Determined to use television as a tool for social change, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason developed Designing Women partly with the purpose of creating a television series that featured intelligent women who were both sassy and sympathetic and who expressed differing views on women’s issues and other topics of discussion that came across her soapbox. Almost 30 years after its initial debut, here are some facts about the Emmy Award-winning series.
1. NONE OF THE LEAD ACTRESSES HAD TO AUDITION FOR THEIR ROLES.
When Linda Bloodworth-Thomason decided to create a show about four intelligent, sassy Southern women, she had Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, Jean Smart, and Annie Potts in mind from the start. She’d previously worked with Burke and Carter on a short-lived series called Filthy Rich, and Smart and Potts had guest-starred together on an episode of the Robert Wagner series Lime Street. Of the four, only Jean Smart was not a native Southerner; she was born and raised in Seattle.
2. ANTHONY BOUVIER WAS NOT INTENDED TO BE A REGULAR CHARACTER.
Anthony Bouvier was originally supposed to make a one-time appearance in the sixth episode of season one. The script for the episode wasn’t yet complete when Meshach Taylor auditioned, so instead he was instructed to improvise with the other cast members. The producers were so impressed with the chemistry between Taylor and the four female stars that Anthony became a recurring character, and then a series regular. Taylor was the first cast member to be nominated for an Emmy Award for his work on the show.
3. A LETTER-WRITING CAMPAIGN SAVED THE SHOW FROM CANCELLATION.
Midway through season one, CBS moved Designing Women from its Monday night time slot to Thursday, directly opposite NBC’s Night Court. The show plummeted to number 65 in the Nielsen ratings and was put on hiatus, which was network code for “this is close to being cancelled.” Executive producer Harry Thomason contacted a grassroots organization called Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) to enlist the assistance of their membership. A letter-writing campaign was launched, with viewers encouraged to write letters of protest to CBS president Bud Grant as well as to major TV journalists and critics. All told, CBS received an estimated 50,000 letters in support of Designing Women. The series’ stars appeared on an episode of Entertainment Tonight to discuss the campaign and encourage viewers to support them. Obviously, the strategy paid off; the show was not only renewed, it was also moved back to Monday nights.
4. DIXIE CARTER HAD SOME “DESIGN” WORK OF HER OWN DONE AFTER THE FIRST SEASON.
Dixie Carter was 47 years old when Designing Women debuted in 1986. Keen-eyed fans probably noticed a slight difference in Julia Sugarbaker’s appearance between seasons one and two. That’s because after Carter watched the screening of the pilot episode she thought, “If this turns out to be my first big success, after all these years of performing, I couldn't bear to be identified as ‘the older one.’”
5. SADLY, “KILLING ALL THE RIGHT PEOPLE” WAS BASED ON A REAL-LIFE EXPERIENCE.
The title of the Emmy-nominated season two episode was inspired by an actual quote series creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason overheard in a hospital corridor. In late 1986 her mother was dying of AIDS following a contaminated blood transfusion, and Thomason kept a vigil at her bedside while simultaneously writing the early scripts for Designing Women. She was indignant at the ignorance of many of the medical personnel (some nurses refused to touch the AIDS patients and instead placed their medication in a bucket and kicked it into their rooms) and it saddened her that so many of the patients were dying alone in their rooms with even family members afraid to get too close. She put pen to paper when she heard a woman in the hallway confiding to a companion, “If you ask me, this disease has one thing going for it. It’s killing all the right people.”
6. DIXIE CARTER FELT UNEASY DELIVERING MANY OF HER FAMOUS RANTS.
Julia Sugarbaker was a staunch liberal who never hesitated to launch into one of her trademark Terminator Tirades if someone got her dander up. Dixie Carter, however, was a registered Republican who sometimes felt a little uncomfortable with Julia’s politics. She reached a compromise with Harry and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: for every instance where Julia was required to spout off on a Thomason pet topic, Carter (who’d had years of professional vocal training) would get to sing a song in a later episode.
7. ANNIE POTTS HAD TO HIDE HER PREGNANCY.
The actress was in a family way during season six but the producers decided that they didn't want her character, Mary Jo, to be a single mom. So Annie had to spend much of that season hidden behind furniture or oversized shirts. There was a brief attempt at a pregnancy plot—with Mary Jo longing for a baby and visiting a sperm bank—but the writers had already gone the motherhood route not too long before with Charlene. Besides, Murphy Brown (which aired in the time slot just prior to Designing Women on Monday nights) was raising all sorts of hackles with her impending maternity, and the Thomasons didn’t want to seem like they were hopping aboard the single motherhood bandwagon as an attempt to leech off of some of Candice Bergen’s publicity.
