Rollin' with Tootie: the childhood icon grown up

A chat with Kim Fields, who's gone from roller girl to holy roller in A Cross To Bear.

Tootie.

Mention the name and for most persons late-20s-something and older, the cute roller girl from 1980s boarding school comedy The Facts of Life comes to mind.

The actress behind the charming sassafras, Kim Fields, now stars in a new cable TV movie, A Cross to Bear, which premieres on GMC Saturday, Feb. 18. She plays Joan, a former nurse who cares for homeless and addicted women and shows them some tough love to get their lives back in order. The film is scheduled to rebroadcast throughout the week.

Assumedly, because it is on the Gospel Music Channel, Cross is very religiously heavy-handed. But even for an agnostic like myself there are some poignant moments that get my eyes a little watery. There is even a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming — and I was the one watching The Sixth Sense who figured out the big M. Night Shyamalan mind screw right from the beginning.

To my excitement, I got a chance to talk to Fields and learned that though she grew up acting, her path turned out a lot better than most child actors — especially in sharp contrast to the infamous cast of Different Strokes, the show that spun off along with host of criminal records, the show Facts of Life and appearances by Kim Fields' Tootie for six episodes.

After our phone interview, I can honestly say that Fields was one of the nicest people, let alone celebrities, that I have ever talked to. This is coming from a former Los Angeles waitress who has gotten evil looks for charging actors for bottle water. Chris Tucker, I’m looking at you.

Though she became a born-again Christian at 14, the actress who later went on to star in the '90s sitcom Living Single does not attribute her relationship with the Lord to her success.

“I didn’t hang with the wrong crowd,” she said, “I wasn’t one to experiment with drugs or alcohol.”

After her stint on Facts of Life, she spent her time between takes watching the ins and outs of TV and movie production. Later, graduating from Burbank High School and Pepperdine University with a degree in Telecommunications.

While in the thick of Facts of Life, she says she didn’t realize the impact she had on a whole generation of people. Sitting in front of a television, learning valuable lessons: "Don’t lie. Don’t go on photo shoots with strangers. Don’t buy things called bongs from record stores. The lessons were endless!" she said.

"More importantly, we saw their characters as peers," she said. "The adopted ones. The one with braces. The one who developed first. Not the black or white ones."

Congress even asked her to testify on the subject of teen suicide because Facts of Life has done an episode about (it) and it was "very profound," she said. …"And so I think that was one of the first times it really registered, like wow, this is actually meaning something to someone somewhere.”

I shared with her that as an insecure child, I tried to get attention in many ways, including faking an underbite so I could get braces, just like Tootie. It didn’t work. (Turns out bad eyesight is easier to fake, which I did, and was prescribed glasses which I wore for less than a week.)

“That’s hysterical!” Fields responded to my story, laughing, “I’ve had tons of people tell me stories as awesome as what you just said, or ‘You got me in so much trouble 'cause I would roller skate in the house.’”

And as it turns out, suburban children of the '80s were not the only ones affected.

The really trippy part for me is when I’m in New York, and I’m in the taxi and inevitably the driver will always tell me he recognizes me and tell me he learned how to speak English watching Facts of Life.”

Fields has steadily worked since her Facts of Life days including acting in four years of Living Single and directing many episodes of Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.

She tries to always pick work that shows women in a positive light.

“The entertainment industry right now is cluttered with negative images of women — almost any age — from toddlers, our precious babies, to grown women — acting like children. It’s a disgrace.”

Also, it’s nice to know that someone you looked up to as a kid is still someone to look up to as an adult.

And though it was hard, I never did mention the name Tootie.

A Cross To Bear premieres at 8 p.m., Sat., Feb. 18, on the Gospel Music Channel. Check you local cable provider for listings.

About The Author

Stephanie Powers

Freelance contributor Stephanie Powers started her media career as an Editorial Assistant long ago when the Tampa Bay Times was still called the St. Petersburg Times. After stints in Chicago and Los Angeles, where she studied improvisation at Second City Hollywood, she came back to Tampa and stayed put.She soon...
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