In the old days, when a new TV actress hit the beach in Hollywood with the tsunami force of a Suzanne Somers, it was partially because she was willing to ride mindlessly with the tide. But that was before ABC’s Three’s Company had risen—thanks in part to Somers’ loopy blond role of Chrissy—as the No. 1 sexcom and the hottest new series of 1977.
“I’m really out of it,” laughs Suzanne, speaking, at 29, not from perversity but rather from her own sense of person and taste. “I don’t know anything about astrology. I hate backgammon. I don’t play tennis and I don’t want a Spanish-speaking housekeeper who answers the phone ‘No en casa.’ ” As if to underline her unfashionable cussedness, Suzanne is about to marry the man she has been together with for a decade, Canada’s leading TV talk show host, Alan Hamel, 38.
But while bucking showbiz convention, she is not self-destructive about it. For example, she’s played the Tonight show 37 times in the past three and a half years (an appearance rate that should inspire Johnny Carson). Part of Somers’ motivation is to propel what she believes may be one of her two real vocations in life—poetry, of which she’s published two volumes. The other, she’s not ashamed to say, is homemaking. She has a son, now 11, by a failed first marriage, and Joyce DeWitt, who plays Suzanne’s take-charge brunette foil in Three’s Company, characterizes her with genuine awe as “one of the few great mothers in this town.”
Though blondes have more press, Three’s Company revolves around a gifted ensemble of five. Somers and DeWitt need to take in a third roomie to make the rent, but can only find a male (John Ritter) whom they have to explain away, falsely, as a gay to their straitlaced, apparently impotent landlord (Norman Fell) and sex-starved landlady (Audra Lindley). Ritter, the promising son of the late Western crooner Tex, jokes that his only complaint is the girls’ reluctance to “go away with me for the weekend—I just thought Big Sur for a few days—to work on the sexual aspects of our characters.”
It’s just an office joke. Ritter, having recently wed actress Nancy (Grand Theft Auto) Morgan, is as quaintly and fiercely monogamous as Somers and DeWitt (who lives with actor Ray Buktenika, who’s cast as Brenda’s suitor Benny Goodwin on Rhoda).
What’s possibly most heartening about the life story of Somers is that it will serve as an antidote to the movie-fomented canard that all daughters of devout Irish Catholics are looking for Mr. Goodbar. She was born Suzanne Mahoney in San Bruno, Calif., south of San Francisco. Her mother was a medical secretary, her dad a minor league baseball player turned high school coach. “They made $100 a week tops, and I want to pass the values I was raised with on to my son,” she says. “He does not have his own TV set in his room, but he does have a paper route, and he really works hard to earn his $2 a week allowance.”
Suzanne was expelled from her Catholic high school “for writing too many notes and poems to too many imaginary boyfriends.” But she graduated from public school and went on to San Francisco’s Lone Mountain College, where she became a wife and mother by 17. When the relationship went blooey, she worked nights as a cocktail waitress and attended classes with son Bruce strapped to her back. (She refused to have the marriage annulled—”It would make Bruce’s ground a little shaky if we said he was not the result of a real love and marriage”—but within a year divorced Bruce Somers Sr., a lawyer-psychologist who visits his son regularly.) “If that marriage had worked out,” Suzanne concedes, “I could have had 10 children by now and been very happy.”
Instead, she zeroed in on showbiz, flubbing auditions for TV weather girl but then modeling, doing summer stock, bit movie parts in the Bay area (Bullitt, Magnum Force) and whatever game or talk shows would have her. Through it all she wrote achingly autobiographical verse:
Sometimes I see my son
and remember the pain of unloved pregnancy
and the resentment I sometimes felt at raising him alone
when I could not have the freedom I deserved.
She read her works to bored bookstore audiences in places like Sausalito (“Everybody was into Karma and ‘grooving’ with spacey kinds of poetry, and there I was talking about the pain of an early child”). The late Jacqueline Susann, after appearing with Somers on the talk show Mantrap, persuaded her to bring out her first collection of verse, Touch Me. It was published in 1973 and sold enough to be followed two years later by a sequel, Touch Me Again.
By then Suzanne had won her first movie speaking part, three lines in George Lucas’ American Graffiti—she was the blonde in the Thunderbird. It paid $136.72, but launched her (which is why she feels like an ingrate disliking his Star Wars). That emboldened her to relocate in L.A., where she took acting classes and began TV guesting. She met her fiancé on a game show, The Anniversary Game.
A Canadian citizen working in the U.S. on a “green card” (he still is), Alan was the emcee and Suzanne was, she recalls, “the girl who opens refrigerator doors, always has a plastic smile and looks into the wrong camera. My mouth fell open like a St. Bernard’s,” she says about that first encounter with Hamel, “and I still feel that way about him.” He was attracted because Suzanne “has the best street instincts of any human being I’ve encountered. What constantly excites me about her is the fact that she never stops learning; she’s a natural etymologist who loves getting into the origins of words.” Like Suzanne, Alan had a failed early marriage, at 19, that lasted 12 years, and his daughter, Leslie, 16, and son Stephen, 13, now live with their mother in L.A.
While she was chasing modeling jobs and bit parts, he followed the border-hopping commuter schedule that he continues today. From Saturday to Tuesday he lights in Vancouver to tape his talk show. Wednesday through Friday he lives with Suzanne and Bruce in a condo on the beach at Santa Monica. When they get married this month they’ll move to another beach house, on the edge of the Marina peninsula. Suzanne says Alan imbued her with her each-of-us-gets-only-one-chance philosophy (actually he said a woman gets only one chance; men frequently get three or four). “I am not a workaholic,” she insists, but her very use of the word indicates the lady doth protest too much. “This is my turn and I’m striking while the iron is hot.” She scored with Three’s Company only after no fewer than nine failed TV pilots.
Yet her “good outlook on life and work” awes co-star Ritter. “Poetry is my shrink,” she says. “I believe you can do anything you truly want to do.” To prove it, she’s about to publish a new tome—prose this time—with a self-help theme.
Her and Alan’s decision to get married was consummated last summer on a six-week trip to France and Italy—away from telephones, Americans and, almost, the English language. One of her purposes was to study cooking at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. It was her first trip abroad, and Suzanne recalls that “being together 24 hours a day for the first time was wonderful. We didn’t see the Mona Lisa and we didn’t buy any clothes.” The betrothal, says Suzanne, is “a great relief. Our relationship has been a product of the 1970s, the era of cohabiting, but I’m ready for the respectability of it, and so is Alan.” He’s Jewish, and a rabbi as well as a priest will officiate at their wedding.
“I pinch myself a lot,” says Suzanne. “I feel like a princess who was offered three wishes and they all came true. Of course, coming from a staunch Catholic family, I’m trying to find something to feel guilty about.”