Welcome to Issue #003. It's a long one, but we think you'll love it.
We're getting some very positive responses on the newsletters, and we totally appreciate it, so thank you. But, it would be really cool if everyone could respond with their comments and ideas so we have an even better idea of what you want to see in future issues. E-mail us at: Belled@topthat.net.
In the meantime, this issue features a great article from Entertainment Weekly just after the major cast changes, previews Delta's guest appearances on the show Popular, and gives us a glimpse of Sugarbakers' future when Louis shares his take on what happened to B.J. and Bernice. So, on to the good stuff . . . . .
A Classic 'Designing Women' Article
Source: Entertainment Weekly - 10/4/91
Written by: Mark Harris
Photos by: Theo Westenberger
[Editors' Note: this article is abridged for length]
What has 10 legs, 30 million viewers, 2 new faces and a Southern accent?
It's impossible not to notice the difference. On the same Sugarbaker sofa where Delta Burke sat in repose for five years, as comically immobile and forbidding as a bewigged Aztec totem, Julia Duffy now lies -- no, lolls -- her sneakered, size 5 feet barely reaching the table. It's the day after the sixth-season premiere of CBS' Designing Women, and if Duffy looks both exhausted and elated, she's not the only one. With Burke and costar Jean Smart (Charlene Stillfield) departing, and Duffy and Jan Hooks filling similar roles as the caustic nemesis and country naif of the Sugarbaker interior-design firm, the previous night's show was the most pivotal in Designing Women's long run. But now, word of the episode's Nielsen ratings -- the highest in the show's history -- has ricocheted through dressing rooms and offices, and the relief is palpable.
"It's alleviated a lot of pressure," says Hooks, who watched her first appearance as Carlene Dobber the night before with the help of 'comfort food' (meat loaf, mashed potatoes, green peas) and a tumbler of vodka. Duffy, a seven-year veteran of Newhart known for her unflappability, acknowledges some unease of her own. Even Annie Potts, who by now knows the character of single mom Mary Jo Shively so well that she doesn't always bother to watch her performance, made sure she was in front of her TV on Monday night. "I thought it was pretty important," she says. "It's almost not a continuation of the old show. It's a new show."
Therein lies the excitement and terror. When Designing Women made its debut in 1986, it brought strong women, richly brewed Southern conversation, and an effortlessly balanced comic ensemble to a prime-time lineup almost bereft of intelligent sitcoms. After the show was almost canceled twice in its first season, its survival became a rallying point for quality-starved viewers, who waged a successful letter-writing campaign to save it. When the show became a top 10 hit last season, their efforts -- and the persistence of its witty, prolific creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason -- were vindicated. But the success of this new, radically altered version is far from assured.
In her elegantly appointed office (even the window glass is discreetly monogrammed) near the set of her other series, the year-old Evening Shade, Bloodworth-Thomason shares in the buoyant mood of the morning after. She has already received a congratulatory call from CBS president Howard Stringer, who drawled into her answering machine in a passable imitation of her soft Missouri accent, "Ah just luuuve that show Designin' Women!" The series is important to CBS' fortunes, and so is Bloodworth-Thomason, whose five-series deal with the network could net her and her husband, producer-director Harry Thomason, $50 million. But at the moment, she's mostly pleased for Designing Women's cast. "They needed to find out they weren't all going to die on Tuesday morning," she says.
Indeed, the stars approached premiere night like hypochondriacs awaiting test results. "The ratings proved we were paranoid for nothing," says Meshach Taylor, who plays Sugarbaker partner Anthony Bouvier. "But I did think we might lose some viewers because of the situation we've been through."
The situation . . . . . Burke's dismissal left one void, and the amicable departure of Jean Smart, who wanted to pursue other projects and spend more time with her husband and 2-year-old son, left another.
