Designing Women was a hit in the late ‘80s – early ’90s, and it practically revolutionized television. It’s hard to forget four larger-than-life female characters making one witty remark after another while dealing with issues faced by (then) modern American women. The lives of Julia Sugarbaker, Suzanne Sugarbaker, Mary Jo Shively, and Charlene Frazier were entertaining enough, but what went down behind the scenes might be even more dramatic.
The women’s on-screen chemistry suggested that they were friends off-screen. And they were… at first. With a small group of independently funny, competitive women with strong personalities in one space, it’s easy to see how it could be a breeding ground for drama. And it certainly was.
From 1986 to 1993, we watched two sisters — played by Dixie Carter and Delta Burke – at their interior design firm in Atlanta. Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts), Charlene Frazier (Jean Smart), and Anthony Bouvier (Meshach Taylor) joined the team. Everything was looking good for the first half of the first season.
But then the sitcom’s time slot was moved to Thursday nights, which led to a sharp ratings drop from 16 to 65. Designing Women went on hiatus and was nearly canceled. Executive producer Harry Thomason got the VQT (Viewers for Quality Television) to launch a campaign urging CBS to keep the show by writing letters. It worked, and the show was put in syndication until 2006.
From Seasons 1 to 5, Julia Sugarbaker was dating lawyer Reese Watson, and their on-screen chemistry was palpable. That said, it’s probably not that surprising to hear that the pair was also an item in real life. Not just an item – they were married, having walked down the aisle two years before the show started.
Hal Holbrook became Dixie Carter’s third and last husband in 1984, and he actually turned down the role of Reese Watson more than a few times. But then creator and co-producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason asked him, “Do you really want some other man making love to your wife on television?” That’s all he needed to hear to take the role. (Men…)
Well, as it turns out, Dixie Carter wasn’t the only cast member who had real chemistry when kissing her on-screen beau. Jean Smart, who played Charlene, also married her co-star from the show. But in this couple’s case, they weren’t an item before the show started – this romance began while the show was going on.
And it wasn’t even her character’s boyfriend – it was Mary Jo’s boyfriend, played by Richard Gilliland. Smart recalled asking Delta to find out if he was married. “Naturally, Delta walked up to him and blurted, ‘Jean wants to know if you’re married.’” The blunt approach worked; Smart and Gilliland were married by 1987 and remain married to this day.
It looks like the set of Designing Women had some sort of magic in the air (or maybe it was in the water) since the actresses and their love lives transcended the stage. Delta Burke, aka Suzanne Sugarbaker, also met her real-life husband on the show.
Gerald McRaney played Dash Goff, Suzanne’s ex-husband. McRaney met Burke right before he was picked to guest star on the show. Seeing the pair’s steamy on-screen kiss, it was clear that their chemistry was the real deal. They got married in 1989 and are also still married today.
Burke may have enjoyed acting alongside her real-life man, but she was struggling with some personal issues…
Soon after her marriage to McRaney began, Delta Burke started to gain weight. Unfortunately, it led to a period of intense public scrutiny and ridicule from the tabloids. People started blaming her change in appearance for the cast’s chemistry losing its spark.
But the cast didn’t see things the way the public and the press did. They and the producers were very supportive of Burke during this sensitive time in her life. In fact, they even addressed the issue by creating a special episode called “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?”
That episode was so impactful that it earned Burke an Emmy nomination for Best Actress, and she was the only one in the cast to be nominated. Still, the show started going on a downward spiral shortly thereafter.
The dial on the drama meter was really turned up when Burke started showing up late on set. At the same time, she was telling the press that the cast was being forced to go on “extreme diets,” even saying that at one point that Harry Thomason locked the cast in a room and screamed at them about it.
Around the same time, Burke appeared on a Barbara Walters special, basically talking behind the Thomasons’ backs, accusing the producers of “terrorizing” and “manipulating” her. She also told Walters about how heartbroken she was that her ex-friend Dixie Carter took the Thomasons’ side.
Carter ended up passing away (in 2010) after the two women finally reconciled (more on this later). While Burke’s weight gain caused damage to the relationships among the cast, Burke’s husband embraced it. People magazine reported that McRaney loved her so much that he consistently showered her with love, like regularly stocking her dressing room with chocolates.
Annie Potts was the only actress on the show who didn’t have any show-related romances, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have her share of drama. The actress was pregnant during Season Six, which producers decided to hide rather than just write it into the show. The reason being, reportedly, that Mary Jo was single.
