Suzanne Somers has a number-one book. And all hell is breaking loose.
For good reason. The media-savvy, self-branding celebrity poet-turned-actress/entertainer-turned-author/entrepreneur-turned-home shopping mogul/ThighMaster millionaire-turned-alternative health guru’s latest tome, Knockout, boldly cold-cocks chemotherapy while promoting controversial treatments and doctors claiming to cure this year’s biggest celebrity killer: cancer. This dreaded, virulent scourge is expected to claim 562,340 American lives—famous and non-famous—in 2009.
In recent months, cancer has achieved an unusually high media profile, tragically claiming the lives of the iconic Farrah Fawcett, Patrick Swayze, Ted Kennedy, Ed McMahon, Bea Arthur, Dom Deluise and Dominick Dunne. One of its latest famous victims was Larry Gelbart, the Emmy-winning M*A*S*H writer/producer who in 1976 penned the first (jiggle-free) pilot of the ABC series that—on the heels of Farrah Fawcett-Majors-dom in 1977—would make Somers a self-merchandising poster girl and boob-tube superstar: Three’s Company.
who unwittingly (?) launched her book’s publicity blitz the week of Swayze’s death in September with her widely-rebuked remark that chemo, not pancreatic cancer, killed the Dirty Dancing star—blogs about “My War on Cancer.” Gerald Posner, the site’s chief investigative reporter, strikes back with the bluntly titled “Does Suzanne Somers Cause Cancer?”
Days after her revelation, I met Ritter backstage at his Neil Simon-written Broadway play The Dinner Party. He was not a happy camper. Two weeks prior he’d poked fun of his once-beloved yet famously-long-estranged co-star’s lipo scandal when he reteamed with Three’s Company roomie Joyce DeWitt for a CBS Early Show “Retro Reunion” segment (Somers declined to participate). During the interview, John grabbed a Chrissy Snow doll, pressed its midsection to his mouth and joked that he’d given it “lip-osuction.” Joyce, the female host and off-camera crew guffawed. Suzanne, not so much.
Instead, she returned what she called Ritter’s “stab in the heart” with a stab of her own, telling King that Ritter’s “really low-class joke” played a role in her “higher power” pushing her to come forward as a breast cancer survivor … who just happened to have what may be the most bizarre—if brilliantly bad-PR-shifting—explanation ever for having cellulite sucked out of one’s post-ButtMastered hips, upper back and abdomen.
“The whole reason I was in (the lipo clinic)—my book was not even on my mind,” Somers told King after evading his lipocentric questions for a good 10-15 minutes. “The whole reason that I went in there is because of … of … I was affected by the radiation and what happened to me on the medication, and having cancer. Cancer … cancer throws everything off when you're in treatment.” Apparently, the infamously softball-lobbing King’s relentless pressing of the lipo issue also threw her off.
Ritter was unnerved, to say the least. “I talked to Joyce,” he told me in his Dinner Party dressing room, “and we don’t know if Suzanne has cancer or not, because she lies.”
In my 1998 book Come and Knock on Our Door, Ritter, DeWitt and several other Three’s Company staff members said Somers fibbed about her health and lied about Ritter and DeWitt in TV and print interviews while holding out for a 500 percent pay hike and series profits during the number-one-rated sitcom’s production in fall 1980. Ritter, the series’ lead, interpreted his once-close friend’s alleged cracked ribs (X-rays for which never surfaced) as a negotiation ploy, and he took what Three’s Company’s cast and crew perceived as her very public sick-out and very public grandstanding … well … very, very personally.
Flash forward two decades. Ritter was appalled that Somers might be using breast cancer—real or imagined—to leverage damage control during a public relations nightmare. “I take this disease very, very seriously,” he emphasized to me. One of his best friends, actor Paul Linke of CHiPs fame, lost his wife to breast cancer in 1986 after her valiant two-year battle, Ritter said, the crescendo building in his voice. Somers should be careful what she says, he added, because this wasn’t Three’s Company, circa-1980 back/rib injuries and a Somersize salary fight that threatened to sink a hit show. Forget livelihoods—this time, people’s lives were on the line.
