Refining ''Designing Women'' -- Sugarbakers welcomes Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks to the cast and bids adieu to Delta Burke

It’s impossible not to notice the difference. On the same Sugarbaker sofa where Delta Burke sat in repose for five years, as comically immobile and forbidding as a bewigged Aztec totem, Julia Duffy now lies — no, lolls — her sneakered, size 5 feet barely reaching the coffee table. It’s the day after the sixth-season premiere of CBS’ Designing Women, and if Duffy looks both exhausted and elated, she’s not the only one. With Burke and costar Jean Smart (Charlene Stillfield) departing, and Duffy and Jan Hooks filling similar roles as the caustic nemesis and country naïf of the Sugarbaker interior-design firm, the previous night’s show was the most pivotal in Designing Women‘s long run. But now, word of the episode’s Nielsen ratings — the highest in the show’s history — has ricocheted through dressing rooms and offices, and the relief is palpable.

”It’s alleviated a lot of pressure,” says Hooks, who watched her first appearance as Carlene Dobber the night before with the help of ”comfort food” (meat loaf, mashed potatoes, green peas) and a tumbler of vodka. Duffy, a seven-year veteran of Newhart known for her unflappability, acknowledges some unease of her own. Even Annie Potts, who by now knows the character of single mom Mary Jo Shively so well that she doesn’t always bother to watch her performance, made sure she was in front of her TV on Monday night. ”I thought it was pretty important,” she says. ”It’s almost not a continuation of the old show. It’s a new show.”

Therein lies the excitement and terror. When Designing Women made its debut in 1986, it brought strong women, richly brewed Southern conversation, and an effortlessly balanced comic ensemble to a prime-time lineup almost bereft of intelligent sitcoms. After the show was almost canceled twice in its first season, its survival became a rallying point for quality-starved viewers, who waged a successful letter-writing campaign to save it. When the show became a top 10 hit last season, their efforts — and the persistence of its witty, prolific creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason — were vindicated. But the success of this new, radically altered version is far from assured.

In her elegantly appointed office (even the window glass is discreetly monogrammed) near the set of her other series, the year-old Evening Shade, Bloodworth-Thomason shares in the buoyant mood of the morning after. She has already received a congratulatory call from CBS president Howard Stringer, who drawled into her answering machine in a passable imitation of her soft Missouri accent, ”Ah just luuuve that show Designin’ Women!” The series is important to CBS’ fortunes, and so is Bloodworth-Thomason, whose five-series deal with the network could net her and her husband, producer-director Harry Thomason, $50 million. But at the moment, she’s mostly pleased for Designing Women‘s cast. ”They needed to find out they weren’t all going to die on Tuesday morning,” she says.

Indeed, the stars approached premiere night like hypochondriacs awaiting test results. ”The ratings proved we were paranoid for nothing,” says Meshach Taylor, who plays Sugarbaker partner Anthony Bouvier. ”But I did think we might lose some viewers because of the situation we’ve been through.”

The situation. The feud. Delta Burke. Visitors to the Designing Women set are warned not to mention it. The actors, when they must, refer to it diplomatically, euphemistically, obliquely, exhaustedly. They wish it away, and yet it looms, conspicuous by the very curtain of discretion that covers it. ”We have had it,” says Potts, a note of genuine annoyance roughening her warm twang. ”This has now gotten more press than the plight of the Kurds.”

She’s right. For a time in the summer of 1990, after Burke told a reporter that Designing Women was ”not a good workplace,” she and the Thomasons were embroiled in one of the most clamorous battles in TV history, complete with accusations of cruelty, countercharges of unprofessionalism, flurries of faxes, Burke’s tearful confessions to Barbara Walters, and unabating headlines.

”People continue to talk about this as if there was yelling and screaming,” says Bloodworth-Thomason. ”But (Burke) and I never exchanged even the slightest cross word. I never even said anything as harsh as ‘Gee, do you think you could try a little harder to be on time?”’ Nonetheless, she admits ”there was tension.” At one point, Designing Women‘s writers decided to free up the outspoken yet demure Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter) by killing off her beau, played by Carter’s husband, Hal Holbrook. Holbrook, says a source at the show, offered to have his character die in an air crash-if a certain other cast member were also aboard. (The writers gave him a heart attack instead.)

