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The Perseverance of Delta Burke

William Keck is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

There is a scene in “Dag,” an NBC comedy scheduled to premiere in the fall, that finds Delta Burke, as First Lady Judith Whitman, alone at an elegantly laid-out table, waiting to meet with her husband. The dining room is empty except for a handful of secret agents. As the minutes tick by, it becomes clear he’s not coming. And she’s the only one who didn’t know. Without a word, Burke conveys a stoic dignity, a careful composure, allowing no hint of the pain she feels at this public humiliation.

It’s a scene she knows well, having lived through a troubled time when her once-promising career as a star in the hit “Designing Women” began to dissolve. In those years, her weight ballooned and reports of her behavior on the set filled the tabloids. She was finally fired from the show, and, though she has resurfaced on occasion, for the most part Burke disappeared from Hollywood’s radar.

That was then.

Quietly, and carefully, Burke began last summer trying to revive her career. A medical scare helped her drop the weight with which she’d been struggling for years. Therapy and treatment for depression have helped her feel more at home in her own skin. The 5-foot-5 actress says her weight’s been at 150 for more than a year now, and she likes being there--though she still fights being overtaken by the industry’s obsession with thin bodies.

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During the darkest of times, Burke retreated to New Orleans, where she lives much of the time still with her husband, actor Gerald McRaney (“Promised Land” and “Major Dad”). But last summer she came back to Los Angeles. Taking an apartment and taking meetings.

It has paid off. Besides “Dag,” Burke has landed her first major motion picture with a role in “What Women Want” with Mel Gibson, a deal to host a series of self-esteem-themed specials for cable channel Lifetime, and a recurring role on the WB’s “Popular” (Burke’s character, Cherry Cherry, wed Erik Estrada in the season finale.)

Burke seems now like a softer, less manipulative version of Suzanne Sugarbaker, the sassy, spoiled former Southern beauty queen she played on “Designing Women.” It was a role that would take the former Miss Florida and turn her into a celebrity, earning her two Emmy nominations along the way. Unlike Suzanne, who rarely sought acceptance from anyone, Burke wants to be liked. The difference these days, she says, is that she’s also found a way to like herself.

*

The phone rings at 7:56 on a Wednesday night. “Hello,” she whispers. “This is Delta Burke.”

Nearly three weeks had passed since Burke first spoke for this story, on the evening of her first public appearance in years as a presenter at the Media Awards of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD. That night, as Burke took the stage, the crowd went silent, then applause began sweeping through the room as she breezed on stage looking very much as she did during the first season of her CBS sitcom--svelte, brunet and breathtaking.

“Everyone’s been coming up and saying, ‘We loved you whether you were big or thin,’ ” she says during the party afterward. “I really needed to hear that.”

Like the GLAAD crowd, most people remember a starkly different Delta, one who had been fired from the 1986-93 sitcom, about four Atlanta-based interior designers, at the end of its fifth season after a highly publicized behind-the-scenes battle with producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. At the time, Burke was gaining the majority of her fame not as a skilled comedic actress, but as a national punch line.

“She went from feeling like sort of the darling of the press to being their favorite target,” co-star Jean Smart says.

Now, speaking on the phone from her Los Angeles apartment, Burke, 43, is anxious to know what her former “Designing” co-stars--Smart, Annie Potts and Dixie Carter, all of whom have avoided talking publicly about Burke for years--have said about her. “You’ve got to tell me everything,” Burke pleads.

If Burke seems a bit paranoid, it’s not without reason. While Smart, Potts and Carter offer nothing but kind words, the last time all four were together was in 1991 amid a barrage of whispers and half-truths forcing the women, Burke claims, to take sides. They have barely seen each other in the years since.

Eighteen months ago, Potts, now the star of the Lifetime drama “Any Day Now,” invited Burke to play her sister. Smart, who’d been out of touch as well, made a special visit to the set to reconnect.

But Burke is most curious to hear about Carter, from whom she has been estranged for the past 10 years. “It got so ugly at the end,” Burke says of her last days on “Designing Women.” “I’d gone into the dressing room, around Christmastime, to talk to [Dixie], but I don’t think things were ready to be discussed then. I just remember saying, ‘For what we once had, I’m sorry for any pain I’ve caused.’ But I don’t know that she was really ready to hear that.”

Burke’s friendship with Carter dates to 1982 when they co-starred on the short-lived comedy series “Filthy Rich,” also produced by the Thomasons.

“We were really close,” says Carter, breaking her long silence regarding Burke. “I was in Mac [McRaney] and Delta’s wedding [as matron of honor]. The truth of the matter is I love Delta. I always have and I always will. As to our friendship and when we see each other again, when that happens, I don’t think it should be a public thing.”

