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Suzanne Somers Transformed from Sitcom Sex Symbol to Fitness Icon and Best-Selling Author

After being fired for fighting for equal pay, the ‘Three’s Company’ actress had the last laugh with a super-successful second act

spinner image suzanne somers at the 26th annual palm springs international film festival awards gala at the palm springs convention center
C Flanigan/Getty Images

She played a dumb blonde on TV — a malapropism-spouting ditz with an IQ almost as skimpy as her nighties — but in real life Suzanne Somers was nobody’s fool.

In fact, the actress, who died on at age 76 on Oct. 15 after a decades-long battle with breast cancer, may well have been the smartest thing about Three’s Company, the racy ’70s ABC sitcom that made her and her castmates (Joyce DeWitt, 74, and the late John Ritter, who died in 2003 at 54 of an aortic dissection) stars for a good chunk of that decade.

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On camera, her character — Chrissy Snow, a law office receptionist with a heart of gold and a brain of mush — was the butt of many a sexist, misogynistic put-down. But off camera, Somers turned out to be a pioneering feminist who risked her career by fighting for pay equity at a time in Hollywood when pay equity was the biggest sexist joke of them all.

Somers’ first noticeable role was a brief but eye-catching part in 1973’s American Graffiti — she was the unnamed beauty in a white Thunderbird who nearly gave Richard Dreyfuss’ character whiplash — followed by equally brief bits on classic ’70s shows like Starsky & HutchThe Rockford Files and One Day at a Time. She was 30 when, in 1977, she landed her big break on Three’s Company, the role that would catapult her to international fame as a sex symbol. She was paid all of $30,000 an episode, or about 20 percent of the $150,000 Ritter was making.

spinner image joyce dewitt suzanne somers and john ritter sitting on a couch in a scene from three's company
(Left to right) Suzanne Somers (middle) with Joyce DeWitt (left) and John Ritter in "Three's Company."
ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

The difference might have been explainable early in the series’ run — after all, the sitcom’s plot, such as it was, revolved around Ritter’s character, Jack Tripper, a girl-crazy straight guy who pretends to be gay so he can share an apartment with a pair of attractive single girls.

But four years into its run, after the show became a hit, and with Somers’ character developing a fan base of her own, she demanded a bigger piece of the profits. She wanted to be paid what Ritter was getting, or at least a sum comparable to the salaries of other male stars in the 1970s.

When ABC countered by offering to bump her paycheck by a mere $5,000 per episode, Somers retaliated by missing two tapings. ABC unceremoniously fired her and brought in actress Jenilee Harrison as a replacement (as Cindy Snow, Chrissy’s equally ditzy cousin).

“I was fired from the No. 1 show at the height of my success, and I couldn’t get a job in television,” she recalled to Yahoo in 2018. “I couldn’t get an interview. I was considered trouble.”

That might have been the last anyone heard of Somers except, as it turned out, it wasn’t. Together with her husband, Canadian game show host Alan Hamel, now 87, she launched her own entrepreneurial business, the much ridiculed but incredibly successful ThighMaster exercise device, which Somers personally demonstrated in a series of eye-popping infomercials through the 1990s. The gizmo ended up selling some 15 million units, netting Somers and Hamel nearly $300 million in sales.

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Somers eventually landed other acting gigs, including one on ABC — starring opposite Patrick Duffy in the ’90s sitcom Step by Step, which ran for seven seasons — but she arguably had even greater success with her next act, as an author.

She published 25 books after she started cranking them out in the late 1990s, mostly self-help tomes on subjects like dieting and relationships, several of which landed on the New York Times bestseller list. One of her last, Two’s Company, about her nearly 50-year marriage to Hamel, included the advice that couples of every age should have sex every day. (“Once in a while I’ll say I need a day off,” she confided to AARP in a 2017 interview.)

Although she’d had brushes with cancer as early as the 1970s — endometrial hyperplasia and a malignant melanoma — the breast cancer that would ultimately kill her was first revealed during a routine mammogram in 2000. Somers would undergo a lumpectomy and radiation therapy, but she also experimented with — and publicly advocated for — treatments like hormone therapies and supposedly “all-natural” cures. Her promotion of those unconventional remedies often put her at odds with the medical community. But however beneficial or not they may have been, she somehow kept the cancer at bay for 23 years, suggesting — not for the first time over her life — that she was a lot smarter than some of her screen roles might suggest.

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