Charlotte Rae: Theater world knew the actress could be so much more than just Mrs. Garrett

Craig Nakano
Los Angeles Times

Charlotte Rae, “The Facts of Life” star who died Sunday at 92, may be inexorably linked to the muffin-baking, wisdom-imparting housemother she played on TV, but the actress did find a place where she finally could shake that typecasting: theater.

Rae was, after all, a Northwestern theater school alum who had earned two Tony nominations long before she became Mrs. Garrett on TV. The actress scored her first Tony nod in 1966 for featured actress in the musical “Pickwick” and another in 1969 for lead actress in the play “Morning, Noon and Night.”

And it was in the theater where the actress broke out of her sitcom box, defying audiences’ expectations for decades after she left Mrs. G behind.

In 1990, writing about the pairing of Edward Albee’s “The Sandbox” and Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., The Times’ Sylvie Drake noted how the audience first treated Rae’s presence in the latter as something of a joke or stunt, only to be stunned by the gut-punch of her performance.

“Because of her association with TV sitcom, casting Rae in the role was risky, but it was a brilliant stroke,” Drake wrote. “Yes, there were isolated pockets of people at Friday’s performance who still thought that anything that came out of Rae’s mouth had to be just plain hilarious, but fewer and fewer as the play progressed. …

“The hush that fell on the house in the second half, when all that is left of Winnie is her head, above the sand — her frightened eyes, her endless cantations of words, her unfathomable dignity — was no accident. Rae had earned it. Bravely.”

Nine years later, as cohost of L.A. Weekly’s annual theater awards, Rae found another way to surprise a crowd. The Times’ Don Shirley noted how performance artist Karen Finley, one of the NEA Four, was a no-show at the event — a fact Rae boisterously announced to the audience with a four-letter salute to Finley.

Then in 2002, Shirley reviewed the album “Kurt Weill: The Centennial,” which opens with Rae singing “Pirate Jenny.”

“Those who know of Rae only from the sitcom ‘The Facts of Life’ may groan,” Shirley wrote. “But in fact Rae was in the famous 1954 production of Weill’s ‘The Threepenny Opera’ off-Broadway. And her Pirate Jenny sounds remarkably, effectively raw.”

Most recently, in 2016, Rae returned to the absurd world of Beckett. She played Nagg opposite James Greene as Nell, two legless parents occupying garbage cans onstage in “Endgame” at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Times critic Charles McNulty found the actors “as touching as they are hilarious.”

It proved to be Rae’s last performance.