TV URBAN LEGEND: Joyce DeWitt was so outraged over a line of dialogue that her character was meant to say in an episode of Three’s Company that she said she wouldn’t even deliver it if the producers put a gun to her head during the show.
Launching as a midseason replacement in the Spring of 1977 (so 45 years ago this month), Three’s Company was a remake of a British sitcom called Man About the House, about a young man who becomes roommates with two single young women in Santa Monica, California. The curmudgeonly old landlord only allows this arrangement to happen because the roommates lie and say that the young man is gay. The show became a major hit, although it never quite became the #1 one show in television (it was the #1 sitcom for a few years, though, finishing the season behind either Dallas or 60 minutes in the ratings in those years).
The show made stars out of its leads John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt (as Jack Tripper, Chrissy Snow and Janet Wood, respectively) and saw career resurgences for veteran character actors Norman Fell and Audra Lindley (The Ropers, the owners of the The husband, Stanley, was the landlord and the wife, Helen, was a friend of the roommates and was in on the secret that Jack was not actually gay).
Just like the show that it was based upon, Three’s Company was a raunchy farce that pushed the envelope in terms of what you could get away with or network television in the late 1970s. A lot of it was based or silly misunderstandings (as an example, Jack and Chrissy are in the bedroom trying to put a fitted sheet on her bed and someone hears them talking about how they “have to get it on” and “I don’ t think it will fit” and “you’re just going to have to try harder” and obviously misconstrue that they are talking about sex. Three’s Company plots right there.
The breakout star of the show was clearly John Ritter, but right there with him was Suzanne Somers, as the sexy but innocent (and, as the show went on, dumber and dumber) Chrissy Snow. Here is the tricky thing, though, the network and the studio clearly saw the show as a John Ritter vehicle. He was paid the most out of the cast and Joyce DeWitt later recalled (in Chris Mann’s iconic book about the series, Come and Knock on Our Door: A Hers and Hers and His Guide to “Three’s Company,” one of the most in-depth books about a hit series ever. Mann got quotes that I still can’t quite believe) telling Somers, “I told her there was no way in hell that we would ever get points in the show unless we stood together, because they only valued John. They would replace either one of us in the blink of an eye. But they couldn’t lose both of us. And I genuinely believed, and still do, that Suzanne’s and my contribution to the success of the show was worthy of having points in the show.
While Somers’ dispute with the show would later become the most famous one in the history of the show, it was DeWitt who first had a major problem. The cast had all received raises in Season 3, but as the network was negotiating with Fell and Lindley for them to get their own spinoff series, The Ropers, the network started playing hardball and in an attempt to show Fell and Lindley that the entire cast wasn’t getting raises, the executives revoked DeWitt’s raise. This, of course, was a total shock to DeWitt and she called out “sick” (she would later say she WAS sick, sick in her soul at what they were trying to do to her). She eventually went right to the head of ABC Entertainment, Tony Thomopoulos, to plead her case right to him in terms of simple integrity, that a raise had been agreed upon and it would be wrong to renege on it for a negotiation ploy and Thomopoulos agreed with her and she got her raise back. She actually had time to shoot the show that week, but since the producers had already adapted the episode (I wrote about how the end result, which worked Jack’s girlfriend into DeWitt’s spot on the series, made no sense, but worked in a pinch) , she skipped it.
That was at the end of Season 3. In the start of Season 5, Somers was now calling in sick and trying to get a huge raise and pay equity with Ritter, which was never going to happen and the whole thing was quite tense. Somers didn’t show up for the taping of the second episode. She then showed up for third episode, the last one that Somers would do as a full cast member (they worked out a deal where she would appear in small bits where she would call in while visiting her parents de ella and she would be filmed separately from the rest of the cast). In the episode, people mistakenly believe that Chrissy is a prostitute like a friend of hers. At the end of the episode, the friend was to say that Chrissy was “priceless” and Janet was to say “and ella she’s going to stay that way.” DeWitt hated the line as she felt it was far too judgmental for her character de ella, especially since earlier in the episode Janet is totally fine with the prostitute friend. Ritter chimed in and said that he would say the line. The producer, though, kept it as Janet’s line. At the final dress rehearsal, I asked DeWitt what her problem was with the line, which, of course, angered her as she had been complaining about the line all week. She recalled, “I leaned back in my chair and took the deepest breath. And instead of answering this idiotic question. I said, ‘Mickey, I’ll tell you what the deal is with this line. You can come out with a gun during the five-thirty show and hold it to my head ad I still won’t say that line for you. Is that clear enough? That’s why it took.” Ritter recalled that he understood her issue of her, as the line really did not fit Janet, which is why he was fine saying it.
DeWitt also cited that incident as to why she was shocked that Somers didn’t understand that the network was so chauvinist that they were never going to cave on her demands, and sure enough, Somers ended up leaving the series.
The legend is…
Thanks to Chris Mann for the information!
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