Go Quietly? No Way!
One of television’s loudest, brashest and most socially conscious comedies came to an uncharacteristically calm conclusion last month on a Studio City sound stage. As endings go, it was strangely and quietly anticlimactic.
Shortly before 11 p.m. on April 4, a voice rang out, “That’s a wrap,” applause revved up from the studio audience, and “Roseanne,” the popular and landmark blue-collar comedy that turned former “domestic goddess” Roseanne into a power broker and millionaire, concluded the taping of its final episode, which will be broadcast May 20 on ABC.
For almost a decade, “Roseanne” helped define an era with its depiction of a working-class family struggling to stay afloat in a sea of harsh economic developments. The series--among the three most popular on TV from 1989 to 1993--was graced with a biting wit, warmth and insight often pitched at high volume and laced with equal doses of outrageousness and honesty.
That it centered on a decidedly unglamorous wife and mother who was also dealing with the daily crises of family life was hailed by millions of viewers whose own lives were never as neat and affluent as those seen on most sitcoms. And steering the show was a human force of nature armed with a fearless feminist sensibility, a determined vision and an unpredictable, impulsive personality that made network executives sweat, producers and writers quiver, critics debate and tabloid editors salivate.
As Roseanne, John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Sarah Chalke, Michael Fishman and other cast members took their final bows and accepted bouquets of flowers, an army of television crews swarmed onto the stage to record the historic moment. But as the champagne flowed, the celebration was unexpectedly low-key.
At the center of the quiet storm stood Roseanne, speaking matter-of-factly to her interviewers on feeling tired but proud of what she had accomplished with the series. But there were no tears, no grand announcements or sweeping gestures, no detectable signs of nostalgia.
This was a moment for which Roseanne had long prepared and steeled herself. A few days later, as she sat in the West Los Angeles office of her manager, Jeff Wald, she still seemed somewhat detached when expressing her feelings during those final moments.
“I had already made peace with the fact last summer that it was ending, and I had enjoyed every minute of this year,” Roseanne said. “I just realized all along that it was going to be over. I had been expecting this for a long time, so, no, I didn’t feel sad or overwhelmed or anything.”
But nearly a week after the finale, Roseanne indicated in another interview that there were more feelings under the surface than she had wanted to acknowledge.
As it turned out, it had been too hard for her to say goodbye.
The finality of it all didn’t hit Roseanne until she did a guest shot on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and was caught off-guard by a series of taped farewell messages from her co-stars.
“The frozen part of me is now starting to thaw,” she said after the Winfrey show, which aired last week. “I was trying not to feel emotional. I’m not comfortable with expressing that. It’s been a struggle not to feel emotional for a couple of years. I miss them already. I’m just so grateful that I shared such an important part of my life with these people.”
She paused, then added, “Now I gotta go out and live a little. Now all that’s gone.”
Yes, there will be a vacation with her third husband, Ben Thomas, plus more time to spend with her five children, including toddler Buck, who was born in August 1995.
And there will be time for reflection. Known for exhibiting a fiery temperament at times, Roseanne, 44, now seems to be largely at peace with herself, secure about her life and her television legacy, which began when she performed her stand-up routine on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” in August 1985.
“I did more things than anybody had ever done on TV,” she said. “I broke through so many barriers that probably only I know what they are. And that is great. I moved the center to the left. I forced the networks to read demographics in ways that were women-friendly, which they had never done before.”
She said she is also proud of her own personal growth: “I got put in a blender for a while and was shook up. But it all came out better in the end than it was in the beginning. Internally, I figured out a lot of things about myself, and I grew a lot. I was able to give a lot to my kids. It was incredible.”
But those who thought--or hoped--that Roseanne might go gentle into that good night have not been paying attention to her. Although the curtain has fallen on “Roseanne,” it is just beginning to rise again on Roseanne. And the star is flying high--literally and figuratively.
Starting with previews Wednesday and opening May 13, Roseanne will be making her theatrical debut at Madison Square Garden in a production of “The Wizard of Oz.” She’ll be playing the Wicked Witch of the West--a role that the stream of producers and writers she fired during the run of “Roseanne,” as well as critics and observers of her offstage escapades, might describe as typecasting.
