Charlotte Rae puts a lot of herself into 'Diff'rent Strokes'
It is high noon and blisteringly hot outside. We are sitting in the cool, dark, chrome-and-glass interior of a fashionable Santa Monica fish restaurant. Charlotte Rae and I, in the performer-writer-ritual of the interview.
For Charlotte, it is a ritual, one that is relatively new to her, but on which, she lavishes the same devotion to craft that helped her infuse life into, say, Mrs. Garrett, the housekeeper on NBC-TV's Diff'rent Strokes, or maybe Mammy Yokum of "Li'l Abner" one of many sharply realized parts she created on Broadway. For, until recently, when NBC tried her out with a show of her own, a spinoff of Diff'rent Strokes called The Facts of Life, Charlotte has never been a star. She is not, nor has she ever been, what people usually think of as beautiful. She is short, plumpish, pompadoured and constantly on a diet. Yet there is a kind of dignity in her plainness. One knows immediately that one is talking to a person of parts.
She never was even as a teen-ager an ingenue. "I skipped that phase," she says amiably." I think I was born a character woman"
Indeed, everything about her seemed to militate against a glamorous career in the theater Born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky, the middle daughter of a Russian-Jewish emigre who had a retail tire business in Milwaukee, she was small, awkward and surrounded by people apparently better endowed then she was.
"How did I fit? I didn't. I felt inferior." says Charlotte, bluntly. "I had this tremendous need to perform. I wanted to be acceptable to my peers. To feel equal. I had an older sister, Beverly, who seemed to me to be very secure. I had a younger sister, Mimi, who was cute! I thought if I could just be a big star I'd feel like somebody too."
"I had this teacher, Miss Knight in grade school. A bunch of us kids sang 'Hi ho, it's off to work we go'. She singled me out and it felt really good. I senses I had the Talent and I grasped onto it like a drowning person onto a life raft. By the time I got to high school I was doing children's theater and community radio. Me!" She lights up like Christmas morning. "I was a serious little girl. Not fun like now."
"I had the kind of supportive parents who were determined their kids should have all the advantages they'd missed. Nothing would do but that I go to drama school at Northwestern. I got a lot of strokes. But I still didn't feel good."
Actually, Charlotte got a lot more than that. She met two other fledgling actors, each with a particular cross to bear. Paul Lynde now the lean and acidulous star performer of the The Hollywood Squares packed 260 pounds of glorious flab Cloris Leachman was not exactly a raving beauty either. "We all has one thing in common." Leachman remembers. "We were obliged to emphasize our differences instead of our samenesses. We hung out together, rejoiced in those differences, made up, and performed whole operas on the spot and generally laughed our sides off. Charlotte? She was bigger and deeper and wider in her outlook than any of us, a real stand-up person who could deal with life."
She could also sing "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe" so movingly that Cloris cried. It was evident that Charlotte had the power and was going to make it. In her freshman year she was already established as a "character ingenue"; she played Mrs. Peachum in "The Threepenny Opera," a part she later repeated off-broadway. She did the "WAA-MU" which was a kind of annual Middle Western Princeton Triangle Club show for three years running. "She may not have been as funny as Bea Lillie. Who is? wrote the Chicago Tribune. But she's made of the same stuff and that's big-league material."
"I became drunk with power." Charlotte is saying. "I was burning to get to New York. But my parents begged me to stay. I needed to graduate, they said. I did soap opera on radio in Chicago. When I told the director my name was Lubotsky, he said, 'But you can't use that.'. My father was very hurt. 'But why?" he wanted to know."
She finally made it to New York and took an apartment with Leachman. When times got tough she worked a joint called The Sawdust Trail. "Teresa Brewer and I stood on the bar and sang 'Can't Help Lovin' That Man' and 'Cockeyed Optimist.' Sometimes a drunk would give me 50 cents. My father came in once and nearly died. With tears in his eyes he told me the cigarette girl had tried to hustle him."