Yet that wasn’t the only reason, apparently. Candace Bergen’s character on Murphy Brown (which played right before Designing Women) was also expecting. So what? Well, CBS executives “didn’t want all the women on Monday night having a baby,” according to Potts.
By the time Carter was cast as Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women, she was already 47 years old. She admitted to having been very self-conscious of being the oldest woman on the set – something that led her to make a drastic move during Seasons 1 and 2.
She chose to get plastic surgery and explained her reasons: “I had the bottom half done one year, then the top half done the next year… I 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.’”
When Linda Bloodworth-Thomason came up with the idea of Designing Women, she already had four actresses in mind for the show’s main characters. And all of them had previously worked on short-lived shows that she had written.
Burke and Carter starred in Filthy Rich, while Smart and Annie Potts (Mary Jo) had guest-starred on Lime Street. When she created the concept for Designing Women, Bloodworth-Thomason based it on the chemistry she believed the four actresses would have together. So, no auditions were even conducted. It’s quite a risky move, but her hunch was pretty much spot on.
Bloodworth-Thomason’s idea for the show was really only half-baked when she pitched it to CBS executives. By that point, she only got as far as wanting to make a show that gave the opportunity to four actresses (whom she knew) to verbally spar with each other.
All the rest was secondary to that original, simple idea. So, when the executives started asking her questions, like what the setting would be, Bloodworth-Thomason had to think fast. She blurted out “Uh… an interior design company.” It was also a risky move on her part, but once again, it worked.
Julia Sugarbaker was known for being one to go on passionate rants about her liberal and feminist beliefs. It’s the reason why she was nicknamed “The Terminator.” However, in real life, Carter was a bona fide Republican, and personally disagreed with most of Julia’s politics.
Since these passionate outbursts were a central feature of the show, Carter sensed that she had some bargaining power. She decided to strike up a deal with the show’s writers – every time she went on a rant, she would get to sing in the next episode.
Meshach Taylor played the lovable Anthony Bouvier, who was the sisters’ delivery-man-turned-partner in the firm. The thing is, Taylor was only supposed to be a guest character in Season 1. But his strong chemistry with the four women secured him a recurring role.
Taylor recalled in an interview that after he did the first episode, he never left. “I was there from then on,” Taylor said. It proved to be the right decision in the end, as Taylor (ironically) became the first Designing Women cast member to earn a Primetime Emmy nomination.
Delta Burke was indeed married to a wonderful man who loved her no matter what her size, but the public shaming nonetheless took a heavy toll on her. Luckily for the actress, she received moral support from some of her very own idols, like the one and only Elizabeth Taylor.
Taylor sent Burke a personal letter, telling the actress that she was courageous in the face of the media’s obsession with her weight gain. Burke told the Ladies’ Home Journal that the letter gave her much-needed encouragement: “Whenever I’m down, I read it.”
When Burke earned her Emmy award and went up on stage to make her acceptance speech, the actress didn’t thank the Thomasons. She turned on them instead. Different claims started being made regarding the “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” episode – Burke declared that it was her idea.
On the contrary, the Thomasons claimed that they had to convince Burke to even do it. All the “he said-she said” resulted in a meeting between Burke’s agent and Harry Thomason. That’s when even more conflicting claims were thrown out, and soon enough the entire production began to fall apart.
The meeting between the agent and Thomason was an opportunity for Burke to patch things up with the producers, but that wasn’t the way she wanted to go. Instead, Burke began to publicly badmouth the show. “The last two years have been very hard,” she stated in 1990.
“I lost all my self-esteem. But I had to play a character who was God’s gift to the world, I had to strut out there.” This was in the middle of the show’s run. When asked about the next season, Burke said, “It is not a good workplace, not a good environment… It’s so strange, being part of something that’s so wonderful and so awful at the same time.”
It was only a matter of time before the showrunners took action. All the drama with Burke took a toll on the production, and the producers had enough. During Season 5, the actress was constantly showing up late or not at all.
This meant that the cast had to learn two versions of the script for each and every episode – one with Suzanne and one without. Of course, it wasn’t sustainable. So, the Thomasons got the entire cast together and sent Burke home for good. The Season 5 finale was Burke’s last appearance on Designing Women.
After Burke, other cast members started to leave the show. The next core member to leave was Jean Smart, but it was for entirely different reasons. Smart had grown tired of playing Charlene, but the official reason was that she wanted to devote more time to raising her children.
