Thursday, 8 September 2016

Alex Rocco: Jo’s dad on “The Facts of Life”

Alex Rocco, at left, portraying Charlie Polniaczek, father to daughter Jo,
played by Nancy McKeon, at right, in the 1980s sitcom "The Facts of Life".
When he died last year, writers focused on his role in “The Godfather”. For a kid growing up in the 1980s, Alex Rocco was not so much a Jewish gangster, but a Polish single dad, playing Jo’s father on the durable comedy “The Facts of Life”.

Learning “The Facts of Life”
Initially, “The Facts of Life” was much different. It was a spin-off of another ‘80s sitcom, “Diff’rent Strokes”. Kimberley, played by Dana Plato, who is the daughter of Mr. Drummond and eventual step-sister to Willis and Arnold, attended Eastland, a private all-girls school. “The Facts of Life” is set in that school. And, as the series opens, the Drummonds’ housekeeper Edna Garrett, played by Charlotte Rae, goes to work at that same private school as a housemother.

The first season featured probably a half dozen girls, and each episode focused on a girl with a different background and a different problem. Some of them were Sue Ann, who was rich; Cindy, who was a tom boy; Nancy; and Molly, who was played by a very young and unknown Molly Ringwald. There was also the sophisticated Blair Warner, cute and dimply Tootie Ramsey, and chubby but lovable Natalie Green. In addition to Mrs. Garrett, the dean of the school, played by John Lawlor, was also a regular to help out the girls. In the first episode, Blair spreads a rumour that Cindy is a lesbian because she is a tom boy and hugs the other girls. The show also tackled other social issues, something it would continue to do throughout its time on the air.

Just like other shows, such as “Mork and Mindy” and “Remington Steele”, there were dramatic changes after season one. A new student named Jo Poliniaczek, on scholarship from the Bronx, arrives and immediately causes trouble. Rebellious by nature, with a chip on her shoulder and a strong case of reverse snobbery, she convinces Blair, Tootie, and Natalie to go on a joyride after hot wiring a school van. Of course they are eventually caught, and have to pay back the damage, which is substantial enough they have to work it off in the school cafeteria and live in a spare room next to Mrs. Garrett, who also is their supervisor for this extended community service.

Jo, who started out as pretty unlikable, becomes one of the most endearing and popular characters as she evolves into a civilized, sophisticated, leader. She would become like a big sister to Tootie and Natalie, and even a friend to Blair, who she always maintained a rivalry with even after they became friends. Jo also ended up running for and winning a seat on the school’s Board of Regents, being the class valedictorian, and achieve a lot more.

Her parents were divorced. Her mom was a waitress, and her dad Charlie was played by – Alex Rocco.

The show was on CBC on peasant vision and, unfortunately, bounced around a lot. At times, I discovered it by accident, because channel surfing was so much easier with three channels.

That thing you do
Alex Rocco was another actor who, if you watched TV in the 1980s, you would recognize instantly. He was just one of those guys who seemed to guest star in everything. He made appearances in “CHiPs”; “St. Elsewhere”; “The Golden Girls”; “The A-Team”; “Murder, She Wrote”; and “Murphy Brown”.

He would have a regular role in “The Famous Teddy Z”, which only lasted one season, but produced an Emmy for Rocco for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series. It was also the first regular series for Jon Cryer who, to that point, had made his name in teen angst movies such as “Pretty in Pink” and “Hiding Out”. That was long before his signature role as Allan in “Two and a Half Men”.

After the 1980s, Rocco kept on appearing in TV series, ranging from “The Simpsons” and “Pinky and the Brain”, to “Mad About You”; “Home Improvement”; “Family Guy”; “ER”; and “Private Practice”.

Throughout the ‘80s he also was in a lot of movies including, “The Stunt Man”; “Cannonball Run II”; and “Gotcha!”. After that, he was in such movies as “Get Shorty”; “Dudley Do-Right”; “The Wedding Planner”; and of course, “That Thing You Do.”

Parting thoughts
There are actors who seemed to be in everything and Alex Rocco was one of them. If you saw him, you would instantly recognize him. More than just quantity though, Rocco brought quality to every performance. Illustrated by the accolades for “The Godfather” and his Emmy for “The Famous Teddy Z”.

“The Facts of Life” was a show, that I always enjoyed. My favourite character was Jo, and part of her charm was that blue collar, working class sensibility she brought to the show. Alex Rocco, playing her father, contributed to all that.

When I heard he passed away, it reminded me of a great show with great characters, and none was better than Charlie Polniaczek.

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