Suzanne Somers Was a Pioneer in Demanding Equal Pay With Male Comedy Costars
Two women in 1977 — living with a man? On the heels of the Sexual Revolution, you’d think this wouldn’t be a big deal. (A 1978 study found that cohabitation had increased 117% since the beginning of that decade.) But societal panic about the very possibility of premarital sex was the premise of Three’s Company, the 1970s sitcom featuring Suzanne Somers, John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt as co-ed roommates in a Santa Monica apartment. The problem was solved by Ritter’s character pretending he was gay, similarly scandalous at the time, but hey, comedy! ABC didn’t have much faith in the show, ordering only six episodes as a midseason replacement. But the sitcom, thanks to its provocative premise and sexy stars, became the highest-rated midseason launch of all time and ABC happily made Three’s Company one of its signature shows.
Somers, who passed away this weekend one day shy of her 77th birthday, was one of the show’s breakout stars. Along with the ladies of Charlie’s Angels, Somers was one of the faces of Jiggle Television, a phenomenon that featured beautiful actresses in tight clothing strutting their stuff to big ratings. But give Somers credit — she brought sly intelligence to the dumb-blonde stereotype of her character, Chrissy Snow.
She was about as big as a television star could get in the late 1970s, which only made her pay gap with John Ritter more galling. At the show’s start, Somers made only $3,500 a week. As the show gained popularity, her weekly salary jumped to $30,000, which sounds like a great raise — until you consider that Ritter was getting $150,000. So after four seasons, Somers made what seemed like a reasonable demand — pay on par with her male costar. “The show’s response was, ‘Who do you think you are?’ ” she told PEOPLE. “They said, ‘John Ritter is the star.’”
Instead of meeting her demands, ABC fired Somers and replaced her with a series of bland blondes who never came close to matching her popularity. “Laverne & Shirley had just negotiated a monster deal, and afterwards, (ABC) decided they needed to make an example of female actresses so that no other woman would ask to be paid what men were making,” Somer’s husband, TV producer Alan Hamel, told PEOPLE. “It worked because for years, no woman asked to be paid what men were making, until Roseanne (Barr). But Suzanne was the first feminist to ask to be paid what the men were making.”
To make matters worse, Somers says she was blackballed for a time. “I was fired from the No. 1 show at the height of my success, and I couldn’t get a job in television,” she told Yahoo! Entertainment. “I couldn’t get an interview, I was considered trouble.”
That didn’t exactly stop Somers, who launched a lucrative career built on the back of Vegas song-and-dance shows and infomercials for products like the Thighmaster that sold like hotcakes. Eventually, she was welcomed back to television, doing a seven-year run on 90s sitcom Step by Step. And she believed her stand for more money paved the way for other funny ladies to get theirs. “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.”