By Elizabeth Sporkin
July 29, 1991 12:00 PM

ON AN EARLY SUMMER SUNDAY, AMID THE SWEET, SENSUAL magnolias of Oak Alley, a 1,300-acre plantation outside New Orleans, Delta Burke, late of the CBS sitcom Designing Women, donned a white antebellum lace gown for a joyous occasion. She and her husband of two years, Gerald McRaney, the star of another CBS sitcom, Major Dad, were renewing their wedding vows. But Dixie Carter, Burke’s costar and matron of honor in the previous ceremony in Los Angeles, was not in attendance. Neither were any of the other principals connected with DW, including costars Annie Potts, Jean Smart and Meshach Taylor.

This week, on Monday, July 29, the DW cast and crew will reassemble in Hollywood to begin filming the show’s sixth season—and to undertake no less than a redesign of the Atlanta interior-decor firm of Sugarbakers that provides its comic setting. Absent will be the tempestuous Burke, who played zany and zaftig Suzanne Sugarbaker; she was informed just eight days before her second wedding ceremony that Columbia Pictures Television was not renewing her $55,000-per-episode contract. Gone also (save for two new episodes) is Smart, who wants to perform in other projects and spend more time with her husband, actor Richard Gilliland, and baby Connor Douglas, 21 months. In Burke’s and Smart’s places will be newcomers Julia (Newhart) Duffy and Jan (Saturday Night Live) Hooks.

The recasting caps a year that had been the best and worst in DW’s tenure. For 1990—91, the series garnered a highest-ever No. 9 Nielsen ranking (the program even made it to No. 1 in prime time the week of July 1-7). But it also reaped titillating headlines from a shattering backstage feud that centered on Burke and got uglier as it became more public. Burke herself emerged with a deal for a new, as-yet-unwritten sitcom at Universal Television, but also with a bruised image. It typifies the morale meltdown that Delta got the news of her DW departure not from a production-company representative but by overhearing a conversation on the set of a CBS TV movie she and McRaney were filming titled Love and Curses.

That may have burned her the most. Along with her talent, Delta, 34, carries into life a reputation for fiery southern passion that is as tangible as bayou moss. One friend calls her “a latter-day Scarlett O’Hara,” a reference more to her spirited temperament than her refined manners. Her former publicist, Phil Paladino, says she’s “a strong woman.” But Jean Smart notes, “Delta was the baby, chronologically, and we treated her like a baby sister. She has such a childlike quality about her.” Her problems, magnified or genuinely large, came to dominate the set. They included her celebrated battle of the bulge (the 5’5″ actress once reportedly ballooned as high as 210 lbs.), which became a takeoff point for Burke’s Emmy-nominated 1990 episode, “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” In the end, many disgruntled colleagues, weary of what they saw as her mercurial nature and husband McRaney’s off-the-set interference (“He’s the force behind the mouth,” says one), wished her good riddance. “We’re tired of having her suck all the energy out of us,” said one of the show’s minor players (who, like many interviewed for the story, asked not to be identified). “We can’t live like this anymore.”

Strangely enough for a controversy so public, Burke’s fate may have been sealed by a private poll. Though the actress had requested a release from her contract late in 1990, that request was widely considered a negotiating ploy. The series, many believed, was highly dependent on her popular character. But on March 28, at a spontaneous, informal meeting (Burke had already left the set after filming her segments), the DW cast and producers voted on whether she should return to the show. The verdict was no. On April 2, DW coexecutive producer Harry Thomason wrote a confidential letter to Gary Lieberthal, chairman of Columbia Pictures Television, asking him to free Burke from her contract.

Nobody took the loss of such a major player lightly. But Burke’s highly publicized one-woman attack against the show had alienated many. Some on DW believe that what Burke really wanted was to be the series’ star. Paladino disagrees: “She always wanted to be a star,” he says. “But not necessarily star of that series.”

In any case, becoming first among equals would have violated the producers’ long-proclaimed ethos of player equality. Thomason and his wife, the show’s creator and coexecutive producer, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, even ordered staffers to count the number of lines attributed to each actress.

But almost a year before the vote, in the spring of 1990, Burke’s agent, Marty Hurwitz, had called Harry Thomason. Thomason says it was to discuss “the emergence of Delta as the star of the show”—a notion that Thomason recalls rejecting in no uncertain terms. Hurwitz remembers the conversation differently. “We never asked for star status,” he says. He did request a meeting between Burke and Thomason to smooth what was already becoming a strained relationship.

The conference never took place. In August, Burke received her Emmy nomination for “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” The segment featured Burke eloquently defending the pounds Suzanne had added since her beauty-queen days. Burke claimed the show was her inspiration; others say Bloodworth-Thomason had come up with the concept and held a three-hour meeting with Burke to convince her that it was a good idea. On the night of the filming, the studio audience gave a tearful Burke an ovation, while McRaney hugged and kissed Bloodworth-Thomason, saying, “Thank you for what you did for my honey.”

Nevertheless, the day she received the Emmy nomination, Burke was on the offensive, griping in her hometown newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel, that the set was “not a good workplace, not a good environment.” That brought the feud out into the open. The Thomasons countered with a statement to the media: “We are all mentally exhausted from the daily trials and tribulations of Delta Burke.”

