Stars From The Facts Of Life You Didn't Know Died

For those too young to recall "The Facts of Life," think "The Breakfast Club" meets "Mean Girls," but with a lot less edge. Granted, the late '70s sitcom predated those more cinematic comparisons, but it was perfect in an era when Joe and Jane Wholesome demanded family fare that featured households with Astroturf lawns and freshly varnished offspring. First airing in 1979 and lasting nine seasons, "The Facts of Life" was a spin-off of the immensely popular "Diff'rent Strokes" and was about one of its principal characters — Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae) — running a dorm of an all-girls boarding school with a gaggle of precocious tenants. While the show frequently took on youth-oriented issues, from drug possession and alcoholism to gay rights and sexual assault, the treatments came across as light by today's standards. After all, it was still a sitcom involving teens, although it had a PG rating.

While the show had recurring roles fleshed out by then-emerging stars like George Clooney and Molly Ringwald, it also included prominent characters and pivotal guest stars portrayed by luminaries who are no longer with us. That includes a few Hollywood heavyweights behind the camera, such as Alan Thicke (best known as the patriarch in "Growing Pains") who penned the show's theme song. Thicke, who also composed for gameshows like "The Joker Is Wild" and "The Wizard of Odds," died in 2016 of a heart attack at 69. Sadly, he's far from the only person involved with "The Facts of Life" who has died. 

Robert Alda (1914-1986)

While most TV audiences would be familiar with Alan Alda, best known as Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce in the profound wartime sitcom "M*A*S*H," his father, Robert Alda, was also no slouch in the thespian department. Robert first distinguished himself in his movie debut as composer George Gershwin in the 1945 classic, "Rhapsody In Blue," and on Broadway as reckless gambler Sky Masterson in the original production of "Guys and Dolls" in 1950. That experience in front of an audience gave him the skills to tackle live televised theater shows during the '50s on such programs as "The Gulf Playhouse," "Lux Video Theatre," and "Playhouse 90." He garnered enough credentials to star in a program bearing his name, as well as a short-lived dramatic series called "Secret File: USA," both in 1955. 

His success rubbed off on son Alan, with whom he dueted in Abbott and Costello sendups. When his son wanted to go into acting full-time, his father made sure he first finished his drama studies at Fordham University. "And then he was ready," Robert said about his son, per the Los Angeles Times. The two would work periodically together, including on "M*A*S*H," where Robert featured in two episodes, playing visiting surgeon Dr. Anthony Borelli. He had one pivotal appearance on "The Facts of Life," playing Edna Garrett's ex-husband who wants to remarry her, until he's discovered teaching the boarding school girls how to gamble. Robert died at 72 from complications from a stroke.

Conrad Bain (1923–2013)

Canadian actor Conrad Bain will forever and fondly be remembered by his fans for his portrayal of Phillip Drummond, the big-hearted businessman who adopts two children from Harlem on the '70s sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes." Not that the actor, who didn't achieve success in acting until he was in his 50s, would have minded. After all, it was a pretty auspicious part to play, one that he repeated on the series debut of "The Facts of Life," as well as an episode of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" more than a decade later, which would also signify the last TV appearance he'd make in his career.

Bain landed his first TV role as Dr. Charles Weldon on the 1956 soap, "The Edge of Night." He'd get another recurring role as a hotel clerk in the '60s on the gothic daytime drama, "Dark Shadows: The Vampire Curse," followed by cameos on a handful of made-for-TV specials. By 1972, he landed a more memorable character role as Dr. Arthur Harmon on the politically driven sitcom, "Maude." By the time "Maude" ended its run in 1978, Bain was already positioned to star in "Diff'rent Strokes," which premiered later that fall. Bain reportedly died of natural causes at 89. "He was an amazing person," Bain's daughter Jennifer told TMZ, which broke the story of the actor's death. "He was a lot like Mr. Drummond, but much more interesting in real life. He was an amazing father."

