When a great athlete quits, they often hang up his jersey, and when the perfect jiggle TV star departs, they sometimes retire her halter top. That is the case on ABC's still sizzling sitcom Three's Company
, which retired cupcake Suzanne Somers last April after a fractious salary dispute. Her replacement, blond Priscilla Barnes, 27, plays a registered nurse whose double entendres will continue to raise Moral Majority hackles. But Barnes is proud that her character's most important measurement is her IQ. "I'm glad the producers don't want me to play dumb," the actress says, "because I'd always be compared to Suzanne. And I have to believe that they are getting away from T and A, because as for T, I'm not overly endowed, and I have absolutely no A."
She does, however, seem to have P-for-perspective, the sort that comes from starring in an almost unbroken string of TV and movie flops—from the short-lived 1978 CBS series American Girls to the recent film Sunday Lovers with Roger Moore. "God, it's such a thrill to be on a hit show!" exclaims Barnes, who is realistic enough to recognize that "it will probably never happen again—the odds are so much against you."
She candidly admits she never watched Three's Company until she auditioned for the part last summer against scores of rivals. "I remember the Suzanne Somers incident because it got so much press," Barnes says, "but I didn't really follow it. I didn't call my agents and say, 'She's having contract problems, get me in!' " For the record, Somers (who will return next spring as a stewardess in a CBS sitcom of her own) was replaced after missing tapings while demanding a pay raise from $35,000 to $150,000 per week. Her absence created havoc for co-stars John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt. "None of the rest of us would think we were the star of the show," says DeWitt crisply. "John and I see it as ensemble playing." As for Somers' new series, DeWitt observes, "If it works out, that would be swell. Let Suzanne have a wonderful life—just don't torture me in my own."
In contrast, Barnes seems to have fit in smoothly. Says Ritter: "When we first met, she blurted out, 'Hi, I'm Priscilla, and I'm nervous.' " Replied Ritter: "So am I. Let's be nervous together." Says Barnes now: "There is no hoity-toityness, no ego stroking on this show—it really is a unit, a group effort. I can see why the tension with Suzanne must have been uncomfortable."
Much of Barnes' self-confidence comes from her live-in relationship with L.A. businessman Joel Schur, 43. They met seven years ago when she was one of the glamorous backgammon hostesses at the ritzy L.A. club Pips. "Joel wasn't the macho type you usually get there, with the blow-dried hair, the open shirt and coke spoon hanging from the neck," Priscilla says. "He seemed so humble, sweet and insecure." He is, however, a self-made millionaire, mostly from import-export, textiles and real estate. "The money I make just pays for the phone bills," cracks Barnes. "Joel is not threatened at all by the attention suddenly being given to me. If someone calls him Mr. Barnes, he just laughs." She has a few complaints about their 17-year age gap ("He'll end a conversation with me by saying, 'I'm older, I know more about people, and that's the way it is' "). He also torpedoes her cooking ("Her food is the color of a battleship"). Despite all, they are altar-bound, early next year. They had planned a small ceremony last summer, but Three's Company upset the schedule, and Lady Diana the proposed scale. "I saw the royal wedding, and all I thought was—me too," recalls Barnes. "I want a big wedding. Why not? I've waited long enough."
And certainly taken a circuitous route. Born in Fort Dix, N.J., Priscilla was the third of four children of a housewife and an Air Force major who, she says, is "tougher than the Great Santini." She shuttled from base to base across the country with her family before settling in Lancaster, Calif., a desert town 45 miles north of L.A. "When Dad spoke, we jumped," recalls Priscilla, who, unfortunately, usually jumped the wrong way. "Once my parents bought a new Chrysler, and, I don't know why, I took my crayons and colored the whole back seat. I couldn't sit down for a week. I was very loved, but I needed a tremendous amount of attention—and I got it." Not always from her father. "I was a big flirt, and when the boys would call up—this was in fourth, fifth and sixth grade—my father would have a fit," she says. "I was boy-crazy."
When Barnes graduated from Antelope Valley High School at 17, she moved in with older sister Judy, a Reno housewife, for nine months before shifting to San Diego, where she worked as a waitress and dancer. Her first break came when Bob Hope saw her shimmying in a local fashion show and invited her to join his troupe for a 1973 performance at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She talks with admiration of Hope, who brought her along on visits to maimed veterans in the critical wards and forbade her to whimper. Barnes then moved to L.A. to give showbiz a shot. "I didn't know anybody," she says, "but the more people asked me why I would want to get into this business, the more determined I was to make it. I didn't want favors. I'm so insecure, I'd need to know that I got a job on merit."
Barnes' second break came at 19 when she met Peter Falk at Pips. Six months later he gave her a one-line part in Colombo. That led to series bits and quickie flicks like Seniors and Delta Fox, whose topless scenes recently came back to haunt her—shades of Suzanne Somers—when outtakes were printed in a raunchy skin magazine. "I don't have any apologies," says Barnes. "Quite simply, I needed the work. And the full frontal nude picture of me they published is, in fact, not me at all." Her 1978 series American Girls was another flop—to her great relief. "I had lines like, 'I feel the vibes,' " she groans. "I threw a party when the show was canceled after seven weeks."
Success hasn't changed Priscilla's life much because she would find it tough to improve on the luxuries Schur provides. After sharing a West Hollywood hilltop mansion for the past year, the couple moved to a Beverly Hills four-bedroom last month. They drive his-and-hers Mercedeses, rarely eat in and always travel first-class ("an indulgence," acknowledges Priscilla). Joel collects art, she gathers impressions: "I love going to New York just to gaze at all the people there," she says. "I could happily sit for hours in an airport departure lounge and just people-watch." As for children, Priscilla suspects the urge will hit someday. "My mother had my sister and me later in life," she notes, "and it kept Mom very young."
For now Barnes is concerned with her professional future. She is continuing acting classes (which she began in 1976) with coach Sal Dano, whose students include Tom Selleck, Robert Hays and Catherine Bach. "I keep going because to rely on your looks is a shallow investment," she says. "My mother always told me not to get carried away with my looks, because when they're gone, it's the inside that comes through. I know beautiful women who have started looking very hard very quickly."
For now Joel provides a layer of softness. "There's a bond that gets us through," says Barnes. "We have a very strong foundation, and we believe the same things, politically [they're conservatives] and philosophically." Basically, says Barnes, "We're singing the same music."