People Wrote Letters To Save The Show
Halfway through the show’s first season, Designing Women’s time slot was moved to Thursday nights, causing the show’s Neisen ratings to drop from 16 to 65.
The show was put on hiatus, which indicated it was in danger of being canceled. Executive producer Harry Thomason got the Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) to launch a letter-writing campaign urging CBS to keep the show. Designing Women would go on to become the longest-running series from 1986 – by 1992 it was the only show from that year still airing.
Manipulation, Terror, and Extreme Diets
Burke really turned the dial up on drama when she began to show up late on set. Simultaneously she was telling the press that the cast was forced to go on “extreme diets,” and that at one point Harry Thomason locked the cast in a room and yelled at them.
Then she appeared on a Barbara Walters special behind the Thomasons’ back, accusing them of “terrorizing” and “manipulating” her. She also revealed how heartbroken she was that former friend Dixie Carter had sided with the Thomasons. Carter would pass away before the two could reconcile.
Soon after her marriage to Gerald McRaney, Delta Burke started to gain weight. She faced intense public scrutiny and much ridicule from the tabloid press and the public, with many believing her marriage and weight gain was the reason the cast’s chemistry started to lose its spark.
The weight gain didn’t cause problems in the marriage – it was actually the opposite. People magazine reported that McRaney loved his wife so much that, among other romantic gestures, he regularly stocked her dressing room with chocolates.
“They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?”
Fortunately for Burke, the cast of Designing Women did not approach her weight gain as harshly as the public did. They and the producers were so supportive of her during this time that they even addressed the issue in an outstanding episode called “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?”
The episode ended up earning Burke an Emmy nomination for Best Actress – she was the only one who was nominated in the cast. Despite this triumph, the show began to take a downward turn shortly thereafter.
On-Screen Beau, Off-Screen Husband
Julia Sugarbaker dated attorney Reese Watson in Seasons 1-5, and their on-screen chemistry was electric. There might have been a good reason for that – the pair were actually married in real life, two years before the show even started.
Hal Holbrook, who became Dixie Carter’s third and final husband in 1984, turned down the role of Reese Watson on several occasions. But then Linda Bloodworth-Thomason reportedly asked him, “Do you really want some other man making love to your wife on television?” and he finally relented and took the role.
The Blunt Approach
Dixie Carter wasn’t the only one with an on-screen/off-screen romance. Jean Smart also ended up marrying a co-star from the show. However, it was actually not her character’s boyfriend – it was Mary Jo’s, played by Richard Gilliland.
Jean recalls, “I asked Delta to find out if he was married. Naturally, Delta walked up to him and blurted, ‘Jean wants to know if you’re married.’” Well, the blunt approach seems to have worked – Smart and Gilliland married in 1987, and remain married to this day.
Third Time’s The Charm
The set of Designing Women clearly possessed some sort of magic for the actresses and their love lives – Delta Burke, who played three-time divorcée Suzanne Sugarbaker, also met her real-life husband on the set.
Gerald McRaney, who played Dash Goff, Suzanne’s most prominent ex-husband, met Burke right before he was set to guest star on the show. After sharing a steamy kiss on screen, it was clear that the chemistry was real. The couple married in 1989 and are still married today.
Hiding Her Age
By the time Dixie Carter was cast in the role of Julia Sugarbaker, she was already 47 years old. She was very self-conscious of being the oldest actress on set, and decided to have plastic surgery between seasons 1 and 2.
As she explained it, “I had the bottom half done one year, then the top half done the next year… I thought if this turns out to be my first big success, after all these years of performing, I couldn’t bear to be identified as ‘the older one.’”
Dolly Parton, Guardian Movie Star
Country legend Dolly Parton was probably the most notable guest star on the show, and allegedly, she made it happen because she was such a big fan of the show.
In the one-hour special episode, Charlene goes into labor on New Year’s Eve and the other women cheer her on in having the first New Year’s baby. Dolly Parton shows up as a “Guardian Movie Star” appearing to Charlene in a dream sequence where she reveals the baby’s gender.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator of Designing Women, actually already had the four actresses who played the main cast in mind when she created the show – they had all worked on previous short-lived shows that she had written.
Delta Burke and Dixie Carter had starred in Filthy Rich, while Jean Smart and Annie Potts had guest-starred on Lime Street. When she came up with the concept for Designing Women, she based it on the chemistry she already knew these four actresses would have – so auditions were completely unnecessary.
She Came Up With The Idea On The Spot
It might interest you to know that Bloodworth-Thomason’s idea for Designing Women was only half-baked when she pitched it to CBS executives.
She had only thought as far as wanting to make a show that gave the opportunity for the four actresses to verbally spar with each other – all the other details were secondary. So when the executives asked her what the setting would be, she had to think fast – and blurted out “Uh… an interior design company.”
Dixie Carter Was Very Different To Her Character
The character of Julia Sugarbaker was known for going on passionate tirades about her liberal and feminist beliefs, earning her character the nickname “The Terminator.” In real life, however, Dixie Carter was a registered Republican, and often disagreed with Julia’s politics.
As these tirades were a central component to the show, Carter knew she had some bargaining power. So she struck up a deal with the show writers that every time she went on a rant, she would get to sing in the following episode.
Annie Potts may have been the only actress who didn’t have any show-related romances – but she did have her fair share of drama.