Orson Bean (1928–2020)

For someone best known as an entertainment juggernaut on television in the 1950s, Orson Bean demonstrated a great deal of longevity in the trade. Back when TV was still trying to find its legs to enthrall an embryonic audience, Bean was right in the thick of things, as a comic for one gig, a magician for another stint, and anything else that might crop up. "People shouldn't get into show business because they want to become stars or become rich," he told the Los Angeles Times. "They should get into it because they can't help but put on a show." Those ventures included numerous Broadway stints, applying his wit to pioneering games shows like "What's My Line?" and "I've Got A Secret," and appearances on landmark programs from "The Tonight Show" to "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Even after those glory days, Bean remained prolific, appearing on "Love, American Style," "The Love Boat," and three episodes of "The Facts of Life," in which he played Oliver Thompson, a love interest of housemother Beverly Anne Stickle. He even received a Grammy for the soundtrack to a '70s animated version of "The Hobbit," where he voiced Bilbo Baggins. Subsequent roles in shows like "Two And A Half Men," "Superstore," and "Desperate Housewives" followed, until the 91-year-old was killed in a pedestrian-car accident in Venice, California. "For all who knew him, Orson leaves a legacy of love, true friendship and powerful work," his agency said, per Deadline.

Gary Coleman (1968–2010)

When the producers of "Diff'rent Strokes" created a spinoff, "The Facts of Life," in 1979 to give Charlotte Rae's character, Edna Garrett, a self-sustaining story, having the show's scene-stealing Gary Coleman and cohorts Conrad Bain, Todd Bridges, and Dana Plato help launch the first episode was a no-brainer. To push the point, the show even incorporated their names into the opening credits. It only made marketing sense, since at the time, Coleman was one of TV's biggest stars at just 11 years old, with a trust account allegedly worth $18 million.

But Coleman struggled to balance celebrity life with the growing pains of adolescence, the latter compromised by autoimmunity ailments that stunted his development. Going through life at a maximum height of 4 feet 8 inches and requiring heart surgery, two kidney transplants, and frequent medical attention was tough enough; it played havoc with the star's ability to land work once "Diff'rent Strokes" left the air in 1986. As for that trust account he finally had access to at 18, he was reportedly dismayed when he found out it only contained $220,000. He sued his parents and handlers, but was relegated to appearances on shows like "Married ... With Children" and "The Drew Carey Show." Other cameos limited Coleman to playing himself in prime-time fare that included "The Naked Truth," "The Simpsons," and "My Wife and Kids." Reduced at one point to working as a security guard, Coleman died of a brain hemorrhage at 42.

Zsa Zsa Gabor (1917–2016)

If you're looking for a template for what set the standard for celebrity status, credit Zsa Zsa Gabor, who almost single-handedly crafted the mold that would eventually yield the likes of Paris Hilton and the Kardashian clan. More bluntly, the Los Angeles Times summed up the native Hungarian's notoriety as someone who "was famous for being famous." Granted, Gabor did a bit of acting, starting with appearances in '50s outings like "Lovely to Look At" and the original "Moulin Rouge." But her key to the gilded gates of glamour was to marry rich — nine times to be exact — to suitors that included hotel baron Conrad Hilton and German aristocrat and entrepreneur Frédéric von Anhalt. In short order, she became a high-society icon in constant demand on the talk show circuit, where she'd declare such eyebrow-raisers as, "I want a man who's kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?" per Variety

Her relatively quieter sister, Eva Gabor, was equally glamorous, but acted regularly, playing socialite Lisa Douglas in sitcoms "Green Acres" and "Petticoat Junction." Zsa Zsa, on the other hand, was comfortable with the odd cameo playing herself on episodes of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," "Knot's Landing," and "Cybill." One exception was when she played Countess Calvet on an episode of "The Facts of Life," a role that arguably required little preparation. Gabor enjoyed the upper-crust lifestyle until she was 99, when TMZ first revealed her death from a heart attack.

Cloris Leachman (1926–2021)

Unlike Charlotte Rae, who was a virtual unknown before she started playing Edna Garrett during the rookie season of "Diff'rent Strokes" and several seasons of "The Facts of Life," her replacement, Cloris Leachman, was already well-established in Hollywood. The star's initial acting forays included televised live theater in the '50s and movies that eventually resulted in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the 1971 drama, "The Last Picture Show." However, Leachman was best known for playing nosy landlady Phyllis Lindstrom on the groundbreaking '70s sitcom, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and on her short-lived spinoff, "Phyllis," a role that would land her two Emmys. When Rae left "The Facts of Life" in 1986, Leachman stepped into the housemother role as Edna Garrett's sister, Beverly Anne Stickle, for what would be the show's final two seasons.

