TV Guide Cover

Shake Up At the Sugarbakers': It's Now Re-Designing Women

Newcomers Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks could change
the chemistry of this hit sitcom

Source: TV Guide - October 4, 1991
Written by: Elaine Warren

Over the summer, major renovations have taken place at the Sugarbakers, Atlanta's liveliest interior design firm. As CBS's Designing Women returned last week, there were two new faces, Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks, in the office as replacements for Suzanne and Charlene, who've moved on to new phases of their lives.

The departure of Suzanne, who is selling her part of the business and moving to Japan, is the result of the highly public feuding between actress Delta Burke and the show's producers throughout the past season. At the end of the season, Burke's contract was not renewed by executive producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband, Harry Thomason. Meanwhile, Charlene, the ditzy manager played by Jean Smart, put in an appearance during the hour-long season opener, then departed for England to be with her husband, a military man. Smart felt that five years on the same show was enough. (Charlene, however, will return to Atlanta for occasional visits.)

When Duffy and Hooks step into the show, they'll be taking on entirely new characters. Duffy, who portrayed the pampered, pouty maid Stephanie on Newhart for seven years, is coming into Designing Women as Suzanne and Julia Sugarbaker's sophisticated cousin, Allison, who went East for her college education, determinedly lost her Southern accent, and is only now returning to Atlanta. "She breezes in and tries to take over and ends up alienating everybody," says Duffy. "Allison comes on like a ton of bricks, but underneath it all, she's massively insecure."

Hooks, a five-year veteran of NBC's Saturday Night Live, is assuming the role of Charlene's younger, even ditzier sister, Carlene. "She's never been to the big city before," says Hooks of her character. "She's real optimistic and upbeat and happy to be there. She's very innocent to the point of, well, you could call her dim-witted."

The big question is: how will the introduction of not just one but two new characters affect the chemistry of this hit series? The executive producers have taken pains to make the transaction as smooth as possible. For instance, the two characters, Allison and Carlene, have essentially the same kinds of personalities of the two they replace. "The shadings may be somewhat different," says Harry Thomason, "but it will be the same four distinctive voices we had last year." While that may help the inter-actions within the series, what remains to be seen is whether viewers will take to the new characters as they did to the old.

For Duffy, the new role caps off a year of hopping from one show to another, creating for her an image of uncertainy. When Newhart ended production last year, there were rumors that a new show would be created for her, tentatively called The Julia Duffy Show. But the idea never developed. Then, after Connie Sellecca left the new ABC sitcom, Baby Talk, Columbia offered te role of the mother to Duffy and she accepted. But Duffy quickly became dissatisfied with the show.

"I was extremely unhappy," she acknowledges. "It was a very chaotic, disorganized atmosphere." She also complains that too much emphasis was placed on the baby, while adult roles were never developed. "There was no attempt to create those adult characters, to give them any kind of background or characteristics, any of the basics that you need in order to start playing a character and have a cast working together," she says. "It was impossible."

Columbia, also unhappy with the product and eager to revamp the producers and cast, offered little resistance when Duffy asked to be released from her contract at the beginning of the summer. When Linda Bloodworth-Thomason heard Duffy was leaving the show, she immediately approached her for Designing Women.

"I was very familiar with Julia's work and I thought she had the kind of character persona that could kill the viod that would be left by the departure of Suzanne Sugarbaker," Bloodworth-Thomason says. "There are only a handful of actresses who can pull off being whiny and petulant and self-centered and still be liked by the audience, and Julia Duffy has that quality." But Duffy resists any notion that she is portraying essentially the same spoiled-brat character she played as Stephanie on Newhart. "There's an arrogance in both characters," she allows. "And they're both obnoxious. But [the role of Allison] feels very different inside. She is striving, and wants to be successful, but feels very much like an outsider who would like to be an insider. That's an entirely different feeling from someone like Stephanie, who is languid and assumes that she is adored and has never felt like an outsider."

For Jan Hooks, the move to Designing Women marks a challenging transistion from free-wheeling late-night live TV to mainstream prime time. Although Hooks says she cherishes the five years she spent on SNL, only now can she admit publicly that they also represented five years of terror every Saturday night. "I can say now that I had horrible stage fright," she says happily, with the experience safely behind her. "I was scared out of my wits every show."

During this past season, Hooks began to realize the stage fright and frenetic pace of he show were beginning to take their toll, and she started opening herself up to other possibilites by circulating a video compilation of her work. But in her heart of hearts, Hooks says, "if it were any other show but this one I would be very reluctant. I'm such a fan, truly, I swear to God. That's what I did on Monday nights in New York. I would go back to my apartment, have a turkey sandwich and Tater Tots, and watch Designing Women. It was so impressive to me the way they captured the Southern woman's mind."

Among those who saw Hooks' video was Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, as she began to search to cast a replacement for Jean Smart. "I just could not have been more impressed with her versatility and talent," says Thomason of the tape. Hooks was also helped immeasurably by her native Atlanta accent. "When she came in to meet us and had a Georgia accent, it was almost as if I had ordered her out of a catalouge," says Bloodworth-Thomason. "I gave her a big hug when I heard the accent."

Neither woman claims to know what's in store for her character in the coming season, but Bloodworth-Thomason does drop some clues. "Allison is basically for the first time in her life going to experience some success in the world. Nothing has ever worked out for her, so we're going to try to catch the evolution of a social klutz and a failed personality coming into her own," she says.

As for Carlene: "I think she is going to finally have access to things she never dreamed of, as the former Mrs. Dwayne Dobber of Poplar Bluff, Missouri [which happens to be Bloodworth-Thomason's home town]. Dwayne Dobber was the biggest import car salesman in Southeast Missouri, and she left him because the social pressures of being Mrs. Dwayne Dobber were too tremendous. This is going to be her life post-Dwayne Dobber."

What else is Bloodworth-Thomason designing for these women? You'll just have to tune in to find out.


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