Dishing With the Designing Women
What are those sassy Southern belles really like? Well, the Journal went to Hollywood for a down-home talk with the stars of one of television's most enduring -- and endearing -- comedies.
Source: Ladies Home Journal - October, 1990
Written by: Jeff Rovin
They look as snappy -- and sound as scrappy -- as the outspoken Southern belles they portray. But when you first meet Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, Annie Potts and Jean Smart, you're struck by how very different these actresses seem from their characters on Designing Women.
Dixie is a soft-spoken conservative, the antithesis of that liberal sparkplug Julia Sugarbaker, and Delta has none of the aloof self-love that serves as Suzanne Sugarbaker's pedestal. Annie if far more intrepid than the demure Mary Jo Shively, and Jean is not some Appalachian innocent like Charlene Frazier Stillfield but a wisecracking northerner. And yes, three of the four even admit they're pretty hopeless at home decorating. (Delta insists she's a whiz.)
Still, none of these differences spoil the friendship these women share. On the set, they reportedly get along fine; off, they get together socially as often as their busy schedules allow. In fact, all the warmth must be catching: Delta and Jean married actors they met on the show. At press time, though, Delta was rumored to be growing tired of the sitcom grind.
Delta Burke fights back
Delta cradles the letter gently as she slips it from the envelope. "It's a handwritten note from Elizabeth Taylor," she says proudly. "You can't touch it, so I'll paraphrase. She says I'm courageous, and that I shouldn't let all the lies and garbage get to me." Delta smiles. "Whenever I'm down, I take it out and read it or just hold it. Oprah Winfrey wrote to me, too, but this one is like a letter from God."
Nowadays, the thirty-four-year-old actress is "down" less than she used to be. Curled on the bed of her small but cozy dressing room, wearing black slacks and a loose-fitting white blouse, Delta has none of the self-centered poutiness of snapdragon frankness for which her character, Suzanne Sugarbaker, is famous.
"I'm a chicken," Delta confesses. "I don't like confrontations, the way Suzanne does, which is why the last two years were so painful. All those stories in the tabloids about why I got so fat, why I'm being fired, why my husband [actor Gerald McRaney, star of Major Dad] is leaving me -- they were crap. But I wasn't equipped to fight back, and it hurt a lot. I watched years of trying to build a career go down the toilet, when I hadn't even done anything wrong!"
Delta's climb the the top began when she was twelve and started a modeling career. The winner of eighteen beauty pageants, including Miss Florida, the Orlando-born beauty set her sights on Hollywood and landed parts in two 1979 TV movies, Charleston and A Last Cry for Help. She has been working ever since. "Professionally," she says, "I've been very fortunate."
Personally, though, her life has had its rough spots. At the age of four, she was molested by the father of a girlfriend, and incident that left her afraid that "every time a man approached me, he would hurt me," she says. "I sublimated that as best I could, but then as a teenager, I only met men who were interested in me sexually -- not romantically, but in a dirty, unloving way. I was nearly date-raped a number of times, and that pushed me over the edge. I became terrified of men."
When she came to Hollywood, not only didn't Delta date, but she rarely left her apartment. Then, because of all the attention she received from Designing Women -- especially from men -- she says, "I turned to food for solace, like a baby sucking a biscuit. I guess I also thought, subconsciously, that if I were fat, men wouldn't find me attractive and I wouldn't have to deal with being a sex object."
Not surprisingly, when Delta showed up thirty pounds heavier for the fourth season in 1989 and the press onslaught began, it made a bad situation worse. "I actually had total strangers coming up to me in public, ripping open my coat, and saying, 'Hey, lemme see!'" she recalls with disgust. "In the past, whenever I was down, the one thing I had to fall back on was the fact that people considered me beautiful. Now I didn't even have that. I had nothing, absolutely no self worth."
Confessing that she might easily have turned to drugs or drink, she says her salvation was McRaney, whom she'd met when he played her ex-husband on the show.