Leachman's adeptness in comedy and drama allowed her to make a name for herself in Hollywood, and these qualities kept her working well after "The Facts of Life" became history. Playing senile grandmother Ida in "Malcolm in the Middle," she received another Emmy. She also managed to land recurring character parts in TV fare like the Ellen DeGeneres sitcom, "The Ellen Show," and "Raising Hope." When she died of natural causes at 94, several colleagues commented on her passing. "She could make you laugh or cry at the drop of a hat," Mel Brooks tweeted in part, who directed her in three movie comedies. "She is irreplaceable, and will be greatly missed."

Sheldon Leonard (1907–1997)

Sheldon Leonard acted in dozens of movies in the 1940s and '50s in a lot of blink-and-you'll-miss-him roles. Within that extensive portfolio, however, Leonard was likely most memorable as the bartender Nick in Frank Capra's Yuletide classic, "It's A Wonderful Life," that starred Jimmy Stewart as hapless banker George Bailey. But the three-time Emmy Award winner's work behind the camera allowed Leonard to particularly distinguish himself as a director, producer, and writer. His first big coup was producing "The Danny Thomas Show," which ran for 11 seasons starting in 1953, before working on subsequent outings like "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Andy Griffith Show," and "Gomer Pyle, USMC." He even broke a social barrier with the production of "I Spy," the first series to have two actors of different races sharing lead responsibilities. 

In later years, Leonard eased off from his producer role and took on guest work, such as in an episode of "The Facts of Life," which saw him playing boarding school student Jo Polniaczek's Polish grandfather, as well as cameos on such programs as "Cheers," "Matlock," and "Murder, She Wrote." "Sheldon was one of the pioneers of situation comedy in television," Directors Guild of America spokesperson Chuck Warn said about Leonard, who died at 89 of natural causes, per The New York Times. Interestingly, another tribute exists in "The Big Bang Theory": Show creator Chuck Lorre paid homage to the man by naming his two lead characters Sheldon and Leonard. 

Bill Macy (1922–2019)

For the record, there's no genealogical relationship between '70s actor Bill Macy and "Shameless" lead William H. Macy. According to The Seattle Times, the latter thespian once answered to Bill Macy, but changed it when starting out in his acting career to avoid confusion with the star of the politically charged '70s sitcom, "Maude." At the time, Macy (Bill, that is) was a huge deal on "Maude," playing Walter Findlay, who frequently found himself at odds with his outspoken, issues-driven wife (Maude). That hard-done-by portrayal, however, totally belied another endeavor in his resume dating back to 1969, when he acted in a gutsy, all-nude Broadway production of "Oh! Calcutta!" where he met his future wife, Samantha Harper. 

Macy's sole appearance in "The Facts of Life" saw him as the ex-husband of boarding school student Jo Polniaczek in a futuristic episode. He landed other TV spots on shows like "St. Elsewhere," "The Love Boat," "Murder, She Wrote," and "Matlock." Meanwhile, Macy's movie roles got larger from his uncredited debut as a jury foreman in the Mel Brooks comedy "The Producers" to a supporting role as Stan Fox in "The Jerk," Steve Martin's first movie. Macy, who died at 97, was reportedly self-effacing throughout his career, recalling a time when he was accosted on the street by someone critical of his performance in a Broadway show. Per The New York Times, Macy responded, "Sir, sir, I'm a terrible actor, but it's the only thing I do well."

Kenneth Mars (1935–2011)

Hollywood outings have had scads of bullheaded oddballs in their casts, but few were as convincingly psychotic as Kenneth Mars. That bent towards insanity immortalized Mars, who played an intense Transylvanian detective sporting a monocle over a glass eye in the Mel Brooks classic comedy "Young Frankenstein" in 1972. But probably his most stunning turn under the lights was as maniacal playwright Franz Liebkind, whose Third Reich-inspired script launched a Broadway scam in another Brooks classic, "The Producers," in 1968. Mars recalled the measures he took to bring out the twisted personality of Liebkind, frequently seen during the show wearing a German uniform. "I got my costume and I don't know what possessed me, but I thought this will help me if I take this costume home and I sleep in it every night, which I did," Mars said in an interview.

