'Designing Women' indulge in emotional, nostalgic reunion

Source: The Associated Press - July 28, 2003
Written by: Bridget Byrne

LOS ANGELES -- The wisteria is in bloom. Spanish moss hangs from the trees. Four women and their male companion are seated on white wicker chairs on a porch in the glow of twilight.

They talk and talk and talk. They laugh a lot, cry a little, poke fun. They remember.

The memories are strong and real. But the locale is artifice -- created with props, plastic plants and lights on a CBS soundstage in Studio City. Fans look on from several bleachers.

The women were the stars of "Designing Women" -- Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, Annie Potts and Jean Smart, who played Southern belles with feminist instincts on the popular sitcom that aired on CBS from 1986-93.

The man is Meshach Taylor, who played an ex-con delivery man who joined the belles' interior design firm, Sugarbaker and Associates.

They've gathered to reminisce for "The Designing Women Reunion," an emotional, 90-minute time trip airing tonight on Lifetime Television, which also shows daily reruns of the series.

Smart and Burke left the show after the fifth season -- Smart to pursue other interests, Burke acrimoniously.

In the years since, Burke has spoken publicly about the personal problems that led to her departure, including bouts with depression. And although this get-together is designed to be more about joys than sorrows, she doesn't shy away from recalling the tough stuff.

Yet no bitterness is seen to linger, even when Potts quips, "Let's talk about when Delta was crazy."

"I thank you all for being so patient," says Burke after they all laughed watching a clip from a fourth-season episode featuring the quartet lip-syncing to a Supremes song. Burke admitted it was made at a time when she was "kind of overmedicated," "didn't understand why I couldn't cope," and "didn't want to live."

"We loved each other's talent," Carter proffers.

"We were always very unguarded with each other," says Smart.

"Don't make me cry again or I'll slap you," says Burke, as they each recall how they dealt with a difficult situation. She can smile while her eyes glisten with tears, because now "it's funny," even though "at the time it wasn't."

Linda Bloodworth, the series' creator, and her producer-director husband, Harry Thomason, executive produced the reunion show, which includes numerous clips and input from other cast members.

Bloodworth believes the series broke new ground by sensitively addressing such real-life issues as domestic violence, weight gain and loss of loved ones -- subjects usually avoided by the sitcom genre.

But Bloodworth never considered "Designing Women" a sitcom anyway.

"We always resisted the word," she says. "Not to elevate ourselves above other shows ... but because we liked to think of it as a little play that we got to put on every week. They came in with their high heels clicking and their mouths moving," she says, applauding the theatricality of the performers, who "personalized feminism ... put a better face on it than most people had seen up to that time."

The stars themselves, whether by effect or nature, are lovely still. The most notable difference is their tamer, shorter, chic hairstyles. They're all dressed in white, with subtle color points -- a beige overskirt for Potts, a blue camisole for Burke, a violet cardigan for Carter, a cream crochet top for Smart.

Taylor, also reasonably untouched by time, is wearing a gray suit. Like the character he played, he's quick with the snappy remarks, which he somehow manages to interject into the women's almost seamless stream of sassy chat.

Taylor's not surprised by the candor. "I knew that once we got to talking, that a lot of things would come out," he says during a pause in the taping. "I'm glad these things were said. I'm glad people will get to understand some of the things we were going through and how we tried to hold it together."

Taylor says he's now writing and trying to sell some TV shows. Carter has been concentrating on her stage and singing career. The other three continue to have very active TV careers.

Explaining the complex twists and turns of the stars' off-screen romances, which often intertwined with the characters' on-screen love lives, causes a great deal of giggling and teasing.

"First I wanted to be Dixie ... then she met Hal ... I wanted a man like that and I got one," says Burke. Carter is married to Hal Holbrook, who for a while played her suitor on the show. Burke married Gerald McRaney, who was cast as the first of her character's three ex-husbands. Smart met husband Richard Gilliland when he played Potts' on-screen beau.

On camera, Burke reads a charming note McRaney wrote to her shortly after they met. During a break in taping, he holds her hand as though they were still newlyweds.

Holbrook wanders around backstage murmuring "wonderful, just wonderful." Asked to elaborate, he says, "They all loved each other. They all had such wonderful craftsmanship. This is so lovely, so sweet, so moving."


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