“Playing the Wicked Witch is so cool,” said Roseanne. “I’ve always been into the female power thing, and there’s nothing stronger than the Wicked Witch for a female. I’m patterning her on a lot of serial killers and FBI serial-killer profiles. I’m so excited. I mean, it’s absolutely Shakespearean to me, that character. I think people will have great glee seeing me being mean to a little girl and her dog.”
Also on her plate waiting to be considered are offers to host a talk show and plans ranging from writing a third book to launching a career in fashion, where she would become “the first large-sized supermodel.”
But most of all, she wants to continue jangling nerves and shaking up the establishment.
“Oh, no, I’m not done yet. I have a lot more to say and do,” she said, smiling widely. “I’m pretty done with television for a while, though I might come back to it. But I’d like to shake up another medium, and maybe one after that, and maybe one after that. I’d like to be pushy, and blow up as much as I can.”
Citing John Waters and Billy Bob Thornton as two of her favorite filmmakers, Roseanne is also thinking of trying her hand at writing and directing movies:
“I think I brought film moments to television, and I’d like to experiment and do some kind of low-budget films based on things that have really happened to me. Something in between ‘Pink Flamingos’ and ‘Sling Blade.’ ”
The familiar Roseanne cackle heard over the credits of each “Roseanne” episode comes pouring out. “Doesn’t that sound interesting?” she said. “That’s me right there. Yes.”
Producer Tom Werner said he knew he had something different on his hands even before the first “Roseanne” premiered on Oct. 18, 1988. He and partner Marcy Carsey had hit a gold mine in 1984 when they oversaw the transformation of Bill Cosby’s stand-up act to “The Cosby Show,” and they were seeking to do it again with the stand-up comedian then known as Roseanne Barr.
The premonition came when he was watching the taping of the very first scene between Roseanne and John Goodman, the beefy actor who had been cast as her husband, Dan.
In the scene, Dan comes into the kitchen and asks Roseanne, “Is there coffee?” An annoyed Roseanne replies, “Dan! Is there coffee every morning? . . . In the 15 years since we’ve been married, has there been one morning where there hasn’t been coffee?” An expressionless Dan responds, “No.”
“Then why do you have to ask me every morning if there is coffee?” Roseanne demands as she puts a plateful of toast on the table.
A scolded Dan pauses, then deadpans, “Is there toast?”--and then smiles teasingly at his wife. Roseanne’s disgusted look dissolves into a smile.
“The look that she gives to John, you could just feel the audience respond to her,” Werner said. “It was more than a laugh, it was like a tidal wave. It was like the women in the audience were saying, ‘Thank you for demonstrating the way I feel about my husband.’ From that point on, Marcy and I knew this show would be a real bronco.”
Although “Roseanne” borrowed elements from other blue-collar family shows such as “The Honeymooners” and “All in the Family,” it had several distinctive features that immediately set it apart from the pack. Roseanne Conner, not her husband, was the guiding force of the household, and not always a calm and collected one. She hurled relentless and often biting wisecracks at her children and spouse, though the barbs never concealed her love and warmth for them.
In addition, Roseanne and Goodman handled their considerable weight and lack of Hollywood glamour with unapologetic comfort and ease.
“ ‘Roseanne’ was a pioneer television show that was truly unique,” said former ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert. “She said things that people were thinking, even though it was not thought to be appropriate to have those thoughts on television.”
Before “Roseanne,” he said, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” had been the industry standard for a comedy led by a female.
“That was a fantastic show and I loved it, but multitudes of people couldn’t identify with that idea,” Harbert said. “The millions who lived life like Roseanne didn’t have a voice on television, so she became their spokesperson.”
Reflecting on her legacy, Roseanne said: “I just wanted to hold a mirror up to the society we live in, and I really wanted to honor what was ordinary and yet extraordinary about moms and family. The wisecracks were a way of saying a lot of things, of telling the truth, expressing sorrow, breaking a stalemate. There was never sweet, lilting laughter. The show was always about something.”
In addition to family problems, the series included humorous looks at sexuality. There were several gay characters, including Roseanne’s mother (Estelle Parsons). “Roseanne” also tackled serious matters, such as Dan’s infidelity, her depression and the difficulty of daughter Darlene’s pregnancy. Until this last season, when the Conners won $108 million in the lottery, they were often on the edge of economic desperation. Dan was even unemployed for a time in 1992 after being forced to sell his motorcycle shop because he was so behind on the mortgage payments.