Her last moment on the show was the two-part episode “The Big Desk,” which was viewed by 30 million people. Now that both Smart and Burke were gone, there was a great hole in the cast that the Thomasons tried, unsuccessfully, to fill.
Once both Burke and Smart left, the producers tried their best to fill the void left by the two central roles. In the cliffhanger finale of Season 6, Jackée Harry made a guest appearance as Anthony’s fiancée. The plan was for her to buy into Sugarbaker’s and become a regular on the series.
Essentially, Harry was to be a kind of replacement for Suzanne. But it didn’t really work out as the producers came to see Harry as too over-the-top for the show. That regular role never came to fruition.
After all the commotion that Delta Burke caused on the show, it’s a wonder that she and Bloodworth-Thomason ever managed to reconcile. In 1995, Thomason invited Burke to star in the sitcom Women of the House, which was a spin-off of Designing Women.
The show began after Suzanne’s latest husband dies, forcing her to sit in his seat in the House of Representatives for the rest of his term. Of course, it’s admirable that Burke and Bloodworth-Thomason put their differences behind them, but the show ended up being a flop, and was canceled after one season.
Designing Women took place in Atlanta, Georgia and relied heavily on Southern culture. Luckily for the creators, it was pretty effortless for three out of the four original cast members. Both Dixie Carter and Annie Potts came from Tennessee, and Delta Burke was from Florida.
The only one who needed extra assistance in getting her Southern twang just right was Seattle native Jean Smart. Funnily enough, it was Charlene who was ironically the most stereotypically “Southern” of all of them. (Is it just me or is the Southern twang one of the most fun accents to play?)
“Killing All the Right People” was one of the show’s most memorable episodes. In fact, it got critical acclaim for the way in which it addressed the AIDS epidemic and discrimination against HIV patients. The topic happened to be a personal angle for Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, whose mother at the time was dying from the disease.
When she would visit her mother in the hospital, Bloodworth-Thomason was saddened by people’s attitude towards patients like her mother. She heard one woman say, “If you ask me, this disease has one thing going for it. It’s killing all the right people.”
Country star and legend Dolly Parton was one of the most notable guest stars on Designing Women. In 2003, in fact, TV Land Awards gave Parton the “Most Memorable Female Guest Star in a Comedy as Herself” for the episode.
It turns out that Parton was actually a big fan of the show. In a one-hour special episode, Charlene went into labor on New Year’s Eve as the other women cheered her on for having the first New Year’s baby. Parton showed up as a “Guardian Movie Star” in a dream sequence where she reveals the baby’s gender.
In 2018, it was announced that Designing Women was coming back and headed for ABC, with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason again at the wheel. Thomason said, “Normally, I’m not a fan of reboots, but Designing Women does seem to have the right fengshui for all that is going on right now. We could definitely have some fun.”
In October 2020, Annie Potts, Jean Smart and Scott Bakula reprised their roles for a charity table reading of the 1986 pilot. As for the actual reboot, the new and improved version of the show has yet to make its way to the screens (as of July 2021).
The former beauty queen became a national superstar thanks to Designing Women. After her public falling out with Bloodworth-Thomason, Burke was fired in 1991. She then launched her own sitcom, Delta, a year later. The show had only a brief moment in the sun, though.
Burke then tried her hand in the spinoff series Women of the House, but that failed too. Nonetheless, she kept working regularly throughout the ‘90s in shows like Popular and Touched by an Angel. Her last major TV appearance was on Boston Legal in the mid-2000s. She acts here and there, most recently in an episode of Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings.
Burke has struggled openly with depression and diabetes. But in recent years, she seems to have gotten a handle on her health and weight. The now 64-year-old has said, in an interview with the Daily Mail, that “Everything is fine, I’m just not very exciting right now!”
The truth is, though, that she lost 75 pounds! Burke said she’s now down to 150 pounds and she gives credit to her husband for encouraging her to eat healthier. She also said that she doesn’t have any projects on the horizon and she’s perfectly fine with that.
The Orlando, Florida native has never met her biological father – her stepdad adopted her after marrying her mom. She graduated high school in 1974 and won “Most Likely to Succeed.” In 1972, she won the Miss Flame crown (from the Orlando Fire Department) and became the official State Miss Flame.
In her senior year of high school, she won Miss Florida – the youngest Miss Florida titleholder in pageant history. She won a talent scholarship from the Miss America Organization, which allowed her to start a two-year study program at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
By the mid-‘80s, Annie Potts was a comedy icon after being cast as the receptionist Janine in Ghostbusters. She was one of only three main cast members to stay on Designing Women for its entire run. After the show ended, she continued acting in film and television.
