VULTURE DROPPINGS: TV Stars Given the Pink Slip
In the crowded landscape of the Fall TV season, few of the new shows that the networks roll out will make it in the long run. The first casualty of this season was the Ashton Kutcher-produced drama The Beautiful Life, which the CW cancelled after a scant two episodes. NBC has been the most trigger-happy; making headlines by cancelling the John Wells-produced cop drama Southland before any of of the new season’s episodes had even aired. Wells, who has been vocal in his criticism of NBC’s decision to air The Jay Leno Show five nights a week, told the Hollywood Reporter:
I’m disappointed that NBC no longer has the time periods available to support the kind of critically-acclaimed series that was for so many years, a hallmark of their success.
In some situations, though, the network has so much invested in the success of a show that there is a great effort made to improve the ratings without cancelling it. The most recent example of this is with the CW’s retooling of the new Melrose Place. Entertainment Weekly has reported that two stars of the show, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz and Colin Egglesfield, have been let go in the CW’s effort to boost the show’s failing ratings. Their departures will make room for Heather Locklear, who will be returning to the role she had in the original series. Firing one or more of the stars of a show is a bold move that can end up backfiring by creating a media firestorm of negative publicity, as the following examples demonstrate.
1. VALERIE HARPER, ‘VALERIE’ (1987)
Valerie Harper became famous playing Mary Tyler Moore’s best friend Rhoda Morgenstern on the The Mary Tyler Moore Show and had a modest success with her own spin-off, Rhoda, which ran from 1974-1978. By 1986, after appearing in countless movies of week and showing up in guest spots on shows like The Love Boat, Harper was ready to give the sitcom world another go. Valerie debuted in the middle of the 1986-87 season.
Following the premiere, the New York Times‘ John J O’Connor wrote:
Unable to schedule its two biggest hits, The Cosby Show and Family Ties, seven nights a week (although an effort is indeed being made with ”floating” special editions of the shows), NBC is now turning its attention to the inevitable ploy of producing reasonable facsimiles. The network has a new series called Valerie, which stars Valerie Harper, but seems equally preoccupied with young Jason Bateman, who seems to have learned everything he knows from watching Michael J. Fox in Family Ties. The TV machine chugs on, shamelessly.
Valerie chugged on despite reported disputes between Harper and the producers, over everything from her salary to the percentage of the show that should be focused on her character as opposed to Jason Bateman, who played her son, and had become the centerpiece of many of the episodes. Harper was also unhappy with the writing, which had increasingly steered away from “controversial” subject matter after one of the episodes was banned by several NBC affiliates over the fact that it depicted Bateman’s character purchasing a condom.
By May 1987, the squabbling led to an all out war between Harper and the production company Lorimar, which ended with Harper being dismissed from the show for breach of contract. Both parties eventually filed lawsuits against eachother and Harper took to the airwaves, making numerous talk show appearances to tell her side of the story. At the time, her attourney Robert Albrecht explained the decision to go public, saying that the interviews were necessary to combat the:
steady stream of disinformation.
In response Lorimar, released documents to the media about Harper’s original contract, her demands for a salary increase and the tentative agreement between Harper’s company, A.V. Productions, and Lorimar.
Despite all the attention paid to the legal disputes, NBC head Brandon Tartikoff decided to renew the show, changed the name to Valerie’s Family and asked Broadway-vet Sandy Duncan to play the lead. The title was eventually changed to The Hogan Family, which ran for a few more seasons until 1991. Harper reemerged in the sitcom City, in February 1990, which during its brief run, ran on CBS directly opposite The Hogan Family. As for the lawsuit; Harper won, and was consequently awarded $1.85 million. She talked about settlement in 2006, saying:
I won. Oh absolutely. It was a wrongful firing. And they banked on me not saying the truth. And if I was a young actress I think my career could have been ended, but I had been around.
2. SUZANNE SOMERS, ‘THREE’S COMPANY’ (1981)
Three’s Company debuted in the fall of 1977. Based on the British series Man of the House, it starred John Ritter as a young, hapless, heterosexual aspiring chef, who is forced to pose as a homosexual to fool the landlord of the apartment that he shares with two female roommates, who were played by Joyce Dewitt and a curvaceous newcomer named Suzanne Somers.
The simple premise was an instant hit with viewers, and the term “jiggle series” was eventually coined to describe it, and shows like it, such as Charlies Angels, which aired on ABC at the same time. Discounting the failed 1979 spin-off, The Ropers, which focused on Norman Fell‘s landlord character, the show enjoyed high ratings and continued on uneventfully for the next three seasons. The following clip from the 2003 TV movie Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of ‘Three’s Company depicts the heady, early days of show’s success (as only a TV movie can):
At the end of the third season, Somers publicly demanded a salary increase from $30,000 an episode to $150,o00 an episode, plus a percentage of the show’s profits. After attempted renegotiations, Somers held out for the raise on the advice of her managers. The producers responded by writing Somers and her blonde bimbo character out of Three’s Company for good. In a 2005 interview for her one woman show The Blonde in the Thunderbird, Somers said:
When I got fired, I thought, ‘I should never have asked. Why did I ask? Why did I think I could get paid what men are being paid? Who did I think I was? ‘ I went right into low self-esteem. I hid in my house for a year in absolute grief.
