Last week, in an excerpt for PEOPLE from her new book, Roseanne: My Life as a Woman, Barr described her tumultuous childhood and her early struggles before making it to Hollywood. This week, in an exclusive interview, the brash, iconoclastic comic brings matters up to date with the incredible story of her past year. During the last 12 months, her ABC sitcom, Roseanne, catapulted her into prime time’s Nielsen nirvana. But Barr, 36, who only four years ago was living in a working-class suburb of Denver with husband Bill Pentland and their three kids, says her first year at the top was an unnerving mix of triumph and torment.
Through it all, Barr revealed little about her turmoil—-until sitting down with PEOPLE at her rented home above Sunset Boulevard. Yes, there’s a pool, tennis court, lush and rustic surroundings; but the good life has hardly softened Barr, an extravagant, riotous raconteuse once she gets up a head of caffeine-driven steam. “This has been the hardest year I ever lived through,” she says. “I lost my marriage, my children got very messed up. Then in a three-month period I ended up with a new man, a new daughter, a new house. But I almost died. It was just so insane—all the behind-the-scenes s—around the show. That’s why I’ve never talked about it before. It was just too insane.”
So where did all this start?
I wanted a TV show. I told my agent I didn’t want to be on the road anymore. It took many meetings with many producers. I decided to go with executive producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner because they had the top two series—Cosby and A Different World—and I thought they knew how to make a show out of a stand-up act. Matt Williams was the third exec producer and the writer. Then everybody seemed to forget I had been doing this act for eight years. My act was an extension of my life, and the show was to be an extension of my act. They promised to back me for a revolutionary TV show and support my vision. I was seeing a male point of view coming out of women’s mouths on TV, particularly around families. The men on TV weren’t like any men I had ever seen or been with, nor were the women. They were the opposite of everything I had ever seen. The fathers did the major caretaking and nurturing; the mothers just were there and came in and out.
Matt had come to my house, watched me with my kids and husband, took notes, watched my act, taped hours and hours of interviews. And I worked on creating the pilot, the situations and the characters as well. Then he turned in his version of what he saw, and I immediately went to Tom and Marcy and said, “This is not the guy.” They said, “Give him time. He doesn’t understand you yet.”
Matt’s version was very sanitized, written from the little boy’s point of view. I brought my sister Geraldine in to get the sister character right. I was incredulous, getting crazier, more frustrated. In his draft I was a June Cleaver and my sister [played by Laurie Metcalf] was me. That’s how crazy it was. And Matt said, “I was going to write you as that character, but then I thought no one would like you.” And I went, “Of course people are going to like me. What have I done for six years? That’s why I’m here.” I felt like a stranger in a strange land, which I suppose is Hollywood. I didn’t know until I saw the pilot that only his name was on it [as the show’s creator]. They had told me it was a collaboration. I freaked. I fired my lawyers. Fired my agents. Everybody.
Then Matt tried to get me fired. He compiled a list of every offensive thing I did. And I do offensive things. Like I belch at the audience and swear and fart and stuff. That’s who I am. That’s my act. So Matt was in his office making a list of how gross I was, how many times I farted and belched—taking it to the network to show I was out of control.
You were an instant hit, premiering at No. 5, but success didn’t cool things?
No. By the second or third show I asked the producers to fire Matt. His anger was escalating. I couldn’t perform. He’d call the cast and extras together, make us sit in a circle, and then he did this kind of Robert De Niro slow walk around the inside perimeter [like Al Capone’s skull-bashing scene in The Untouchables]. And he’d say, “The show tonight sucks.” He’d walk up to me and say, “It’s all your fault,” and humiliate me. Carsey-Werner told me: Make it through 13 shows, and we’ll fire him. I said okay.
I was writing my character’s lines, but he was changing her. “No,” I’d say, “this isn’t what Roseanne would say,” and he’d go, “Say it as written.” It was always around castration jokes. I refused to do them because I had to take the heat in the press for being this big antimale woman, and it was never about that. But he perceived her as this castrating woman.
There were reports you and John Goodman were fighting too.
No. There was never any tension between us or between Laurie and me. We’re just like the best buds. The only tension was when Matt was there, and I’d go to John and say, “You’ve got to help me do this,” and he’d go, “Roseanne, I’m here to be an actor.”
He didn’t want to get embroiled?
