Female stars receiving pay equal to their male counterparts is, unfortunately, a relatively new trend. And while studios and networks are now increasingly aware of the gender pay gap, in the 1970s and ’80s Hollywood’s largely white male hierarchy didn’t think twice about discriminating.
“Being fired from Three’s Company took [a lot of] work from me … to not be angry,” Suzanne Somers told Yahoo Entertainment of one of the most notorious such examples.
Somers played the bubbly, bouncy blonde Chrissy Snow alongside John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt in the hit ABC sitcom that aired from 1977 to 1984. Somers says she initially signed on for the show for $3,500 a week which, for her at the time, was a lot of money. “I was thrilled,” she said.
Over the years, she would receive raises, but she never made anything close to what Ritter did. Her star continued to rise, so in 1980, when it came time to negotiate her contract for the fifth season, she asked for a raise from $30,000 an episode to $150,000, which was what Ritter was making.
“So my husband [Alan Hamel] goes in to renegotiate on my behalf,” Somers recalled. What neither of them knew was that months earlier, ABC had been forced to give raises to the female leads of Laverne & Shirley, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams.
“You can’t really fire Laverne or Shirley on Laverne and Shirley,” Somers said. So, as Somers tells it, ABC had already steeled itself against forking out more money for another female star.
And not only did ABC deny her desired salary, it also fired her from the show. “[Alan] said, ‘You’re out, they’re making an example out of you,’” Somers said.
The news was a “devastating” surprise to Somers, and would lead to a challenging period in her career. “I was fired from the No. 1 show at the height of my success, and I couldn’t get a job in television,” she said. “I couldn’t get an interview, I was considered trouble.”
At the time, Somers said that the media negatively covered her asking for an equal pay raise. “The smear campaign they put out on me was ‘She’s greedy,’ and ‘Who does she think she is?’” she said.
So Somers decided to drop her career as an actress and create her personal brand. With the help of her husband, Somers made the ThighMaster into a household name, thanks to those indelible commercials. During the 1980s there were also Las Vegas shows, and in 1987, she was named Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year, with none other than Frank Sinatra as the male honoree.
Looking back, Somers thinks ABC’s decision to fire her had a chilling effect. “It worked for ABC. Not one woman asked for a raise for eight years,” she said. “Until Roseanne [Barr] came along.”
Roseanne debuted on ABC in 1988 and quickly became a smash success. Somers attributes that to the comedian’s singular talent: “Roseanne said ‘I’m Roseanne, the show is Roseanne, I want this, and I want this,’ and she was powerful.”
Somers says she laid the ground for Roseanne to ask for a hefty salary. “I was responsible for scaring the networks,” she said. “And Roseanne was how they made nice. Between me and Roseanne, the women are getting better treatment.”
So who’s the heir apparent to Somers and Roseanne’s fight for equality? The former Three’s Company star brings up Jennifer Lawrence, and her reported payday of $20 million for the 2017 film Passengers.
“Jennifer Lawrence sells tickets!” Somers said. “The big screen for women is a short window. You need to be flawless to be up there, or play character parts. She’s still in her flawlessness, and she won’t have it forever, so get paid for it.”
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