Soon she was opening the bill for folk singer Richard Dyer Bennett at the Village Vanguard for real money, enough to support her own apartment. The man who helped her put her act together was composer John Strauss -- who was to become her husband and the father of her two sons. (Charlotte and John were separated for more than three years and are now divorce.)
She began to work with Mary Tarcai the drama coach passing another kid named Shirley MacLaine on the way to class. She got an offer to do her first Broadway show, Leonard Sillman's "New Faces of 1952." The revue that gave Paul Lynde his first big success. But Charlotte opted instead for a musical called "Three Wishes for Jamie."
"I was so new. I was in such awe." She sighs. "Couldn't I just see the songs I had to sing? No, darling. If Abe Burrows is going to direct, you know they'll be right.' Well, the show flopped. 'New Faces' was a smash. It went on tour.
"It was kinda nice though. My first opening night." She took on a faraway look. "My father was so proud when we talked into Sardi's and everyone applauded."
When she was offered mammy Yokum in the musical comedy, "Li'l Abner", in 1956, she thought it was overdoing the character stuff a bit. "I told them I didn't want it. The lady was a cartoon. Then I hit upon an image for her she was like the prow of a ship and I played her that way. When I moved I felt powerful. On the outside, I Physicalized her but on the inside. I made her a real Mammy.
After that? Well, Charlotte got around. I felt good. I knew the talent was like a rock." Among other things, she did the Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet" for Joe (Shakespeare-in-the-Park), Papp David Rabe's "The Boom Boom Room" (she played the mother) and became a familiar reassuring figure in live TV. If you could think of the show -- The Armstrong Circle Theater 90 etc. -- chances are that charlotte had graced it. Nor did she neglect commercials Excedrin headaches were never quite the same after she and Charles Nelson Reilly gave them a working over.
It took until the 70's for Norman Lear to catch up with her. She was playing the lady American tourist in "Time of the Cuckoo" with Jean Stapleton at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles Lear immediately made her into Moose's mother in Hot L Baltimore. When the series flopped it was just a step to Mrs Garrett in Diff'rent Strokes.
With the new series solidly entrenched, it seemed somehow inevitable that she get her own series. And she did -- although there is still some doubt as to when "Facts of Life" will go into the regular-season schedule. This time there were not just two kids for Mrs. Garrett to play against, but a whole dorm full of giggling girls. As before, there has been lots of hugging on the set. To be sure, none as yet equals Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman in the nonstop affection derby. None has raced across the set and leaped in to her arms, as Gary used to do on the "Diff'rent Strokes" set, or hugged and teased her as Todd frequently did. Still, her colleagues think, it just a mater of time.
She lives in a house with an orange tree in fashionable Brentwood. "It took a while to accept it," she says, smiling. "I'm used to pain and suffering." She loves LA generally, she says, "It's so small town, it takes me back to my roots." She loves series television: "In TV you have to compromise. But when strangers put their arms around you and tell you how much they love you it somehow makes it all worthwhile." She loves Lear: "So open. So up front. Not a big shot. Not afraid to take a risk, make a mistake."
That's extra good, and playing Mrs. Garrett, is extra good. It's not exactly a taxing role and the character is not as deep as a well, but still Charlotte has made up in her head a whole dossier on Mrs. G. Sensible salt-of-the-earth type. Born and raised on a Wisconsin farm and not highly educated except to life, " Charlotte figures "Her first name is Edna. Probably has two children. Grown. Maybe she's been in the Peace Corps. I'm not sure. I feel she's divorced, though. Her ex-husband? A vaudevillian and a compulsive gambler., which is probably why she left him.
The kid waiter comes around and makes as if to scoop up her half-empty plate. "In a minute, darlin'," she says. Uh, where was I? Oh, yes. Mrs Garrett loves mature kids and camping, which restores and refreshes her. Loves service because she has a need to be needed. Not much to look at but very warm and very young on the inside."
To paraphrase the movie line, any similarity to real persons living or dead is definitely not coincidental.