchel, along with some of her former castmates, appeared on the ABC special “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes” on Dec. 7.
However, two special stars were missing.
The first was Nancy McKeon, who was busy with her recent move, Whelchel confirmed to Extra. And then, there was Charlotte Rae, who played the wise and patient housemother Mrs. Garrett. The actress died in 2018 at age 92.
Her legacy is being kept alive by her son Larry Strauss, who has been a high school teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992. The celebrated author, who has written more than a dozen books, teamed up with his mom in 2015 to write her memoir “The Facts of My Life.”
Charlotte Rae is still remembered by fans for her role as Edna Garrett.
(Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Most recently, Strauss wrote his fifth novel titled “Light Man,” which pays tribute to his New York City upbringing and his late mother. Earlier this month, Strauss appeared at The Hollywood Museum for its first authors forum and book signing, which featured several celebrity and bestselling authors.
Strauss told Fox News he instantly knew the moment he realized his mother was different.
“The first time was when she screamed my name down the street,” he said with a chuckle. “No other mother had a voice that loud that could stop traffic. And there’s a moment in the novel when the character based on my mother stops traffic with her voice… But I still remember when she was on stage. I’m sure I was very young when I was first backstage in the theater, but I still remember it. And by the time I was 7 or 8, I was very much in awe that she was on television and that people would sometimes recognize her, although back then people just mainly stared at her like they didn’t know where they’d seen her before.”
The “Facts” role came to Rae after years of theater and TV performances. She earned an Emmy nomination for the part and was a two-time Tony nominee for her work on Broadway.
The "Facts of Life" cast. From center: Nancy McKeon as Joanna "Jo" Marie Polniaczek Bonner, Mindy Cohn as Natalie Letisha Sage Green, Charlotte Rae as Mrs. Edna Ann Garrett, Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner and Kim Fields as Dorothy "Tootie" Ramsey.
(Photo by Frank Carroll/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Strauss said that his parents taught him the importance of never giving up on anyone – a lesson that has carried him through as a teacher.
“When my brother was diagnosed with developmental mental illness, it was the early 1960s and my parents were told by doctors and others to abandon him, to institutionalize him, and get on with their lives,” he said. “My parents refused to do that. So as a result, you grow up seeing some upsetting things, disturbing things. My parents endured tremendous hardship. And even with all the support that now exists, it’s never enough.”
“But your autistic child now can go to school,” he continued. “Back when my brother was growing up, there was nothing. My parents had to get together with other parents. I still have a letter from [New York City] Mayor [Robert F.] Wagner to my mother about it, really thanking her for some of the work that she did in terms of getting resources and stuff like that. But my parents never gave up.”
Strauss admitted that growing up he didn’t have a full understanding of his parents’ tireless efforts to give his brother the best quality of life possible.
Actress Charlotte Rae and her son Larry Strauss promoting her book "The Facts of My Life" at Sardi’s on Nov. 3, 2015, in New York City.
(Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)
“The truth is, when I was an obnoxious teenager and young adult, I sometimes made fun of my parents for their silliness,” he admitted. “That they thought somehow my brother was going to get cured, that he was going to change, that he would be able to speak in full sentences and express himself, that he was going to go beyond his limitations. He never did.
“But now I don’t see them as foolish at all. To me, it’s the greatest act of love. You just don’t give up. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong. You just don’t give up. I’ve been an inner-city high school teacher for 30 years now and I’ve never given up on any of my students. And I’ve had many of my students tell me it’s that act of not giving up that saved them. In turn, they didn’t give up on themselves.”
In 2015, Rae told the Associated Press that the “most devastating thing” she faced was her son Andy Strauss’ diagnosis of autism at a time when there was far less understanding of or attention to the disorder. Andy died in his mid-40s of a heart attack in 1999.
Straus said Rae was proud of him for pursuing teaching as a profession.
The cast of "The Facts Of Life" (L-R) Cloris Leachman, Mindy Cohn, Kim Fields, Charlotte Rae, Lisa Whelchel and Nancy McKeon accept the Pop Culture Award onstage at the 9th Annual TV Land Awards at the Javits Center on April 10, 2011, in New York City.
(Photo by Andrew H. Walker/FilmMagic)
“She was very happy and much happier than when I told her I wanted to pursue acting,” he said, laughing. “But she was very happy about that. She was always very supportive. She used to tell me she wished she could have come and sat in my class. She was sad that she couldn’t. But she met some of my former students and felt that she had some connection to the work I did.”
According to Strauss, one of the most cherished memories he has of Rae was from their time working on her memoir together.
“There were a lot of gossip things she could have said about other people and she refused to do it,” he said. “Her stance was, ‘I’m not going to write that kind of book,’ although we all know that sells better than ‘nice’ books. But she wouldn’t do it. Especially if it was about someone who passed away. She said, ‘I’m not going to do that to them.’”
Still, Strauss stressed Rae was “open and honest” about the personal battles she endured in life. As for her success in Hollywood, Strauss noted she felt “very fortunate” for it.
Larry Strauss (seen here with his mother Charlotte Rae) recently wrote a novel titled "Light Man."
(Courtesy of Larry Strauss)
“She had many friends who struggled in the same profession,” he explained. “But she knew she had a talent and had struggled long enough. She didn’t hit the big time right away. It took her a while to get on Broadway. She had a bunch of shows that were good but just didn’t succeed. It’s hard to do a show for six, eight months to get to Broadway and then it closes in a month. It’s depressing. I remember there was a fog in our house whenever that happened. And it happened a bunch of times. But acting gave her joy. And for her to do [‘Facts of Life’], she was very proud of that. She was grateful for the financial security it provided her, but she was always ready for the next challenge.”
“She was grateful for the great success she achieved on television, but the work she was most proud of was the one she did on the stage,” he added.
At the time of her death, 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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