Ironically, the producers found their Burke replacement in an actress engaged in her own contractual hassle: Julia Duffy, who was doing time on the critically assailed ABC sitcom Baby Talk. "I had asked to be released from my contract very, very early," says Duffy. "I was very unhappy." The week she was freed, she got a call from Bloodworth-Thomason, who wanted her to play Allison, a Sugarbaker cousin who left the South, failed spectacularly in the North, and would return to Atlanta arrogant and unbowed to buy out Suzanne's share of the business (Burke's character, viewers learned, had departed for Japan). "I'd been thinking about [Duffy] all season," says Bloodworth-Thomason. "There are very few actresses who can supply that vain, selfish, whiny voice and be likable. Julia does it winningly, because she's so tiny and wields such a big stick verbally."
Bloodworth-Thomason was less familiar with Hooks, the five-year veteran of NBC's Saturday Night Live who had wearied of SNL's punishing schedule. "I never got into the rhythm of being live," says Hooks. "My body reacted as if I were being attacked by a wild animal." Last Christmas, she sent out a video reel of her best sketches -- Tammy Faye Bakker, Bette Davis, Sally Jessy Raphael. Six months later, she came home one night to find her answering machine clogged with calls from her agent. The next day, she flew to L.A. to meet with the Thomasons about playing Charlene's younger sister, the uncultured, newly divorced Carlene.
"When she said she was from Decatur, GA, I kissed her," said Bloodworth-Thomason. "You can't buy that accent, and to have someone that talented who can sound like that is money in the bank."
On July 29, Hooks and Duffy arrived for their first day of rehearsal.
"Dixie and Meshach and I know that set so well that the directors don't have to say anything," says Potts. "Jan and Julia had to come into an established rhythm." Duffy, whose brash character had the hardest work in the season opener, says, "I read the script and I thought, oh, Allison comes on so strong; I hope the people will accept her." Hooks worried about restraining her own performance. "On Saturday Night Live, I only had seven minutes to prove myself, so I did it hard and fast. In my weirdest nightmare, I thought, what if I do something so over-the-top, so wrong?"
Nerves were still taut the night a studio audience trooped in to watch the season's first, 4 1/2-hour taping. Hooks couldn't calm down until the second scene. And Duffy, whose entrance was delayed, had to wait behind the Sugarbaker front door for more than an hour. Even Bloodworth-Thomason was uncharacteristically cautious" . . . . .
If Burke and Smart still seem present in spirit, it may be because Duffy's acid-etched snob and Hooks' sunshiny yokel are very close to Suzanne and Charlene. "I didn't do anything innovative or original," says Bloodworth-Thomason bluntly. "Jan and Julia bring their own personalities to these voices, but they're essentially the voices."
But differences are emerging. Hooks' Carlene, says Bloodworth-Thomason, "hasn't been exposed to sophistication of her sister. She's a female Woody Harrelson, more naive, wider-eyed, hickier than Charlene." And Duffy has replaced Suzanne's oblivious bullying with an urbane self-centeredness better suited to her style. "Did you ever walk into a room and feel that people were not appropriately impressed?" Duffy says laughing. "That's Allison. She honestly doesn't understand why she isn't a success." And, says Bloodworth-Thomason, Allison's stridency is already being softened: "The more you see her, the more you'll like her and accept her belligerent ways."
Designing Women's veterans are also affected by the changes. "We're still fiddling around with our fledgling ensemble," says Dixie Carter. "We aren't totally rock solid yet." In one scene being rehearsed, Julia Sugarbaker stands back while Allison bangs on a front door. "Should Julia knock? Or Allison?" wonders Carter. "Is it strange for Julia to stand aside? We're still discovering that." . . . . .
Hooks, sitting in her still sparsely furnished dressing room, says, "I feel like I'm home. I've jumped from a pool of testosterone to a pool of estrogen. There's no more male place than Saturday Night Live, and not only is this a woman's place, it's a Southern woman's place."
