In 1980, after four seasons on ABC’s Emmy-winning comedy series, the 73-year-old actress and entrepreneur was fired after she asked for a pay hike from $30,000 an episode to $150,000 an episode, which was on par with her male costar, John Ritter.
“The show’s response was, ‘Who do you think you are?’ ” Somers tells PEOPLE. “They said, ‘John Ritter is the star.’ ”
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Somers’ husband of 42 years, former TV producer Alan Hamel, says ABC used her as an example.
“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. And then [Suzanne] was fired,” he says.
Continues Hamel, 83: “It worked because for years, no woman asked to be paid what men were making, until Roseanne [Barr]. But Suzanne was the first feminist to ask to be paid what the men were making.”
After she was fired, Somers was unmoored. “I probably would have never left network series,” she says. “I would have kept on going and probably been in every sitcom after that were it not to end the way it ended. But I was ostracized. So I went away.”
Somers performed shows in Las Vegas and eventually went on to launch a fitness and skincare empire, which she now works on with Hamel. “That was the great thing about being fired,” says Somers, whose latest book, A New Way to Age, is available now. “I would have never been able to do what I do now.”
And ultimately, “life is a roller coaster,” she says. “When it’s high, everything is groovy and everything is great and we’ve had so many highs. The lows aren’t as much fun, but that’s when you learn.”
Continues Somers: “All careers hit walls. But I reinvent myself. And I keep going.”