Delta Burke's Law: Never Say Never

Congresswoman Sugarbaker After a dark period, Delta Burke is back from the brink
- as her old self, with a new show.

Source: TV Guide - December 31, 1994
Written by: Mary Murphy

So you can go home again. Just ask Delta Burke, who is returning to series television in the role that made her famous - Designing Women's saucy, scintillating Suzanne Sugarbaker. And she is doing it with the help of her former nemesis, the woman she said she would never work with again: Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator of both Designing Women and Burke's biting new political farce, Women of the House.

The feud between the two was vicious and legendary, weekly fodder for the tabloids, discussed in a Barbara Walters interview, and later, a tough cover story in TV Guide. If their reconciliation creates the hit show that Burke and CBS need, it will be the kind of comeback miracle Hollywood loves.

From the moment she stepped before the cameras for the pilot of Women of the House, in which Sugarbaker fills her late husband's seat in congress and stirs things up, Burke says she knew returning to the character was the right decision. With earnestness, she says: "It felt like I had come home again. It was suddenly like I was at peace in my body. I was at peace in my mind."

To viewers, of course, Burke was never anyone but Sugarbaker, the Scarlett O'Hara of sitcoms who battles her weight, her image, and a roller coaster of emotions. So it's not surprising that the audience at the pilot's taping welcomed her back with high-density emotion. "I barely got out on stage and they went nuts!" recalls Burke. Says Bloodworth-Thomason, who was watching on the sidelines when Burke rushed over and dragged her to center stage: "It was the biggest ovation I've ever seen on a television show."

A few weeks later on Stage 17, cast and crew are shooting a segment of Women of the House. Teri Garr, playing a former Washington Post reporter who's a recovering alcoholic, and Patricia Heaton (Room for Two), as Sugarbaker's acerbic administrative assistant, are struggling with new lines. Suddenly, Burke swoops in, firing off jokes like bullets.

"Hold it!" shouts Bloodworth-Thomason. Hurtling across the floor, she urges Burke to play bigger, grander, more enthusiastically. The noisy stage grows still as all eyes turn to Burke. Unlike in the old days, when she would burst into tears during rehearsal, Burke shows no sign of hysteria or loss of control. Instead, she accepts the suggestion graciously. The next take is perfect.

Burke's obvious confidence and self-esteem are a far cry from her last season on Designing Women, when she and her husband, Major Dad star Gerald McRaney, were locked in a bitter, highly publicized standoff with Bloodworth-Thomason and her husband, director Harry Thomason. The firestorm ended with Burke's leaving the show in 1991.

"People who have disputes like we did usually never resolve them," Bloodworth-Thomason said later. "Especially when a show dies." The struggle with Bloodworth-Thomason and Burke's own personal demons - she has talked about being molested as a child - sent her into a deep depression. "I stood on the edge of the snake pit and looked in," she says. "There was a time when everything was just dark. No hope, not that light of hope. I've read about people who go through traumatic things and they just simply shut down - and that's what happened to me."

Burke went into hiding - and into therapy. "I was leery of it," Burke remembers, "but it helped me not to be afraid, to voice my own opinion." She tried to move on to other things, including an ill-fated 1992 series, Delta, in which she played an aspiring country singer. Fraught with problems, the show mirrored Burke's own inner confusion. "I didn't want to do Delta," she says, "but I couldn't turn it down." It's cancellation after only 17 episodes plunged Burke into a year-long search for herself. With her husband, "Mac," whose series had also been canceled, Burke retreated to the South. Dividing her time between their homes in New Orleans and Mississippi, she thought long and hard about career, children, and growing older.

Now, lounging across an antique daybed in her ornate dressing room, which is filled with momentos and photos, Burke, 38, talks about the journey.

"I had to stop and think about what I wanted to do," she explains. "Did I want to stay in Hollywood and grow old? I'd never considered anything else." With her biological clock ticking loudly, Burke also found herself facing a decision about motherhood. But she says she's decided against a baby. "I did not have a burning desire, and I realized unless I strongly wanted it, it was not something I should do," she says. Sounding less than certain, she add, "I still could do it - now is the time."

Burke's year of soul-searching wasn't easy, and at her lowest moments, she ballooned to 215 pounds. "That was the biggest I ever got," she says. "I just couldn't stand to look at me anymore. I would be doing great until I saw a reflection of myself in the mirror. It's hard to keep rising above it. One day you are feeling pretty good, and one day you feel like a fat pig."