A short time later, says Hurwitz, Burke indicated that she wanted to depart the series at the end of the 1990—91 season and suggested that there be a few transitional episodes to write Suzanne out. The Thomasons, not willing to give up Burke as Suzanne, refused. In November, Burke vented her anger on a Barbara Walters Special. Among other things, she alleged that Thomason “screamed and yelled” at the cast, “threw things at us” and “barred the door when Burke tried to leave. Thomason admits that he once yelled at the cast but says that he later apologized. Other DW personalities soon were caught in the crossfire: On Joan Rivers’s talk show, Dixie Carter wouldn’t discuss Burke’s accusations.

On Thursday, Nov. 9, 1990, Burke did not show up for filming. A doctor certified that she was ill and unable to work, and the episode—about Charlene and her Air Force husband, Bill—was rewritten to exclude Suzanne. According to Thomason, at 4 P.M. Burke’s camp called to say that she could come in after all. But there were only two hours until filming, not enough time to accommodate another revision. According to sources, Columbia insisted on docking Burke her entire episode fee, citing cost overruns (Thomason says he would have paid her). “There was a clear understanding that Delta would do a scene the next week to explain why she wasn’t there,” Hurwitz declares. (Burke has filed a suit, still pending, to recover her payment.)

After that, Burke, who, says Hurwitz, had “sprained her coccyx,” often called in sick, according to the DW staff. One staffer claims that Burke sometimes was absent on Monday and Tuesday (rehearsal days); those weeks she reported in only on Wednesday and a few hours before filming on Thursday. Because no one could predict her schedule, the cast began working with two scripts—one in case Burke showed up, and one in case she didn’t. Burke, says Hurwitz, was undergoing treatment—”She had to sit on a therapeutic doughnut”—and did miss rehearsal time, but “did not miss a show.”

If Burke now was being branded a disruptive influence, it was a sharp contrast to DW’s early days. “I’ll be friends with these women for the rest of my life,” she said of her colleagues in 1986. Before that, Burke had played a variety of forgettable TV roles. Her previous claim to fame had been as Miss Florida, 1974. Raised in Orlando by her mother, Jean, and adoptive father, Frederick Burke, a Realtor, Delta Ramona Leah Burke didn’t even place in the 1974 Miss America pageant. But she more than made up for the loss when she became DW’s resident ex-beauty queen. “Suzanne is vain, but she doesn’t mean to hurt anyone,” Burke once said. “It’s just that she’s so involved in herself, and she is also vulnerable.”

The same was said around the set about Burke, especially in connection with her relationship with McRaney, 43. The actress, who says she was molested at age 4, was afraid of men and rarely dated. But she fell for Mac when he made a 1987 guest appearance on the show, playing one of Suzanne’s ex-husbands. Burke wed the twice-divorced McRaney (he has three children, Jessica, 24, Angus, 20, and adopted daughter Katie, 7) in May 1989. Sources on DW believe that the macho McRaney changed his new wife, and not for the better. “He convinced her she was the most important star in the business. He convinced her that her life was being threatened, convinced her to hire a bodyguard,” says one DW staffer. (McRaney, says Hurwitz, never told anyone Delta’s life was endangered but did say his own life had been threatened; by hiring a bodyguard, he was merely exercising prudence after the murder of My Sister Sam star Rebecca Schaeffer, 21, by a fan in 1989.) Burke has said, “He wanted me to speak up and not take this treatment a long time ago.”

But Burke’s statements were not convincing to those around her. “Here is a major TV actress with everything in the world going for her. and all of a sudden she takes an entirely different approach,” says a DW source. “Anybody looking at this situation would have to raise the question, is it possible this person is exhibiting self-destructive tendencies? It’s sad.”

Burke’s advocates, though, place the lion’s share of the blame on the Thomasons. From the moment Burke asked out of her contract, “Linda and Harry attempted to be punitive,” says Hurwitz. The Thomasons, adds a Burke associate, “were expert at positioning the scandal…. They played real hardball when Delta and Mac were trying to play Softball.”

Throughout, the tabloids were having a field day with Burke’s weight gain—a development that everyone on the DW set agrees did not disturb McRaney or the producers. On at least one occasion while Burke was dieting, her husband stocked a room at home with pounds of chocolate, as a dramatic way of saying he loved her for herself, not for the way she looked. On the show, the closest anyone came to discussing her increased poundage was telling the costume designer, Cliff Chally, to dress her for the best possible effect. “Never, ever, I emphatically want to say, has her weight had anything to do with our opinion of whether she should be on the show or off the show,” says Thomason. “Actually, she got funnier as she gained weight.”

But eventually comedy lost out to harmony. In June, Columbia hired Anything but Love producer Janis Hirsch to replace the Thomasons and be the peacemaker. The reasoning was that Linda and Harry were busy with their new series, Evening Shade. Trouble was, nobody told the Thomasons that Hirsch had been hired. When they found out, they refused to return to Evening Shade unless they were also in charge of Designing Women. The Thomasons, who have a deal with CBS to produce five more shows, were allowed back. Hirsch and Burke would depart.

“Thanks for hiring me,” Burke wrote the Thomasons. “Thanks for letting me go. It’s the in-between part that we had problems with.”

Now she is getting on with her new series and her life with Mac. Says Harry Thomason: “I don’t know what happened or what we did. We wish her well. We hope she has every success in the book.”