Edna Garrett was the youngest child in a large family, born and raised on a farm near Appleton, Wisconsin. Her exact age was never disclosed during the series, but on several occasions, it was hinted or implied that she was somewhere in her fifties. On Diff'rent Strokes, she was the housekeeper to the Drummond family in New York City. In 1979, she took a job as den mother at the Eastland Academy in Peekskill, New York (Kimberly Drummond attended Eastland). Over the years, Mrs. Garrett's role on The Facts of Life changed. At first she was merely a live-in supervisor for the girls of Eastland; in the second season she became their in-house dietitian who managed the school's cafeteria.
Mrs. Garrett was married and divorced; one early episode showed Mr. Garrett coming to town to woo her and reconcile, but he was unsuccessful because Edna felt that his gambling problem would always be an obstacle. She had two sons, a singer/songwriter/carpenter named Alex and an accountant named Raymond. Raymond helped her raise funds and secure commercial space so she could open her own gourmet food shop, Edna's Edibles, in the fall of 1983. The girls, who had previously lived with Mrs. Garrett at Eastland, and worked with her in the kitchen to pay off various restitution-related expenses (see below), moved into an apartment above "Edna's Edibles" and continued to work for Mrs. Garrett in the shop (this time on the payroll). In the fall of 1985, Edna's Edibles was extensively damaged by fire; it was rebuilt as a gift shop called "Over Our Heads." Since the insurance on Edna's Edibles had lapsed by the time of the fire, the girls contributed their insurance claim checks to help rebuild, effectively making Mrs. Garrett and the girls equal partners in the business.
Edna Garrett was a mentor to the girls at Eastland, functioning in loco parentis. At times the girls would take her for granted, and forget that Edna herself had problems. Many times Edna would lash out at the girls when they got careless with her. In one episode, she actually fires them from "Edna's Edibles" when their irresponsible behavior ends up costing her $500 in fines after a dismal health inspection. She hires them back the next day when the girls promise her that they will be more responsible at their jobs. She also fires George, when he falls behind on his work constructing "Over Our Heads," but they later make up. Mrs. Garrett is a Democrat. She is also against censorship, such as book banning.
Mrs. Garrett re-married in 1986. She and her new husband, Bruce Gaines (Robert Mandan), rejoined the Peace Corps to work in eastern Africa. (Charlotte Rae did not want to continue with the series). Edna was replaced by her sister, Beverly Ann Stickle (Cloris Leachman). However, in the reunion movie that aired in 2001, Mrs. Garrett reunited with the three girls (Blair, Natalie, and Tootie) at a hotel owned by Blair and which was run by her son Raymond. It was also revealed that Mrs. Garrett and Tootie were widows.
Natalie's most defining physical attribute was that she was overweight. However, Natalie had a healthy self-image and was once quoted as saying, "Who wants to be a skinny pencil? I'd rather be a happy Magic Marker!"
Natalie was Jewish and her faith was featured in several episodes. In one she celebrated Hanukkah while the others celebrated Christmas. Her heritage was highlighted when Dr. Green, her father, died unexpectedly; Natalie's bottled-up grief was a continuing storyline for several episodes.
Even though she did not fit the mold of a traditional beauty, Natalie was involved in many storylines regarding sex. In an early episode, she dated a boy who spread a rumor that Natalie was easy. In another episode, whilst coming home from a costume party she was nearly the victim of a sexual assault. Toward the end of the series in that controversial episode, "The First Time", she became the first of the girls to have sex when she slept with her boyfriend Snake on their one-year anniversary.
Natalie was a budding writer and wrote for the Eastland School newspaper. She graduated Eastland in 1985. However, she doesn't go to college immediately and takes a year off to travel across the country on a bus. Her family and friends were initially dismayed, because she turned down an admission offer from Princeton University to go "Greyhound." After a year, Natalie decides to attend Langley College, and became a reporter for the local newspaper in Peekskill. She went to New York City towards the end of the series and decided to stay and pursue her writing career. On the episode in which Natalie visits the SOHO loft she will eventually call home, her future roommates include Richard Grieco and David Spade. (The episode, which aired in 1988, was originally set up for Mindy Cohn to transition into a spinoff series, but the plans never materialized).