She was seen in Love & War, Dangerous Minds, Any Day Now, Joan of Arcadia, Men in Trees, The Fosters, and Young Sheldon. She even gained younger fans when she became the voice of Bo Peep in the Toy Story films. She’s also set to reprise her role as Janine in the Ghostbusters sequel, Ghostbusters: Afterlife. She’s now 68.
Even if you don’t really know her, Jean Smart is one of those faces you’ve seen many times. She left Designing Women after five seasons (minus a cameo in Season 6) and pursued other projects. She worked throughout the ’90s and ‘00s with high-profile roles on Frasier, The Oblongs, and The District, to name a few.
She then got even more popular roles on Samantha Who? Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, Dirty John, Fargo, and Legion. In 2019, she played Laurie Blake on Watchmen. Throughout her career, Smart was nominated for nine Primetime Emmy Awards and won three of them. She’s now 69.
A number of cast members died, but we’ll start with Meshach Taylor, who passed in 2014. His breakthrough came in the mid-‘80s with two key roles: as Hollywood Montrose in Mannequin and Anthony Bouvier on Designing Women. Like Potts, Taylor also stuck around for the series’ full run.
After Designing Women, he joined the show Dave’s World and kept working regularly throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s. He earned himself a new generation of fans with Nickelodeon’s Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide. His last role was on Criminal Minds. Sadly, he died of cancer in 2014. He was only 67 years old.
Four years earlier, another cast member passed away.
Dixie Carter became the core of Designing Women and her role as Julia Sugarbaker was one of her most famous. After she left the show, Carter continued acting in film and television, adding more major roles to her repertoire, in Ladies Man, Family Law, and Desperate Housewives, which earned her her only Primetime Emmy nomination.
Her last film was That Evening Sun – a collaboration with her husband, actor Hal Holbrook. She died from cancer in 2010 at the age of 70. Before she passed, Carter and Burke reconciled after a very long period of not speaking to one another.
After their falling out on Designing Women, the two women were more than hostile to each other. Carter didn’t even attend the renewal of Burke’s wedding vows with her husband in 1991. But after more than a decade of not speaking to each other, the pair finally reconciled and let bygones be bygones. It initially happened privately, and eventually was made public.
In 2002, Burke appeared as a guest star on Family Law, which Dixie Carter starred in. That appearance marked the third time Carter and Burke were on a show together as well as the third time they played relatives.
Jan Hooks joined Designing Women in 1991 when the series stared replacing its main characters. Hooks replaced Jean Smart as Charlene’s aloof and eccentric sister Darlene. It didn’t take long for her to become a key comedic fixture on the show. She stuck around for the final two seasons.
After Designing Women, she continued making comedic appearances in shows like 3rd Rock from the Sun, Primetime Glick, and The Simpsons. By the 2000s, her career slowed down. Her final roles were on 30 Rock and The Cleveland Show. She passed away of cancer in 2014, at the age of 57.
After a season on the show Baby Talk, Julia Duffy joined the cast of Designing Women. She joined at the same time as Jan Hooks in Season 6 as Allison Sugarbaker, the conservative cousin who becomes a partner in the firm.
Duffy stayed on for just one season before launching another sitcom, The Mommies. Since then, she has been working regularly, earning guest spots on shows like Reba, Drake & Josh and Passions. Her recent credits include Shameless, Looking, The Cool Kids, and a TV movie called Christmas at the Plaza.
Judith Ivey showed up to the Designing Women set in 1991 for the final season, replacing Julia Duffy’s character. As B.J. Poteet, the millionaire partner, she played a comedic role. She was only on the show for one season until the finale in 1993.
Ivey works regularly in film, television, and theater, and is also an accomplished director. Her other screen credits include The Critic, Buddies, White Collar, Flags of Our Fathers, The Family and more. She’s most recently been in New Amsterdam and The Accidental Wolf.
By the time she joined Designing Women, Alice Ghostley was already TV royalty. Her career stretches back to the 1950s. On Designing Women, she played Bernice Clifton, the Sugarbakers’ family friend who was known for her outrageous wardrobe as well as her over-the-top lines.
Ghostley stole the scene more often than not and earned herself an Emmy nomination for her performance. After Designing Women, she kept acting, appearing in the series Evening Shade and Passions and even voiced Channel Umptee-3 and Hercules. She died in 2007, at the age of 84.