Uh-uh. But he never went against me. Matt would call John and ask him if he could do the show without me. And John would say, “I won’t be here if she’s not here.” He was there for me, but he didn’t want to take sides. He had his bad stuff too. John used to go berserk on the set all the time, every Friday, just out of nervousness and all the s—-. The whole cast would go berserk. John would pound the walls and scream, and we’d all be freaking out, scared s—-less out of frustration. It wasn’t just me.
The big showdown day came when Matt wanted me and John Goodman in bed and me saying, “I have no respect for you outside this bed.” I said, “No, she would say the opposite, like, ‘I have respect for you in every room, but this is the room where I have the most respect.’ ” A nicer way of saying the same thing. Matt was always making me do these degrading sex scenes. So they line up the cameras around the bed, him and the director, and I go, “Change the line.” He goes, “Say it as written.” So then he came down with lawyers, and they all stood around the bed and they go, “Are you refusing to perform?”—a violation of my contract. I go, “I ain’t refusing to perform. I’m waiting for a line change.”
And that’s how we had to pull the show out every f—-ing Friday. I’d go home and go nuts. It was intense hatred, intense. He made it so unsafe for me to perform, ’cause nothing he wrote was funny. Me and John and Laurie would be on the floor, going, “We’ve got to write this scene, just ad-lib our way through”—coming up with the funny stuff. We did it almost every show. I made it through 13 shows, we got a renewal for the “back 9” shows, and I told Carsey-Werner, “Get rid of him.” But they said, “We can’t. There’s nobody else.”
Your husband, Bill, was consultant. Did work tensions spill over at home?
Bill and I would try to change the scripts more to Roseanne’s point of view. He, my sister and my manager were the wall around me and showed up for Friday live tapings. But it was getting to Bill too. Early in the year, Bill was on his way to a Raiders game in his car, and I was in my Jeep, when he called me on the car phone and said he had horrible chest pains. I freaked. We met back home, and I rushed him to the hospital. We had been living under such terrible stress, and I couldn’t shake it off at home. We were sure he’d had a heart attack. He’s 38. It turned out to be an anxiety attack, and he stayed in for about four days. The show never sent him flowers or called or anything. I think they assumed I had made up the whole story.
By then you had some leverage with the network, didn’t you?
There was no support for me anywhere. Anywhere. When I saw they wouldn’t fire Matt I went, “You’re not jacking me off for 13 episodes only to tell me I have to still work with the guy who’s constantly attacking me every second.” I took out my checkbook, and went, “Here, take $100,000—that’s all the money, or equity on our house in Encino. I ain’t coming back or takin’ one more second of his abuse. I’m going back to Denver, see ya.” When I threatened to quit, that’s when they fired Matt. Or “removed him from the creative process,” but he still has a “created by” credit on the show. Two weeks after Matt left, the show went to No. 1.
You say you “lost” your own husband because of last season’s hassles. Is this the case of an otherwise ideal marriage ruined by career stresses?
No. All the stuff was always there. It just got more exaggerated. Once I had done Tonight four years ago, I had enough work so that Bill could quit his job at the post office. There was enough money the next day. But my stand-up career was chaotic; it was a train, and we were trying to hang on as best we could. Here was my husband being like a single parent after being a dad for 11 years. There was a lot of pressure on him. It was a soul-and gut-wrenching period for us; neither of us did very well with it.
We both sensed somewhere along the way that [the marriage] was doomed-even before the TV series. We went to a therapist and tried real hard to fix it. When we married, my husband wanted me to stay home and have babies. And I tried to do that for him. He was happy back in Denver when I was just really housebound—but it was a horrible time in my life. Still, I loved him and wanted to make him happy. I was like every other wife. And I loved my kids. Bill supported my career because he didn’t think it was ever really going to happen. It was okay when it was like a hobby, when I’d go to the club Monday night and tell my little jokes. But he did quit his job and move out here to L.A. for me—I do give him credit for that. I know he tried his best.
I was hopeful through the therapy. I always thought I was married forever. Even when it started going real bad, we were still married forever. Then after four years of this, I went, “Wait a minute. I don’t have to be married forever and be real unhappy. Neither does he.” So I kind of was the one that made the decision for both of us. Plus, more and more I was talking to my best friend Tom Arnold and crying on his shoulder in parking lots and in delis, and more and more I came to feel that I should be with him.
By early spring things were pretty difficult at home. I was working 16 hours a day. I wasn’t there. Even when I was there, I wasn’t there. I turned to incredible amounts of sugar and cigarettes. I’m a major food-and-cigarette addict. But not drugs. Maybe I drank a couple times, but mostly I gained a lot of weight. I was really into food as comfort. I would go out to eat like five, six times a day.
