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This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On May 21, the ACLU urged the entertainment industry to sign a petition calling for the end of gender bias in its hiring practices, a move lauded by such Hollywood directors as Kathryn Bigelow. Thirty-five years earlier, Suzanne Somers was an unlikely standard bearer for the cause of equal pay for women. The comic actress, then 34, was starring on ABC’s Three’s Company, television’s No. 2 show with an average of 20 million weekly viewers. She played the well-endowed, dumb blonde whose job was to jiggle. But when it came time for fifth-season negotiations in 1980, Somers asked for a pay hike from $30,000 an episode to $150,000, equal to what her Three’s Company co-star John Ritter was receiving and comparable to salaries M*A*S*H*‘s Alan Alda and All in the Family‘s Carroll O’Connor were being paid on lower-rated shows. ABC offered a $5,000 hike.
The battle flared into the public eye when Somers missed the taping of that season’s third and fourth episodes with what THR said was “the recurrence of an old back injury.” Push came to shove and the network fired her. “The night before we went in to renegotiate, I got a call from a friend who had connections high up at ABC and he said, ‘They’re going to hang a nun in the marketplace and the nun is Suzanne,’ ” recalls Somers’ husband and manager, Alan Hamel. “The network was willing to do this because earlier that year the women on Laverne & Shirley had gotten what they asked for and they wanted to put a stop to it. They’d destroy the chemistry on Company to make a point.”
Somers’ career went into a nosedive. A 1982 CBS sitcom where she’d play a stewardess never got off the ground. She did a Playboy spread to stay visible. Then came the Home Shopping Network, the ThighMaster with its amazing effect on the hip abductor muscles, plus a slew of books, jewelry and skin-care products. “Life isn’t fair,” Somers tells THR. “Getting fired for asking for a raise wasn’t fair, but I landed on my feet and I’ve done OK.”
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