NEW YORK — Charlotte Rae, the quavery-voiced redhead who started out on Broadway but was best known as a warmhearted, wisecracking housemother in two hit 1980s sitcoms, died Sunday at home in Los Angeles. She was 92.
Her death followed a series of illnesses, including several cancers and a history of heart failure, her son, Larry Strauss, said.
Ms. Rae was a fixture on Broadway and television for six decades. But along with other stars from the golden age of Broadway like Betty Garrett and Bea Arthur, she found her greatest success in sitcoms, beginning in the early years of television.
Ms. Rae was known to millions of Americans as Edna Garrett, a part she played on two shows: “Diff’rent Strokes,” where she was the housekeeper to three children, one of them played by Gary Coleman, and “The Facts of Life,” a spinoff in which she looked after a group of teenage girls at a private school. After a slow start in 1979 — Ms. Rae’s contract allowed her to return to “Diff’rent Strokes’’ if the spinoff was a flop — the series evolved into a huge success and became known for tackling topical issues from a young woman’s perspective: among them eating disorders, sex, drugs, and AIDS.
In an interview with the Associated Press in 2015, Ms. Rae said that she had begged the producers of “The Facts of Life” to allow her character to “lose her temper, yell at the kids. Let her be a human being.” They declined. “Mrs. G” remained the epitome of adult reason.
Ms. Rae left at the beginning of the eighth season, citing health problems (she underwent surgery and had a pacemaker installed in 1982), and was replaced by Cloris Leachman for the remainder of the show’s run.
Her first television success came in the early 1960s with “Car 54, Where Are You?,” in which she played Sylvia Schnauser, the wife of an irascible police officer played by Al Lewis. She also appeared on numerous other shows, including “The Phil Silvers Show,” “The Defenders,” “Barney Miller,” and “Good Times.” She was a cast member on the short-lived 1975 sitcom “Hot L Baltimore,” based on a Lanford Wilson play, and played Molly the Mail Lady in early episodes of “Sesame Street.”
She was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards.
Charlotte Rae Lubotsky was born April 22, 1926, in Milwaukee to Jewish immigrants from Russia, Meyer Lubotsky and the former Esther Ottenstein. She wanted to act from a young age and headed to New York in 1948 after briefly attending Northwestern University.
She found success on Broadway and off for about 20 years, appearing in 10 productions, most notably as Mrs. Peachum in the celebrated 1954 revival of “The Threepenny Opera” and Mammy Yokum in “Li’l Abner” in 1956. Both roles were extremely matronly, even though she was not yet 30 when she played them.
She also recorded an album, “Songs I Taught My Mother: Silly, Sinful & Satiric Selections,” in 1955. Consisting mostly of show tunes, it poked fun at the Gabor sisters and Marlene Dietrich. She received two Tony Award nominations: in 1966 for best featured actress in a musical for “Pickwick” and in 1969 for best actress in a play for “Morning, Noon and Night.” Her last Broadway appearance was in 1973, in the short-lived David Rabe play “In the Boom Boom Room,” as the mother of a go-go dancer played by Madeline Kahn.
She considered an off-Broadway production of Samuel Beckett’s one-woman play “Happy Days” in 1990 to be her career highlight — “like ‘Hamlet’ to a man,” she said, paraphrasing Peggy Ashcroft’s description of her joyously existential character, who is buried up to her neck in dirt. “Miss Rae holds firmly to the author’s inclinations — the pauses, stops and starts and poetic lilt of language,’’ Mel Gussow of The New York Times wrote of Ms. Rae’s performance. “With an ebullience that seems to spring from conviction, she goes about her everyday life, undeterred by the fact of her entrapment.”
She was married from 1951 to 1975 to composer and sound editor John Strauss, who often accompanied her on piano. Strauss died in 2011.
In her autobiography, “The Facts of My Life,” written with her son Larry Strauss and published in 2015, Ms. Rae said that both she and John Strauss had struggled with alcoholism and that after 25 years of marriage Strauss announced that he was bisexual and wanted an open relationship. They divorced and Rae never remarried.
“I have wonderful friends,’’ she said in 2015. “I’m not just a lonely old lady.”
She also wrote that her son Andy was found to be autistic at age 16 and at one point was held at the juvenile ward at Bellevue Hospital in New York. He died of a heart attack in his 40s. She said there was nothing more devastating in her life than his autism and early death.
Along with her son Larry Strauss, she leaves three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.