Soleil Moon Frye revisits her iconic '80s role in Peacock's new "Punky Brewster" reboot — and in honor of the new series, she took a walk down memory lane with TODAY.
The original "Punky Brewster" aired from 1984 to 1986 on NBC and from 1987 to 1988 in syndication and followed the title character's life with her grumpy but loving foster dad, Henry (George Gaynes), and best pal Cherie (Cherie Johnson).
"I love the first episodes, you know, when Punky and Henry come together," she said. "I love the dynamic between Cherie and she. I love the friendships evolving."
Frye, 44, is also fond of the 1986 episode in which Punky is devastated after watching the Challenger space shuttle explosion.
"I had always wanted to be an astronaut," she said. "So dealing with the Challenger explosion was an episode so close to my heart. 'Cause I was going through so much pain, and so many in the world were at that time."
In another unforgettable episode, Cherie becomes trapped in an abandoned refrigerator during a game of hide-and-seek and nearly suffocates, and Punky and friend Margaux perform CPR to save her life.
"It traumatized so many," she recalled. "But it was so incredible. The episode, I believe, was written in by a kid who, like, they had kids send in ideas. And it was so incredible. Because so many people would come up to us afterwards that had actually used the CPR they had learned through Punky and through Cherie, and then actually really applied it in real life. ... And I think Cherie, to be honest, still has a fear of refrigerators."
Several famous child actors guest-starred on "Punky Brewster," including Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who played Punky's math tutor in 1988.
"Oh, I was so crushed out on Mark-Paul," she said. "And he was so sweet. And I've always thought the world of him. And he's just an amazing guy. And then I went on to do 'Saved by the Bell' years later. So I really believe there needs to be, like, this 'Punky,' 'Saved by the Bell' crossover. Peacock TV, I'm just saying, I could see a musical."
Her young co-star Johnson reprises her role in the revival, and Frye said they still share a bond.
"I love Cherie so much," she said. "She is such a light and joy in my life. And, you know, we were best friends at 8 years old, and we're still best friends today. And it's so beautiful. Because we grew up together. And then we didn't see each other for a few years. But we didn't even realize. It was, like, after a few years it actually turned into, like, lots of years. But I think telepathically, we were just staying in touch that whole time. Because the minute that we saw each other again, first of all, she got off the elevator. I was bawling hysterically. I was so excited to see her. She was so excited. And we just were crying. And it was a love fest, as if not a moment had gone by."
Frye also shared a special relationship with her on-screen dad.
"You know, I really feel George Gaynes' wings ... wrapped around me now," she said of the late actor, who died in 2016. "And I feel like he's watching over us. And I loved how he was so kind. And he always treated me as an equal. You know? He never spoke down to me. And I think a lot of times, there's times where adults sometimes will talk to kids like they know it all, you know? And I'm, like, I learn more from my kids than I could ever teach them. And he always had this incredible amount of respect for me. And he allowed me to be a kid. And yet, he never made me feel anything other than an equal to him, which was really so kind."
Frye said fans still bring up Punky to her often.
"I always say if I'm 88 years old, and they're still saying Punky, I'll be, like, 'Yes,'" she said. "So I love the Punky power. And people come up and really, they share their stories. And there's so many people who have been brought up in broken homes or single parents, people that have come up to me through the foster system that have been adopted. And they share their stories. And it is so profound and inspiring to see the way in which this has touched people's lives. And certainly, it's touched my life."
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