No more airhead roles for a grown up Suzanne Somers

September 27, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

CULVER CITY CALF. — Culver City, Calif.--The new, completely rehabilitated Suzanne Somers is like a born-again Christian who has just won a Lotto jackpot the morning after they crowned her Miss America.

"My stars have lined up this year," she beams, even though she admits there were times during the past decade when she felt sure "the karma wagon was backing up on my face."

Written off as finished in show business after a 1980 contract battle with ABC ended her starring role in the comedy hit "Three's Company," Ms. Somers was virtually blackballed out of television for a decade.

Now she is back at ABC, starring in "Step by Step," a new comedy series airing at 8:30 Friday nights. Even more incredible, Ms. Somers will star in "Keeping Secrets" on Sunday night (Channel 13, 9 p.m.), playing herself in a two-hour movie based on her best-selling autobiography.

This miraculous turnaround isn't the result of any lucky break. It happened after years of humiliation, hard work and, at times, disturbing self-analysis that has led her to openly discuss her past mistakes with candor.

"I've learned a lot, grown a lot and changed a lot," she said during her lunch break in her dressing room at Culver Studios, where "Step by Step" is now taping.

That's putting it mildly. Ms. Somers, who's now 45, is a transformed person. The platinum blonde bimbo look is gone -- and with it all traces of the airhead Chrissy Snow character from "Three's Company." The new honey-haired Somers is just as sexy, but she's now thoughtful, articulate and self-assured without the hard edges of the past.

It's partly the result, the actress says, of the emotional catharsis she experienced while coming to terms with her painful past.

It's all there in the autobiography and the TV movie: her traumatic childhood in California, the daughter of an abusive drunkard; the constant nightmares and chronic bed-wetting; her expulsion from parochial school for writing "dirty notes"; her teen-age pregnancy, marriage and divorce; the love affair with her high school drama teacher; her arrest on bad-check charges; her son's near-fatal accident; her scandalous nude photos; her long affair with married TV star Alan Hamel; her abortion; her excommunication from the Catholic church; the alcoholism of her sister and two brothers.

By revealing so much in her book, Ms. Somers really was continuing the therapy she began in the 1970s before a tiny cameo as "the mysterious blond in the car" in George Lucas' hit movie "American Graffiti" took her to Hollywood and paved the way to "Three's Company" and instant fame.

In formal therapy, she learned her years in a dysfunctional family had destroyed her self-esteem, making her feel "I just couldn't measure up to anybody or anything, that I'd made too many bad choices and mistakes and totally botched up my life."

So by the time Ms. Somers was cast with John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt in "Three's Company," she was finally gaining the self-confidence she needed to really believe in her worth. Now she feels that sudden surplus of self-confidence led her into trouble.

"That was really the emergence of my self-esteem," she said. "Unfortunately, my timing was bad."

In her new series, Ms. Somers plays Carol, a widowed beautician with three kids, who marries Frank (Patrick Duffy), a divorced man with three kids of his own. Most of the comedy comes from the merging of their two families.

There's a haunting similarity to her own relationship with Mr. Hamel. When they finally married, it was a major chore to get their respective children to accept new parents.

In tonight's premiere episode of "Step by Step," her step-daughter tells her, "You're not my mother and never will be." That line gave Ms. Somers a deja vu feeling, because she heard something like it so often from Mr. Hamel's two children.

Eventually, though, Ms. Somers was able to win the affection of her stepchildren, now aged 26 and 27. They're now close friends, not only with Ms. Somers but with her 25-year-old son, Bruce.

"It doesn't happen with one incident," she said. "You make one stride, then go back three steps. When I stopped trying so hard to make it work, they finally discovered the real me."

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