Though Burke’s salvos persisted through last season, the Thomasons fell silent, largely because Columbia Pictures Television, which owns Designing Women, offered them a deal: If they stopped talking to the press about Burke for one year, they could then decide her fate. But in June, when the Thomasons decided not to renew Burke’s contract, Columbia tried to remove them as Designing Women‘s producers, hiring Anything But Love veteran Janis Hirsch to take over. What ensued was still more head butting; when the dust settled, Burke and Hirsch were out, and the Thomasons were back in control. ”CBS backed us,” says Bloodworth-Thomason.

But the problems were hardly over. Burke’s dismissal left one void, and the amicable departure of Jean Smart, who wanted to pursue other projects and spend more time with her husband and 2-year-old son, left another.

Ironically, the producers found their Burke replacement in an actress engaged in her own contractual hassle: Julia Duffy, who was doing time on the critically assailed ABC sitcom Baby Talk. ”I had asked to be released from my contract very, very early,” says Duffy. ”I was very unhappy.” The week she was freed, she got a call from Bloodworth-Thomason, who wanted her to play Allison, a Sugarbaker cousin who left the South, failed spectacularly in the North, and would return to Atlanta arrogant and unbowed to buy out Suzanne’s share of the business (Burke’s character, viewers learned, had departed for Japan). ”I’d been thinking about (Duffy) all season,” says Bloodworth- Thomason. ”There are very few actresses who can supply that vain, selfish, whiny voice and be likable. Julia does it winningly, because she’s so tiny and wields such a big stick verbally.”

Bloodworth-Thomason was less familiar with Hooks, the five-year veteran of NBC’s Saturday Night Live who had wearied of SNL‘s punishing schedule. ”I never got into the rhythm of being live,” says Hooks. ”My body reacted as if I were being attacked by a wild animal.” Last Christmas, she sent out a video reel of her best sketches — Tammy Faye Bakker, Bette Davis, Sally Jessy Raphael. Six months later, she came home one night to find her answering machine clogged with calls from her agent. The next day, she flew to L.A. to meet with the Thomasons about playing Charlene’s younger sister, the uncultured, newly divorced Carlene.

”When she said she was from Decatur, Ga., I kissed her,” says Bloodworth- Thomason. ”You can’t buy that accent, and to have someone that talented who can sound like that is money in the bank.”

On July 29, Hooks and Duffy arrived for their first day of rehearsal. ”Dixie and Meshach and I know that set so well that the directors don’t have to say anything,” says Potts. ”Jan and Julia had to come into an established rhythm.” Duffy, whose brash character had the hardest work in the season opener, says, ”I read the script, and I thought, oh, Allison comes on so strong; I hope people will accept her.” Hooks worried about restraining her own performance. ”On Saturday Night Live, I only had seven minutes to prove myself, so I did it hard and fast. In my weirdest nightmare, I thought, what if I do something so over-the-top, so wrong?”

Nerves were still taut the night a studio audience trooped in to watch the season’s first, 4 1/2-hour taping. Hooks couldn’t calm down until the second scene. And Duffy, whose entrance was delayed, had to wait behind the Sugarbaker front door for more than an hour. Even Bloodworth-Thomason was uncharacteristically cautious: After taping was completed, she excised several jokes about Delta Burke’s character, fearing that they would be perceived as potshots. (The sharpest one, however, remained — it was Potts’ igloo-cool delivery of the line, ”Yeah, I’ll miss her too.”)

If Burke and Smart still seem present in spirit, it may be because Duffy’s acid-etched snob and Hooks’ sunshiny yokel are very close to Suzanne and Charlene. ”I didn’t do anything innovative or original,” says Bloodworth-Thomason bluntly. ”Jan and Julia bring their own personalities to these voices, but they’re essentially the same voices.”

But differences are emerging. Hooks’ Carlene, says Bloodworth-Thomason, ”hasn’t been exposed to the sophistication of her sister. She’s a female Woody Harrelson, more naive, wider-eyed, hickier than Charlene.” And Duffy has replaced Suzanne’s oblivious bullying with an urbane self-centeredness better suited to her style. ”Did you ever walk into a room and feel that people were not appropriately impressed?” Duffy says, laughing. ”That’s Allison. She honestly doesn’t understand why she isn’t a success.” And, says Bloodworth-Thomason, Allison’s stridency is already being softened: ”The more you see her, the more you’ll like her and accept her belligerent ways.”

Designing Women‘s veterans are also affected by the changes. ”We’re still fiddling around with our fledgling ensemble,” says Dixie Carter. ”We aren’t totally rock solid yet.” In one scene being rehearsed, Julia Sugarbaker stands back while Allison bangs on a front door. ”Should Julia knock? Or Allison?” wonders Carter. ”Is it strange for Julia to stand aside? We’re still discovering that.”