But the emotional energy he put into those arcane bits were more hilarious than horrifying, which made Mars a go-to guy for television. He regularly appeared as William W.D. "Bud" Prize, the town nut-job on the satirical talk show, "Fernwood Tonight," and played headmaster Mr. Harris tasked with firing Mrs. Garrett over alleged alcoholism in "The Facts of Life." He also enjoyed recurring roles in other sitcoms like "Malcolm In the Middle" and "Will & Grace," even lending his voice to animated projects from "The Little Mermaid" to "The Land Before Time," his last gig before dying at 75 of pancreatic cancer.

Dana Plato (1964–1999)

When the "Diff'rent Strokes" core cast of Conrad Bain, Todd Bridges, Gary Coleman, and Dana Plato visited their old colleague Charlotte Rae to help launch "The Facts of Life," one got the feeling that things were going tickety-boo with the child actors. But harsh reality hit the kids after "Diff'rent Strokes" left the airwaves in 1986. Bridges endured a post-celebrity life of drug addiction, mental issues, and crime — including a homicide acquittal — before turning his life around, while Coleman lost most of his life savings and eventually died in poverty. As for Plato, life after the show's demise turned out to be just as tragic. 

Already in her 20s when the series ended, Plato was no longer a child star and tried to scrape together a living with small roles in low-budget B-level films, including a softcore adult outing called "Different Strokes." She had also developed a nasty drug addiction and resorted to a life of crime to support the habit. She received probation after getting caught robbing a Las Vegas video store and later forging prescriptions forms. "If I hadn't gotten caught, it could have been the worst thing that happened to me because I could have died of a drug overdose," she said back in 1992, per AP News. Unfortunately, seven years later, that's exactly what happened, when the 34-year-old was found dead from an overdose of Valium and Loritab, an opioid painkiller. A medical examiner later ruled the death a suicide.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Charlotte Rae (1926–2018)

For the most part, outings about boarding schools — from "Tom Brown's Schooldays" to "Goodbye Mr. Chips" — hardly portray the folks who are running them as having sunshine and lollipop personalities. So when Charlotte Rae's role as housekeeper Edna Garrett was spun off into being a dorm housemother on "The Facts of Life," her goofy, yet mature, disposition came across as a breath of fresh air. Before her turn in the prime-time spotlight, Rae initially scored parts in live theatrical dramas, a major staple of network television back in the 1950s. The following decade, she began to grab more consistent appearances on series like the romantic drama "From These Roots" and cop show "Car 54, Where Are You?" By the '70s, Rae enjoyed a recurring role as a postal worker during the early years of "Sesame Street," and guest bits on sitcoms like "All In the Family" and "Phyllis," before earning a regular paycheck on "Diff'rent Strokes."

When her Garrett character started to hold court on "The Facts of Life," Rae had already figured out her profile. "I want to bring in as much humanity as possible, as well as the humor," she said, per The Hollywood Reporter. "I've tried to make her a human being with dimensions." She left after seven seasons, finding subsequent work on shows like "ER" and "The King of Queens," as well as voiceovers for the animated TV series "101 Dalmatians." After facing many cancer-related illnesses, she died of bone cancer at 92.

Donnelly Rhodes (1937–2018)

Donnelly Rhodes never enjoyed marquee status in the U.S. and he had no problem with that. "I'm not so sure that I would like my privacy to be completely gone, or to have to be working that hard all the time at something," he once said, per The New York Times. But in his native Canada, Rhodes was a huge deal, starring in domestic dramas that included "Sidestreet," "Danger Bay," and "DaVinci's Inquest," although he made his mark on several U.S. productions as well. Rhodes landed a recurring role as Dr. Cottle on the 2004-2007 reboot of "Battlestar Galactica," and played convict Dutch Leiner for three seasons on the highly lauded melodrama satire "Soap" during the '70s. But his extensive TV resume dates even further back to the '50s, when he scored appearances on legendary shows like "Maverick," "Bonanza," and "Mister Ed." Among his first cameos after leaving "Soap" involved playing schoolgirl Jo Polniaczek's Uncle Sal in one episode of "The Facts of Life."