We weren’t there for the kids. My older daughter, Jessica, who’s 14, was drinking. She was sneaking out at night, taking my car, I had no idea. Why us? As a mother, I feel it was because I wasn’t there, but the truth is, there’s a real world out there the kids are in that’s different from ours. It could have happened to anybody.
Jessica eventually was hospitalized, correct?
In April I was about to begin She Devil with Meryl Streep in New York. That’s when Jessica entered a Westwood treatment center, where she went through a 12-step recovery program for alcohol abuse. She was in-patient on an adolescent unit for about four or five months. My being in New York was rough. We spoke on the phone every day. Bill was great. He got real involved in it back home, working every day with the kids.
Jessie had a great psychiatrist and was in a terrific program. She needed discipline and intense structure, which we weren’t providing at home. She needed to do her 12-step program. Being my oldest and going through puberty and having all the peer-pressure stuff wasn’t easy. But she took incredible control of her life. I’m really proud of her. She’s a great woman. What she did helped us all. I told her she saved us by going into the hospital.
I credit her success in dealing with her problem to having hope, working for the future. I was raised in a dysfunctional family, and I feel I raised my kids in one. We had to admit that things were real bad and weren’t going to get any better—then try to change and improve them.
What changes were you prepared to make?
It was during that time that I knew I had to get a divorce. I had stayed for the kids. When Jessie went in, it was, like, we had tried so hard to be together for the kids that we ended up just as messed up as if we had been divorced. So it was time for me to take control of my own life. I would call my sister Geraldine and go, like, “How am I going to live through this?” She has always been the person who has helped me through it all. But it was while I was in New York that I also got really close to Tom Arnold.
I had known him for six years. He and my husband started writing parts of my act for me. Sometimes all three of us would write together. Then I asked Tom to come out to L.A. to write on the show last year. He had a fiancée who managed a restaurant in the Valley. She really loved him, but she’d call me and say, “Tom’s been drinking, talk to him.” So I’d call or go over there and say, “You gotta quit drinkin’, or she’s gonna leave ya, and I won’t hang out with you anymore.”
Tom and me partied together and became best buddies. Tom was Bill’s best buddy too. Tom is incredibly funny. We’d beat each other up—hey, buddy, how ya doin’ kinda thing. We did that instead of the Other Thing because we didn’t even know we felt that way. We were just real crazy together. He’s taller than me and thinks I’m fatter than him, but no way. He’s way fatter than me. He’s 6’2″. We wear the same size shirts, only they’re tighter around the middle on him than they are on me. We’d buy twin outfits and dress like twins, which is really insane. Our friends always went, “You guys are DOING IT,” and I’d say, “Can’t a man and a woman just be friends?” I mean, we never even kissed or held hands or nothin.’ We just punched each other a lot and dressed like twins.
I had this prevision that something was going to happen between us, but we’d always back off. We really did try so hard not to be together those six years. Finally, this past spring, we gave up trying. When I left for New York, I knew that was it for me and Bill. It was a separation. Tom was on the road, I was doing She Devil, and Tom and I talked for like nine hours every day and started admitting things. Like I’d go, “How come you been engaged three times since I’ve known you and it’s never worked out?” And he’d go, “I’ve been waiting for you since I was 24.”
Finally, I told Tom to come visit in New York. So he shows up at the Mayflower Hotel, and he’s like 80 lbs. thinner. We were both on a liquid diet. I lost 30, and I go into a panic, because now I was way fatter than him. I go, “We’re not having sex or anything like that, because I’m way fatter than you. You can’t see me naked.” I had never been self-conscious with Tom, because he was always the person I went out to eat like a pig with. My eating buddy. So we walked around the town and held hands.
But next time Tom came into town he’d put back about 15 lbs.—we discussed that as a condition—so this was it. It was really funny the way it happened. We were sitting on opposite sides of the room for about six hours going, “Well, I think we could hug.” And we’d meet in the middle of the room, hug and go back. Then we’d go, “Okay, well maybe now we should kiss.” So then we’d kiss and run back. This was like a boxing match, going to our corners.
About eight hours later, it was “Do you really think we should do this?” and “I promise I won’t hate you and I’ll still be your friend.” And then we DID IT. When we were finished, there wasn’t a table or lamp or anything that wasn’t broken or shattered or destroyed. You have to understand about not being together six years. That’s what it was like—six years’ worth. I mean, we heard people slamming windows shut in the hotel, and they got calls and complaints about us. We were jumping around a lot, and there was like nothing left standing in the room after. This was all night. And then all day.
