Re-Joycing in the Somers time ... O, My God, you can almost
hear Oprah yell, "THREEEEEE'S COMPAAAAAAAAAANY!"
By Chris Mann
Last week, two sixtysomething Seventies sitcom stars—one still girl-next-door-lovely, the other leather-skirted-Sexy Forever®—emotionally buried their infamous 31-year hatchet in a series of now-viral YouTube videos.
Soon later, there were likely more Aha! Moments at the ratings-challenged, celeb-retrospect-driven Oprah Winfrey Network than at a 1980s David Copperfield special.
And if there weren’t, well, then there should’ve been.
By Saturday, virtually every major media outlet teased, touted and/or embedded footage of media-savvy Suzanne Somers hugging it out with her Three's Company co-star Joyce DeWitt for the first time since the then-third-billed jiggle queen (and future ThighMaster millionaire) was booted from their top-rated ABC comedy after demanding a 500-percent pay hike and then staging a sick-out during the show’s fifth season in fall 1980. Her producers struck back, relegating Somers each week to a humiliating one-minute “phoned in” scene taped apart from her co-stars before firing her in spring 1981.
Stunningly, after extending an olive branch to Somers, 65, multiple times over the last fifteen years—to no avail—DeWitt, 62, accepted an invitation from Somers’ producers in early December to appear on her new talk show, Suzanne Somers Breaking Through, on YouTube’s CaféMom channel.
The historic Company contract battle alienated the theater-trained DeWitt—whose focus on her craft clashed with Somers’ fixation on celebrity—and deeply angered the series’ Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning star, John Ritter, who died days shy of his 55th birthday in September 2003 after trying to reunite the trio in a dream-sequence cameo on his hit ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.
(Somers, unmoved by what she deemed an insignificant cameo, declined Ritter’s invitation—which he delivered via personal phone call in late 2002—saying she wasn’t “ready” to reunite. Few know she also turned down opportunities to join him and DeWitt in a proposed FOX special in spring 2002 and a CBS Early Show segment in 2001.)
In spring 2003, DeWitt co-produced a somewhat anti-Somers telefilm spun from a hit Company episode of The E! True Hollywood Story, which itself grew out of my 1998 book Come and Knock on Our Door. Somers previously released her own tell-all, After the Fall, which portrayed DeWitt as deeply insecure and jealous of her fame (DeWitt has adamantly denied the latter claim, saying she has long been confident in her chief showbiz pursuit--her work as an actor.) The women then battled it out on Extra, Inside Edition and Entertainment Tonight.
“For you and me, but also for those people who were aware of the ‘ick,’” an at times choked-up, at times soft and at times somewhat steely Somers told DeWitt of their YouTube reunion, “I think it’s a teaching moment in reconciliation (and) resolution.”
Paging Miss Winfrey, party of three!
“I think that you gave me the opportunity to make sure I walk my talk,” DeWitt told Somers, stressing that CaféMom producers invited her to partake in celebrating their sitcom and their “cherished” co-stars. Since Ritter’s passing, DeWitt has in essence served as the show’s goodwill ambassador, speaking for everyone from late, original cast member Audra Lindley to brief Company player Ann Wedgeworth.
“For the last thirtysomeodd years,” DeWitt added, “I have relentlessly said that it is my opinion that the only reason Three’s Company is worth remembering is that it created an opportunity for all of us to laugh together ... to celebrate joy together, to open our hearts together, to share in such a healing, beautiful thing as laughter.”
But Somers, for the most part it seems, continues to maintain a different focus.
“None of us expected the kind of explosion that happened. I was always afraid that I wasn’t worth it, that I didn’t measure up,” replied the actress turned bestselling self-help/alternative health author, who was a single mom for nearly a decade before marrying Canadian celebrity—and, by 1980, her hot-tempered, in-over-his-head manager—Alan Hamel during the sitcom’s second season. “It was, how do you go from, ‘I just want to make some money,’ to the three of us on the cover of Newsweek (in February 1978)?”