To its star, “Roseanne” was more than a weekly sitcom. It was her life, an obsession and a life-saver that kept her afloat during years of emotional trauma and upheaval, of bad marriages and bitter fights with her family.
“This is the most important thing that I’ve ever done up to this point, and it might be the most important thing I ever wind up doing,” Roseanne said. “I was possessed by it. It’s like I was driven to do it, as if it didn’t come from me. Just the commitment I had to speak to the people like me out there is what pulled me through everything. I got to tap all those parts of myself that I wouldn’t have ever gotten to find without this show. It was like a life preserver at low points.”
No wonder that, even after saying this would be the last season of “Roseanne,” she and Carsey-Werner proposed bringing the character back next fall in a new setting--moving with her son D.J. to Las Vegas and settling in a black neighborhood. But they were unable to work out a deal with ABC, and the other networks also passed.
Roseanne and Werner were less than pleased that ABC turned down the new concept after “Roseanne,” which still has a large audience despite having declined from its heyday, had done so much for the network.
Said Werner: “We were disappointed in ABC’s reaction. ‘Roseanne’ had held up the Tuesday-night lineup for years. We were a bit surprised that they didn’t jump at the opportunity for another year, especially since it would have twisted the concept and made it very fresh.”
Sources said that the network wanted to lower the license fee for the show and only wanted to commit to 13 episodes, instead of 22. Nor was ABC willing to guarantee a fall start.
Werner and ABC declined to discuss the negotiations. But Roseanne said: “I wasn’t going to do this for less money. Why would I do that? I’m not gonna take a pay cut. I think a lot of stuff written in the press this season kind of undercut us. I think ABC lost faith in my ability to reinvent the show. That’s really sad.”
Although she was a newcomer to Hollywood when the show began, it didn’t take long for ABC and Carsey-Werner to realize that Roseanne was fiercely protective of her vision and was not afraid to rumble with executives or her writing and producing staff. Even though the comedy jumped almost immediately into Nielsen’s Top 5, bitter battles erupted backstage between Roseanne and the show’s creator and executive producer, Matt Williams, over control of the series. She claimed that he didn’t know how to write for a woman and was trying to dilute her character and belittle her.
The venom between the pair grew to the point that Roseanne threatened to walk off the series at mid-season unless Williams was kicked out. A month later, Carsey-Werner announced that Williams had “elected to move on” because of “creative differences” with the star. He received a lucrative settlement.
The behind-the-scenes battles continued. Williams’ replacement, Jeff Harris, left after a year, taking out a full-page ad in the trade paper Daily Variety that said that instead of returning to the show, “my wife and I have decided to share a vacation in the relative peace and quiet of Beirut.”
The fights and the heavy turnover of personnel were remarkable even by show business standards, particularly since some of the writer-producers had successful track records and went on to other big hits after “Roseanne” (see box). Roseanne also was not shy about publicly blasting Harbert and ABC executives in disagreements about the comedy’s direction or the decisions to change time slots.
Looking back on the battles, Roseanne said she was angered by the Hollywood system, which she said rewards laziness.
“I’m a working-class person,” she said. “Where I grew up, if you didn’t do the job, you got fired. You didn’t get promoted. It’s so ass-backwards here, this system. It was beyond any personal thing. I didn’t get it. I just wanted to be with people who were excited and wanted to be there.”
Said Werner: “We made more than 220 episodes. There are bound to be bumps along the road, but creative disagreements are not unusual. Roseanne was always coming from a place about what was best for the show. It was never an ego place. She just wanted to do honest work.”
Former ABC executive Harbert, who is now a producer at DreamWorks SKG, said of his conflicts with Roseanne: “She is an extremely gifted person. Sometimes the price you pay for that is a few idiosyncrasies. It never bothered me. When she was upset, we always found a way to work it out.”
Said Roseanne: “Here’s the bottom line. Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner put me on television and gave me the opportunity to do a show about a woman that’s never been done before, and they were the only people who could have done that. I have nothing but admiration and gratitude for that. They gave me a lot of room.”
