Pulling Itself Out of the Ratings Waste Heap, Designing Women Becomes Tv's Trashy New Smash

updated 04/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There was hype involved, true, but it was significant nonetheless. On Jan. 8 CBS Entertainment President Bud Grant ceremoniously displayed a white flag in his Los Angeles office. It was an unprecedented act of surrender, signaling to the world that Designing Women no longer be treated like a pariah. Having removed the show earlier, CBS was now capitulating to the demands of hard-core fans and resurrecting the sitcom.

Perhaps Grant shouldn't be taken too much to task. Since it started last September, the series—about the four feisty partners of an Atlanta interior design firm—has inspired a love-hate response in reviewers and viewers, not to mention network execs. Created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and starring Dixie Carter, Jean Smart, Delta Burke and Annie Potts, Designing Women set itself up as a bawdy tour of the New South. Its heroines weren't Scarlett O'Hara or Blanche DuBois but raucous women specializing in earthy humor. Within weeks the show had attracted a devoted audience that cherished such lines as, "If sex were fast food, there'd be an arch over your bed." Or, "Of course men still appreciate virginity. All of my husbands did." But Designing Women also had its share of detractors, people just as passionately put off by its Introduction to Gynecology approach.

Apparently CBS never knew which side it was on. Airing on Monday nights, the show did respectably in the ratings, consistently landing in the Top 20s and 30s. But in December, as part of a programming gambit, Designing Women was moved to Thursday, where it faced kiss-of-death competition from NBC's Night Court. Within two weeks its ratings dropped from No. 20 to No. 63. The show was yanked and put on hiatus—which is usually a prelude to cancelation. "We knew that we were doomed," says Dixie Carter. "But what made it so painful was that this was one show that didn't deserve to go down the tubes."

The show's partisans agreed. Included among them were Viewers for Quality Television, a nearly 1,000-strong media watchdog group, many of whose members had forced CBS to put Cagney & Lacey back on the air in 1984. A similar campaign was started to save Designing Women. Besides planning to petition advertisers, the Viewers and other supporters mobilized 50,000 fans to write letters to CBS—almost five times the number of those who petitioned for Cagney. Relenting, Bud Grant rescheduled the show. Now Designing's cult is steadily swelling, its ratings are approaching the Top 10 and its followers are betting that the show will be back next season. "Believe me," says production manager Tommy Thompson, "the network doesn't want to incur the wrath of these women again."

Indeed, the ladies of Designing Women are not to be messed with. The senior member is Dixie Carter, 46, who plays Julia Sugarbaker, a flamboyant, widowed mother hen with a marked intolerance for fools. "Julia's a lot like me," says Carter, a native of McLemoresville, Tenn. (pop. 311). "She prides herself tremendously on her intellect. She wants everyone to know that she is not a Southern daffodil."

Carter and her character may share temperaments, but not romantic histories; Carter's is much stormier. After moving to New York and working as an actress, she wed Arthur Carter, a financier, and had two daughters. "I was never an aggressive career woman until I hit 40," says Dixie. "My life was about being a mother. My biology had a hold of me. Everything else I did was less fulfilling."

The marriage ended in 1977 when Dixie discovered that her husband found other women more attractive. Going back to acting, Carter remembers being "very fragile emotionally. I was a 35-year-old woman who hadn't worked in eight years." But she landed a part on The Edge of Night and, in December 1977, a new husband, actor George (La Cage aux Folles) Hearn. That marriage lasted 11 months. "He was wild and would get real jealous," says Carter. "Maybe someday we'll be able to talk again."

She's faring better with Spouse No. 3, Hal Holbrook, whom she wed in 1984. Designing Women keeps the couple close, since Holbrook frequently appears on the show as her boyfriend. "He wants my career as if it was his own," Dixie says. "He's getting that kind of pleasure out of it." In turn, she seems to be getting a special glow from the relationship. "Dixie may be the oldest in the cast," says Jean Smart, "but she acts like she's the youngest."

