‘The Facts of Life’: Nancy McKeon Landed Her Role By (Almost) Crying

The hit TV show The Facts of Life was quintessential viewing throughout the 1980s, and while the show has been off the air for more than 30 years, it remains popular to this day.

The series focused on a cast of young women who are brought up in a boarding school. However, after Nancy McKeon joined the cast in season two, the series dynamic shifted thanks to a three-dimensional character who had to stifle emotions while still portraying them to the audience. 

What was ‘The Facts of Life?’

According to IMDB, The Facts of Life premiered in 1979 as a spin-off to the similarly-successful Diff’rent Strokes. Focusing on the latter’s Edna  Garrett, the series focused on her journey from the Drummond household to her boarding school. Initially, the cast included several young actresses, including a young Molly Ringwald. However, as the first season went on, the spotlight shone brightest on Tootie, Blair, and Natalie.

Every girl came with baggage, and the series did not shy away from taboo topics filtered through its family-friendly facade. However, in season two, several of the other girls were let go, and a new one took their place. Nancy McKeon played Jo for eight seasons. During that time, we learned about the tough-as-nails character with a secret heart of gold. 

McKeon played the part perfectly, and Jo fit right in with the rest of the girls as they journeyed from their early teenage years into young adulthood. This required the actress to show her tough side and the vulnerable insides that made her so unique. 

Getting the job

Nancy McKeon as Joanne 'Jo' Polniaczek, Kim Fields as Dorothy 'Tootie' Ramsey, Mindy Cohn as Natalie Green, Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner
Nancy McKeon as Joanne ‘Jo’ Polniaczek, Kim Fields as Dorothy ‘Tootie’ Ramsey, Mindy Cohn as Natalie Green, Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner | Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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Acting is an art form that takes dedication and an understanding of a characters’ layers. When McKeon auditioned for the role of Jo, she knew that she had to stand out from the rest of the crowd. A good crier is something special when it comes to Hollywood. Even the greatest actors in history struggle to cry on camera. For McKeon to land the part of Jo, however, she had to use her gifts to believably hold back tears while making the audience cry for her. 

Director John Bowab remembered McKeon’s audition fondly. Jo was a complicated character who was known as much for accidentally letting her most feminine tendencies bleed through her masculine facade. It was important for the show’s creators to have an actress that could easily fulfill this need. Bowab recollected this in a quote collected by Mental Floss

“I distinctly remember asking Nancy, ‘Even though it says cry, don’t cry. I want you to hold back and make the audience cry.’ And she did. Everybody in the control room was shattered.”

McKeon remembered that audition in a piece for Entertainment Weekly. In it, she recalled working side by side with the late Charlotte Rae, who played the matriarchal Mrs. Garrett. 

“I got to do the scene with Charlotte, who was just so generous and so kind. It was sort of an emotional scene, and she was just so brilliant to be there and be so present for such a young kid who was just auditioning. She and I still talk about that. I’ll never forget how wonderful she was,” she told the publication.

Her chemistry played off. The Facts of Life became a career-defining actress. 

Where is McKeon now?

According to her IMDb page, McKeon took time away from her acting career in 2010 to focus on her family. However, she remains a staple on series like Dancing with the Stars and other properties that allow her to showcase the person behind Jo. McKeon continues speaking at great length about the importance of Jo and how it defined her career forever. 

While sitcoms might not always be a place for emotional subtlety, McKeon brought it every week for eight years. This commitment to real-life emotion is part of the reason why the series holds a special place in so many peoples’ hearts.