'Designing Women' Creator Goes Public With Les Moonves War: Not All Harassment Is Sexual (Guest Column)
Linda Bloodworth Thomason, one of CBS' biggest hitmakers, reveals the disgraced mogul kept her shows off the air for seven years: "People asked me for years, 'What happened to you?' Les Moonves happened to me."
This is not the article you might be expecting about Les Moonves. It’s not going to be wise or inspiring. It’s going to be petty and punishing. In spite of my proper Southern mother’s admonition to always be gracious, I am all out of grace when it comes to Mr. Moonves. In fact, like a lot of women in Hollywood, I am happy to dance on his professional grave. And not just any dance — this will be the Macarena, the rumba, the cha-cha and the Moonwalk. You get the idea.
I was never sexually harassed or attacked by Les Moonves. My encounters were much more subtle, engendering a different kind of destruction. In 1992, I was given the largest writing and producing contract in the history of CBS. It was for $50 million, involving five new series with hefty penalties for each pilot not picked up.
Designing Women was my flagship CBS show, and Evening Shade had just been lauded as the best new comedy of the season. CBS chairman Howard Stringer and president Jeff Sagansky attended many of the Designing Women tapings, reveling in the show, quoting the lines and giving us carte blanche to tackle any subject, including sexual harassment, domestic violence and pornography. They even greenlighted an entire episode satirizing Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination. It was, to say the least, exhilarating. Little did I know that it would soon all be over.
By 1995, Mr. Stringer and Mr. Sagansky were gone and a new, unknown (to me) president named Les Moonves had taken over. By then, I was producing a new pilot, prophetically titled Fully Clothed Non-Dancing Women. I was immediately concerned when I heard that Mr. Moonves was rumored to be a big fan of topless bars. Then, someone delivered the news that he especially hated Designing Women and their loud-mouthed speeches. He showed up at the first table read and took a chair directly across from mine (actress Illeana Douglas, who later accused him of sexual harassment, sat next to me). Having been voted most popular in high school, I felt confident that I would be able to charm him. I was wrong. He sat and stared at me throughout the entire reading with eyes that were stunningly cold, as in, “You are so dead.” I had not experienced such a menacing look since Charles Manson tried to stare me down on a daily basis when I was a young reporter covering that trial. As soon as the pilot was completed, Moonves informed me that it would not be picked up. I was at the pinnacle of my career. I would not work again for seven years.
During that period, because my contract was so valuable, I continued trying to win over Moonves. And he continued turning down every pilot I wrote. Often, if he would catch me in the parking lot, he would make sure to tell me that my script was one of the best he’d read but that he had decided, in the end, not to do it. It always seemed that he enjoyed telling me this. Just enough to keep me in the game. I was told he refused to give my scripts to any of the stars he had under contract. Then, I began to hear from female CBS employees about his mercurial, misogynist behavior, with actresses being ushered in and out of his office. His mantra, I was told, was, “Why would I wanna cast ’em if I don’t wanna fuck ’em?” And he was an angry bully who enjoyed telling people, “I will tear off the top of your head and piss on your brain!”
Soon, I would hear how he had invited a famous actress to lunch in the CBS dining room. Coming off the cancellation of her iconic detective show, the star began pitching a new one. He informed her that she was too old to be on his network. She began to cry and stood up to go. He stood up too, taking her by the shoulders and telling her, “I can’t let you leave like this.” She reacted, suddenly touched. Then he shoved his tongue down her throat. I know this happened because the star is the person who told me.
Over the years, even when an actress managed to get one of my scripts through an agent, the deal would immediately be killed. It was like a personal vendetta and I will never know why. Was it because I was championing the New South? Or an admittedly aggressive, feminist agenda? Or both? When the legendary Bette Midler informed Moonves that she wanted to do a series with me, I’m told he denied her request. When the singer Huey Lewis, whom Les had become enamored with, chose me to write a pilot for him, his contract was canceled.
