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From ‘Facts of Life’ to ‘Palm Royale,’ Mindy Cohn Is a Baller

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Mindy Cohn does not wear the flashiest clothes on the Apple TV+ dramedy Palm Royale, nor does she engage in the shadiest affairs. She is surrounded by megastars like Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, and Ricky Martin, but the moment she appears as bespectacled society reporter Ann Holiday, a mental light bulb turns on at the sight of an old (parasocial) friend. Anyone of the Gen X persuasion who was allowed to watch television will recognize Cohn as a sitcom legend from her nine-season run as bubbly Natalie Green on The Facts of Life. Teenage Natalie had fantasies of becoming a journalist, so playing Ann “is a little full circle,” Cohn says with a grin.

Cohn was not the kind of kid who dreamed of becoming an actor. At the age of 13, she was just hanging out with friends and taking summer school classes at the upscale Westlake School for Girls in Bel Air when a trio of special guests visited. The great television producer , production supervisor Alan Horn (later chairman of Walt Disney Studios), and Diff’rent Strokes star wanted to talk to some teenage girls as part of the development process for a new show. The Facts of Life would be set at an all-girls boarding school called Eastland, and Rae finished the school tour determined to base a character around the irrepressible Cohn.

“A couple days later, we got a phone call from the headmaster’s office,” she recalls. “‘Can Mindy go to the studio on Monday?’” Her mother was a busy lawyer, so her grandmother took time off from her job in the Saks fur department to drive her.

That was in 1979, the era of Mork & Mindy and Little House on the Prairie. But Cohn just calls it “the summer that changed my life.” They asked her to shoot four episodes over the summer; when the show was picked up for a full season, Cohn’s mother agreed to her daughter’s participation, on the condition that she could continue attending her regular school in the morning instead of receiving an education on set. The family treated Facts of Life as an extracurricular activity, “like I was on the tennis team,” Cohn says. “It’s just what I did after school—and then had to come home to four hours of homework a night. I will tell you that as a 17-year-old, I felt like a 40-year-old, and a lot of it just had to do with the school workload. But that preciousness of being on a TV show didn’t really hit until then, so I think it saved me.”

A rare prime-time show focused on the lives of girls, Facts of Life was stuffed with experienced child performers like Kim Fields, Molly Ringwald, and 1970s Mouseketeer Lisa Whelchel. Cohn says that rather than rubbing their accomplishments in her face, they took her under their wing. “Kim Fields was so incredibly generous to me almost immediately: The stage manager would say something, and I think she saw my eyes glaze over and would scoot over and say, ‘All that means is that they’re going to cut to the shot.’” By season two, Nancy McKeon (who played tomboy Jo) arrived and became Cohn’s “soul sister.” As a Norman Lear creation, Facts of Life regularly probed social and personal issues, which meant that Cohn quickly found herself in deep waters as the show dealt with adoption, censorship, and even sexual assault.

“I remember the episode where Natalie got attacked and I had to cry,” Cohn says now. “I was like a deer in headlights, and Nancy was very instrumental in helping me. She kind of gave me my first acting lesson, to be honest…. We still, to this day, are very, very close friends.”

Cohn says that many of the cast’s personal experiences and interests were integrated into scripts over the years. She remembers pushing hard for Natalie to lose her virginity in season nine. “There were a lot of jokes around about the four girls living in a room by themselves upstairs!” she says. “I said, ‘I understand this is an NBC show in the ’80s…[but] it’s just absolutely insane that we all have these boys coming in but no one’s doing anything.’ I wanted the character of Natalie to actually have a boyfriend and be in a loving relationship—if we’re going to tell it, let’s tell it in the coolest way it can happen.”

One of my favorite things about Natalie was that she wanted to be a journalist, moving to New York late in the series to make her mark. Another was that she was chubby, at least compared to other TV heroines of the time—but the show never made a thing of it. “There weren’t self-deprecating jokes, and her friends didn’t talk about it,” Cohn agrees. “It was just her body. It was who she was.” That wasn’t necessarily the case when it came to the outside world. “I remember Joan Rivers calling us ‘The Fats of Life,’ and the girls coming in and being so upset. I just thought, Well, I think it’s funny! We’re all going through puberty. Kim Fields now has double D’s. What do you want to do?” Then there was Chris Farley’s of Cohn in an SNL skit about an America’s Most Wanted episode focused on former child actors. “I was really flattered,” she insists. “Like: Oh, my God. It’s friggin’ iconic!”

