The sitcom Designing Women (1986 -1993) was created by Bill and Hillary Clinton friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. It ran on Monday nights on CBS for seven seasons with 163 episodes aired.
The show received respectable ratings; however, CBS moved the show several times to other time slots. After dismal ratings in Sunday night and Thursday slots, CBS placed it on hiatus and was ready to cancel the show, when a campaign by gay fans saved the show and returned it to its regular Monday night slot. The show’s ratings solidified, and it regularly landed in the Top 20. Murphy Brown, which also centered around a strong, opinionated female character, aired back-to-back, creating a very successful hour-long block for the network.
Designing Women, in case you are too young to remember, is about four women and one possibly gay man working together at an interior designing firm in Atlanta, called Sugarbaker & Associates. It stars Dixie Carter as Julia Sugarbaker, president of the design firm; Delta Burke as Suzanne Sugarbaker, Julia’s ex-beauty queen sister; Annie Potts as head designer Mary Jo; and Jean Smart as office manager Charlene. Later in its run, the series gained notoriety for its well-publicized behind-the-scenes conflicts and cast changes. Newhart‘s Julia Duffy and Jan Hooks of Saturday Night Live replaced Burke and Smart for season six, but Duffy was replaced by Broadway star Judith Ivey for the final season.
In season two, there is an episode Killing All the Right People that featured a fiery speech by Carter, and some dizzy-headed moments from Burke, and also a heartbreaking of ending.
This episode revolves around a character played by the delicious Tony Goldwyn, more than 20 years before Scandal), who asks Sugarbaker & Associates to design his funeral because he’s dying of AIDS. They women accept the assignment, and Julia Sugarbaker (Carter) ends up tossing out a homophobic female client who announces that: ”AIDS is killing all the right people”. The episode’s final scene is of the funeral service, with the cast singing the hymn A Closer Walk With Thee. Even more devastating is an earlier scene where Mary Jo (Potts), is speaking at a P.T.A. meeting in favor of giving out condoms to high school students.
Bloodworth-Thomason had recently lost her mother to AIDS-related illness after she contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. While in the hospital, Bloodworth-Thomason heard someone say that AIDS was ”killing all the right people”, and her ire and grief pushed her to write the script and put those words in the mouth of the sanctimonious bigot.
Burke’s Suzanne Sugarbaker is strong, southern, and sassy, and she was the favorite of the gay fans of the show. In real life, Burke, who was a Republican, loves the gays right back. She is a longtime supporter of LGBTQ Rights and she has worked with openly gay playwright and screenwriter Del Shores, including the stage and film versions of his LGBTQ favorite Sordid Lives and the play Southern Baptist Sissies. Burke and openly gay actor Leslie Jordan were uninvited from the local Nashville talk show Talk Of The Town after the show’s managing director decided the subject matter would offend the conservative viewers.
Burke first became an advocate for queer people after attending acting school in London and because she has a lesbian sister. In Southern Baptist Sissies, she played three different mothers of gay children.
Now, when I was a naïve young ingenue studying acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, I was a missionary of sorts to many a gay man. By then I was already a gay magnet, for some reason they were just drawn to me. And over and over I’d live out the same scenario. Some extremely handsome guy would confess to me that he was all confused about his sexuality, and for some reason he thought I was the one who could turn him—you know, help him figure it all out. Well, I helped him figure it out all right. One night with me, baby, they no longer had any doubts. They knew. They were 100% positive that they were gay. I don’t know exactly what that says about me, but I decided to look on the positive side, knowing that I helped many a gay man come to terms with his homosexuality. So, yes, I believe in Marriage Equality. I believe in equal rights.
Burke received two Emmy Award nominations for the show, the only lead female cast member of Designing Women to do so. In 1990, she expressed dissatisfaction with the show on a televised interview with Barbara Walters. She called it a labor dispute, claiming the actors were often forced to work over 15 hours per day, with executives even blocking the doors and keeping actors on set. She also said that Carter, who had once been maid of honor at her wedding to actor Gerald McRaney, wasn’t speaking to her. It took more than a decade for Burke and Carter to reconcile, but then Burke guest-starred on Family Law, on which Carter was a regular cast-member.
Burke played Suzanne Sugarbaker again, this time in Women Of The House, a spin-off of Designing Women that aired on CBS for a single season in 1995, after she had reconciled with producers of Designing Women after their bitter, highly publicized battle. She was also in the cast of Filthy Rich (1982–1983), a satire of primetime soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty, playing opposite Dixie Carter. She had her own sitcom, Delta (1992–93), and a regular role on DAG (2000–01), and a recurring guest role on Boston Legal (2006–07). She starred in the Broadway productions of Thoroughly Modern Millie (2003) and Steel Magnolias (2005).
During Designing Women‘s run, Burke’s weight was a subject in the tabloids. Her struggles with weight, depression, and eating disorders go back to the early 1970s. In 1989, Burke asked Bloodworth-Thomason to write an episode addressing her weight. They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They? had Suzanne Sugarbaker going to her 15-year high school reunion and having her feelings hurt after hearing nasty remarks about her weight.
Burke has been married to Gerald McRaney since 1989. I worked with McRaney on Simon And Simon in 1986, and she was on set. Burke kept going on and on about how much I looked like her husband, even putting us side-by-side so that cast and crew could compare. Everyone agreed that the resemblance was uncanny. They were both lovely to me. McRaney is just about the nicest right-winger, NRA member I have met. He has a recurring role on the NBC series This Is Us in a role which earned him an Emmy Award.
Burke and McRaney’s have homes in Los Angeles, Telluride, and New Orleans. They also own an antique store in Collins, Mississippi. Burke has compulsive hoarding syndrome, for which she is in therapy.
On Designing Women, Suzanne Sugarbaker owned a pet pig named Noel. She would drive Noel to the Dairy Queen for a Buster Bar in her Mercedes convertible. She also purchased a large semi-automatic rifle but trades down to a small handgun after accidentally firing it at the other women. The character was a proud member of the National Rifle Association and often placed NRA stickers on people’s front doors.
For the first five seasons of Designing Women, Suzanne lives in a beautiful mansion with her psychotic foreign maid, Consuela Valverde. After Burke left the series, her character moved to Japan to be with her mother, Perky. Julia Sugarbaker said of Suzanne’s move:
She was attracted to the Japanese economy. They have a large elderly population and Suzanne has dated most of the men in this country.
Today, Burke seems to be happy in self-exile from showbiz, but I would love to see her return to series television with Noel the pig, Consuela and her handgun as they take on Japan. But until then, as World of Wonder writer, Trey Speegle reported on Saturday, Hulu has announced that it’s bringing the original series to streaming for the very first time. All seven seasons will be available on August 26, as a press release says: Women’s Equality Day!.