This season, that kind of exploration has been conducted without conflict. A year ago, at the height of Designing Women‘s on-set woes, Bloodworth-Thomason said: ”Our family is no different than any other family, except that our disagreement has been aired in the public spotlight.” Today the ”family” seems a lot less dysfunctional. In a dressing room adorned with photos of her two daughters and a delicate, ornate wooden desk that could | belong to Julia Sugarbaker, Carter reflects on the changes. Like the other actors, she says nothing harsh about Burke, but her point is hard to miss.

”We love the relaxation that we have this year. We all feel free to suggest things to one another — for instance, ‘Why don’t you take this line?’ All of the people who are here this year are for the show,” she says, ”which makes for a very focused, clear-minded approach to the work.”

Hooks, sitting in her still sparsely furnished dressing room, says, ”I feel like I’m home. I’ve jumped from a pool of testosterone to a pool of estrogen. There’s no more male place than Saturday Night Live, and not only is this a woman’s place, it’s a Southern woman’s place.”

So it’s no surprise that production is tailored to the needs of working women. ”In the world of acting, this is a desk job,” says Potts, ”a clock-punching kind of job. I can be home to tuck my son in every night but one.” That theme is echoed by the other actors. Ask Duffy about life on the set, and she’ll eagerly discuss the play space for her two children, Kerri, 5, and Danny, 2, who dart delightedly through a game of hide-and-seek in a corridor. Taylor’s daughters, Yasmin, 5, and Esme, 3, are occasional visitors to the set. And when Dixie Carter interrupts our interview, it’s to conduct an animated phone conversation with her younger daughter, Mary Dixie, a senior at Harvard.

But Potts, Carter, and Taylor also remember Designing Women‘s shaky start, when it was so disdained by CBS that Bloodworth-Thomason disgustedly dubbed the show ”the plantation owner’s illegitimate child.” This season, she will concentrate on Evening Shade and turn over most of her Designing Women duties to producer-writer Pamela Norris, a former Saturday Night Live staffer who wrote many of Women‘s scripts last year. But whether audiences will accept this new ensemble is still in question.

Several intriguing plot lines may keep people watching. This season, Mary Jo will have a baby by artificial insemination. ”We’re going to look into Julia Sugarbaker’s romantic life,” says Bloodworth-Thomason. ”She incorporates femininity and power in such an attractive way.” Hooks says she’d ”like to see Carlene get into some real trouble,” and Duffy hopes ”Allison will become a fool for love. That’s so much fun to play.” But something else may be in store for her. ”At some point, Allison, being a yuppie, will have to consider adopting a child if she cannot find a man,” says Bloodworth-Thomason. ”She’s very competitive. She’d be like that woman in Texas who tried to kill the cheerleader’s mom.”

One episode viewers won’t see is a long-planned finale in which Burke’s Suzanne was to elope with Anthony. ”Now I don’t know what we’ll do (when the series ends),” says Bloodworth-Thomason. That leads to the obvious question: How much life is left in the show?

”We have the following, we have the talent, and the new energy here will take us to another level,” says Taylor.

”I don’t think we’re on our last legs,” concurs Carter. ”If we nurture our show, we have a long life ahead of us.”

Only Annie Potts seems to hedge. ”I don’t know,” she says softly. ”Maybe I’ll want to go on another six years, but I don’t know how I’ll feel about working after next year.” Why? ”I’ll give you a scoop here.” She hesitates warily, then, with a what-the-hell smile, delivers the latest off-camera plot twist in a series that has had its share:

”I’m pregnant.” We may not have seen the last Designing Women headlines after all.

Dixie Carter
”Julia Sugarbaker gets away with what she does because when she delivers one of her tirades, she’s provoked, but she’s not an angry woman. We give our messages with lots of honey, lots of giggles and laughs.”

Annie Potts
”It’s pretty much work as usual this season, and it’s going just fine. It’s not like we’re trying to break these new girls in. This isn’t exactly their first rodeo.”

Julia Duffy
”What writers do is very solitary, and what actors do is very collaborative. And it’s frustrating and hurtful to an actor when writers won’t listen. There’s no wall between writers and actors here.”

Jan Hooks
”It is a little hairy to find yourself under such close scrutiny and not be able to find your way without people watching every move. I don’t know what a regular week is.I haven’t had one.”

Meshach Taylor
”Inevitably, people are replaced in a show. That doesn’t mean the show goes down the tubes. Jean and Delta weren’t born here; they had lives before, and they have lives now. Meanwhile, it’s exciting to work with new people.”

Designing Women
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