“Do you think this scandal will do her in?” I asked Ritter.
“I’ve thought she was done a few times,” he responded, “but she always manages to come back.”
His words flooded back to me while reading Somers’ and Posner’s dueling blogs on TheDailyBeast.com. Posner quotes Dr. Nanette Santoro, the Director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, as saying of Suzanne: “That she possibly aided and abetted her own cancer should have destroyed her credibility. The real miracle is her ability to continue to pitch her theories.” Counters Somers, “(D)octors who are onto ‘another way’ are afraid to speak up. I am speaking up for them. I don’t have a license to lose and I have the voice of a very large readership. My readers know I have never lied to them.”
The lipo debacle threatened to end Somers’ multimillion-dollar careers as a trusted diet author and health-and-fitness-product-hawking Home Shopping Network maven. Her breast cancer disclosure, however shaky in its delivery, miraculously not only helped save her lucrative contract with Random House (several diet and hormone-therapy books followed Eat, Cheat and Melt the Fat Away) but also enabled her to extend her brand identity as a disease-battling survivor. The requisite People magazine cover—with the ominous cover line “Is She Risking Her Life?”—soon followed.
And despite an initial flurry of medical-industry outcry underscoring that liposuctioned fat was not used to reconstruct breasts (“I think some of [Somers’ lipo story] is spin,” Dr. Susan Love, a breast cancer expert, told People), Somers emerged a poster girl for breast cancer, alternative treatment and, eventually, hormone-based health protocols. In late April 2001, her oncologists, Mel Silverstein and James Waisman, confirmed to NBC’s Dateline that Somers had a 2.4-cm tumor removed a year earlier, and she rejected recommended chemo in favor of injecting the medically-risky Iscador into her stomach on a daily basis. By this point in the news cycle, physicians, laymen and media pundits continuing to question Somers’ odd and suspicious story about her still seemingly-unrelated lipo were pretty much seen as harassing a cancer survivor.
Unfortunately for Ritter, some viewers unable to grasp the space-time continuum misinterpreted his lipo joke—told a full two weeks prior to Somers’ cancer admission—as a cheap-shot at a woman battling a breast tumor. Entertainment news shows reporting on her King appearance inevitably showed the clip of a solemn-voiced Somers chiding Ritter’s “low-class joke.” Suzanne did nothing publicly to clarify this not-so-wacky chicken-and-egg misunderstanding.
By the second week of April, John released this statement to the press: “My view regarding any tabloid story is to put it down and stomp it. I had no idea of the gravity of Suzanne's condition. I apologize from the bottom of my heart if I caused her any further pain by my ill-informed remarks.” When I interviewed him for TV Guide about Three’s Company’s 25th anniversary a year later, Ritter would publicly only say, “None of that [contract controversy] means anything beside [Suzanne] being healthy and happy as long as possible.”
For those who’d followed the still-healthy-and-happy Somers’ career, her masterful PR turnaround wasn’t totally surprising. Indeed, Suzanne is the ultimate Hollywood survivor, coming an incredibly long way since her star-launching 1973 book of poetry, Touch Me, which SNL’s Kristen Wiig spoofed last week in a hilariously nuanced, and now video-viral, dramatic reading.
But make no mistake: Suzanne has always been laughing her way to the bank. The smart sex bomb used Touch Me and her wee bit as American Graffiti’s mute blonde in the T-bird to land touch-feely appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Producers took note, as did ABC exec Fred Silverman, who saw her scene as a wacky stripper on Starsky and Hutch, recalled her double entendre-laden Carson bits and called her in to join up-and-coming sitcom staple and Waltons co-star Ritter and classically trained stage actress DeWitt in the series-making third pilot of Three’s Company.