So it's no surprise that production is tailored to the needs of working women. "In the world of acting, this is a desk job," says Potts, "a clock-punching kind of job. I can be home to tuck my son in every night but one." That theme is echoed by the other actors. Ask Duffy about life on the set, and she'll eagerly discuss the play space for her two children, Kerri, 5, and Danny, 2, who dart delightedly through a game of hide and seek in a corridor. Taylor's daughters, Yasmin, 5, and Esme, 3, are occasionally visitors to the set. And when Dixie Carter interrupts our interview, it's to conduct an animated phone conversation with her younger daughter, Mary Dixie, a senior at Harvard.
But Potts, Carter, and Taylor also remember Designing Women's shaky start, when it was so disdained by CBS that Bloodworth-Thomason disgustedly dubbed the show "the plantation owner's illegitimate child." This season, she will concentrate on Evening Shade and turn over most of her Designing Women duties to producer-writer Pamela Norris, a former Saturday Night Live staffer who wrote many of Women's scripts last year. But whether audiences will accept this new ensemble is still in question.
Several intriguing plot lines may keep people watching. This season, Mary Jo will have a baby by artificial insemination. "We're going to look into Julia Sugarbaker's romantic life," says Bloodworth-Thomason. "She incorporates femininity and power in such an attractive way." Hooks says she'd "like to see Carlene get into some real trouble," and Duffy hopes "Allison will become a fool for love. That's so much fun to play." But something else may be in store for her. "At some point, Allison, being a yuppie, will have to consider adopting a child if she cannot find man," says Bloodworth-Thomason. "She's very competitive. She'd be like that woman in Texas who tried to kill the cheerleader's mom."
One episode viewers won't see is a long-planned finale in which Burke's Suzanne was to elope with Anthony. "Now I don't know what we'll do [when the series ends]," says Bloodworth-Thomason. That leads us to the obvious question: How much life is left in the show?
"We have the following, we have the talent, and the new energy here will take us to another level," says Taylor.
"I don't think we're on our last legs," concurs Carter. "If we nurture our show, we have a long life ahead of us."
Only Annie Potts seems to hedge. "I don't know," she says softly. "Maybe I'll want to go on another six years, but I don't know how I'll feel about working after next year." Why? "I'll give you a scoop here." She hesitates warily, then, with a what-the-hell smile, delivers the latest off-camera plot twist in a series that has had it's share:
We may not have seen the last Designing Women headlines after all.
Sidebar Comments from the Cast
Dixie Carter ~ "Julia Sugarbaker gets away with what she does because when she delivers one of her tirades, she's provoked, but she's not an angry woman. We give our messages with lots of honey, lots of giggles and laughs."
Annie Potts ~ "It's pretty much work as usual this season, and it's going just fine. It's not like we're trying to break these new girls in. This isn't exactly their first rodeo."
Julia Duffy ~ What writers do is very solitary, and what actors do is very collaborative. And it's frustrating and hurtful to an actor when writers won't listen. There's not wall between writers and actors here."
Jan Hooks ~ "It is a little hairy to find yourself under such close scrutiny and not be able to find your way our without people watching every move. I don't know what a regular week is. I haven't had one."
Meshach Taylor ~ "Inevitably, people are replaced in a show. That doesn't mean the show goes down the tubes. Jean and Delta weren't born here; they had lives before, and they have lives now. Meanwhile, it's exciting to work with new people."
Delta Burke Pops up Again on Popular
Delta Burke returns to television in a series of guest appearances in Touchstone's latest show of teenage angst.
The series Popular is a one-hour comedy/drama that focuses on the lives of two teenage girls -- one the most popular girl in school and one the social rebel -- who seriously disdain each other. In a twist that from their teenage point of view destroys their lives, their parents get engaged to each other. Thus, the real fun begins as the show digs into the dark heart of high school and all of the dramas of being a teenager. The series stars Leslie Bibb, Carly Pope, Tammy Lynn Michaels, Bryce Johnson, Tamara Mello, Christopher Gorham, Sara Rue, Ron Lester, Leslie Grossman, Lisa Darr, and Scott Bryce.