"What can I say about him?" she asks, her voice filled with pride. "Mac kept reassuring me, telling me that he loved me however I looked, and that all this would pass. He was gentle and strong, and he helped me realize the truth: that I look like this, and I'm gonna diet, but I can't wait until I'm skinny to start living my life. I started to come back up again. I found my fighting spirit, and I was able to get on with things."
Today, life is "just fine." The weight is coming off slowly, thanks to a diet of salads and protein shakes. "The hardest thing is to keep going, to stay psyched. I look in the mirror and cry, 'I don't want to look like this!' But eventually, my metabolism will change. This time, I'm going to take the weight off right."
Delta says that after a year and a half, marriage, too, "is great. Mac and I have a normal relationship with its ups and downs; we're both very independent people. But we have a strong relationship. Even though we both work long hours, we make pockets of time for each other, and nothing intrudes on those." The two don't plan to have children yet ("we may have them someday, but it isn't a priority"), but Delta is making time for something else that's important to her: writing a book about her experiences. "My hope is that I can help other women who are ridiculed or have lost self-respect because of their appearance.
"I'm going to come through this," she says, and flashes a smile. "I have to. Good Lord -- do you think I want to let Elizabeth Taylor down?"
Dixie Carter hits a high note
The small screen doesn't do justice to Dixie Carter. Sitting in her dressing room, surrounded by photos of herself and her third husband, actor Hal Holbrook -- who played her lover, Reese, on the show -- Dixie is a beautiful woman with extraordinary charisma, smooth-as-cream skin and a radiant smile. At fifty-one, she has more energy (and much better posture) than her co-stars.
"Honey, I've got to stay sharp!" she says, laughing. "Hollywood's not a good place to grow older. The values are utterly superficial, and since I see no sign of being highly regarded for my intellect, I'd better keep my waistline small.
"But ohhh," she moans, "how humbling the effort can be! I do acrobatic exercises with this gentleman who comes to my house. Well, I said to him just the other day, 'Le'ts work on making my arms shapely so I can wear strapless dresses again.' And he said, 'Let's be realistic. We have to concentrate on not letting it get any worse.'"
Dixie laughs at the story. After an extraordinary professional comeback, a little thing like sagging arms isn't about to drag her down.
A stage actress from McLemoresville, Tennessee, with experience in everything from drama to light opera to comedy revues, Dixie gave up her promising career when she wed businessman Arthur Carter. They had two daughters, and for eight years Dixie's life "was all about raising them." The marriage formally ended in 1977, a few years after Dixie realized that her husband was no longer in love with her.
"That's an experience I wish on no one," she adds. "What it did to my self-respect is like what a cat does to a scratchin' pole. But I was luckier than most women in that position. All I had to do was get on a plane and go home to Tennessee, let my family remind me that I was worth something."
Shortly thereafter, she met and wed Broadway star George Hearn, a union that lasted less than a year. Through it all, Dixie tried to return to acting, but to her dismay, sh was unable to find an agent. "The time I'd been away was death," she says. "Perception is so important in this business, and no one wanted to be associated with a has-been. I was hurt and frayed. Friends thought I had cancer, I looked so bad."
Her confidence "hanging by a thread," Dixie finally met an agent who turned her life around.
Dixie landed bit parts in TV series, followed by roles on Diff'rent Strokes and the Dallas spoof Filthy Rich. It was on the latter that she met Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.
Surprisingly, the role of the elegant Southern woman was not tailor-made for the elegant Southern actress. While Julia Sugarbaker is best known for her social and political liberalism, Dixie is just the opposite. "We both have a deep sense of humanity," Dixie says, "but that's where the similarity ends. I don't believe in permissiveness, and I don't have a kindly attitude toward miscreants.
"I'm also not a feminist in the current sense of the word. There's no question in my mind that I'm different from men, and frankly, I enjoy feeling every bit like a female."