Jean, on the other hand, may be the smartest, but she acts the dumbest. She plays Charlene, the chatty office manager whose moments of shrewdness seem to emerge in spite of intellectual impediments. "Her character is kind of dippy, but Jean herself is very articulate," says actor Richard Gilliland. Forgive him for being biased. Hired to play Annie Potts's boyfriend on the show, Gilliland one day ventured into Jean's trailer to help her with a crossword puzzle. Now they're planning to fill in that eight-letter word for wedlock—marriage. Jean and Richard, who are both in their 30s, will get hitched in June.

Born in Seattle—she's the only non-Southerner in the bunch—Smart began acting in high school and has appeared in Piaf, Single Bars, Single Women and Protocol. She tends to be nonchalant about her career, so much so that she doesn't even have a publicist. Says Smart: "When people congratulate me, I show them the ring. They're talking about the series, but I say, 'Let's get our priorities straight. I got a man.' "

"Jean's the actress, I'm the movie star," says Delta Burke, 30, poking fun at her glamour-puss image. She gets to do that a lot as Suzanne, the man-hungry sexpot who files her alimony checks alphabetically. Of the four co-stars, Burke is the one most given to self-parody. She's also probably the most insecure. The Orlando native worries about her looks, although she won nearly a dozen beauty contests, including Miss Florida, by age 18. Unlike her thrice-divorced character, Delta has never married and rarely dates. She probably worked hardest to save the show, drumming up support by hitting the talk show circuit. "The show is Delta's life," explains Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. "Dixie has Hal and her daughters, Jean has Richard, Annie has a child. Delta has a dog and this. She has the most at stake."

"She's like a good neighbor," Burke says of Annie Potts. "If you need help or you're down, she's there. She's very together, which I admire because I'm not like that." The twice-married Potts, 34, spends as much time as she can at home with her husband of six years, aspiring director Scott Senechal, 39, and their son, Clay, 6. Annie was asked if she wanted Clay to play her son in the series, but she declined. "There's a time to be a child," she says, "and a time to be grown-up and work. Besides, I have enough to worry about with just my lines."

Acting and singing since age 12, Kentucky-bred Potts showed determination early. After breaking both her legs in a car crash, she continued working as a nightclub singer—sitting down. Since then her credits have included King of the Gypsies, Ghostbusters and Pretty in Pink. "I always felt Annie had been treated as an eccentric, offbeat person in film," says Bloodworth-Thomason. "I wanted her to be grounded, strong, the anchor the other women would relate to. Annie's probably closer to this character in real life than any other part she's played."

Designing Women's troubles only added to the terrible test of courage endured by Bloodworth-Thomason. She had to keep turning out comedy scripts while her mother lay dying in Linda's Los Angeles home. Her mother's death, from AIDS through a blood transfusion, came on Nov. 24 and was followed exactly a month later by the death of her mother-in-law from breast cancer. Linda, 40, kept going, she says, simply by "putting my left foot in front of my right foot. Nothing mysterious. You just survive because you survive."

By creating Designing Women, Bloodworth-Thomason was exploring her heritage. She was born in Poplar Bluff, Mo., where her family fled after her grandfather, an Arkansas attorney opposed to racism, was shot and wounded by the Ku Klux Klan. After majoring in English at the University of Missouri, Linda moved to L.A., where she taught English in a Watts high school by day and wrote scripts by night. Her first outing for M*A *S*H, in 1974, won her an Emmy nomination. Four years later she met Harry Thomason on the Columbia lot. Their romance took an unusual twist when he was producing ABC's The Fall Guy, which was competing with her CBS Dallas spoof, Filthy Rich. "Our shows went against each other and mine killed hers," says Harry. "So she married the competition."

Wed in 1983, they formed a production company and have put Lime Street (the ill-fated Samantha Smith series) and Designing Women on the air. The special appeal of Women according to Linda, is that "the characters are uninhibited and determined. If this weren't 1987,1 think we would probably have started a dance hall out West. That's the kind of women we have here. Miss Dixie, Miss Delta...I think the boys going West would have all stopped in."

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