Sex and the City: An oral history
Hold on to your Manolos. We spoke to the stars and creators behind Sex and the City for an oral history of the iconic series. Pour yourself a strong cosmo and read on for the juicy secrets.
A phenomenon is born
Long before Carrie’s first cosmo, Sex and the City got its start in 1994 as a New York Observer column penned by then-35-year-old journalist Candace Bushnell. When her writings became a book in 1996, producer Darren Star (Beverly Hills, 90210; Melrose Place) bought the rights— reportedly for a mere $50,000 — and took the idea to HBO. The show debuted June 6, 1998, to a modest 3.7 million viewers. But that audience — like the characters’ wardrobes and list of exes — grew fast.
Candace Bushnell, creator
I never envisioned it for the screen. The column was never meant for a mass audience; it was just for the New York Observer readership, which is a very select group.
Darren Star, series creator
I was never seriously considering going to a network. My first question to them was ”Would you even be able to call the show Sex and the City?” At first I took it to Miramax because I was thinking about doing it as a feature, which is kind of ironic now. I really wanted to do a comedy about sex from a female point of view. I wanted to do an R-rated comedy.
Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie)
It’s funny, because if we started the show now, well…first of all, I just don’t think we would. I don’t think anybody would be interested in this particular story now. When Candace was writing those columns, the city was completely different — politically, socially, economically. But there was a wonderful recklessness. I don’t mean that I would choose to live that way, but it was a climate that allowed these four women to exist.
Cynthia Nixon (Miranda)
I grew up in New York during the ’70s. I would go and visit relatives in the middle of the country, and they would all be like, ”Do you go out at night? Do you take the subway?” To them, it was like Attica. Sex and the City was the final cherry on the sundae of New York. Dangerous or dirty or rude? Oh, no, no, no. We are the luxury, stylish, artistic playground of the world, and who wouldn’t want to come here and wear the world’s most beautiful clothes and [see] an endless parade of gorgeous, eligible, wealthy men?
Kim Cattrall (Samantha)
This show came along at the right time, not just in terms of sexuality, but in terms of women being supportive instead of trying to scratch each other’s eyes out.
There was one event that coincided with the show getting on the air, which I thought was incredibly timely — the Bill Clinton — Monica Lewinsky thing. The entire country was suddenly forced to talk about bl– jobs. That forced the country to be more open about acknowledging sex. It’s like an episode of SATC. The cigar episode!
Chris Noth (Big)
I felt the same way as when I read the Law & Order pilot, way back in 1988. It was like, This is different. That was a different take on police work, and this was a different take on sexual politics. It was just f– -ing funny in a way that’s irreverent, in a way that TV never was before.
Kristin Davis (Charlotte)
Our first day on the set, Sarah Jessica had this big thing of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and she invited me to her trailer. She [said], ”Let’s hang out and get to know each other.” We had 18-hour days, so we bonded pretty quickly. The most famous person on the set, you take their lead.
David Eigenberg (Steve)
I read for maybe nine characters in the show before they hired me for Steve. I read for the p—y guy, always talking dirty about p—y or something like that. I wasn’t really excited about doing that because…I’ve done everything, but my mother would be like, ”Why’d you have to play that role? Couldn’t you have got something different?” I remember having to fake an orgasm in their office once. That was awful.
Michael Patrick King, writer/ director/executive producer
One night, we were filming the scene where Carrie and Aidan are breaking up around that big fountain at Columbus Circle. And a garbage truck went by, and the guy hung off and said, ”Hey, Carrie! Heeeeey! You’re my girlfriend!” And that was when I realized it had gone past [just] the girls thinking ”I’m Carrie.”
Jason Lewis (Smith)
I was nervous as hell the first day I showed up. I was supposed to be objectified by 30 to 40 women — that was my first scene. It was like a kid going to his first day at a new school. That very first day, I went to lunch — and it was actually in a school cafeteria — and I got my plate of food, and I realized I didn’t know a single soul. Like, where do I sit? And then Kristin Davis came by and swooped me up. The environment in general was pretty great.
Their Favorite Scenes
With six seasons and one feature film behind them, we asked the stars to choose their most memorable moments. Their surprising picks range from the bawdy comedy of ”Valley of the Twenty-Something Guys” to the emotional drama of ”My Motherboard, My Self,” in which the ladies mourn deaths both comic (Carrie’s beloved Mac) and tragic (Miranda’s mother, who dies of a sudden heart attack).
