When Not Battling Delta Burke, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason Are Redesigning Cbs

updated 01/28/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/28/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Stopped at a red light somewhere between Burbank. Calif., and Studio City, powerhouse TV producer Linda Blood-worth-Thomason, 43, notices a earful of young men pulling up alongside her. Aware that their heads have turned her way, she runs a hand through her curly brown hair and indulges in a momentary I-guess-I've-still-got-it flush of pleasure. But then one of the men makes it clear what has caught his eye. "Hey, lady, what kind of car is that?" he yells. Recovering quickly from her brief reverie, Bloodworth-Thomason tells him the British sports car is a Jensen Interceptor. "How did you get that?" another asks. As the light changes to green, she shouts out, "Get your own TV show and you can have one too."

The way things are going, Linda and her husband-partner, Harry Thomason, 50 (she creates and writes; he directs and produces), could purchase a whole fleet of the rare $40,000 Interceptors right now—heck, they could probably buy up the entire world supply. With two CBS shows to their credit—the Top 10 hit Designing Women and the new Burt Reynolds comedy about small-town southern life, Evening Shade—the Thomasons were already taking home six figures a week last year. A few weeks into the new year, their fortunes have soared even higher. CBS has signed them to a $45 million-plus deal for five more series over the next eight years, the network's biggest bankroll ever of a production team. There may be higher-profile power couples in L.A., but few hold as much clout as the Thomasons. Much of ailing CBS's prime-time fate now rests upon their shoulders. Unfortunately there's one thing money can't buy the Thomasons: peace with their tempestuous Designing star. Delta Burke. Their ongoing war of words began last August—just as Burke was nominated for an Emmy—when the actress suddenly mouthed off to the press, complaining that the Designing set was an unpleasant place to work. "It was eating me up to live a lie," Burke now says, "pretending everything was hunky-dory." She claims the producers harassed her about her girth from the start of the show in 1986. "They wanted me thinner, even before I really put on any weight," she says. She also charges them with "emotional and sometimes physical abuse—locking you in a room and throwing things at you."

Harry, who countered Burke's initial outburst with a 12-page statement documenting production upsets allegedly caused by her unprofessional behavior, categorically denies any physical intimidation. As for supposed conflicts over her increasingly ample figure, the Thomasons simply point to the 1989 episode that Linda wrote for Burke, They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?, which pleaded eloquently for understanding of her character's weight gain.

By last November, Burke was saying that the bitter back-and-forth had actually made life on the set "better than ever-still not positive, but very workable." The cease-fire was fleeting. Now Burke has sued her bosses for breach of contract, claiming she is owed $55,000 pay for an episode in November—though sources at the show say she called in sick eight hours before filming. Hollywood has long been braced for Burke's firing, but unless the court declares her contract terminated, as she has requested, she will likely be held to the remaining year of her commitment.

Clearly battle-fatigued, Linda and Harry would rather forget about Burke and talk instead about their favorite subject: each other. Both from Dixie—she, a native of Poplar Bluff, Mo. (pop. 17,139), with roots in Arkansas; he, born and raised in Hampton, Ark. (pop. 1,627)—they see their relationship as southern-romantic and deep-rooted, the opposite of what Linda calls "this Hollywood love," which lasts as long as " 'Oh, you got the flu? See ya later.' " Linda talks about Harry the way she might take a long drink of champagne. "He is the best combination of masculinity and kindness I have ever run across," she says. 'I don't deserve him. But neither does anyone else, so I might as well have him." Harry's personal mission is to shield his wife from business blows. "Linda comes across as so outgoing and competitive that people underestimate her vulnerability, and that hurts me too," he says in his dignified, quiet manner. "If anything, I'm overprotective."

Harry met Linda in 1978 at Columbia Pictures, when he was producing The Fall Guy and she the short-lived Filthy Rich, which featured Burke and her future Designing co-star Dixie Carter. Linda remembers popping her head into Harry's office one day and remarking, "I hear there's another hick on the lot." For Harry, then separated from Arkansas high school teacher Judy Crump (with whom he had one daughter, Stacy, now 23), meeting Linda was "fascination at first sight."

Their showy 1983 marriage in Poplar Bluff, attended by 600 guests and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, is still remembered around town as simply "the weddin'." They produced their first joint series in 1985: Lime Street, with Robert Wagner and Samantha Smith, the schoolgirl who visited Yuri Andropov in 1983. Smith, 13, was killed in a plane crash after filming four episodes, and the show was canceled soon after. Two Lime Street players, Jean Smart and Annie Potts, would go on to join Burke and Carter in the feisty Designing quartet.

Though Linda claims, "I'm not really that driven," she and Harry lead a fast-paced life. An amateur pilot, Harry leaves their Victorian-decorated Encino home by 7 A.M. each day for a soothing flight alone in his private plane, then jumps into a grueling schedule of rehearsals and meetings. Linda often writes scripts—longhand, on legal pads—late into the night, turning out about 20 per season. "They're pushed by some kind of inner energy," says friend Markie (Night Court) Post. Ultimately, says Linda, they hope to live six months a year in Arkansas, where they own a farm, "to go river rafting and see our friends and get hugged to death."

At the moment, however, they are trapped by the golden handcuffs of Hollywood. They must stick around to defuse the Burke situation, which for the most part they are now choosing to ignore. "In my heart I know Delta is not a bad person," says Linda. "I just hope someday she'll set the record straight." And they must concentrate on making a solid hit out of Evening Shade, which has been struggling since its September debut but has been winning its key 8 P.M. spot in CBS's Monday evening comedy drive. "The series is like a combination of The Tonight Show and a movie," says Burt Reynolds. "I've never had more fun."

The Thomasons have an especially strong emotional connection with the series. "This one is my heart debt to my family," says Linda. "We want this show to do for hicks—we say that laughingly and lovingly—what we've done for southern women in Designing Women." Which is not to say they're looking for a down-home Delta Burke.

Jeannie Park, Lois Armstrong in Los Angeles

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