Somers was replaced by an actress named Priscilla Barnes and the ratings for the new show, which premiered in the Fall of 1981, were surprisingly unaffected by the change.
Three’s Company lasted for another three seasons. After the show ended, the producers made one last attempt to get more mileage out of the premise in 1984 with Three’s a Crowd, which starred Ritter alongside an all new cast. The show lasted one season. Somers eventually rebounded from the firing, developing a Vegas act, which led to The Suzanne Somers Special that aired on CBS in 1982. About the special the New York Times Tony Schwarz wrote:
In the course of an hour, Miss Somers demonstrates a whole new range of things she does without distinction. She sings, she dances, she tells jokes. The hook here is that the performance takes place before 6,000 sailors aboard the carrier Ranger.
Song and dance, may not have been her strong suit, but the firing had a huge influence in motivating Somers to focus her attention beyond acting, which ultimately led to her becoming a multi-million dollar entrepeneur and Home Shopping Network mainstay, hawking everything from the Thighmaster to an endless series of diet and fitness books. Most recently she has taken the media by storm to promote bio-identical hormones. Somers revisited her exit from the show in a 2008 appearance on Ellen Degeneres’ talk show following John Ritter’s death, saying:
You know. It became mob fury. I was fired for asking to be paid what they were paying the men. Which I still think I deserve. And it became mob fury on that show, you were either with the producers or against the producers.
3. DELTA BURKE, ‘DESIGNING WOMEN’ (1991)
When it premiered in the fall of 1986, Designing Women, a show about four brassy Southern women who worked together as interior decorators, wasn’t an immediate hit. It did, however, manage to avoid cancellation and slowly developed a loyal fan base.
By the fourth season, Designing Women was regularly in the the top ten in the Nielsen ratings. As the show’s ratings had risen, so had Delta Burke‘s weight. Due to the fact that the actress had been considerably thinner when she was cast in the role of Suzanne Sugarbaker, a man-crazed Southern vixen, the weight gain became a favorite story in the tabloids. The weight issue was eventually written into Burke’s character on the show and an episode titled “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” was nominated for an Emmy in 1990.
The weight gain coincided with Burke’s increasingly erratic behavior on set. A one week suspension from the show in October 1989 was a result of numerous instances where she failed to show up for rehearsals. Following the announcement that she had received an Emmy nomination in 1990, Burke went public about her dissatisfaction with the show, telling the Orlando-Sentinel that the show was:
not a good workplace, not a good environment.
In February 1991, Entertainment Weekly‘s Mark Harris wrote:
Last summer, it was a mere feud. In the fall, it escalated into a flurry of faxes, accusations, counterclaims, and actress Delta Burke’s tearstained grievances to TV’s official sob sister, Barbara Walters. Now Burke and the producers of CBS’ popular Designing Women are taking it to the courts: Burke has filed a breach-of-contract suit against Columbia Pictures Television, claiming producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason withheld her $55,000-per-show salary for a November episode she wasn’t in (she says she had the flu).
Following the lawsuit, the producers, cast and crew, held a vote as to whether Burke should to return. The answer was a resounding no. The series creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, told People magazine in July 1991:
Never, ever, I emphatically want to say, has her weight had anything to do with our opinion of whether she should be on the show or off the show. Actually, she got funnier as she gained weight.
Burke’s weight may not have been an issue, however, her on set antics proved to be a different story. Once the decision had been made to release Burke from her contract, the producers didn’t waste any time finding a replacement. The revamped-version of the show premiered in the fall of 1991 with Saturday Night Live alumnus Jan Hooks and sitcom veteran Julia Duffy added to the cast. The cast change was a surprise success, and the show continued its top ten Nielsen run, only to be inexplicably canceled one season later.
Despite all the high profile drama, there doesn’t appear to have been any hard feelings between Burke and Thomason. After starring in the failed sitcom Delta in 1992, Burke signed on to reprise her role as Suzanne Sugarbaker for the 1995 Thomason-penned sitcom, Women of the House, which also starred Teri Garr and a pre-Everybody Loves Raymond, Patricia Heaton. In the pilot episode her character declares:
I’m back, and I’m bad and this time I’m staying for good.
Despite getting rave reviews, the show only lasted twelve episodes. In February 2008, Burke talked, for the first time, about her long running battle with depression, which, it seems, may have been partly to blame for her abrupt exit from Designing Women. During that time, she said, she once found herself:
parked in the car in the hills with a gun and a bottle of Xanax beside me, trying to recover from harsh words said in the tabloids. I just wanted the pain to go away.