Back in Step

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Drawing on her stepmom experience, Somers fashions a relevant sitcom, Step by Step

SUZANNE SOMERS COULD HAVE WRITTEN the book on stepparenting. In fact, she was planning to pen a memoir of life with two stepchildren when she was offered a role opposite Dallas alum Patrick Duffy in the ABC sitcom Step by Step.

One of the few hits of the fall season, "the series couldn't be more perfect," says Somers, who fit right into her role as a mother of three who marries a father of three. The show often parallels Somers's own experience helping raise manager-husband Alan Hamel's children, Leslie, now 30, and Stephen, 27, along with her own son, Bruce, 26, from her brief first marriage to child psychologist Bruce Somers Sr.

Step by Step's success is significant because it marks the end of Somers's decade-long exile from network TV series that began when she was ousted from her role as ditzy Chrissy Snow in ABC's Three's Company following a messy contract dispute with the show's producers. Taking note of the sitcom's huge ratings as it entered the 1980—81 season, Somers asked for a raise from $30,000 to $150,000 per episode. "They said, 'Who do you think you are?' " recalls Somers. She quickly found out, when even costars John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt stopped talking to her. ("I think she and Patrick Duffy will be a good match," a less-bitter Ritter says today. "I hope their show is a big success.")

During the next seven years, the only series Somers was able to snag was the forgettable, syndicated She's the Sheriff. "I realized that I was essentially, unofficially, blackballed from television," she says, sitting in the sun-drenched dining room of the 1920s French-country-style home in the southern California desert that she and Hamel have shared for the last 15 years.

Time has eased the sting of her TV purgatory. "A decade of not being hot was my greatest advantage," says Somers, 45. "I've done a lot of thinking, a lot of growing up and getting into my marriage and my kids."

Though she didn't wed Hamel, now 50, until November 1977, the two set up housekeeping 10 years earlier, shortly after meeting on the set of a show called The Anniversary Game, where he was the host and she was the model who posed next to refrigerators. At the time, Somers was bringing up Bruce, and Alan was separated from Marilyn Hamel, an artist and fashion designer who was raising Leslie and Stephen. "If I could do it all over again," Somers says, "I would put us all in family therapy and counseling as soon as Alan and I decided to move in together." Instead she describes those first years as "stepfamily hell."

The problem, she says, was that "I had a set of rules—no feet on the furniture, don't borrow our clothes without asking, knock before entering—and Alan didn't. We battled for years before we became united."

Now some of those struggles could turn into Step by Step story lines. For example, in an upcoming episode, one of Somers's TV stepsons may withdraw from her for fear of betraying his real mother. "That was a problem with Stephen," says Somers of her stepson, now a Paris-based photographer. "I'd want to kiss him, and he'd pull back." Since then, both stepmother and stepson have been through therapy and forged a closer relationship.

Leslie also had problems with her father's remarriage. "I was a real rebel," she says. As a student at Beverly Hills High School, Leslie, now a fashion designer whose hand-painted jeans have been worn by Madonna, says that she ran with a fast crowd, smoked pot and accumulated traffic tickets. Somers claims to have been "instrumental in getting her on track" by talking straight with her, but those efforts were not entirely welcome. "At first I was taken aback," says Leslie. "But we're great friends today."

For his part, Somers's son, Bruce, a UCLA film student and fledgling director and producer, felt that he lost a mother instead of gaining a family when Somers wed Hamel. "I was definitely angry with Alan," says Bruce, who married his production partner, Caroline Arminio, in September. "We had a difficult time being with each other for many years."

Through group and individual counseling, the family's problems were mostly resolved. Still, some wounds remained. In 1984, while Bruce was away at school, Somers posed in the nude for Playboy. "Back then," Somers recalls, "he told me all the right things—'It doesn't bother me and I'm proud of you.' Years later he told me he was really mad, and I felt so bad. I wished I could undo it."

Instead, Somers overcame it, as she overcame other adversities in her life. One of four children of Frank Mahoney, a retired gardener, and his wife, Marion, Somers grew up in an emotionally abusive household in San Bruno, Calif.—a childhood she later chronicled in the 1988 best-selling book and 1991 TV movie Keeping Secrets. She left home at age 17 when she got pregnant and married Bruce Sr., from whom she split within a year. In 1973, she parlayed a bit part in American Graffiti (as the blond in the Thunderbird) and a poetry book called Touch Me into dozens of guest spots on The Tonight Show before landing Three's Company.

After her salary dispute, Somers sang and danced her way through hotel nightclubs in Las Vegas, eventually being named Las Vegas Female Entertainer of the Year in 1986.

Now she says that she and Hamel have begun to streamline their lives. "This is not the time to flaunt but to give back," says Somers, who has donated much of her once-jazzy wardrobe to fundraisers, keeping just 10 outfits and six evening gowns. If she needs something new, she asks Leslie to whip it up. Fancy bed linens remain her only extravagance. "Sheets are Suzanne's drug," says Hamel.

Last year Somers, a frequent lecturer to adult children of alcoholics, founded the Suzanne Somers Institute for the Effects of Addictions on the Family, a Palm Springs referral service that also sets up programs in hospitals and treatment centers.

In addition, she and Hamel are in business marketing the Thigh-master, a mail-order exercise device that Somers demonstrates in TV ads. "All the baby boomers' inner thighs are starting to go," she says. "Women grab [the Thighmaster] out of my hands and won't give it back."

Next spring folks can pick up another Somers product, her latest book, Wednesday's Children, which chronicles other celebrities' triumphs over abusive upbringings. Then she hopes to slow down a bit and take life, well, step-by-step. Should her new series stumble, Somers is confident she won't lose her footing. "I love coming back to television," she says. "But I also love knowing that if this doesn't work, I've got other places to go."

ELIZABETH SPORKIN
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles

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