Suzanne Somers Major Cleavage 1970s - Funny bloopers are a click away
Within four years as a Nielsen topper and Newsweek cover girl (Ritter and DeWitt claimed Somers manipulated the shoot—and her co-stars—to become the magazine’s center focus in February 1978), ABC’s favorite as-seen-on-TV bubblehead swelled to the size of Balloon Boy’s runaway mylar dirigible. Untethered to the reality that, despite her burgeoning celebrity, she was the third-billed actor in an ensemble comedy about a guy living with two girls, the quick-witted businesswoman behind TV’s jiggliest sitcom ditz fired her publicist-manager, Farrah’s legendary “starmaker” Jay Bernstein, and turned over the reigns of her career to her husband, Canadian talk show host and supermarket pitchman Alan Hamel.
The power couple’s first item of business: unsuccessfully demanding a raise from $30,000 to $150,000 a week and 10 percent of Three’s Company’s profits in summer 1980. Her producers eventually cut Chrissy to a one-minute phone call at the end of each episode. A defiant Somers took to the media, claiming a back injury/broken ribs caused her to miss tapings, alleging on-set “mob fury” mistreatment and charging Ritter and a “jealous” DeWitt conspired to keep her off the show. The public began to sympathize with Somers, but she was still fired in spring 1981.
Twenty years later and still estranged from her co-stars, a pre-ThighGate Somers was enjoying a multifaceted career resurgence. In 1991, she’d fought her way back from Hollywood oblivion as a star, with Dallas’s Patrick Duffy, of ABC’s new family sitcom Step by Step (which ran to moderate ratings through 1998) and—more importantly—as the leotard-clad pitchperson of the ThighMaster. Since 1997, she’d publicly sworn by her slimming system of food combining (and related food products), called Somersizing, and she promised she kept her body trim and toned by using the ThighMaster, ButtMaster, Torso Track, Butterfly and other Somers-branded exercise gadgets now part of her multimillion-dollar health and fitness empire.
The public had come to trust Suzanne as a soul-baring author and inspiring voice of self-help. In 1988, after a blistering TV Guide cover story titled “The Rise and Fall of a TV Sex Symbol,” Somers dramatically recrafted her (to quote TV Guide) “gambling house chanteuse” image into that of a triumphant survivor of her alcoholic father’s physical and emotional abuse. Keeping Secrets brought the phrase “adult children of alcoholics” to the media forefront, and a thoughtful, heartfelt Suzanne hit the talk show and lecture circuits sharing her family’s touching story before playing herself in the book’s ABC telefilm adaptation timed to her Step by Step and ThighMaster comeback in fall 1991.
After a decade of firm thighs and good fortune, the Enquirer had to go catch her at a liposuction clinic. As Don Knotts’ landlord Mr. Furley would say, “Damn!!!”
Not that potentially career-killing scandal kept Suzanne down for long. In fact, by summer 1998, when Somers released her second autobiography, After the Fall—ostensibly about “blended families” but at its core a well-orchestrated response to my upcoming Three’s Company tell-all (for which Suzanne graciously interviewed)—the again-sitcom-less siren seemed ready for a media fight.
Ritter and DeWitt finally broke their silence about Somers in Come and Knock on Our Door and, subsequently, in the two-hour E! True Hollywood Story version of my book. Suzanne stuck to her story that ABC, wary after high-stakes Laverne & Shirley salary negotiations, and Company’s patriarchal powers-that-be planned her demise prior to her cast-and-crew-alienating sick-out and resulting media blitz—the latter factors inconvenient truths that she now omits from her tale of Three’s Company woe.
"I thought [after being fired], 'Oh, I can't win. They want to make an example of me so no other women get uppity,'” Somers told The Los Angeles Times in a 2007 story titled “The Unsinkable Suzanne Somers.” “I have to say when women get paid big salaries in television now, I take personal pride in it. And I take a lot of pride in that maybe I'm going to be the one they all pounce on with these bioidentical hormones. But I brought them to the forefront."
And the controversy-loving media forefront is where this onetime celebrity poet-turned-cancer warrior intends to stay. “I am the messenger, the filter for hundreds of doctors of great courage,” Suzanne writes in her Daily Beast blog. “I will be attacked most likely in this article, but read through the lines. I have no agenda.”