Even as fireworks exploded over the inaugural gala she helped stage for her friend Bill Clinton, producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason was trying to defuse dynamite back in Hollywood. In recent months, feuds, drops in ratings, and purges of writing and producing staffs have shaken Mozark Productions, the company with which Linda and husband Harry Thomason oversee three of CBS’ most valuable sitcoms, Evening Shade, Hearts Afire, and Designing Women. Critics cite her problems as proof that Bloodworth-Thomason, known for 17-hour workdays, may finally have taken on too much. ”You can’t get to her anymore,” says a source. ”Linda’s becoming like the Wizard of Oz.”
But the Wiz was never this busy. Not counting her work for Clinton (like the six consecutive all-nighters she pulled editing The Man From Hope, the film shown at the Democratic convention), Bloodworth-Thomason, 45, usually oversees the Hearts taping on Wednesday, the Designing taping on Thursday, and the Shade taping on Friday, then spends the rest of the week knocking out Hearts scripts. Here’s what’s happening to each of her shows:
EVENING SHADE: Still in the Nielsen top 25, this is the healthiest of Bloodworth-Thomason’s sitcoms — except for bad blood between her and star Burt Reynolds. Things came to a boil back in November, when Bloodworth-Thomason visited a rehearsal after an absence of several months. A blowout took place in full view of cast and crew, with Reynolds flinging chairs and charging that Bloodworth-Thomason was ignoring Shade in favor of her other shows. ”And she basically told him,” says the source, ”that from her point of view, she had saved his career.”
HEARTS AFIRE: New this season, the John Ritter-Markie Post comedy has dipped in the ratings to 28th place after a strong start. Part of the show’s problem is that Bloodworth-Thomason is writing most of the episodes herself. ”It wouldn’t be so bad if she would let other people handle some of it,” the source says, ”but it’s her baby, and she doesn’t want anyone else doing her stuff.”
In fact, since she penned most scripts herself, Bloodworth-Thomason fired half the writing staff. Another burning issue for Hearts: Advertisers have complained that the characters played by Ritter and Post, coworkers in a congressman’s office, are unmarried lovers. Their wedding is now scheduled for February.
DESIGNING WOMEN: Hit by many cast changes (the latest: Judith Ivey is in; veteran Annie Potts has said she will leave), and by what many say is a decline in writing quality, this seven-year-old series lost viewers when it shifted from Monday to Friday. Hired this season, executive producer Norma Safford Vela was replaced last month after what she describes as ”a question of taste in humor.” Comedian David Steinberg, who has directed most of this season’s episodes, took her place.
”My notion of the show is to bring it back to its original family, the kind of shows that Linda did when she was writing it regularly,” Steinberg says. ”I feel we’ve lost that over the last year or so, when she hasn’t been as involved.”
No one is counting out the tenacious Bloodworth-Thomason, who has not responded to requests for an interview. Even Vela defends her former boss as an ”extraordinarily talented writer,” labeling the producer’s critics as ”jealous whiners.”
But even if Bloodworth-Thomason’s Clinton duties are over, her challenges aren’t. Her $50 million deal with CBS calls for four additional series in the next seven years. Many of her whining critics wonder how she will be able to create and maintain four new shows while tending to the three already on the air. In short, this is one FOB who really faces hurdles during the new administration.