During her nine years of youthful stardom, Cohn amassed a coven of mentors who were friggin’ iconic themselves, including Elaine Stritch, Ruth Gordon, and Geraldine Page on the East Coast and Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Cloris Leachman in LA. “I remember being in my 20s and them saying, ‘Your 50s, 60s, and 70s are going to be the best years of your career!’ As a 20-year-old, you want to go, ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do for the next 30 years?’”

By the time Facts of Life ended, Cohn was 21 and ready to go to college. She went on to get a master’s degree in education but eventually found herself drawn back to acting, popping up in TV shows and movies and developing a roaring career as the voice of Velma in an array of Scooby-Doo games, TV series, and films.

Leslie Bibb, Allison Janney and Mindy Cohn in Palm RoyaleCourtesy of Apple

Still, the Palm Royale gig was pretty irresistible. What started out as a minor part to help with plot exposition grew into what Cohn calls “the role of a lifetime,” with the actor adding: ”It was absolutely delicious to feel like a full-fledged part of this wonderful cast.” Her character, Ann Holiday, is the society editor of Palm Beach publication The Shiny Sheet, which holds the country club set in its thrall. Ann has a talent for flattery and a nose for sniffing out fraud.

Cohn compares her to Hedda Hopper, gossip columnist of Hollywood’s golden age. “It does feel [like] the Palm Royale Country Club and the milieu of Palm Beach is like a studio system, and she is the gatekeeper of who and what gets reported on. I think she takes it seriously to a certain level. And there’s another aspect of her that I related to with Hedda, which is that she is outside of the group, but she is also a member of the club.” Cohn didn’t know much about her character’s past to begin with, so she made some choices of her own. “I put a ring on her,” she says mischievously. “Is she married? Is he alive?” Cohn recalls Palm Royale showrunner Abe Sylvia quizzing her. “Does she come from money? Does she still have money?”

The production team added further fuel to Cohn’s fire by presenting her character with a vintage Jaguar convertible. “The first thing I said on the set as everybody circled around to get ready to shoot was, ‘We now know Ann Holiday is a baller!’ Gone is the sedan I thought she’d have or some semi-luxury car—here is this fucking radical sports car that mostly men drove. I just thought, Thank you, guys. You’ve just given me more fuel for this autobiography I’ve been making.”

Palm Royale is set in the 1960s, which Cohn sees as a time when Americans were just beginning to see high-society types as celebrities in their own right—something she hopes the show will get to expand on. Although a second season hasn’t officially been greenlit yet, the writers room is open. “They have been writing scripts, and I’ve gotten a couple little nuggets of what’s to come. But to be quite frank with you,” Cohn says, “I actually don’t want to know. I want to be as titillated as everyone else.”

At the start of our interview, Cohn mentioned that she is nearly 58. She wears it as a badge of honor. “I wasn’t one of those girls that peaked in high school,” she says impishly. “To be quite frank with you, I think I’m peaking now. I think I’m going to look the most adorable in my 60s. And I think girls like me, who have that life where you really aren’t your most attractive in your 20s and 30s [and] actually start to really kind of look good in your 50s and 60s, have it so much easier. I didn’t necessarily feel [as] protective over my physical self as people who are told they’re attractive.” She says that her more conventionally beautiful friends are not aging gracefully: “They’re really fighting it, and it hurts my heart.” She says that any time she and her longtime best friend express a desire “to nip, tuck, fill, or pull,” they sing the Frozen anthem “Let It Go.” As a character actor, Cohn understands that the body “is the vessel…. We want to look the age we are.”

Many of us grew up watching Cohn come of age on television. I imagine it must be weird to have that specter of a fictional boarding school student hovering over her. “I was literally talking to Nancy McKeon this morning. She watched the first three episodes of Palm Royale and called to say, ‘Hey, pal, I’m so proud of you.’” Cohn smiles. “It’s 45 years later, and I’m so looking forward to people seeing me in a different way.”