By Lois Armstrong
Updated March 01, 1982 12:00 PM

“I was sad a lot of last year,” admits Suzanne Somers. “I went down to 98 pounds, my skin got dry, my hair changed texture and my fingernails were breaking. There were a lot of tears.” Well, hey, no wonder. Just 16 months ago she was the fluffy center of TV’s lightest confection, the ABC sexcom Three’s Company. Then the cookie crumbled. In a long-simmering contract dispute, Suzanne and husband Alan Hamel, her newly appointed manager, spurned her producers’ offer of a $5,000 raise to $35,000 per episode and demanded $150,000 per. Suzanne was promptly sacked—and her fall, like Farrah Fawcett’s three years before, was hard. “I got through it all,” she now says firmly. “It was a difficult period of growth, and I feel stronger than ever.”

The question is how strongly her fans feel about Suzanne’s asking for all that bread in a time when thousands are lining up for free cheese. Is Suzanne, like Farrah, fated to spend penitential years in flop-movie limbo? The answer will be dished up starting this week, when Somers, 33, returns to TV with a new show. For the CBS special (her first) that was taped last November to air Feb. 22, she was back in fighting form aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ranger. For an hour she strutted and sang to 6,000 sailors. Later this month she will begin taping a CBS series for next fall about an actress with a TV show. She continues to tour with a musical variety show, is mulling several movie offers and is scouting for a Broadway musical somewhere down the road.

Credit for such comeback efforts—and for her fall from Three’s Company—goes to Hamel. “He’s the smartest man I know,” Somers says. “I always chuckle when people refer to him as ‘the man who ruined my career.’ He is the man who has put me onstage, gotten me the best people to work with and a firm deal with CBS. I never doubted him for a minute. Who can you trust, if you don’t trust your husband?” Hamel, 41, believes her confidence is well placed. “This is basically a two-person business,” he says. “Mary Tyler Moore had Grant Tinker, and Carol Burnett had Joe Hamilton. The easy part is getting to the big time. The hard part is staying there.”

Indeed, the four-year-old Hamel-Somers union (they had previously lived together for 10 years) seems as much a corporate merger as a marriage, and even without the Three’s Company income their stock is high. Hamel, a 20-year veteran of Canadian TV, is a familiar bicoastal pitchman for Acme supermarkets in the East and Alpha Beta markets in the West. (“I like the visibility,” he says.) Suzanne’s Ace Hardware account pays her some $200,000 a year. Alan has invested their money in lucrative real estate holdings, like apartment complexes (“He’d like to own Wilshire Boulevard,” jokes Suzanne), as well as in a bakery business that distributes Canadian butter tarts in the U.S. Suzanne’s musical road show is also a money-maker. She has been a co-headliner with Rich Little in Las Vegas and this month opens at the MGM Grand with Bobby Vinton. Last summer she set attendance records in Kansas City and at the Illinois State Fair. The past two years of traveling (she averaged five months each year) have been rough. Suzanne remembers “lots of Holiday Inns where you can only tell what city you’re in by the matchbooks.”

At times it must have seemed a painfully distant exile from her Three’s Company reign. She has not been on speaking terms with her former co-stars, John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt, since her failure to attend rehearsals. She claims she had a broken rib; they interpreted her action as spiteful malingering. “I regret the way I left the show and all the bad feelings,” Somers says. “I loved the show. John and Joyce and I worked together like a finely tuned clock.” Still, she admits her relationship with DeWitt was “always a strain.” Alan cracks that the two women got along “like Hitler and Mussolini—they had a common purpose.” One snag, according to Hamel, was a “parity problem,” implying that DeWitt would have been paid whatever Somers received. “It boils down to ego,” Hamel says. “Everybody’s ego. After a while you can’t be rational.” He admits now that he demanded the $150,000 figure in a fit of pique after the producers “got my goat. They were determined not to give her another nickel.” If he had to do it again, he says, “I would be softer, kinder, wiser.”

“I could never explain my side of the story,” laments Suzanne. “That was the frustrating part.” At one point, she adds, “I went up to John and said, ‘There are two sides to every story,’ and he just looked at me and walked away. Maybe I would have done the same thing, but I wish they would remember the happy times, when we laughed and when I gave a shower for John’s baby and we went to one another’s weddings and loved each other. I wish they could have held onto that.”

“Who cares?” dismisses Hamel.

“I care,” says Suzanne.

“I’m willing to bet they’d still reject your overtures today,” says Hamel. (Ritter and DeWitt have no comment.) Suzanne can’t accept her husband’s dour view. “Maybe time will heal,” she says. “I hope in a few years we’re going to be friends again.”

She has triumphed over worse problems. Born Suzanne Mahoney in San Bruno, Calif., the daughter of a high school coach and a medical secretary, she dropped out of nearby Lone Mountain College to marry and have a baby at 17. (She and Bruce Somers, now a psychologist, separated within a year.) “Bruce Jr. and I literally grew up together,” she says of her 16-year-old son, who has started his own radio station at the California private school he attends. Hamel’s son, Stephen, 17, goes to school nearby. (Hamel also has a daughter, Leslie, 20, from his first marriage.) During those difficult early years Suzanne did a nude Playboy audition and was once arrested on a bad check charge, which was later dropped (she said she needed the money to pay her son’s medical expenses). In recent years those incidents have come back to haunt her.

She met Hamel, the son of an immigrant Polish tailor, in 1968 when she assisted on a show he hosted in San Francisco, The Anniversary Game. They moved in together in L.A. a few months later, and until resigning to manage Suzanne in 1980, he commuted to Canada to tape his popular TV talk show.

Their headquarters remains their elegant home, a seven-level beach-fronter in the expensive section of Venice, Calif. It has two offices, a secretary and a housekeeper, a sauna and atriums, and two preppy goldfish, Bif and Muffy. In the garage are Alan’s 1977 Cadillac, Suzanne’s 1968 Mercedes and a 1957 Rolls. Then there’s the Beverly Hills house they bought two years ago and have yet to furnish, plus a 60-year-old mountain home overlooking Palm Springs. “That’s where we go to normalize,” says Hamel. “We clean house and wash clothes and iron and do all the things everybody else does every day and hates to do. We save our money,” he insists. “We’re not like drunken sailors on a Saturday night binge.”

Alan’s Christmas present to her was a hat. “A pith helmet,” grumps Suzanne. “I said, ‘Pith on you. I want something that goes around my neck, sparkles a lot and needs to be insured.'” (She didn’t get it.) As for pastimes: “Occasionally we have sex,” grins Hamel. “We’re not that busy.”

Busier than they were a year ago, though. “The phone is ringing,” says Suzanne. “It’s funny. For five years people said nice things about me—nice house, nice marriage—and then it all turned around and they were saying, ‘Who does she think she is?’ I get the feeling people are mad at me because I broke up the old Three’s Company family. It was hard last year to see why leaving the show could be anything but negative,” she says with a sigh. “But it’s completely positive now.”