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 her 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.
She 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 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, 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.
Ms. Rae left at the beginning of the eighth season, citing health problems, and was replaced by Cloris Leachman.
Her first television success came in the early 1960s with the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?, in which she played the wife of an irascible police officer played by Al Lewis. Her other credits include The Phil Silvers Show, The Defenders, Barney Miller and Good Times. She was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards.
Charlotte Rae Lubotsky was born April 22, 1926, in Milwaukee to Jewish immigrants from Russia, Meyer and Esther (Ottenstein) Lubotsky.
Ms. Rae wanted to act from a young age and headed to New York in 1948 after briefly attending Northwestern University.
She found success both on Broadway and off for about 20 years, appearing in 10 productions, most notably as Mrs. Peachum in the 1954 revival of The Threepenny Opera and as Mammy Yokum in Li’l Abner in 1956. Both roles were 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.
Ms. Rae received two Tony Award nominations: in 1966 for best featured actress in a musical for Pickwick, a short-lived David Merrick production based on Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, and in 1969 for best actress in Morning, Noon and Night, a series of one-act plays.
She was married from 1951 to 1975 to composer and sound editor John Strauss, who died in 2011.
In her 2015 autobiography, The Facts of My Life, Ms. Rae said that both she and Strauss had struggled with alcoholism and that, after 25 years of marriage, Strauss announced he was bisexual and wanted an open relationship. They divorced and Ms. Rae never remarried.
“I have wonderful friends,’’ she said in 2015. “I’m not just a lonely old lady.”
Along with her son Larry, she leaves three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Her son Andy predeceased her.
For all her success as a performer, Rae never forgot how difficult it had been to grow up plump and short. “I felt inferior,” she once told TV Guide. “I had this tremendous need to perform. I wanted to be acceptable to my peers. I thought if I could just be a big star, I’d feel like somebody too.”