Julia Duffy and the 'Allison season'
In another thread, I mentioned that I was present at the tapings for quite a few episodes of season 6. I thought it would be interesting to offer up a few observations.
At every taping I attended, Julia Duffy was a bit isolated from the rest of the cast and crew. I wouldn't go so far as to say she was ostracized, and I hardly think she was the one who was being intentionally stand-offish. But she did not really fit in there, sad to say.
Jan Hooks, to a lesser degree, didn't fit in sometimes either. I chalked it up to them being new and everyone else having five years behind them on the set. A lot of these people, in front of and behind the camera, worked on other Bloodworth-Thomason shows. So they already had their own brand of familiarity and their own sort of assembly line process to making the shows. But Duffy and Hooks were entirely new to this company, and they were still learning the ropes, especially in the first episodes of the sixth season. But even mid-year and towards the end, I could see that it was still not easy for these newest members of the cast, especially Julia Duffy.
Let me paint a brief picture of what would usually happen. First, keep in mind that the tapings were long. They started around 6 p.m. and never got done before midnight. Sometimes it went to 1 or 2 a.m. If Alice Ghostley was appearing as Bernice, there would be a lot of retakes. She flubbed lines in almost every scene. As great as she was on screen, it took a lot of effort for her to coordinate her memory with what she was trying to accomplish physically, and it never flowed perfectly. They were very patient with her (probably because they knew she was a fan favorite and she certainly was a very funny lady).
There would also be problems with the boom microphones not picking up some of the dialogue. So even if part of a scene had been reshot and it seemed like they were ready to move on, they would often have to halt filming, get the actor who had the line that didn't get picked up clearly, re-speak the line into the microphone. These are called audio pick-ups. Those had to be done on the spot, in order for the scene to be totally finished. And that is why on many of the episodes there are lines where their lips are not exactly in-sync with what they're saying or that the audio is a bit hollow sounding, like something was re-recorded, because it usually was!
At any rate, the scene would finally be completed and they could move on. Some episodes had around seven or eight major scenes. Other episodes had up to maybe ten scenes. There was one episode where Payne visits Julia that was aired out of order, because the Clarence & Anita episode was rushed into production and broadcast instead. Because the one with Payne was shelved for a few months and the hairstyles had changed, Dixie had to film an extra introductory scene where she was flashing back to the time that Payne had come home a few months earlier.
If they were using a newly created set on the side, like if the characters were stopping off in a restaurant or something, the cameras, lights and mics had to be moved over to the extra set (usually off to the right, beyond where the front door of Sugarbakers stood). In some episodes, they had to bring a car or van in, and have the characters climb inside and pretend to be driving and film that. There would be various adjustments if it didn't look realistic enough. Road scenes were always filmed in front of a blank wall and the background was filled in by the editors. That's a fairly standard production process.
One episode had Mary Jo and Julia on a bus, and they built the interior of the bus, which did look very realistic, and that was filmed with a group of extras playing the other passengers. But there were so many problems with that episode, because they felt it wasn't funny enough, so they were ad-libbing and throwing in new things to get bigger laughs. At one point, they had Dixie excuse herself to use the restroom and supposedly the john in the back of the bus is so full of foul odors that she gags. I can't remember if that stayed in the final edited version (I need to go back and watch it again) but I do know that a lot of lines were eventually cut. There was a Bette Midler joke that was suddenly out. Either it was not funny enough or considered too obscure a reference that audience members wouldn't get it. In short, they were molding and remolding the bus scene in this episode to make it work and that took a lot of time. If Alice Ghostley had been in that scene, it probably would have taken another hour to get it right!
Back to the actors-- Jan Hooks seemed to have her own personal assistant who would prep her for the next scene, so she would stay busy off to the side. But Julia Duffy knew her character inside and out and was always ready to go and would just wait quietly. Dixie and Annie were sort of in their own world, you know like girls in school, chatting on their part of the stage, adjusting make up and hair, talking with Linda if Linda was on the set, etc.
In the last episode, 'Shades of Vanessa,' Linda was what you might say an uncredited director-- she was very involved in the filming, probably because it was the final show of the sixth season, and as Meschach had told me, CBS hadn't renewed them yet (that announcement would come the following day). So if it was truly going to be the last episode of Designing Women, Linda wanted to make sure it came off right. By the way, that episode had a cliffhanger, which they filmed and then changed. Jackee, who plays Vanessa, was supposed to inform them she had bought the business and was now calling it Vanessabakers. In response, Dixie was supposed to pull her hair and there was a large sound effect that went BOING. I kid you not. Kind of like the cheesy sound effects on the old Batman TV series. Can you imagine if that had been the last thing we saw/heard on the show, if CBS had cancelled the program? Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and the silly sound effect was dropped. And as we know, Jackee did not appear in any more episodes so there never was a Vanessabakers.
Anyway, it was obvious that during the production of 'Shades of Vanessa' that Linda and Harry were fawning over Jackee (who was rumored to be joining the cast and ultimately did not). At one point, during a break in filming, I looked over to the left of the bleachers (in front of the storeroom set) and noticed Julia Duffy was sitting there at a wooden picnic table by herself, while everyone else was down center stage, where the sofas were, hanging around Jackee. To say Julia Duffy looked miserable would be an understatement (though she was entirely professional). She probably knew she was being let go and that Jackee was supposed to replace her.
Sure enough, the very next day in the Los Angeles Times there was an article announcing that CBS had picked up Designing Women for a seventh season and that Julia Dufy would depart the cast. There was a quote from Linda making a strange comment about Julia Duffy pedaling as hard she could but that it wasn't enough to bring her back for another season. It was sort of like a back-handed compliment. I always thought Julia Duffy got a raw deal on this show, but the consolation is that her season-- the Alison season-- was the highest rated in the history of the series, and I like to think that Julia Duffy was somehow responsible for a major part of that success.