In the episode "Queen B" (which originally aired November 11, 1999), Delta Burke plays Cherry Cherry -- a multimillionaire business tycoon and mother to conniving cheerleader Mary Cherry. Serious warfare erupts when homecoming queen nominations are announced, pitting popular against popular, friend against friend and foe against foe at Kennedy High. The ever-popular Brooke is forced to compete against Mary Cherry and her combative mother for the title of homecoming queen. As the school's assumed shoe-in, Brooke (Leslie Bibb) is forced to step up her image when Mary Cherry (Leslie Grossman) and her beauty pageant-winning mother, Cherry Cherry, embark on a no-holds-barred Texas-style campaign to be queen.
Popular creator/exec producer Ryan Murphy, who has the same agent as Burke, says he wrote the part of Cherry Cherry with Burke in mind and never had a second choice for the role if she was unavailable. Cherry is a former beauty queen, Miss Texas 1974 -- the same year that Burke actually held the Miss Florida title.
Murphy held high hopes that the part would become recurring, and now Delta has just finished shooting her second appearance on the show -- an episode entitled "Ch-Ch-Changes."
In the episode, oil baroness Cherry Cherry returns as a substitute teacher at Kennedy High School -- where she ends up teaching the class about duplicitous corporate takeovers. According to the show's publicist, there is a fun and flirty flashback sequence where Cherry gets pulled over by a highway patrolman played by Erik Estrada (a take off of his cult classic role on CHiPS). We'll let you know when an airdate for this one has been announced.
In the meantime, for those of you who missed it the first time, the episode "Queen B" will be re-airing at 8:00 pm next Thursday, March 2, on the WB. Check your local listings and set your VCR's!!
. . . B.J.
"B.J. stayed with the group. As she had always said, she always needed friends like her partners. With her millions, and Suzanne's money back, Sugarbakers became a larger design firm, still a subsidiary of Poteet Industries. They had an office in downtown Atlanta which was personally funded by B.J. and Suzanne." (submitted by Louis)
. . . Bernice
"She lived on. Bernice ended up figuring out a way to be sane: drinking. She would drink a glass of rum every morning, and be just like she was in "Bernice's Sanity Hearing" of season 4. As a receptionist [at Sugarbakers], she got a second chance to deal with her arterial flow situation. Sometimes, though, she would act up towards closing time. Because of this, Julia gave her a morning shift, and then Suzanne would handle phones." (submitted by Louis)
Don't forget to Email "Belled" with reader feedback and to tell us where you think the "Designing Women" characters would be today for future issues! We've had some wonderful responses which will be appearing soon, but we need more, so please everyone respond -- and let your imagination run wild!!
(9) Which two members of Sugarbaker's did NOT celebrate a birthday on the series?
(10) Where did Mary Jo's ex-husband Ted Shively go to medical school?
(11) What was the name of Carlene's entry for Atlanta's official song?
(12) What was Allison's occupation before she left New York City?
* Answers will appear in the next issue.
Answers from Issue #002
(5) What was the name of Suzanne's maid prior to her hiring Consuela?
Her maid's name was Flora, Episode: "A Big Affair."
(6) What was the name of Reese's law partner, and in which two episodes did he appear?
Burton Riffel, Episodes: "Oh, Suzannah" and "Reese's Friend."
(7) Which one of the ladies did NOT get proposed marriage to over the series?
Carlene was the only one NOT proposed to (B.J. was proposed to on a blind date, Suzanne was proposed to twice, Mary Jo by an old friend, and Bernice by a deranged old coot. Julia, Charlene, and Allison actually even had weddings).
(8) Which character was originally cast with a different actress at the network's request?
This was the character of Suzanne. Although Linda Bloodworth-Thomason had Delta in mind when she wrote Suzanne, when CBS agreed to a pilot, they didn't want Delta in the role. Another actress was hired to play Suzanne, but when the chemistry wasn't there in rehearsals, Delta was brought in a mere 2 days before filming began. BONUS: Does anyone know the name of the other actress hired to play Suzanne?