Then we went to the Carnegie Deli and got thrown out. We just grabbed each other, kissing and hugging and going, “Oh, God, I’m with you, I love you.” Actually we were disgusting in the deli. People asked us to leave—I guess we were talking dirty. We’ve kind of gotten down in restaurants. Not good judgment, my manager tells me. We just can’t help it. We go into the yogurt store and ask them if they have a bathroom, go in there and do it. We haven’t done it on an airplane, but only ’cause we’re both so afraid to fly.
Wasn’t it about this time that you heard about your daughter Brandi?
This was an amazing thing going on. A tabloid called to tell me, “We found your daughter.” I was stunned. They had gotten hold of the birth certificate of the baby girl I bore out of wedlock and gave up for adoption after nine days in Denver when I was 18. I was so pissed off. I had left information allowing her to find me when she turned 21. I had even told my own kids about the adoption a year earlier because I knew she was 17 and might try to find me.
Now the paper knew where she lived, her school, who her mother and father were. They knew everything but had only told her that her mother was someone famous. They had been asking questions, showing up in [her adoptive parents] garage, scaring the s—- out of them. I begged them to stay the f—- away. Then I panicked and hired a private detective to track her down rather than have her read about me being her mom in a tabloid, which is so dirty and sleazy.
Two days later I finally called my daughter, who was born on May 16, 1971. She is now named Brandi Brown, and she was raised by Stanley and Gail Brown of Denver. What was really weird was that Gail Brown’s mother’s best friend is my mother’s best friend. It was a small Jewish community between Salt Lake and Denver, and everyone had known about the Browns adopting a little girl out of Denver. They were friends with a lot of my family, but nobody ever put it together. I’m so glad I found her. So glad she came home.
At first, [during pregnancy] I wanted to keep the baby. I got on welfare and rented a room for 50 bucks a month. I turned on the water, and cockroaches came out of the spigot. Outside, there were drunks. I just couldn’t go on there, so I went away to Denver and moved into a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers. My family wasn’t too supportive. I gave my baby up to the Jewish Family & Children’s Service in Denver. They said they had a couple that had waited seven years for a Jewish baby. But the day they came to take my baby away, I whispered to her, “You remember this, I’ll see you when you’re 18.” I always knew that. I always knew we would get back.
What was the reunion like?
When it came time for our reunion in May, Gail and Brandi stayed at the Westwood Marquis hotel. I was back in L.A. on a She Devil break. Geraldine and I rang the room from the lobby, but they weren’t there. I go, “Let’s go have a cup of coffee, ’cause they’ll be back soon.” We walk into the lounge to calm down, and as we walk in my sister goes, “Oh, my God, there she is.”
I turned around and felt this powerful magnet. We looked at each other, Brandi jumped out of her seat, and we started running toward each other. We embraced and wouldn’t let go of each other, hugging and crying. We went up in the elevator finally and had ourselves a reunion. It was clear Gail had done a great job as Brandi’s mom. We just held on to each other, looking into each other’s eyes and crying as I told Brandi how much I had missed her for so long.
Then while we’re all sitting there in the room, a call comes for me. It’s Tom’s roommate. “Tom’s in the bedroom and he’s hemorrhaging from the nose.” I knew exactly what had happened and immediately had to leave and run up to the Valley. I got to Tom’s and found him in bed, bleeding from the nose.
“That’s it,” I said, “you’re going to the hospital.” He had been up for a three-day bender, snorting coke—something like 28 grams. It was all about Tom wanting to die. In the past he drank too much, though he always hid it from me. I don’t think he was ever real bad into coke, and I know he’d been clean for a year and a half before we got together. He goes, “Have I lost you?” And I go, “Put it this way: It’s a great end. After six years, I’m finally free, and this is what you do?”
He goes, “No, this isn’t the end. It’s the part before living happily ever after. I promise.” I drove Tom to a detox unit at Van Nuys Hospital and left him there. Then I turned around and went back to be with Brandi and Gail. We went shopping on Rodeo Drive, had dinner at Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard. It was wonderful.
She’s a really cool kid. I saw a lot of me in her. She’s intuitive, trusts her perceptions and feelings and listens to what’s not spoken. That’s how I’ve lived my life. She looks like me, except with blond hair and blue eyes. And she is so much like my three kids. They haven’t met her yet, but they will. That’s what blew me away—how much like my kids she really is.