8. JULIA SUGARBAKER AND REESE WATSON WERE MARRIED IN REAL LIFE.
Dixie Carter and Hal Holbrook were married in 1984, the third time down the aisle for both. He turned down the role of Julia’s beau, attorney Reese Watson, several times until Bloodworth-Thomason asked him, “Do you really want some other man making love to your wife on television?"
9. SUZANNE SUGARBAKER AND DASH GOFF WERE ALSO MARRIED … EVENTUALLY.
Gerald McRaney edged out John Ritter to win the role of Suzanne Sugarbaker’s first ex-husband, writer Dash Goff. There was an immediate attraction between the actors when they first met at a publicists’ lunch in 1987, which only strengthened when he was cast on the show. One scene called for the pair to kiss, and the two were inseparable afterward. They were married in 1989 in an elaborate ceremony in front of 400 guests, with Dixie Carter serving as Burke’s matron of honor.
10. CHARLENE AND BILL WERE NOT A REAL-LIFE COUPLE, BUT CHARLENE AND J.D. WERE.
Richard Gilliland was cast in a recurring role as Mary Jo’s boyfriend, J.D. Shackleford, in season one. But it was Jean Smart who sat across from Gilliland during the first table read and decided that she needed to get to know him better. “I asked Delta to find out if he was married,” Smart recalled to Ladies Home Journal in 1990. “Naturally, Delta walked up to him and blurted, ‘Jean wants to know if you're married.’” Smart invited him to her dressing room to help her with a crossword puzzle, and in June 1987 the couple tied the knot (in the garden of Hal Holbrook and Dixie Carter’s Brentwood home).
Even though they were now married in real life, on TV Gilliland was still paired with Annie Potts' Mary Jo, and Smart's Charlene eventually married Air Force Colonel Bill Stillfield (played by Douglas Barr). All four of the men appeared with their onscreen better halves in just one episode, season two’s “Reservations for Eight.”
11. DELTA BURKE CLAIMED THAT SHE WAS BEING TERRORIZED ON THE SET.
In 1990, Delta Burke appeared on a Barbara Walters special without alerting the Designing Women producers. During the interview she stated that the set was not a happy one, and accused the Thomasons of “terrorizing” and “manipulating” her. She claimed that Harry Thomason once locked her and her co-stars in a room and screamed at them (no other cast member corroborated this story). She also expressed her sadness that her friend Dixie Carter had sided with the producers.
Burke started showing up late or not at all during season five and the cast was forced to learn two versions of each script—one with Suzanne, and one without Suzanne. At the end of the season, Harry Thomason asked the cast to vote on whether or not they’d like to continue working with Burke. The result of the vote was that Burke was released from her contract.
12. 227’S JACKÉE HARRY WAS CONSIDERED AS A REPLACEMENT FOR BURKE.
Season six started out with two new cast members, since Jean Smart had decided that she’d had enough of the sitcom format and work schedule and wanted to spend some time at home with her infant son. Julia Duffy (Newhart) was cast as Allison Sugarbaker and Jan Hooks (Saturday Night Live) was brought in as Charlene’s sister (and replacement) Carlene.
Bloodworth-Thomason stated to TV Guide at the time that, “There are only a handful of actresses who can pull off being whiny and petulant and self-centered and still be liked by the audience, and Julia Duffy has that quality.” Unfortunately, the writers tried too hard to make Allison different from Suzanne, and they never quite got the “likeable” part of her character down pat. Duffy’s contract was not renewed at the end of the season.
Jackée Harry made a guest appearance as Anthony’s fiancée in the season six cliffhanger finale, with the plan that her character would buy into Sugarbaker’s and become a series regular. But it was decided that her personality was too over-the-top and that idea was scrapped.
Close-Ups: Conversations with Our TV Favorites by Eddie Lucas, Pub. by BearManor Media
Trying to Get to Heaven by Dixie Carter
Delta Style by Delta Burke
Entertainment Tonight Presents The Real Designing Women (2000 TV Special)
"Delta Burkes Escalates Was with Designing Women Brass on Weighty Issues," Baltimore Sun, November 14. 1990
"Burke at the Top, Trying to Change," Orlando Sentinel, August 2, 1990
"Delta Burke Bad-Mouths Bosses—Again," Sun Sentinel, November 14, 1990