Suzanne Somers' Newsweek covers, 1978 and 1970 (below)
DeWitt, intent on avoiding contentious matters, brushed past the Newsweek reference. And for good reason: She and Ritter appear as also-rans respectively leaning into and leering over Somers’ scantily-clad body on the magazine cover. In my book, Ritter called the magazine’s shoot “creepy"; DeWitt said she and Ritter felt “used, lied to."
Somers said she, too, was innocent of Newsweek’s focus—and blamed their male, middle-aged producers for keeping the divisive agenda a secret. “I walked into that photo setup as part of an ensemble that night,” she told me in 1997, “and when I walked away, we were removed from one another. It was really never quite the same again.”
"I was told that a second photo session was held secretly with just Suzanne," DeWitt said in the book. "If that's true, then her feeling manipulated is a mystery to me." Countered Somers, "The shot they used was the three of us there that night, and I never shot another [pose]."
Not exactly an International Coffee moment. But, for those who know the compelling back-story, definitely an “aha!”
(Minutes before introducing DeWitt during their December 2011 taping, Somers told TV Land executive Tom Hill—in a Breaking Through episode premiering late last month—that she sent her as-seen-on-Newsweek negligee to the Smithsonian to display with the cover. Hmmm …)
But that was then, and this is now, right? And all’s well that evolves well. DeWitt and Somers’ lengthy Internet sit-down occasionally segued to areas of common ground: They both sadly lost younger brothers, they both loved and miss Ritter and they both did not appreciate their now-deceased producers’ chauvinism. Oh, and they both still playfully accuse the other of passing gas in a pup tent seconds before Ritter crawled in (!). These moments of genuine connection were truly heartening and encouraging for fans of the show, yours truly included.
DeWitt also fondly brings up co-stars Norman Fell, Don Knotts and Richard Kline. But Somers, while offering a friendly ear, gives little feedback. (Perhaps wisely, neither made mention of Somers’ respective temp and permanent replacements, Jenilee Harrison and Priscilla Barnes—the latter DeWitt’s best friend of 30 years.)
Invariably, Somers returns the discussion to herself. She explains—as she did in her 1988 book Keeping Secrets, its 1991 TV movie, her ill-fated 2005 Broadway show The Blonde in the Thunderbird and at points in between and since—that she’s spent years in therapy to overcome the effects of growing up with an alcoholic father. And how playing the mind-numbingly naive Chrissy Snow gave her a chance to live out her lost childhood. And how, as per DeWitt’s compliment, that she was, indeed, “fabulous.”
DeWitt offers plenty of affirming comments and gestures—they even sweetly hold hands—and Somers sincerely acknowledges she respected her co-star’s masters-level actor training. Their teary-eyed chat ends with “love you’s,” hugs and Somers saying, “Come and knock on my door again.”
So everything’s good now … right?
Well … not exactly “Oprah and Gayle good.”
Apparently bruised by the mixed reaction she received in online comments—some posts said Somers appeared to be repressing anger and at times “standoffish”—the home shopping guru and new media maven took to Facebook on Friday afternoon.
“I was the one who was fired for asking to be paid commensurate with the men,” Somers says of her reunion with the clearly more relaxed DeWitt. “I don't believe it was fair that the producers and the network used me to make an example so other women in TV would not have the audacity to ask for parody (sic). At the time I felt that the cast left me hanging and that is why I was initially hurt, and then hurt always turns to anger. So if I wasn't as animated as usual, it's because you were watching true feelings and I was working them out in front of you. Forgiveness is a process.”