Natalie was the only one of the girls who was adopted. In one episode, Blair successfully tracked down Natalie's birth mother, but Natalie — who realized that her adoptive parents were her true parents, even though they weren't biologically related to her — refused to answer the phone and hear the results of the search, instead inviting her friends to taste the cake "my mother made." However, thanks in part to an argument with her adopted mother during a 1982 episode, the subject arose once again, and it would be her adopted mother who would finally reveal to Natalie who her biological mother was. Natalie tracked her down and met her, but as before, she still considered her adopted mother, the mother who had raised her, her true mother, even after sharing with her the meeting she had with her biological mother. In the TV Movie, The Facts of Life Reunion she is with her boyfriend and has a run in with her ex. Her current boyfriend then proposes to her on the phone.
She almost immediately formed a dislike for Blair Warner; Jo found Blair stuck-up, and Blair found Jo classless and manly. In a memorable introduction, Blair introduced herself to Jo, to which Jo replied, "Charmed; I'm Gloria Vanderbilt."
Jo convinced the gang to steal the school van and use fake IDs to buy drinks at a bar. The van was wrecked and the girls were forced to work in the Eastland cafeteria to make up the repair costs. The girls were also placed on house probation and were forced to live in a room adjoining Mrs. Garrett's for a year; when the punishment expired, all four girls found other living arrangements, but were responsible for cleaning and painting their former room. While painting, their friendship began to rekindle, culminating into an all-out paint fight, which severely damaged the hardwood floor, requiring expensive repairs. The girls, once again close friends, decided to move back in together and continued to work in the kitchen to pay off the bill for the damaged floor.
Blair's attitude toward Jo worsened when Blair's boyfriend asked Jo to a country club dance. However, Blair stood up for Jo when her would-be love interest tried to assault and humiliate her on the ninth green. When asked why Blair stood up for Jo, Blair stated, "At least when I insult her, I know what I'm talking about!" Another problem for Jo came when she shoplifted a blouse for Mrs. Garrett's birthday; Mrs. Garrett was subsequently arrested when she went to exchange the blouse for the smaller size, not knowing the garment was stolen.
Early on, Jo's sailor boyfriend, Eddie Brennan (actor Clark Brandon), came to Eastland and convinced her to marry him. They planned to elope to West Virginia, where the marriage age was lower, but Mrs. Garrett and Blair tracked her down at a nearby motel to stop her. Jo had by that point already begun to change her mind when she realized just how difficult teenage marriage would be. Jo returned to Peekskill without Eddie. Eddie visited again the following season, but things had changed between them. They were moving in different directions, and keeping the long distance relationship going was proving to be very difficult, so they decided to see other people for the time being. Eddie returned late in the fifth season, now an officer in the Marines, but Tootie discovers he had a brief marriage to a girl in Italy.
Many of Jo's stories revolved around her tomboyish ways. Jo got into verbal spars with girls who didn't think she was "feminine enough," and boys (including some of her boyfriends) were threatened by her mechanical aptitude, which she displayed by getting a job at a local garage.
In the later seasons, Jo's tomboyish image softened considerably, and was rarely raised as an issue again. Her relationship with Blair became more friendly as time went on (Jo would even refer to Blair as her best friend by the last season), although the two still argued, traded wisecracks and made fun of each other from time to time. In one flashback-heavy episode, Jo relayed her latest ongoing spat with Blair to a computer, which analyzed the data and concluded that Jo should stop being friends with Blair. At the end of the episode, Jo quietly threw the computer's printout away. In the last season, Jo married Rick Bonner, a concert musician, and she asked Blair to be her maid of honor.
Jo did not appear at the reunion TV special because it was stated that she was now a police officer and was working; however, her husband and daughter did attend. This also coincided with Nancy McKeon's role as a policewoman in the drama series, The Division since the reason she couldn't participate in the reunion was a conflict in her working schedule.
Dorothy "Tootie" Ramsey was played by Kim Fields. Fields portrayed Tootie from the ages of 11 to 20 (approximately).
Tootie was the youngest of the main characters and the only African American girl. She and her family hailed from Washington, D.C. She attended Eastland Academy for most of the show's run. Tootie's most-remembered attributes were her penchant for rollerskates (at first used by Facts of Life producers to mask Fields' short stature), her gossipy nature, and her braces. In real life, Kim Fields had to wear braces for three years, finally having them removed in 1984. A lot of Tootie's gossip got her and her friends in trouble, and she was noted for her catch phrase, "We are in trou-ble!"