Between stints in Canada, including one biopic about hockey legend Gordie Howe, Rhodes worked on a few short-lived sitcoms. His last set of gigs saw him portraying Agent Smith in two CW series: "The Flash" and "DC's Legends of Tomorrow." When news broke that Rhodes died of cancer at 80, several Canadian colleagues mourned his loss, including "Batlestar Galactica" cohort Tricia Helfer. "Saddened to hear of Donnelly Rhodes passing," she tweeted in part. "A lovely man who made a terrific Doc Cottle. RIP."

Alex Rocco (1936–2015)

You might not recall Alex Rocco by name, but you'll likely remember his portrayal of Moe Greene, a crooked casino magnate locking horns with the dreaded Corleone family who bump him off in the 1972 classic movie "The Godfather." While Rocco's gruesome exit will likely be the most anecdotal reminder of the actor's talents, it hardly eclipses a huge body of work he's accumulated after 50 years in show business. His steadiest lines of work remained a season in the 1990 series "The Famous Teddy Z," which garnered him an Emmy Award for playing sleazy talent agent Al Floss.

Many of his TV guesting gigs involved him as a sharp-witted tough guy in '70s cop shows like "The Rockford Files," "Police Story," "Cannon," and "Kojak," a demeanor he developed as a kid growing up among street gangs in Boston, per The Hollywood Reporter. But he wasn't afraid to show a more tender side, playing the patriarch in the short-lived 1975 family drama "Three For the Road," and several recurring appearances as Jo Polniaczek's father Charlie in "The Facts of Life." Additional roles included voice-over work for "The Simpsons," playing Roger Meyers Jr., an entertainment executive who created the cartoon Itchy and Scratchy, and portraying Matt LeBlanc's father Dick in Showtime's "Episodes." When Rocco died of cancer at 79, actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan — who starred with him in "Magic City" — said in part (via Variety), "For those of us lucky enough to get to know Rocco, we were blessed."

Bobby Rydell (1942–2022)

Back when rock 'n' roll was enjoying its toddlerhood years in the '50s, singer Bobby Rydell became one of the genre's first musical heartthrobs, with hits that included "Wild One," "We Got Love," and "Volare." The pop sounds and a photogenic image prompted Hollywood to beckon, and before long, Rydell was paired up with Ann-Margret in the 1963 film version of "Bye Bye Birdie." The movie was a box office smash, providing Rydell with a healthy cushion of fame, until the onset of the British Invasion led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones nearly put him out of commission.

A core fan base kept him going on the club circuit throughout the '60s, though, and he managed to land a few TV appearances, from the war drama "Combat!" to variety shows "The Red Skelton Hour" and "The Milton Berle Show." But his own records failed to sell, even after signing with Frank Sinatra's Reprise label, until the disco movement and a '50s revival resulted in a comeback for Rydell, courtesy of a more syncopated remake of his previous hit "Sway." That momentum kept Rydell going for another decade, and he even landed a role playing himself in a special flashback episode of "The Facts of Life." In the '80s, Rydell teamed up to create a touring production called The Golden Boys, featuring himself and fellow '50s heartthrobs Fabian and Frankie Avalon, which continued to run until his death at 79 from complications with pneumonia.

Dick Van Patten (1928–2015)

After years of playing in a series of screwball companies, actor Dick Van Patten turned his reputation around and became the ultimate father figure playing Tom Bradford in the '70s drama "Eight Is Enough." But he was also capable of playing in other familial scenarios, such as portraying the ex-husband of housemother Beverly Ann Stickle in one episode of "The Facts of Life" during the later years of the series. While he didn't have the chiseled looks of a matinee idol, Van Patten made up for it with a versatile set of acting chops honed since television's nascent days.

The first series he starred in was the 1949 show "Mama," a drama about a family of immigrants that lasted for eight seasons. He followed that up with appearances on shows like "Mike Hammer" and "Naked City," before landing a spot in the movie "Charly," which resulted in an Oscar for its star Cliff Robertson. But Van Patten came into his own playing oddball characters like Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood spoof "When Things Were Rotten" and recurring roles on "Happy Days." He was also a casting favorite for director Mel Brooks, who had him in comedic outings like "High Anxiety" and "Spaceballs." Van Patten died from complications with diabetes at 86. "He was the kindest man you could ever meet in life," his publicist Jeff Ballard said, per Entertainment Weekly. "A loving family man. They don't make them like him anymore."