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Soleil Moon Frye: 'Punky Brewster' is 'a way of life'

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Soleil Moon Frye: 'Punky Brewster' is 'a way of life'
Soleil Moon Frye (L) and Cherie Johnson reunite in "Punky Brewster." Photo courtesy of Peacock

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- For Soleil Moon Frye, who was 12 when Punky Brewster ended in 1988, reviving the series for a Peacock iteration was more than just a reboot. Frye, now 44, said she wanted to resurrect the attitude her original show represented.

"For so many of us, Punky was so much more than a show," Frye told UPI in a Zoom interview. "It was really a way of life."

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In the original series, Punky Brewster (Frye) ran away from her foster home and was adopted by a photographer, Henry (George Gaynes).

Now, Punky is a divorced mother of three, including adopted foster children, who decides to adopt one more child. Punky still dresses like she did in the original series, wearing overalls and two different colored sneakers.

"I live in overalls pretty much overall as Soleil," Frye said. "Overalls were definitely going to be a staple for Punky."

Gaynes died in 2016 at age 98. Punky lives in Henry's apartment now, a set recreated and updated with decorations Punky acquired in her travels during her own photography career.

"It's very important to keep that 'Punky Power' going," Frye said. "George Gaynes has always been such a force in my life and I know is wrapping angel wings around me now."

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Cherie Johnson returns as Punky's best friend, Cherie. Now 45, returning to the set of Henry's apartment brought back emotional memories for Johnson. Even the stairs in the hallway were recreated like the set she remembered from childhood.

"We spent so much time playing on the stairs before they would call action," Johnson said. "I just stood there and cried."

Cherie now works for Fenster Hall, the foster home from which Punky originally escaped. This, too, continues the show's legacy of raising awareness for foster children and the foster system.

"Soleil and I used to actually go visit foster homes when we were little," Johnson said. "It's been a passion for Soleil and I for so long."

The Punky way of life continued long after the show ended. After the series finale, Frye and Johnson remained friends, as they did with Amy Foster, who played their classmate Margeaux on the original series.

"The fact that my friends stayed consistent in my life made it a lot easier for me [when the show ended]," Johnson said.

The original series addressed issues like drinking and driving, saying no to drugs, healthy eating and more. They addressed the Challenger space shuttle explosion in an episode featuring Buzz Aldrin, and in another episode, Punky and Margeaux save Cherie's life with CPR they learned in school.

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It was important to Frye that the new Punky Brewster continued to discuss current social issues "that people can talk about at the dinner table."

Early episodes deal with gender identity, LGBTQ families and, again, drugs. Cherie is a gay woman.

"I love the fact that Cherry is somebody who most people have grown up with," Johnson said. "We don't really know how she's been living her life the past 30 years. To meet my girlfriend, I think is pretty exciting."

In one of the new episodes, Punky's son, Daniel (Oliver De Los Santos), wears a sarong to school. De Los Santos appreciated that the show allowed his character to explore gender expression in a supportive environment.

"It's OK to be who you want to be," the 11-year-old De Los Santos said. "If somebody tells you not to do it, you don't have to listen to them. You can just do what you want to do."

Lauren Lindsey Donzis plays Punky's oldest daughter, Hannah. The 17-year-old Donzis thinks the new Punky Brewster will expand Punky power with its diverse representations of characters.

"I think it's going to be a big confidence booster for a lot of different audiences who can see characters that they can relate to," Donzis said.

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The Punky way of life attracted Freddie Prinze Jr., who plays Punky's ex-husband, Travis. Prinze had stepped away from acting except for voiceover work in animation.

Prinze said he began to feel burned out when he co-created, starred in and produced the 2005 sitcom Freddie. His last on screen credit was a 2014 episode of Bones.

"Being the creator, the writer, the executive producer and the lead of the show at 30 years old, I was miserable," Prinze said. "There were rewarding moments, too, but I just wasn't ready for it."

It was his Freddie co-star, Brian Austin Green, who suggested Prinze to Punky Brewster producers, Prinze said. The 44-year-old Prinze was reluctant to do television again, but said Frye makes Punky Brewster a much more relaxed work experience.

"It was the exact opposite experience," Prinze said. "Outside of memorizing dialogue, nothing about it is the same."

Punky Brewster premieres Thursday on Peacock.

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