It would have been so easy, not to mention honorable, to simply tell me he was never going to put a show of mine on the air. That was certainly his right. But instead, he kept me hopping and hoping. When I finally realized he was never going to put a show of mine on the air, I left. It was never really about the money anyway, I just wanted to work. People asked me for years, “Where have you been? What happened to you?” Les Moonves happened to me.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, I was walking the halls one day in the original CBS building. In spite of no longer having gainful employment, I still felt proud that I had been allowed to make a creative contribution to the network I had grown up with — starting with Lucy and Ethel, who had electrified me and inspired me to write comedy. I never dreamed that I would become the first woman, along with my then-writing partner, Mary Kay Place, to write for M*A*S*H. I took pride in being part of a network that always seemed to be rife with crazy, interesting, brash women, from Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda, to Maude, to Murphy Brown, to the Designing Women. Many of these female characters paved the way for women to be single, to pursue careers and equal pay and to lead rich, romantic lives with reproductive rights.
As I walked, I noticed that the portraits of all these iconic women were no longer adorning the walls. I don’t know why and I didn’t ask. I just know that the likes of them have rarely been seen on that network again. Thanks to Les Moonves, I can only guess they all became vaginal swabs in crime labs on CSI Amarillo.
For years, Moonves loaded up the network with highly profitable, male-dominated series, always careful to stir in and amply reward an occasional actress, like the fabulous Patti Heaton or the irresistible Kaley Cuoco. But mostly, he presided over a plethora of macho crime shows featuring a virtual genocide of dead naked hotties in morgue drawers, with sadistic female autopsy reports, ratcheted up each week (“Is that a missing breast implant, lieutenant?” “Yes sir, we also found playing cards in her uterus.”) On the day I officially parted company with CBS, the same day Mr. Moonves said he would only pay a tiny fraction of the penalties, my incredulous agent asked what he should tell me. Mr. Moonves replied, “Tell her to go fuck herself!”
I was not surprised when Moonves finally admitted on Sept. 9 that he “may have made some women uncomfortable” and that “those were mistakes.” Let’s be clear. Shoving your tongue or penis down a woman’s throat during an office meet and greet is not a “mistake.” It is an act of terror. It cannot be corrected with a special Hallmark card saying, “Sorreee! My bad!”
I had planned to make this a lofty piece about how we women in entertainment can draw strength from our shared historical DNA as we slowly dig our way out of Hollywood’s darkest places. I could have easily referenced Peg Entwistle, the young actress who jumped to her death, supposedly rejected by a number of powerful men. Bette Davis had gone to see her portrayal of Hedvig, inspiring Bette that very day to pursue a career in acting — thus giving new purpose to the dead girl, lying at the base of the Hollywood sign, who never knew she had already passed the torch to arguably the greatest actress to ever grace the silver screen.
I wanted to offer this story in stark opposition to all the women-hating, slimeball men like Harvey Weinstein, James Toback and Les Moonves to say, “This is how we, in the face of them, continue to lift and inspire one another.” But I don’t feel inspired anymore. I just feel angry.
The truth is, Les Moonves may never be punished in the way that he deserves. He will almost certainly never go to jail. And he has already made hundreds of millions of dollars during his highly successful and truly immoral, bullying, misogynist reign.
Perhaps the best we can do is thank Ronan Farrow and all the brave women who came forward to make sure a man like this is finally gone, while putting all the other sexual predators who are still in our business on notice. We are not going to stop until every last one of you is gone. We don’t care anymore if you go to jail or go to hell. Just know at some point that you are leaving.
And as for you, Mr. Moonves, in spite of the fact that I was raised to be a proper Southern female, and with your acknowledgement that I have never, in my life, spoken a single cross word to you, despite the way you treated me, may I simply say, channeling my finest Julia Sugarbaker delivery: “Go fuck yourself!”
Bloodworth Thomason is a television writer, author and documentary filmmaker. She is currently finishing her memoir, Rising Girl, My Adventures in Politics and Entertainment and penning the book for the musical First Wives Club.
A version of this story appears in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.