Charlotte Rae, who died Sunday at 92, was a seasoned performer by the time she landed the role of matronly housekeeper Mrs. Garrett on the NBC sitcom Diff'rent Strokes in 1978. She'd done musical theater, including Li'l Abner in 1956 and Pickwick in 1965. She'd released an album of satirical songs in 1955, and played Sylvia, the wife of Al Lewis' character, on Car 54, Where Are You? from 1961-63.
If you've got a couple minutes, check out this YouTube clip of Rae from 1954, on Clifton Fadiman's This is Show Business. It's a monologue about dieting that's very much of its time, but note the confidence of her delivery, here — she's already a pro. Musical revues were big at that time, and Rae was made for that format. A dependable utility player who could sell a character with a line or two, Rae committed to the material with a fervor. (She pulls several putatively funny faces in that dieting bit, yet you wouldn't describe what she's doing as mugging, exactly — she's letting her character's passion erupt, at key intervals, to contort her face.)
Never the ingenue, always the character actor, she turned up as Molly the Mail Lady on early episodes of Sesame Street , was hilarious in a brief role as Woody Allen's mother in 1971's Bananas, and bopped around the television dial playing bit parts for most of the early '70s.
When Diff'rent Strokes premiered in 1978, the era of the catchphrase-driven sitcom was at its height. As sweet, dithering housekeeper Mrs. Garrett, who played a matronly role in a vast penthouse apartment shared by Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain), his daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato), and his two adopted kids Willis (Todd Bridges) and Arnold (Gary Coleman), Rae should have faded into the background.
Arnold's "Whatchutalkin'bout, Willis?" catchphrase took up most of the air on that show, week in and week out — but America ate it up. Rae was no fool — she'd spent enough time in the theater to know that you don't take a job playing the maid and assume you'll get the spotlight. But if you play your cards right, you probably will get a moment or two to show the people what you've got.
Rae had the chops, and she did something with the role of Mrs. Garrett to make her stand out: She laced the character's sweet nature with a trace amount of acid, so all those murmured asides landed more incisively than they otherwise would have. Rae also gave Mrs. Garrett a distinctive vocal quaver — infusing the concept of "dithering" into her delivery — which she employed in different ways to register surprise, anger, joy.
Which is to say: She made Mrs. Garrett imitatable.
Go ahead: Try to do your best Conrad Bain, I'll wait. You can't. Ditto Dana Plato, and Todd Bridges. They did the work, they hit their marks, they delivered their lines, but they didn't pop.
Gary Coleman, you could imitate, sure — but only his catchphrase. Beyond that, you got nothing.
Rae's Mrs. Garrett, though, can be summoned forth in an instant, by just about anyone, with a simple tilt of the head and a lilting "Girls! Girls! Giii-iiiirlsss!"
Her quaver was her catchphrase.
Mrs. Garrett's star rose. After a year and a half on Diff'rent Strokes, NBC spun her off to The Facts of Life, where her assumed a new position as house mother to a bunch of boarding school girls. Most of the humor, such as it was, came from the interplay between the young women, and Mrs. Garrett's character lost most of her tartness in favor of a warmly maternal concern. Where once she zinged Conrad Bain's clueless dad character, she was now reduced to cooing soothingly at her young charges in a series of Very Special Episodes. The singsong quaver was still there, of course — but as the focus of the show turned to the conflicts among the girls, the show seemed unsure of what to do with Mrs. Garrett. (She became the school's nutritionist, then set up her own gourmet shop named, memorably, "Edna's Edibles," which later burned down and relaunched as gift shop called "Over Our Heads.")
In the season eight premiere, Rae left the show, replaced by Cloris Leachman, who hung around for that season and one other, when the show ended in 1988.
(Rae returned for the one-off special The Facts of Life Reunion in 2001; late-season cast addition George Clooney, it may shock you to learn, did not.)
They don't make sitcoms like Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life anymore, and even if they did they wouldn't enjoy the reach those shows did — enough to roost in the collective memory of the generation that watched them as kids. That generation recalls the wacky issue-oriented high jinks of Jo, Blair, Tootie and Natalie well enough, but Edna Garrett carved out a special place in the culture, because what Charlotte Rae brought to her — Ethel Merman's showbiz physicality with Kate Hepburn's vocal tremolo — proved exactly as unforgettable as she intended it to be.