To this day, one of my most favorite scenes of the four of us — and Kristin will kill me for this — but it’s the ”up the butt” one [in ”Valley of the Twenty-Something Guys”]. If I had to pick one scene that people are like, [dismissively] ”That’s what that show is!” in the worst possible way, it’s that one. But in the best way, too — starting off with two of us, then three of us, then four of us in a cab, picking each other up on the way somewhere, and how we dressed then and how we looked, how we lit the scene, the way we used to shoot in New York and nobody was on the streets watching us. It was just kind of the superarchetypal moment for the women: their points of view, their response. I just loved that.
I think that was the first episode I wrote. Typing it out, I was like, No one has ever written this before. For better or for worse, no one has ever written this before.
[”My Motherboard, My Self” was] so great on so many levels. Miranda kind of went into a cocoon, and each one of those women tried to figure out how to be there for her. Charlotte with her crazy, over-the-top baskets and shopping and event planning, and Carrie trying to do the right thing, and Steve, not that he’s one of the women, but you know. But also Samantha — I mean, I thought that was brilliant. When something enormous and awful happens in one of your friends’ lives, the shock waves that go through you — Samantha’s whole story line, I just thought she did it so well.
There are some killer moments for me that are significant in terms of ”the single-girl leper” being sort of saved by her other single-girl friends. The one that always gets me is Miranda’s mother’s funeral: when beforehand she’s making funny jokes that the big drama is not that my mother is dead, it’s that I have to walk behind the coffin alone. Cynthia’s performance, when she’s walking down that aisle and Carrie breaks tradition and jumps out and makes a dramatic moment of taking her hand and kissing it — that’s killer to me.
Julie Rottenberg, writer
We were working and working on the [episode-defining] question for ”My Motherboard, My Self,” and it was all about support. We were so excited to talk about supportive shoes and a supportive bra. But that episode was so long, and we were going to have to cut a scene. It was between the scene where Miranda goes to buy a bra and the scene where Carrie talks to Aidan before she goes to Philadelphia for the funeral. And we didn’t want to lose either. Then Michael finally decided: She doesn’t have her computer, so she can’t write her question. Originally we had her handwriting the question. And in the end, he said, ”She doesn’t have her computer, the theme could not be clearer, we don’t need it.”
[The scene toward the end of the final season in which Samantha gives an inspirational speech and rips off her wig and waves it around] — that was completely unplanned. And the poor hair people were like, ”Noooo!” I just ripped it off when we were doing a take and just started waving it around, and people in the audience started doing it too and it became part of the scene. Because it was like, Screw it! Screw it. It was written that I take it off, but I waved it up in the air like a banner and threw it like, I can’t bear it anymore. I thought to myself, Samantha wouldn’t just take it off. She would use it as a kind of strip, some revealing of the truth. And that was always where she was coming from: Oh, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I even lost my hair with cancer, and this is who I am. I loved that story line.
Mario Cantone (Anthony)
Well, Charlotte’s wedding was a big episode for me, so I loved that one — when she married Kyle MacLachlan [who played Trey]. I had three scenes instead of one, so that was nice, and I got to boss people around. I enjoyed that.
I liked all the stuff with [Mikhail] Baryshnikov, because it was the beginning of the end and it was plotted so carefully. [Casting him] was my idea. We kept saying, ”Who’s bigger than Big?” And it was weird because when we came up with big movie-star names, we were like, ”No, he’s actually not bigger than Big.” I was in the shower, where I do a lot of my thinking, and I was literally, like, scrubbin’ my hair, and I thought, Baryshnikov. I mean, who’s bigger than Baryshnikov? Nobody. I’m sure I e-mailed Michael and [producer John Melfi] and said, ”I have this crazy idea…” And they were like, ”Oh my God.” And we started this courtship. He said yes eventually. It was great because then he became Aleksandr the Great. Big and Great, two combatants. It was amazing. It ended the show in a way I’m really proud of.