But Dixie also has a nontraditional side. She says her "favorite, most wonderful thing in the world to do is sing," and though she knows how to put over a torch song or ballad, she's in her glory doing an aggressive bump-and-grind. "What can I tell you?" she shrugs. "I enjoy getting up on stage and moving. That's liberation." Bloodworth-Thomason says, "We have a deal. Whenever there's a liberal speech Dixie really doesn't want to say, she says it -- then she gets to sing the following week. Never mind the money. That's what we have to do to keep her happy."
Dixie recently completed her second sold-out stint at a glamorous supper club in Manhattan and is working on an album. However, the high point of her singing career occured last June, when she sang the national anthem for President George Bush and the forty-five hundred guests as his sixty-sixth birthday celebration. "I don't know how I managed to get through that," she says. "My voice was pepper dry, and I was never, ever more terrified."
Dixie's voice may soon be heard in more ways than one. She wants to "make speeches to clubs and organizations about raising children and how unhappy women can go out and make new lives for themselves."
Dixie's quick to add that she doesn't intend to proselytize like Julia. "I'm not a soapbox orator. I just want to get out there and spread that love and happiness around."
Annie Potts keeps the faith
We're driving through Burbank when a car runs a red light. Annie brakes suddenly.
"Bad... bad," she says. Her voice, usually calm, has an edge. "When are people going to realize that slow and steady wins the race?"
After a moment, Annie relaxes again. "Sorry," she says. "I don't have nightmares about the past, but speeding cars and police sirens throw me into a bit of a panic."
The past to which Annie refers is October 23, 1973, five days before her twenty-first birthday. She and her actor-husband, Steve Hartley, were driving through the countryside of northern Washington State, when their van was hit by one of three cars drag racing down the road. The accident cost Steve a leg; Annie suffered a crushed femur and compound fractures of both her legs; and she lost the heel of her right foot. (The kids who hit them settled out of court for $7,000. Though they'd been drinking, their licenses were not revoked).
Today, at thirty-seven, Annie has a slight limp and suffers from arthritis in her hips and ankles. She can't play tennis or do aerobics, and she says that "sometimes I have to yell for my son to help me get out of a chair."
Remarkably, moments of bitterness are rare. Later, back in her dressing room -- decorated with drawings by her eight-year old son, Clay -- Annie says, "This may sound strange, but it was actually a great privilege to have gone through the accident and recuperation. It taught me not to hold on to anger and resentment toward anyone. Hate isn't going to hurt the people who did this to me, but it's going to hurt me considerably. Negative thought is unproductive and keeps you from getting on with your life.
"Those people who has the misfortune to run into me -- I'm sure I probably killed them in five or six previous lifetimes," she adds. "My faith in that concept is one reason I've been able to let go of the accident."
If it sounds like Annie's climbing out on a limb beside mystic Shirley MacLaine, she is, in fact, a staunch New Ager who maintains her extraordinary tranquillity by regularly practicing yoga and meditation. She believes that "life is school. God's not stupid: He'll recycle us until we're refined, like little gems. You come back and have certain things to learn and unlearn in each lifetime."
Raised in Franklin, Kentucky, the youngest of three girls, Annie never wanted to do anything but act. She and Steve were planning stage careers in New York when, as Annie puts it, "we had the cosmic carpet pulled out from under us;" after the accident, they remained on the West Coast, where Annie "had no intention of becoming a film or TV actor. I sort of fell into it." Prior to Designing Women, she was probably best known as the wonderfully nutty receptionist in Ghostbusters I (a role she reprised in II).
Her personal life, however, did not fall into place quite as easily. Five years after the accident, her marriage to Steve ended in divorce. "Steve was very courageous, but it was difficult for him to accept what had been done to his body. I was a strong reminder of what had happened, and though we parted as friends, the emotional pressure was such that we had to part."
She married movie sound technician Scott Senechal (now an assistant director) in 1981; Clay was born later that year. Annie won't reveal what caused her second marriage to fail, but she hints that her schedule had a lot to do with it. Annie and Scott filed for divorce early this year.
