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Two’s Company for Somers, ABC

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“I think everybody in life is thrown a curve,” Suzanne Somers was reflecting. ‘ ‘Everybody. When it happens, that is our opportunity to take it and sink or swim with it. I learned to swim.”

Of course, it was Somers who threw her own curve. A decade ago, her career went into a tailspin after a highly publicized contract dispute with ABC.

Somers had gone from relative obscurity--she was best known as the blonde in the Thunderbird in the classic film “American Graffiti"--to become a TV star and sex symbol because of her role as the ditzy blonde Chrissy on the popular sitcom, “Three’s Company.” But when Somers asked for more money and a percentage of the profits, she was written out of the series in 1981, and her career nearly disappeared as well.

Now Somers is back on ABC, starring with Patrick Duffy, late of “Dallas,” in the new highly-touted sitcom “Step by Step,” premiering Friday at 8:30 p.m. Somers plays a single mother of three children who marries Duffy, a single father with three kids and a pet piglet. It’s an updated “Brady Bunch,” the latest series from the successful TV production team of Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett. It has a cushy time slot--between the two Miller-Boyett hits, “Family Matters” and “Perfect Strangers.”

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Later this month Somers plays herself and is the co-executive producer of “Keeping Secrets,” a dramatization of her best-selling autobiography about growing up in a family of alcoholics.

Relaxing in her dressing room at the Culver Studios, Somers, 44, was candid and honest about her life and career during the past decade.

“I didn’t get any offers after ‘Three’s Company,’ ” Somers said. “I think I became a hot potato. I think there was trouble circling me. Ther was trouble circling my husband (and manager Alan Hamel). I just had a real feeling that after I gotten a lot of accolades for my comedic abilities on that show, I thought that would translate into work. But I think everybody was afraid to touch me.”

Somers quickly realized no matter how big a star you are, “you have a very small voice and can’t say, ‘No, No, No. You don’t understand.’ ” According to Somers, when her contract was up with “Three’s Company,” she just wanted what she thought she deserved. “I said, ‘My show is No. 1 and Alan Alda’s (“MASH”) is No. 10 and I think I should get paid what Alan Alda gets paid.’ ”

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ABC didn’t agree and Somers was persona non gratis. “There were hurt feelings at the network,” she said. “I had become close to those people who were in charge of everything. It became very personal when I renegotiated. It was on a ‘How can you do this to me?’ level. I had to wait. Management had to change.”

In the interim, Somers got her act together and took it on the road. “The great thing that came out of this was to lose what I had worked for and then really fight to get something going again,” she said.

Somers became a staple in Las Vegas and has performed in nightclubs across the country and in Europe. “The great thing about ‘Three’s Company’ is that I have a built-in audience,” she said.”

“I will never be unidimensional again. I now have a multidimensional career. It forced me to go out and do something that I had always toyed with in the back of my head--being an entertainer. But there was no entertainer’s school. I had go to out and fail in front of people.”

Still, Somers said, “for every negative comes something positive. Looking back and having perspective, what an opportunity it was to have to go learn a new craft, otherwise my career would have been limited to only being an actress. It was my greatest opportunity professionally to get blackballed as an actress.”

And had she not on gone on the road, she may not have written “Keeping Secrets,” which was published in 1988. “I needed something to do during the day.”

“The book changed me as a person,” she said. And changed her career. Somers found herself much in demand to give lectures about the effects of alcoholism on families.

“The first speech was scary,” she recalled. “As soon as I pushed my note cards away and stood there and talked to them, the room became still. Something very powerful happened. What I do now is lecture at universities and hospital groups all around the country.”

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A year ago, Somers founded the Suzanne Somers Institute...for the Effects of Addiction on Families in Palm Springs. “We are going to set up treatment centers all over the country,” she said.

Around this same time, Miller-Boyett approached Somers about doing a sitcom. They envisioned her playing a mother of six. Somers didn’t. “I had just come off a show with kids (the syndicated comedy series, “She’s the Sheriff”) and I didn’t want to work with kids again because I am a comedienne and a reactor. I don’t know where to go with them.”

The producers also had been in discussions with Duffy about another comedy series. “Then they started combining the two ideas,” Somers said. “Suddenly, I had places to go comedically. I am playing a mother and I own my own beauty shop, but there is all of this built-in jeopardy combining families and this sexual attraction which the two of us have. It is fun to play swooning in love. Now I just kiss Patrick Duffy all day long.”

“Step by Step” premieres Friday at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. “Keeping Secrets” airs Sept. 29 at 9 p.m. on ABC.


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