Thirty-five years after The Facts of Life made its TV debut, the stars are still taking the good and taking the bad – though they admit there’s been a whole lot more of the former.
Actresses Nancy McKeon, Lisa Whelchel, Mindy Cohn and Charlotte Rae reunited Monday at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills for the 35th anniversary of the beloved sitcom and shared fond memories of their now-iconic run.
“I think what tickles me more than anything is we used to be everybody’s guilty pleasure,” Cohn, 48, who played Natalie on the show, tells PEOPLE. “Now, it’s like, ‘Ah! We totally grew up with you!’ And I love that you can age out of that guilty pleasure, like, ‘I kind of watch that show’ to like, ‘We love that show!'”
“Now that I’m older, I see what a privilege it is to be recognized,” says Whelchel, 51, who found herself slightly embarrassed by fan attention in the show’s heyday. “Even just to be able to make somebody’s day by taking a picture with them or even just smiling, and the influence that is ongoing – that is a gift.”
McKeon, 48, focused her strongest memories on working with stage and screen veteran Rae, whom she admires for always treating her young costars as equals.
“She was there for us as a peer. Not a mom,” says McKeon, who played Jo. “She never talked down to us. She never made us feel like we were the kids. It was her show, and she included everybody in it. So, looking back on that and watching somebody just go through their life with that kind of elegance, what a great lesson, what a great lesson for me.”
“We looked after each other,” concurs Rae, still animated and energetic at 88. “I treated them as we were equals because we were all fellow actors. I said, ‘We’re all teammates here. We’re all on the same team and we’re going to pull together.’ ”
Kim Fields, 45, who memorably played Tootie, needed to stay at home in Georgia with her young sons and was the only full-time cast mate not present at the reunion, although she sent a message via video.
“I am absolutely thrilled and blessed to be a part of, of course, such an amazing cast, an amazing show, several generations of fans who have made this show so incredibly iconic,” said Fields.
Another cast member not present? George Clooney – who played handyman George Burnett for two of the show’s later seasons.
However, the engaged actor was remembered for being decidedly less heartthrob-ish at the time.
“He was cute, and that was nice, but he wasn’t George Clooney,” says Whelchel. “Now, had the George Clooney that we all know now come to the set, it would probably have been a whole different story. But that was George Clooney with the mullet, and not quite the same effect!”
Recurring cast member Gerri Jewel – who played Blair’s cousin Gerri – proved her humor is as sharp as ever when she mulled a possible reunion show.
“Why don’t we make a TV show called The Change of Life?” she quipped.