Roseanne said she also bears no grudge against Harbert: “He’s all right. One time at a wrap party, I got drunk and kissed him full on the lips. He didn’t move for about 10 minutes. I think it was about the scariest thing I could do to him.”
But as infamous as some of the stories surrounding the show are, Roseanne’s off-screen antics often surpassed them.
She sparked a national outrage in 1990 when she screeched the national anthem, then scratched her crotch and spit, before a Padres game at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. She said that it was meant as a joke, but even President George Bush criticized her. Then in 1991 she said that she is an incest survivor, engaging in a public dispute with her parents and sister, who denied the allegation.
Perhaps the most notorious period was when Roseanne became involved with comedian Tom Arnold, whom she married in January 1990. The couple, who appeared to be inseparable soul mates, often propelled themselves into the news with publicity stunts--mooning television cameras at a baseball game to expose their tattoos, mud-wrestling on the cover of Vanity Fair, firing off angry faxes to television critics. When rumors floated about Arnold having an affair with his assistant, Kim Silva, Roseanne and Arnold announced that they were marrying her.
Arnold became an executive producer of “Roseanne” and took almost total control of his wife’s career. She dedicated her 1994 autobiography “My Lives” to him, writing, “You and I are our own garden.” Their shenanigans became the basis for two television movies, by NBC and Fox. The couple developed two vehicles for Arnold--”The Jackie Thomas Show” for ABC and “Tom” for CBS. Both flopped.
But the most bizarre note came when Roseanne filed for divorce in April 1994, claiming that Arnold had been physically and emotionally abusive to her. Three days later, she dropped the divorce petition and publicly apologized to Arnold, recanting her claims. About three weeks later, Roseanne refiled for divorce. Arnold has since remarried and stars in the current movie “McHale’s Navy.” He has signed to do a television series for the WB network this fall.
Asked about those stormy years, Roseanne doesn’t refer to Arnold by name but says she has no regrets.
“I don’t even know what regret means, because you can’t change anything,” she said. “But it was just a real crazy time. It was a hurricane. I got caught in the middle of something, and it was so huge and so unstoppable it was like a speeding train. It was just so out of my control in every way, and I think a lot of my behavior is reflected there. I couldn’t find the place to stand still.”
Her voice grew softer as she continued: “There was a lot of turmoil, fear of just being flying through space with no anchor at all. I’ve seen it happen to other people when they start to get famous or they have great success. I think a lot of people just spin so far out of control that they die. I mean it’s just like being an alien from Mars. And I did. I felt just like I was from another planet.”
A turning point came in 1995 after getting pregnant by Ben Thomas, her former bodyguard and future husband.
“The doctor told me I was in danger of losing that pregnancy, so I had to go to bed for, like, 8 to 10 weeks,” Roseanne recalled. “I was trying not to let go of the show, but I had to make a decision to just let it go, which was really, really the hardest thing ever. And I did. At first I thought it would be devastating, but it wasn’t. It was a profound spiritual centering, that pregnancy. I realized that my mind controlled my body. And if you look back, that is when all that crazy stuff stopped.
“That baby was the beginning of my feeling OK in my skin and my voice and my also feeling that there is a future for me beyond this one idea. I’d come through. I had gone over the mountain, and I lived. And I learned a lot more about collaboration from that point. It was a great learning process.”
Although she looks back on “Roseanne” as “a great, great ride,” the star now has to learn how to ride a broomstick in “The Wizard of Oz.” “I’m doing 12 shows a week--way too many,” she quipped.
Roseanne is not ruling out a return to television.
“When I watch other shows now, there’s all these supermodels doing this self-deprecating humor about how they can’t get laid, and all that,” she said. “I’m happy to see that because I know there’ll be room for me to come back later on. And probably do the same thing I did, and maybe even better.”
She paused. “I wasn’t nearly as outrageous as I should have been. And I’m probably gonna do some more outrageous things. I’ll just make sure that I don’t end up on the wrong end of it. I don’t want to be the tail wagging the dog anymore.”
* HOT PROPERTY
Roseanne is moving on in more ways than one. She’s just sold her Brentwood home for nearly $2.3 million. Details in Real Estate, K1.
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