Tootie was involved in many very special storylines. For example, Tootie befriended a boy named Fred who insisted that she only associate with black people, in an attempt to realize "her true roots." In another episode, Tootie was chosen by a photographer to model for newspaper advertisements but was instead lured into a borderline kiddie porn operation and was saved by Mrs. Garrett at the last minute. During a trip to New York City, Tootie was almost strong-armed into prostitution before Mrs. Garrett found her and took her home. In another episode, she struggled with the race issue again when her best friend Natalie dated a relative of hers and Tootie intervened, causing conflict between Natalie and herself.
In the 2001 television movie The Facts of Life Reunion, Tootie, who had married longtime boyfriend Jeff with whom she'd had a daughter, was now widowed, and had become a successful talk show host under her legal first name, and asked people not to call her "Tootie" anymore.
Blair Warner was played by Lisa Whelchel. Her age throughout the series was roughly 14 to 23 (an episode in the 1985-1986 season centered around her 21st birthday).
At the beginning of the series in 1979, Blair was played as very rebellious. She was seen smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and had many boyfriends and was looking to lose her virginity, unlike a lot of the other girls she shared a house with. When the show was retooled in 1980, all instances of Blair's rebellion were either dropped or given to the new character of Jo Polniaczek and she was rewritten as an unashamedly spoiled "Daddy's Girl," whose business alone could have kept Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus afloat.
Blair was very vain and believed that she was perfect in every way. To her credit, Blair got good grades, won school awards, was crowned Harvest Queen for three years running, and even convinced a boy to move from Switzerland to attend school near her (when asked about it, Blair dryly remarked, "I've done it before.") Blair's delusions of grandeur were usually played for laughs when Natalie, Tootie or Jo would make sarcastic remarks about her "beauty", "perfect" personality, or her "naturally blond hair". Blair felt she was more important than other, "regular" people because she was the heiress to her father's multi-million dollar business, Warner Textile Mills. Any crisis at Eastland would usually prompt a suggested solution from Blair, preceded by her catch phrase: "I just had another one of my brilliant ideas!" She eventually developed a more down-to-earth attitude, especially after she suffered a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel that left her slightly scarred and spoiled her "perfect beauty".
Blair's parents (played by soap opera actors Nicolas Coster and Marj Dusay) were divorced in 1973, and although she didn't usually show it, Blair wished that she had a nuclear family like all of her friends. Later in the series, her mother remarried (for the fourth time) and gave birth to a baby girl (Bailey). Blair had misgivings about her mother's pregnancy but fell in love with baby Bailey as soon as she laid eyes on her.
Another secret Blair kept from her friends was that her cousin Geri had cerebral palsy. She was not embarrassed by her cousin, but rather jealous of her, since Blair was used to being the center of attention. Mrs. Garrett told Blair not to lash out against Geri because of her jealousy, and Blair joined Geri, a successful comedian, onstage at an impromptu comedy show Geri threw at the Eastland Academy.
Blair attended Eastland, and upon graduating in 1983, attended nearby Langley College. She worked with Mrs. Garrett at Edna's Edibles and, later, Over Our Heads. In the final episode of the series, Blair purchases a financially troubled Eastland Academy and turns it into a co-educational school.
Blair's chief foil was Jo. The two made no secret about their dislike for one another – Jo found Blair spoiled and snobbish, while Blair thought Jo was classless and crude. However, more than once Blair stuck up for and stood by Jo in her time of need (and vice versa), and eventually the two developed a much friendlier relationship.
In the episode Legacy, Blair finds out about her late grandfather, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Beverly Ann was first seen in the fall of 1986, after Mrs. Garrett married and moved to Africa to serve in the Peace Corps. In reality, actress Charlotte Rae's contract had expired and she did not want to continue with the series. At the time, The Facts of Life was still lucrative for NBC, and NBC president Brandon Tartikoff chose to renew — but only with a new mother figure at the helm.
Beverly Ann, Mrs. Garrett's divorced sister, moved in with the girls as Mrs. Garrett wanted someone to keep an eye on them as she had. She became the property owner for Mrs. Garrett's house and the malt shop, Over Our Heads. Beverly Ann's role expanded from confidante to mother when she decided to legally adopt Over Our Heads worker Andy (Mackenzie Astin), who was being shuffled from foster home to foster home.
Shortly after Beverly Ann's debut, the ratings for the series declined heavily. Although The Facts of Life was an aging series, some fans choose to place blame at Cloris Leachman for the show's demise. Viewers at jumptheshark.com name Beverly Ann's presence as the #1 reason that The Facts of Life jumped the shark.