The thing about being a child star is, you either end up blowing through all your money and overdosing on a lethal cocktail of opioids and stimulants (I’m looking at you, Brad Renfro and River Phoenix), or you ride that fame train for a lifetime of paydays.
For Lisa Whelchel, it was a no-brainer: Stay on the train.
Whelchel enjoyed worldwide stardom in the 1980s for her work in the role of Blair Warner, a preppy rich girl on the TV sitcom The Facts of Life. (Remember that loveable catchphrase, “I just had another one of my brilliant ideas!” and her constant bickering with tomboy Jo?)
Today, the 51-year-old is a Grammy-nominated singer, inspirational speaker and reality star (she made it to the final three on the 25th season of Survivor) is currently in Northeast Florida for the role of Mrs. Baker in Alhambra Theatre & Dining’s production of the Tony Award-winning play Butterflies Are Free.
“I play the mother of the young blind man,” Whelchel told Folio Weekly. “The role is very overprotective and kind of controlling. His [the son’s] world is up-ended by this free-spirited young woman who moves in next door. And thus, the mother’s world is up-ended because someone else is usurping her influence on her son’s life in a way that she feels he will only get hurt.”
This storyline might sound familiar. A film of the same name, based on the play by Leonard Gershe, debuted in 1972 and starred Goldie Hawn, Eileen Heckart and Edward Albert.
“I was originally asked to do a different play, and the director called and asked if I’d consider a different play that he thought would be a good fit for me,” says Whelchel. “So he told me to check out Butterflies Are Free, and when I watched the movie, I saw that the part of the young girl just fits my daughter perfectly.”
Whelchel’s referring to her real-life daughter, 22-year-old Clancy Cauble, who plays Jill, that perky, freethinking neighbor girl made famous by Hawn. This is Cauble’s first professional role and the first time mother and daughter have worked together.
“She lives with me and I homeschooled her, so we’ve always been close and spent a lot of time together,” Whelchel says. “But this has been especially fun to be able to work together. It’s been wonderful to just see her shine.”
The Alhambra’s version of Butterflies Are Free, directed by Tod Booth, also stars T.J. Washburn as Don Baker and Xander Chauncey as Ralph Austin. The play runs through March 22 with near-nightly performances.
And though her daughter is now considered a professional actor, Whelchel says she didn’t push any of her children in that direction.
“I told all of my kids that they couldn’t even consider it until they were past the age where I had anything to say about it, and if they wanted my support, then they needed to get a college degree first,” she says. “Clancy was so set on it that she actually got a four-year degree in two years so she could hurry up and move to California to pursue [acting].”
Caubel’s approach the the craft of acting is much different than Whelchel’s was, getting her experience in an ’80s sitcom.
“I wouldn’t say playing the role of Blair had any impact on the reality of my life,” she says. “I would say the experience of being a child star certainly impacted me in ways. It broadened my horizons and gave me confidence and real life experiences. It innately gave me courage to try things that might be outside the box because I lived such a unique childhood.”
Whelchel’s got a lot of irons in the fire. She constantly travels around the country, visiting churches and spreading “God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness.” She’s also featured in an upcoming Hallmark Channel movie The Mommy Bloggers, set to film in the summer. For now, however, she’s enjoying this time in Jacksonville staging a dinner theater play with her daughter.
“It’s a very different character than I am, personally, so it’s not like I can just be myself and play the character,” Whelchel says. “It does feel like it’s a very distinct character except when I’m able to tap into the feelings a mother has for a child, an adult child.” That aspect is very real for both actresses.