As difficult as things were, this time around, Burke forced herself to open up. "During the year after Delta, I didn't shut down," she says. Instead, she reached out to family and friends - and deep within herself. She turned to art - Burke draws and paints what she calls "Delta's ladies," a series of fashion sketches - and, once again, she turned to her therapist. "What we talked about during that year was about learning how to listen to me. We all forget how to listen to our instincts."

Burke doesn't identify any one dramatic turning point. Instead, she says, "It was pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Just being away from Hollywood and realizing I could build a life away from there was a big part of it." Another part was listening to others - including her fans. "Too many people unsolicited came up to me and said how much they enjoyed me on TV. I realized I did have some purpose. It may not be brain surgery, but it did affect lives."

Once the healing began, Burke was able to see some of the good that had been a part of the bad. For example, she realized that Delta had been an invaluable learning experience. "I worked with writers and saw the production side. . .I learned to speak up and talk about things when they were happening. This is the biggest lesson to women," she says, pointing to herself, "learning to speak up and not wait until you are about to crumple in a heap of tears or yell."

Burke also lost weight - 35 pounds - and she wants to lose 30 more. But what it all came down to, in the end, was forgiveness - forgiving the Thomasons, her mishaps on Delta, and herself. "You try to balance things out," Burke says. "You learn to accept anything you might have done wrong. And to forgive, which is very hard."

And then came the call from Bloodworth-Thomason.

"Marty Hurwitz, my agent, calls and says, -Are you sitting down? You won't believe who called!'" remembers Burke.

She is excited now. "I'm dumbfounded, afraid to meet with them. By this time, so much fear has set in." The call sent Burke checking back with her therapist, but something had changed. She had stood toe-to-toe with her demons and beaten them down. She recalls: "The first time we got together, it was like a member of the family you wanted to hug. Part of you loved it, and part of you was terrified."

"You could tell she's really done a lot of work on herself and that she's moved on with her life," says Bloodworth-Thomason. The men in both women's lives were wary of the reunion. "Husbands are going to be especially protective," Burke says. "Mac was afraid I'd get hurt. He was saying, -You shouldn't do this again.' But something in me knew that I should. It was like an instinct. I said, -I have to pursue it.' And I did."

Following her gut was a departure for Burke, who had seemed to operate under her husband's influence in the past. But the dynamic between them appears to have shifted. "All Mac cares about is that I'm happy," says Burke. "When he saw how committed I was, he said he still didn't know what to think about it, but he was going to support me and he loved me."

When Bloodworth-Thomason and Burke took their idea for a new series to CBS, "Nobody knew what to make of us," says Burke. "Everybody was looking for a fight. It was cool with us. We had worked it out. But nobody else had seen that, so they would freeze in their tracks and give you a funny look."

So far, there have been no major sparks. And that may be as much about mutual need as about hard-earned wisdom: The role could hardly have gone to anybody else. "If you're going to tweak Washington, you have to have somebody who is a really big star, who can really make fun of -em," says Harry Thomason. "That was Delta."

There is only one slight problem: politics. The Thomasons are close friends of President Bill Clinton, and went through their own crisis when Harry was caught up in the "Travelgate" mess a year and a half ago. (The brush with the inside-the-beltway elite left the Thomasons waiting for their chance at what Harry calls "return fire," with the power of a prime-time sitcom - or, as Linda calls it, "my column.") McRaney, on the other hand, was a vocal supporter of former President George Bush. And, once again, Burke is caught in the middle. How does she deal with that aspect of it?

"I hate politics," says Burke simply. "All of it just gets on my nerves."

An ironic remark from an actress playing a Congresswoman on a series seemingly ripped from the morning headlines. (Bloodworth-Thomason confides an idea for an upcoming episode, in which a child whose father has declared bankruptcy is in tears, worrying that "Mean Mr. Greenwhich" - a.k.a. Newt Gingrich - is going to put her in an orphanage.) But none of that matters to Burke. Standing on the set in a sleek black-and-white designer suit, she says, "I think this is the happiest time of my life. I feel like myself again." As for husband Mac, he has lived up to his promise to support Burke: He attended the taping of the pilot, and sent flowers to his former enemy, Bloodworth-Thomason.

Burke puts her arms around her friend. "I used to say, -Oh, I'll never work with her again.'" she remembers. "And now, well, you know. . .never say never.


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