When I finally dropped Brandi and Gail off, I went out into my Jeep and I just broke down. My boyfriend’s in the hospital and may not live; my daughter was still in the hospital; Brandi had just come into my life; I had to go back and finish She Devil in five days. It was awful—the very best and worst life can offer. I sat in my Jeep in Westwood and cried for two hours—just screaming and crying. I couldn’t even drive.
How has everyone held up through it all?
Things have been very positive since the summer. Tom really turned himself around after his four-day detox. I moved into my own rented house on Aug. 1 with him and the kids. It’s been almost two months, and it’s working great. My kids like him a lot, he likes them, we all help each other. He and Jessica both go through their recovery programs and support each other. Brandi and I write each other now a couple times a month. We’re building a relationship and have so much to work out. Bill and I can speak amicably now, and we’re both trying to be the best parents we can be for our kids. They say he’s got a girlfriend now, so I was happy to hear that. The divorce will be final Jan. 17, and Tom and I are getting married on the 20th. Then we’ll try to buy our own house. I’d like a ranch, some land, some animals and no neighbors. I told Tom I’m out to lose 40 lbs. or I ain’t get-tin’ married. He’s trying to lose 20.
As for the settlement, I’m not going to try to screw Bill out of a light bulb. I loved Bill for 16 years. He gave me three kids. I don’t care about money. I want him to be happy and feel like it was all worth it. There’s enough to go around.
You’re being sued for allegedly paying some guys to beat up a photographer outside Spago. What really happened?
First of all, I deserve a lawsuit for even going to Spago. ‘Cause I’d rather eat at Big Boy in Burbank. The food is a thousand times better than Spago, and it’s cheaper, and they give me a good table at Big Boy. But Tom goes, “They got good pizza,” so we go to Spago, we eat and we leave and we get in the Jeep. Out of nowhere come 10 guys snapping 50,000 pictures of us, and they won’t stop. I smile and give them a couple of pictures so they’ll leave. But they won’t stop. They jump all over, sticking their heads in. I mean, if they weren’t photographers they’d be rapists.
We’re stuck at a light and surrounded, and I got scared, and so these three punks come by and go, “You want us to shove them outta the way? We’ll do it for 50 bucks.” And I go, “Shove them first, and I’ll pay you.” Anyway, I pay them 20 bucks and go, “Thanks.” And in my head I’m going, “The most humiliating thing of all is that everyone’s now going to know I vent to f—-ing Spago.”
Maybe L.A. just isn’t your kind of town?
I guess I don’t fit in. I walk around feeling hat nobody in this town likes me. One theory is that they’re all skinny, chinless, balding, latent homosexuals with car phones and intense problems with women. These are the undercover gays who don’t know they’re gay. Real gay guys I like. That’s one theory. Which is probably the truth. The other theory is that women just go, “God, she’s fat.” Most women in this town never get past the weight. It’s all this veiled s—- of “Are you sure he f—-s you?” They totally erase my sexuality because they think fat erases sexuality. I lost 100 lbs., and I suppose I did look better and attracted more male attention. But my sexual appetite wasn’t any stronger. Only thing I ever thought about was food and belts. I was really into the look, but I was also very hungry. The truth is, I have always had men whether I was 200 or 100 lbs. Maybe I had more when I was skinnier, but there ain’t enough hours in the day anyhow.
Has this year in the Hollywood star system disillusioned you?
I never thought Hollywood was going to be no picnic. I knew it was a lot of bulls—. People think I went wacko and turned into a star with a great big head, got out of control and acted erratically in public. It’s because people in high places in this town believe the tabloids that people burn their trash with in the Midwest. I see myself as a strong and loving person, and what got me through this incredible year was having faith and hope. I believe in karma and all that, but I also believe that as long as you tell the truth you’re protected. And if you go over some rough s—-, it’s ’cause you’re supposed to and learn things in this life.
Denial is something we all deal with. Some of us have an intense rage and hate we don’t know how to turn into something creative. Many serial killers have failed at some kind of art. They’re squelched artists. When you have a story in you to tell and it’s beaten out of you, you explode and kill people.
I have definitely been violent in my life at times. About three years ago a comic in Vegas pulled my hair, so I flattened him. It was kind of funny at the time. But I’ve been violent. If I can write and channel it, I don’t feel it. I think that’s what my life is all about: that you can take anything—anything—that’s supposedly bad and turn it. That’s why the show is so important to me. It was about creating a woman who could win, not just make a lot of money, who could just have the spirit to fight back. And at this point, I think I’m pretty much unbeatable.