For now, the distance remains as Carter, who plays a lawyer in the CBS drama “Family Law,” says: “Send Delta and Mac my very best love and congratulations on everything that’s going on with her. I’m absolutely thrilled for her.”

Those words reduce Burke to tears: “She said that? Really? . . . I just thought everything was completely undone.

“She was a very, very good friend to me,” Burke adds, “and the saddest part of what happened was what happened between us.”

*

Exactly what happened all began with an endless catalog of Delta Burke stories mass-produced in the pages of the Star, the Globe and the National Enquirer in the late ‘80s through early ‘90s--most stemming from Burke’s expanded waistline.

The headlines screamed everything from the truly bizarre (“Delta Chases Annie Potts Around the Set to Swipe Her Snickers Bar”) to the downright venomous--(“ ‘Major Dad’ Dumps Delta for Sexy TV Wife, Shanna Reed”). “I was reminded of an old Burt Reynolds line,” says actor McRaney, Burke’s husband of 11 years, “that he once lined his cat litter box with the National Enquirer, and for days the poor thing wouldn’t go. I guess he figured it was redundant.”

While America was laughing at the actress who was dubbed “Delta Bulk” by the supermarket rags, the characterizations were killing her. “The tabloid machine tortured Delta,” a still-angry Potts says.

Particularly painful were stories claiming McRaney had been unfaithful. The details are still etched in Burke’s memory: “The first year he was doing ‘Major Dad,’ [they said] he was having an affair with [his co-star] Shanna Reed, and comparing me to her, and how beautiful she was. I just felt so completely inadequate.”

The attacks on Burke quickly migrated from the tabloids to late-night talk shows and even to other prime-time series. “I could flip around the TV, and every damn time I would land on ‘Married . . . With Children,’ they’d say something snarly about me,” Burke says. “I felt like it was hunting season and I was ‘it.’ ”

*

Comedian Julie Brown, who years ago portrayed a mammoth, woman-eating Delta Burke on Fox’s short-lived sketch comedy series “The Edge,” now admits having felt “weird” about mocking Burke’s weight. Brown still recalls the 1992 skit as one of her all-time funniest--dressed in a fat suit, playing a monstrous Burke, tearing the roof off the “Designing Women” mansion and eating the heads off the other three co-stars one by one. “I think I ate Annie Potts and said, ‘She tastes like chicken,’ ” says Brown. “Then I destroyed a city. People loved it.”

As Brown sees it, “Once someone’s really made themselves a public figure, if you make jokes about them, they should be kind of OK about it. Unless [the jokes are] super-cruel.”

Many of the jabs could indeed qualify as super-cruel. “I just didn’t understand it,” says Burke, who now believes she was, as she puts it, too childlike at the time to cope with the barbs.

Even on the set, she wasn’t immune from the weight issue. When she debuted on “Designing Women,” Burke was 145 pounds and even then was reprimanded for being fat. “I remember being on the sound stage with people standing around me trying to decide what they were going to have me wear. They would talk about me like I wasn’t even there. ‘What are we going to do about those hips?’ ”

When it came to the tabloids, Smart believes Burke’s image as a wholesome former beauty queen made her an easy target. “They never would have done that if people hadn’t talked about how incredibly beautiful she was,” says Smart, who can be seen in Bruce Willis’ upcoming film “The Kid.” “It’s the same thing with Elizabeth Taylor. The higher someone has been raised up, the more the hyenas come to tear them down.”

In the middle of the fourth season of “Designing Women,” as Burke was at one of her lowest points--pushing 200 pounds and riddled by crippling panic attacks--a handwritten note arrived.

“This beautiful lavender-colored stationery was hand-delivered to Delta, and it was this wonderful personal note from Liz Taylor saying, ‘I know what you’re going through. . . . Hang in there. . . . I think you’re gorgeous,’ ” Smart says. “Delta was tickled to death.”

“She was just ‘it’ to me,” says Burke, who has long idolized but never met Taylor. “It was like getting a letter from the great goddess. I would let people look at it, but they couldn’t touch it.”

*

Season 4 may have been the emotional bottom, but by the end of the second season, the actress had already fallen into a deep depression (a condition she has battled on and off since age 16). “Basically, I would shut down and hole up,” Burke says. “I wouldn’t want to leave the apartment until I came out of this dark place. It was very debilitating.”

Physically and mentally exhausted, Burke asked to be released from her contract, but the Thomasons recruited Burke’s then-closest friend, Carter, to bring the missing-in-action star back to work. Instead, Carter whisked Burke to a doctor. “He admitted me to the hospital right away,” says Burke. “The nurse said I looked like a wounded animal. I didn’t really want to exist. I remember they weighed me and I was 170 pounds, and I wanted to die.”