[When I got the script for the movie], I was like, ”Where’s the funny stuff? What happened to the funny? I don’t want to do this. This is hard.” [Laughs] But out of that came the Brooklyn Bridge scene, which was one of my favorite moments with [Miranda and Steve] and was actually a really easy scene to shoot. It was poignant to me. I loved doing it. If you got to do the hard stuff, you might as well do it with somebody as talented as Cynthia.
There have been catchphrases (”He’s just not that into you”), fashion trends (hello, Manolo!), and even copycat shows (Lipstick Jungle, Cashmere Mafia). But six years after 10.6 million viewers tuned in to watch Carrie make her Big decision, Sex and the City is still going strong, guiding the dialogue for how women talk about friendship, love, and, of course, sex.
Elisa Zuritsky, writer
For the finale, you would read about these groups of women getting together to watch the show. And when the first film came out, that’s all we heard about. Michael called it the Super Bowl for women. I think that’s really an incredible legacy. For once, women had this real institution that celebrated them that they could celebrate together. They could feel fabulous no matter what their marital status was.
I see [the show’s legacy] in funny ways. I see it in New York when I see groups of four or five girls together, and the way that they are festive or kind of huddled together, conspiracy-like.
Every purse commercial, toothpaste commercial, diet commercial is four girls. They mix up the racial types and the age types, but whether it’s a Slim-Fast commercial or Payless, there are now those archetypes: four girls, smart, shopping, hip, fun, friends.
I get a lot of fan mail about the cancer episode. I’d been nervous that playing such an outrageous character, that it might appear that she doesn’t have a lot of depth, and I also felt that they might use it as a punishment for someone who has lived so large and been so daring. Always, in literature, if a woman goes that far out, she has to fall. And I felt, Oh, this is payback for all of the excess. But the way Michael wrote it was the antithesis of that. He wrote a woman going through a horrific episode in her life, dealing with it in uniquely her own way. When women come up to me and say, ”You got me through chemo,” it’s the greatest compliment I could ever receive. It means so much to me that people went through something as horrific as cancer and then they could laugh at the same time. I thank Michael for that.
Willie Garson (Stanford)
What’s important for people to remember about SATC is it’s about love. It’s always been about love. That’s the emotion behind the whole piece. There are going to be a lot of articles written about this movie, about what it means and who’s back and weddings and whatever, and it all comes down to one thing: Hold on to your friends, hold on to your families, and find and keep love.
Patricia Field, costume designer
When people start telling me I changed the way women dress, I go, ”Really?” It’s a very nice feeling, but it wasn’t anything so self-conscious. I was born and bred in New York, so I think the whole SATC idea was kind of made-to-order for me because I’m as New York as could be and this is the most New York series. There was Dynasty, Dallas. And this was a TV series that showed the fashion, the glamour, the life of the women in New York.
Sarah always talks about Matthew [Broderick, Parker’s husband] and how they’ll walk down the street and he’ll see a woman dressed a certain way and he’ll say, ”You did that.” I feel like any way in which we’ve encouraged women to have fun with dressing up, spend a little more than you should, and look sexy and be proud of your body, all that’s great. I do worry a little that we’ve convinced women that they’re supposed to be walking around in heels, looking like we look on the show with Pat Field and a hair-and-makeup person helping us look like that every day.
I don’t know that I love being associated with the piece of underwear being above a pants waist, which my husband says I’m responsible for but I don’t think so. I think Britney Spears is responsible for that.
We did a lot to get rid of panty hose. And God bless, because other than a cold day, why would anyone want to wear panty hose? They’re really ugly. They’re not the color of your legs. I feel like that’s a nice thing.
I do think the fashion side of New York City was articulated by the show in a way it had never been. And I think people enjoyed seeing that. Now a lot of people who come from Europe think they’re going to see New York as Sex and the City. I kind of think that’s a shame. I’d rather have it as the New York of Midnight Cowboy. But what am I going to do? I sound like an old fart, I guess.
Every time I see the tour bus, I go, ”Wow, people are excited to come to New York.” I feel bad sometimes for the residents of Perry Street because there’s a lot of cupcake wrappers from Magnolia Bakery thrown on the street.
I wish there was not a line around the block at Magnolia, personally, because I just want to get my cupcakes.
— Reporting by Jennifer Armstrong, Dave Karger, Adam Markovitz, Archana Ram, Missy Scwartz, Tim Stack, Adam B. Vary, and Kate Ward