For the rest of my days, I will most likely always associate the girls from The Facts of Life with the ones in my own life at the time. Growing up in the ’80s with three older sisters and countless cousins – all around the same age as the girls on the show – it was impossible for me not to make some sort of connection whenever the show was on in our household.
Recently, I was able to chat with one of the original stars of the show, Julie Piekarski, who, after a successful first season, found her role of Sue Ann Weaver (among others) drastically cut down by the following season, before ultimately exiting the show all together. Piekarski continued acting through out much of the ’80s, appearing on such popular shows at the time as Quincy, M.E. and Three’s Company before finally stepping away from acting by the end of the decade to focus on motherhood. But in recent years, Piekarski has stepped back into acting again, and I was able to discuss both her past and present career highlights over the course of our conversation.
Before she was even on The Facts of Life, Piekarski first made her mark as a member of The New Mickey Mouse Club in 1977. One of the first things I wanted to know was just how a girl from St. Louis made it to Disneyland exactly. She explained; “Well, you have to remember, this was back long before we had American Idol, and Disney was going on it’s first “nationwide search” for kids to be the next group of Mouseketeers. My mentor/dance instructor, who I’m still friends with to this day, had heard about this, and sent in a resume and pictures. And they replied back and said, ‘come to Chicago’ – the closest to St. Louis they came – for an audition. So we went, and honestly we were just hoping for a guest spot at best. We came back home, and two weeks later got a call saying they had a couple of things they’d like to film me doing. And they filmed me in front of like a green screen pretending to talk to Mickey. And two weeks after that, I got a call that pretty much changed my life. Working with Disney at thirteen years old was an incredible childhood, and a dream come true.”
In between The New Mickey Mouse Club and The Facts of Life, Piekarski appeared on an episode of the hit sitcom Diff’rent Strokes in 1979 with her future Facts… co-stars. I was curious how much she knew at the time that the appearance was going to lead to it’s own spin-off, and she informed me; “We had already been picked to be on The Facts of Life, and they made that sort of ‘transitional’ episode to kind of get Mrs. Garret (the late Charlotte Rae) off Diff’rent Strokes and segue her onto the new show, which is something I think they still do to this day. But they did that to ‘introduce’ us, and get us to crossover to The Facts of Life, and that was so fun because it was great to work with all the girls for the first time, and I had also known Kim (Fields) before that as well.”
I also wanted to know what it was like working with the likes of the late Gary Coleman and Dana Plato on the set of Diff’rent Strokes, to which she replied; “Dana Plato I didn’t really know that well personally, but on the show, she was really sweet, and it was kind of like just being with any one of the girls since we were all together. And Gary Coleman…well here’s the thing, you did kind of forget how old he was because of his size, and he could be a bit of a, what’s the word I’m looking for…stinker? (Laughs). I remember us girls were in like little runner shorts on the set, and every once in awhile you’d feel the slightest tickle right above the back of your knee, and you’d say, ‘Was that you Gary?!’ And he’d just look up at you and say that famous line, ‘What you talking bout?'” (Laughs).
Regarding her time on The Facts of Life (which also began in late 1979), Piekarki noted; “I loved being on the show, and Charlotte Rae was just like our mother hen who looked out for all of us, and wanted the show to mean something. We also got to do outside things like charity work, where we’d all show up for baseball games and events like that. And although it may have been PR work, when we got to go out and do things with the public, I thoroughly enjoyed that, because I felt like I was using this great gift that I was given to help others. It was just such a wonderful experience.”
But after just one full season on the show, the writers removed or reduced several characters from the show, with Piekarski’s being one of them. When asked how she dealt with this and if she harbored any resentment at the time, she stated; “When they went to cut the cast, it wasn’t like a major, devastating shock, because life does go on. But it was a bit of a surprise, considering in a lot of those early episodes, Sue Ann did have a lot of, if not major, at least secondary parts in there. But I guess the writers just felt they only wanted to develop certain characters, which is interesting considering when you look at a show like, say Friends, and how many characters that had. I’m sure that I was upset, but in the meantime, I had done other things, like a pilot for a show that didn’t get picked up called The Best of Times, which also had Crispin Clover and Nicolas Cage in it before they were known! But it was never like, ‘oh, I’ll never watch The Facts of Life again!’ I’m sure I watched it from time to time. But at the same time, I was still living my life and moving on.”