Somers made similar comments late last month on Access Hollywood and CBS's The Talk -- more than six weeks following her reunion with DeWitt. On The Talk, she said she still doesn't think she did anything wrong at Three's Company. That men in television made ten times what she was making, and that she was treated like "a pariah" when her co-stars and crew gave in to her producers' "mob fury" after she asked for a raise. And that the cast, all serious acting vets, already seemed put out with her for her various award-show accolades. (Somers received a People's Choice Award in 1978 and a Golden Globe nomination the following year.) And that, well, it was her producer's idea -- not Somers' -- to invite DeWitt onto Breaking Through. (Of course, no mention was made that DeWitt had personally reached out to her in 1996 and again in 2001/2002 and, at least via media interviews, numerous times since.)
Co-star Richard Kline told me in my Retroality.TV “Reimagine That!” podcast last week that Somers’ “the men” comment is inaccurate. “She wanted what the man got. She wanted what John got,” Kline said. “No matter the title ‘Three’s Company,’ let’s face it, it was really John’s show. He was the pivot, he was the focus off of which the girls bounced and reacted. There would be no show without John.” (Somers has indicated that Ritter made up to ten times her salary. In fact, Ritter received $50,000 per episode to DeWitt and Somers’ $30,000 in 1980-81.)
If, despite her very considerable post-Company accomplishments, Somers connects her sense of self-worth to her net worth, the fact that Ritter ended their friendship when she demanded three times his pay and 10 percent of their show’s profits may remain the toughest pill to swallow. Especially since the very person whose understanding, approval and forgiveness she seems to have wanted the most is no longer here to give it to her.
This isn’t the first time Somers has staked a claim for helping women break through Hollywood’s glass ceiling. "I thought [after being fired], 'Oh, I can't win. They want to make an example of me so no other women get uppity,'” she told the Los Angeles Times in a 2007 story titled “The Unsinkable Suzanne Somers.” “I have to say when women get paid big salaries in television now, I take personal pride in it.”
Sadly, a significant part of Somers’ wounded pride and residual anger—stemming from broken relations with the once-close Ritter—may never find external resolution. In a recent appearance on CBS’s The Talk, she confessed that the two had only “sort of” made peace—a pretty far cry from previous pronouncements that they’d mended fences.
And here’s where Somers needs one of forgiveness queen Oprah’s “teaching moments” the most. Few could continue and deepen the recently-reunited sitcom actresses’ dialogue in a public forum like Winfrey, whose struggling OWN cable network found some of its highest ratings and publicity in its “docu-reality” reconciliation/celebrity-Aha! series The O’Neals and Finding Sarah. Perhaps Oprah’s Next Chapter: Suzanne and Joyce is calling out to you, Lady O.
The former daytime doyenne seems primed to offer the sometimes-polarizing Somers a public platform anyway. Winfrey took heat in a Newsweek cover story for giving voice to controversial medicine—including, notably, Somers pushing bioidentical hormones—in 2009. "Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo," Winfrey said on her former talk show. "But she just might be a pioneer."
“On the first episode of Breaking Through,” Somers, who lost part of her breast to a lumpectomy in 2000, tells her Facebook followers, “I allowed you to actually see me naked for the purpose of advancing science with my stem cell breast reconstruction [an experimental surgery that Somers discusses in this week’s People magazine]. It wasn't easy. On this episode with Joyce I felt more naked than I've ever allowed myself to be seen. For those of you who ‘get’ what I was and am trying to do, I thank you. For those of you who don't understand, know that my heart is in the right place.”
Whether Somers was a pioneer for TV actresses seeking equality in 1980, she continues to beat that drum while pushing medical breakthroughs and cancer and “anti-aging” treatments that some call unproven and potentially dangerous. But her biggest challenge my be as simple—and as complicated—as trying to heal from a three-decade rift with one “very different” person she’s getting to know again, and one she’ll never see again, at least in the flesh.
“We needed to do this,” she told DeWitt, referencing Somers’ lack of on-camera resolution with Ritter, who nixed a TV reunion with his blonde co-star on her 1994 syndicated talk show, the aptly named The Suzanne Somers Show.
Come and knock on her door, Oprah. She’ll be waiting for you.