“The depression had gotten to her so much she could barely function,” McRaney says, “and it was all wrapped around that image and the legitimate fear that she was going to be fired and that her career was going to be over.”

Burke began taking medication to combat the depression, started seeing a therapist and returned to work for the third season, which is when the panic attacks began. “It scared the [expletive] out of me,” says Burke, crediting Xanax with saving her.

McRaney admits his wife’s morbid obsessions concerned him deeply, “but I too was convinced she wouldn’t act on that.” However, during the taping of a classic episode that found her character in blackface as a Supreme, Burke says she “tried to get rid of the pain,” overdosing on Xanax. “I just wanted the pain to stop. . . . I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Burke awoke from a very long sleep, only to discover the pain, of course, had not gone away. The worst, in fact, was to come. A personality clash with the Thomasons erupted into an all-out war of words in the media, forcing McRaney to go public with his anger over what he saw as his wife’s shoddy treatment. (The Thomasons did not respond to interview requests.) While Burke’s co-stars decline to comment on that rift, Smart believes something good did come from it.

“Delta’s abilities as an actress just blossomed,” Smart says.

Burke herself noticed the difference. "[Suzanne’s] walk became a swagger. Her voice changed. Her attitude changed. She became a great broad, and she got funnier. My life was falling apart, but my work got better.”

An emotional turning point came in the fourth season when Burke asked Bloodworth-Thomason to integrate her weight gain into the show. The result was an episode titled “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They,” for which the actress received her first Emmy nomination (losing to Candice Bergen). Still, backstage bickering intensified and Burke was fired from the series in 1991.

*

In the years after “Designing Women,” Burke struggled. There was a failed attempt at a comeback series--"Delta” (1992-93) on ABC, which found the actress as a struggling country-western singer--with blond hair. “Delta” was canceled after its first year, followed by the resurrection of Suzanne Sugarbaker in a new series also created by the Thomasons--1995’s “Women of the House” for CBS. It was canceled after less than three months.

Feeling rejected by Hollywood and facing a financial crunch, Burke and McRaney sold their Pasadena home in 1995 and moved to New Orleans. It proved to be a major step toward rebuilding her life. Embracing the “fat lady” subculture, Burke developed a clothing line for plus-size women and in 1997 toured the country with her book “Delta Style: Eve Wasn’t a Size 6 and Neither Am I.” Still, if not a size 6, she wanted to be thinner.

After Burke left the series in 1991, her weight soon ballooned to a high of 215 pounds. She tried diets, and bingeing and purging. The turning point, she says, came with a shift in her mind. “I got down to, like, 196, and I couldn’t lose any more weight. So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to stop beating myself up for not losing and give myself credit for maintaining.’ It was a new way of thinking.”

Year by year, the weight was slowly melting. But 1997 turned into a particularly dark year, with the loss of her grandmother and a beloved dog, breast cancer striking her mother, and Burke herself, then 170 pounds, being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. “I knew I had to lose some more weight,” says Burke, who now has the disease under control. “And now I’ve stayed a year at 150, which is what I weighed when I met my husband.”

McRaney was cast on “Designing Women” in 1987 as Suzanne’s first ex-husband, Dash Goff. They quickly fell in love and married in a lavish ceremony in 1989 attended by all her “Designing” co-stars and about 500 other friends.

“The weight never mattered to him,” says Burke, who weighed 170 on her wedding day. “He told me that honest to God he didn’t care, which of course I didn’t believe.”

McRaney is more blunt about it. “There are examples of men out there who are just complete jerks,” he says. “If people stopped and thought about it, what they’re engaged in is not love so much as it is trophy collecting. And if what you want is a trophy wife, then be happy with how empty and vacuous that’ll turn out to be. But if what you want is a wife, then you love that person. Period.”

“Dag,” in which Burke’s character is protected by a bodyguard played by the show’s star, comic David Alan Grier, is one of the new shows already generating a lot of good buzz. The television season is a grind, and producers are inclined to stay away from stars who have a reputation for being trouble on the set. But the show’s executive producer, Eileen Conn, says she had no reservations about casting Burke: “On our set all we saw was the funniest woman in the world.”

For Burke, the new series hasn’t come without challenge. “I come back to town, feeling really good about me, and everybody welcomed me--because, ‘God knows you look better than you did last time,’ ” Burke says mockingly. “That’s very nice. But it sneaks up on you. Gosh, if I was 10 pounds less they’d like me better.”

“That’s probably always going to be there,” McRaney says. “But the difference is that she’s a hell of a lot wiser and a lot tougher.”

If “Dag” becomes the hit some are predicting, Burke will probably find herself back in the spotlight. This time, she says she knows she can take that heat.


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