Piekarski and many of her former co-stars did return to the show from time to time in guest roles, including the 1986 ‘reunion’ episode, “The Little Chill.” But notably missing from any of these shows is the presence of Molly Ringwald, who after appearing in the first season of The Facts of Life, went on to star in such blockbusters as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink. Regarding Ringwald’s absence, she said; “It’s interesting, and this would only be based on and what I’ve heard and speculation over the years, but I would imagine it’s because she was pursing that path of movies, and I think at that time TV was considered a little less-than. But now a days, it’d be no big deal, and all of that has changed!” With the late Cloris Leachman also passing away earlier this year, I was also curious what it was like spending time with her during that reunion episode. She informed me; “I can’t really say that we got to send too much time together during our downtime. But when we were together, she was always kind, friendly, and encouraging.”
Another standout moment on her resume was her appearance on a 1983 episode of Three’s Company, where she worked with the late John Ritter. Regarding the experience, she explained; “I was so excited that I actually got to work with John and Joyce (Dewitt)! John was such a sweet and kind gentleman, and so humble about giving suggestions. In a way, I was bummed that we did our scene so well and it was done in just a couple of takes…it was almost like I wished I had messed up more so that I would’ve been able to stay longer on the set! (Laughs). From what I could tell by just briefly stepping into it, they had created such a great ‘family,’ which is what you end up doing when you’re on a series with a long run. But John had such a great positive energy to him, and it was just a sheer gem working with him. I will always feel blessed for that.”
In more recent times, Piekarski has begun slowly but surely acting again after nearly three decades away to focus on her family. She informed me; “When I moved back to St. Louis to raise my family, I always knew in my heart that I would not step completely away from acting. And even when I was in St. Louis, I did different industrial film work and things like that. But once I had my kids, I wanted to be a full time mom, which I was blessed to be able to do. It just so happened that I went through some different things in my life, one of them being a divorce, which I never really imagined myself going through after thirty one years of marriage. But unfortunately it did happen, and my kids really convinced me to go pursue what I wanted to do. And I really felt this strong calling telling me to go back and see what’s out there for me, and things kind of slowly fell into place for me. I’ve actually had some scripts fall into my lap, and it looks like I may even be getting into the aspect of movie producing, which, I wasn’t really looking into doing. But again, doors keep opening, and I’m learning to kind of keeping my options open.”
For example, she was recently involved in a new series titled Pilot Season, which she explained; “They approached me and said they were trying something new. It was almost like doing that ‘cold’ reading with a group of people, but instead, they shot it, and made it like a pre-pilot. The episode was called “The Nuclear Option,” and it was crazy because I had never met any of these people, and they filmed us all by Zoom. So we were all on our own laptops, and then the way they edited it was really creative, editing in different backgrounds and scenes. It was a really unique experience.”
She continued; “Things have changed a lot since the way we did things back in my day. I still keep in touch with Kim, Lisa (Whelchel), and Mindy (Cohn) from The Facts of Life, and I was talking to one of them recently about how much things had changed since then. If you did TV, theater, movies, whatever it may have been, you never crossed over back then. But now that’s changed, and there are no boundaries. And now with things slowly kind of opening back up, I also have a new project coming up that I can’t share too much about right now, but I’m going to start filming it soon. I can say that it’s an eight episode show, and I know I’m involved with at least two episodes right now. I’m really excited about that!”
Reflecting on her career as a whole, Piekarski spoke candidly to me; “Now that I’m older and I’ve lived my life, I’m actually coming back into the industry, with a fresh perspective. I might get asked sometimes why I went down this path or that path. But there were a couple of times I turned down different roles because maybe they contained nudity. And what if say, my father, or my priest went to see it? I just couldn’t do it. You have to stay true to yourself. Education was always important to me, my values were always important to me, and I was always very grounded, with my faith being a huge factor. I think that’s really important for any young person no matter what industry, to just have a good identity of who they are and to not surround themselves with ‘yes people.’ But my favorite quote that I’ll never forget – my nun actually told me when I first came out to Hollywood – she said, ‘What you are is God’s gift to you, and what you make of yourself, is your gift to God.'” I couldn’t come up with a better way to end our conversation than that if I tried.