Annie's voice does rise slightly when she says that she and Scott tried -- unsuccessfully -- to divorce quietly. "I don't know what lower life form exists down at the county courthouse, waiting for that kind of thing to come in, but all of a sudden the divorce was on Entertainment Tonight! I thought, How bizarre that this event would come under the category of entertainment! I felt like someone had been through my underwear drawer."
Annie is currently dating cinematographer Jim Hayman, whom she met while making the movie Sketches in early 1989. Do they plan to marry? As the Journal went to press, the usually low-profile Annie disclosed a September wedding date.
"Everything considered," she says, "I have a wonderful life. I've got this show, there are films, and on those rare occasions when I find myself secretly saying a little curse about my arthritis or Entertainment Tonight, I remind myself how diamonds are made: constant pressure. You have to take life's trials in stride."
Jean Smart looks for answers
Of all the Designing Women, Jean Smart is the biggest surprise.
Not only is the Southern accent affected, but Jean is a frank and uninhibited woman -- as far as you can get from square Charlene Frazier Stillfield. Most of her credentials come far from prime time: the Hartford Stage Company, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, plays both on and off Broadway.
"So what am I doing here?" The thirty-eight year old actress says, laughing. "There was something very appealing about Charlene. I'm used to playing ambitious women or villainesses or hookers, and here was a character who was from a great big rural family, traditionally religious, innocent and far less jaded than I. It's a part of me that I haven't been able to express very often. Innocence is like virginity. Once you lose it, you can't get it back."
For Jean, playing Charlene has had one other dividend: She met her husband, Richard Gilliland (perhaps best known as Polly Draper's married lover on thirtysomething), when he guest-starred as Mary Jo's boyfriend on Designing Women.
"I asked Delta to find out if he was married," Jean recalls with a big laugh, "Naturally, Delta walked up to him and blurted, 'Jean wants to know if you're married.'"
He wasn't, and Jean lured him to her dressing room under the flimsy pretext of needing help with a crossword puzzle -- which, along with astronomy and tennis, is Richard's passion. A few puzzles later they were talking about marriage, and they wed in June 1987. Their son, Connor, was born in October of 1989.
"I know the things I'm experiencing aren't unique, but, boy, are they strong," Jean says. "I guess the most powerful feeling I have is this incredible sense of completeness. You sit there and say, 'I have a family.' It's a kind of fullness you can't describe. Right now, I can't even imagine having another child. I don't see how I can possibly divide the feelings I have among more children. I'm sure that it will pass, but it seems just as strange to me as the idea of having another husband.
"I also feel humble and scared. You think, If anything ever happens to this child, I'll die. I can't stand the thought that he's ever going to spend one moment being unhappy or one moment in pain. Then you wonder, God, did my parents feel this way? And you start to understand them a lot more."
However, perhaps the most important change of all has been what Jean's pregnancy did for her health. A diabetic, she says, "I never paid any attention to the disease, and if I kept on taking it for granted, I could have ended up with very serious kidney or vision problems. It took me getting pregnant to whip me into shape; it's amazing what you'll do for a baby that you won't do for yourself. I stopped smoking, I started eating right, and I haven't been this healthy since I was in high school."
With everything going so well, Jean has been able to take time to do a few things that are important to her. She's been hitting the rowing machine to get back in shape, and has been spending as much time as possible lecturing on behalf of the American Diabetes Association and, more recently, the World Wildlife Fund.
"We have a telescope, and we go camping in these remote fields to look at the stars. Astronomy makes you realize how minute and fragile the planet is, a miraculous oasis in a cold, gray universe. And we're just heaping garbage on it. It's important to get people motivated to clean it up, and I want to be out there doing that," she says.
Jean the actress speaks eloquently for her cause, but it's Jean the mother who makes the most moving statement of all: "Didn't I say motherhood causes you think differently? When I got pregnant, I only wanted to improve my health. Now I want to save the world."
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