The actress was pregnant in real life during season six, which the show creators decided to hide rather than write it into the show, as Mary Jo was single. But that wasn’t the only reason – Candace Bergen’s character on Murphy Brown was also expecting, and apparently the CBS executives “didn’t want all the women on Monday night having a baby,” according to Potts.
The Guest Who Never Left
Meshach Taylor played Sugarbaker’s delivery-man-turned-partner Anthony Bouvier, who was only supposed to be a recurring character in Season 1.
But he had such strong chemistry with the four main cast members that, as Taylor recalled in an interview, “…after I did the first show I never left, I was there from then on.” That ended up being a great decision on the producers’ part, as Taylor ended up being the first Designing Women cast member to receive a Primetime Emmy nomination.
A Letter Of Support
Even though Burke was married to a wonderful man who loved her for who she was, the public shaming over her weight gain took a heavy toll on her.
Luckily, she received moral support from her idols – she got a letter from none other than Elizabeth Taylor, who told her that she was courageous in the face of the headlines concerning her weight gain. In an interview with Ladies Home Journal, Burke confessed that the letter gave her much-needed encouragement, saying, “Whenever I’m down, I read it.”
Instead of thanking producers Harry and Linda Thomason for earning her an Emmy, Delta Burke turned on them. Different claims arose regarding the “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” episode, with Burke claiming it was her idea.
The Thomasons, on the other hand, claimed that it was they who had to convince her to do it. This led to a meeting between Burke’s agent and Harry Thomason, which led to even more conflicting claims. At this point, the entire production began to fall apart.
A Toxic Workplace
Rather than patch things up with the producers, Burke began to publicly badmouth the show. “The last two years have been very hard… I lost all my self-esteem. But I had to play a character who was God’s gift to the world, I had to strut out there,” she said in a 1990 interview.
When asked about returning for the next season, she said, “It is not a good workplace, not a good environment… It’s so strange, being part of something that’s so wonderful and so awful at the same time.”
Burke Got Booted
All the drama with Delta Burke took a heavy toll on the production. During the filming of Season 5, she was constantly showing up late to set or not at all, requiring the cast to learn two versions of the script for every episode – one with Suzanne and one without.
Eventually, the Thomasons realized they could no longer go on like this. They got the entire cast together and booted Burke from the show. The Season 5 finale would be Burke’s last appearance on Designing Women.
The next core cast member to leave the show after Burke was Jean Smart, although it was for entirely different reasons. She claimed to have grown tired of the role of Charlene, but the main reason she left was to devote more time to raising her children.
Her final episode was the two-part episode “The Big Desk,” which was watched by 30 million viewers. The departures of Jean Smart and Delta Burke left a giant hole in the cast that the Thomasons would try to fill unsuccessfully.
Designing Women was a show that took place in Atlanta, GA and relied heavily on the stylings of Southern culture. Fortunately for the creators, that was effortless for three out of four of the core cast members. Both Dixie Carter and Annie Potts were from Tennessee, and Delta Burke was from Florida.
The only cast member who needed extra help in getting her Southern twang on point was Seattle native Jean Smart, whose character was ironically the most stereotypically “Southern” of them all.
“Killing All The Right People”
“Killing All The Right People” was one of Designing Women’s most memorable episodes, receiving acclaim for the way it addressed the AIDS epidemic and discrimination against AIDS patients. Unfortunately, this topic had a personal angle for creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, whose mother was dying of AIDS at the time.
While visiting her mother in the hospital, she was saddened by people’s attitude towards AIDS patients, overhearing one woman say, “If you ask me, this disease has one thing going for it. It’s killing all the right people.”
An Unsuccessful Comeback
After all the drama that Delta Burke had caused, it was a wonder that she and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason managed to reconcile. Thomason invited Burke back to star in 1995 sitcom Women of the House, a spin-off of Designing Women.
The show starts after Suzanne Sugarbaker’s latest husband dies, forcing her to take his seat in the House of Representatives for the remainder of his term. While it’s nice that Burke and Bloodworth-Thomason put their differences behind them, the show was a flop, and was canceled after one season.
Once both Burke and Smart left the show, there were several attempts to fill in the holes left by the two central roles. In the Season 6 cliffhanger finale, Jackée Harry made a guest appearance as Anthony’s fiancée.
The plan was that her character would buy into Sugarbaker’s and become a regular character on the series, as a kind of replacement for Suzanne’s sassy character. However, it seemed that the producers thought Harry was too over-the-top for the show, and that regular role never came to fruition.
A Noteworthy Building
Designing Women was filmed at Warner Brothers Studios in Los Angeles, and was said to take place all the way across the country in Atlanta, Georgia.
But the exterior of Sugarbaker & Associates Interior Design is actually a historic building – and quite a well-known one – in yet another American city. The Villa Marre, a Victorian mansion built in 1881, is located in the MacArthur Park Historic District of Little Rock, Arkansas, and listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
Reboot In the Works
In September 2018, it was announced that a revival of Designing Women was headed for the ABC network, with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason again at the helm.
The sequel will preserve the razor-sharp dialogue that made the show successful, while addressing issues that Americans face today. As Thomason said, “Normally, I’m not a fan of reboots, but Designing Women does seem to have the right fengshui for all that is going on right now. We could definitely have some fun.” Even though we’ll miss the original cast members, we can’t wait!