Seven years before the world met Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha, there were four other women talking frankly about sex and relationships each week on TV. Sisters, which ran on NBC from 1991 to ’96, chronicled the lives of the Reeds: Alex (Swoosie Kurtz), Teddy (Sela Ward), Georgie (Patricia Kalember), and Frankie (Julianne Phillips). Though the show has never been released on DVD or streaming, it has a devoted cult of fans with warm memories of the siblings who fought hard—Teddy once spray-painted “slut” on Frankie’s car—but always had each other’s backs.
Sisters was mired in controversy even before it aired. The original pilot, written by creators Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman (Showtime’s Queer as Folk), began with the women in a steam room discussing multiple orgasms. After potential advertisers saw the episode, the scandalized chatter grew so loud that NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield was forced to utter the words “Corporately, we believe in orgasms” in the show’s defense during a TCA press tour.
“It was such a to-do,” says Kurtz. “Those things just weren’t said at the time. It was appealing to me that it be said on network TV—and said by women. Guys are always talking about penises. Equal time!” But when the episode debuted on May 11, 1991, the discussion had been cut due to nerves at the network, which said, according to a statement, that it was responding to “certain constituencies” that would find it offensive.
It may have lost the orgasm war, but the show opened every episode in its first three seasons with a steam-room scene—much to the actresses’ chagrin. “It was miserable,” says Phillips, explaining that the reality was far from spa-like: a process that involved being sprayed with mineral oil and sitting in a cold towel for hours on a smoke-filled soundstage. “You had to figure out a way to keep your boobs aloft without any kind of bra,” says Kurtz. “It was like wearing a strapless gown—and I don’t have much to prop up! We were all severely uncomfortable, and it would go on forever.” Kalember is able to identify one positive from the experience: “If you aren’t able to bond under those circumstances, you are not human.”
Bonding was never a problem for this cast. “If God himself came down and said, ‘I’m going to design a show: Who would you like to work with?’ you couldn’t pick better people,” says Phillips. Kurtz was already on board when Kalember came fresh from another successful drama, thirty-something. “The woman is a legend,” says Kalember. “I’d just sit there and watch her do her scenes and take notes.”
Phillips and Kalember knew each other from costarring in 1989’s Fletch Lives. After Ward won her role, the women read together for the network for the first time. “There was something that just clicked,” says Phillips. “That chemical, indescribable thing. There was a real comfort and connection. It doesn’t happen often.” Especially when the media love nothing more than for a show with four female leads to have behind-the-scenes mudslinging. “Four guys together is a brotherhood, but with women they always think it’s catfights and hair pulling,” says Kurtz. “From the beginning we had chemistry on camera, but we had chemistry in real life, too…. I’m an only child, so I thought, ‘This is my chance. Siblings by proxy.’ ”
Throughout the run, the show had no shortage of outlandish plotlines (“There was a lot going on for a suburb in Illinois,” says Kurtz). Over 127 episodes the sisters lived through seven marriages and four divorces, plus adultery, cancer (twice), rape, a car bomb, and a wedding broken up with a shotgun. “I’d pick up a script and it would scare me to death,” says Ward. “I’d go, ‘How am I going to pull that off?’ That was a constant. By the time we finished the show, I wasn’t afraid of anything.”
Sisters also liked to push its material out of the soap opera box and into flights of fancy. There were flashbacks where the women interacted with their younger selves, and elaborate fantasy sequences based on famous films such as The Wizard of Oz, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Rebel Without a Cause. “We did a scene once where we were all dressed up like guys playing poker,” says Kurtz. “I can’t remember why we were doing that.”
The series also had a prophetic knack for casting talented unknowns: Paul Rudd and Ashley Judd both had supporting roles, and Kirsten Dunst appeared in a few episodes. But the show’s most famous alum is George Clooney, who played Teddy’s husband Det. James Falconer until he left to star on a little show called ER. “He was a goofball,” says Phillips. “We’d sit in the trailer and see who could tell the dirtiest jokes.” Kurtz insists she knew that Clooney was headed for greatness. “He had it—that chemistry and charisma,” she says.
When the show came to a close, the actresses were ready to move on. “It was this time period where everyone’s lives were unfolding,” says Ward, who still gets stopped by Sisters fans on the street. “We were so young. I started the show single and ended it married with a baby.” Still, the stars all have plenty of fond memories of their days in the Reed family. “Hindsight is a great thing sometimes,” says Phillips. “You can look back and think how lucky you were.” Maybe fans will get lucky someday soon too: Let’s put this show on Netflix already.
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