Every episode of Three’s Company centered around a misunderstanding, but Suzanne Somers’ sudden departure from the show was a real discrepancy that network executives were unwilling to fix.
When the sitcom debuted on March 15, 1977, it was a mid-season show with only six episodes, but the lovable dynamics between the titular three roommates — John Ritter as Jack Tripper, Joyce DeWitt as Janet Wood and Somers as Chrissy Snow — quickly became a mainstay of the Nielsen Top 10 shows. The fictional comedic antics in apartment 201 also catapulted the young stars into real-life fame, with Somers gracing the covers of numerous magazines.
In 1980, the actress was seemingly at the top of her game and she knew her worth. When it came time for contract negotiations, she set a reasonable threshold — the equivalent of her male costars. What she didn’t expect was to walk out jobless.
“The show’s response was, ‘Who do you think you are?’” the actress told People. “They said, ‘John Ritter is the star.’”
The men were making five times as much as the women
When Somers first signed on to the show, she agreed to a $3,500 a week salary to play the bubbly Chrissy. As the show gained traction, her salary climbed and soon she was making $30,000 a week.
“I had the highest demographic of all women in television 18 to 49,” she said in an interview for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2009.
With a better understanding of the industry than when she started, she went into her contract negotiation for the fifth season with equal pay in mind. “I’m looking around and thinking, ‘Why are all the men...making 10 times more?” she questioned. Her costars, Ritter and DeWitt, already had their contracts set, so she gave them a heads up that she was going to go in strong.
“I say to John and Joyce…’I’m going to ask for big money and a piece of the back end and if you two back me up...we’ll all get it, so I’ll be the patsy,” she continued.
So her husband, former television producer Alan Hamel, went to negotiate for her, asking for $150,000 a week, which was the average that men were earning on television at the time, and on par with what her costar Ritter was making. (She says she didn’t know at the time Ritter was making more since the three of them had a favored-nations clause.)
Another show's negotiations affected the outcome
Before heading to the meeting that morning, Hamel checked with Somers again, hypothesizing that it could all “blow out of the water.” “I said, ‘They’re not going to get rid of Chrissy,’” she recalled in the Academy interview.
What Somers and Hamel didn’t know at the time was that the ABC executives were holding onto their pursestrings extra tight since they had just settled a deal with the stars of Laverne & Shirley, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams — and were paying the two women more than they had hoped.
“Laverne & Shirley had just negotiated a monster deal, and afterwards, they decided they needed to make an example of female actresses so that no other woman would ask to be paid what men were making,” Hamel told People.
In a time before cell phones, Somers waited at home anxiously. “So I hear the front door open and I can tell by the way the door closes and the sound of his feet walking up the stairs that this is not good,” she recalled. That’s when he told her that she had been fired.
“Never think that you are not replaceable — rule number one,” Somers said.
After she was fired, Somers was escorted by a police guard on set
As if that sudden blow wasn’t hard enough, they hadn’t finished filming the fifth season yet, so she had to go back to set. But it wasn’t business as usual.
“So what they did do was force me to finish out the year, but diminish me to a minute,” Somers explained in the Academy interview. “They built this little side set — it was crazy what they did. They would have a police guard come meet me at the back door, walk me in. I was not allowed to see anybody from the original show, only the wardrobe guy, who would bring me a pair of shorts and something.”
On the sparse set was a chair, phone and lamp — with one camera filming her saying lines on the phone. “It just felt so like I was being punished like I was a bad girl. It brought up all my old feelings of low self-worth,” Somers remembered.
The demeaning treatment came all because she asked to be paid the same as the men. “It was just a terrible time,” she said.
The industry shunned her so she reinvented herself
Offset, life wasn’t any better. She went from being the most coveted actress in the demographic to not even being able to get an interview with any press outlet.
“I sat home for the better part of the year, thinking, ‘Why did I do it? Here I had the world by the tail… why did I think that I should be paid what they’re paying the men?’” Somers said in the Academy interview.
But one day, everything clicked. “I hear voices sometimes, not in a weird way,” she explained. “I hear a voice in my head, like a loudspeaker. It says, ‘Why are you focused on what you don’t have? Why don’t you focus on what it is you do have?’” And that’s when she realized the gift Three’s Company had given her that they couldn’t take away: visibility.
Using her name and face recognition, she plotted not a comeback, but a reinvention. “Everybody in this country knows my name — I have visibility,” she said of the realization. “That’s something.”
Soon she was starring in a Las Vegas production with 13 dancers and a 27-piece orchestra, performing a lively revue with classic stage songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” And in 1987, she was named Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year along with Frank Sinatra.
Now she’s also a successful entrepreneur, fitness and beauty line owner, author and talk show host, and has worn so many other hats — and it all stemmed from her asking for equal pay.
“That was the great thing about being fired,” Somers told People. “I would have never been able to do what I do now.