October 15, 2023
Suzanne Somers had survived an aggressive form of breast cancer for over 20 years, and in July confirmed she was battling a recurrence of the disease. Still, it comes as a shock to many — People Magazine posted an exclusive about her birthday plans this morning — to learn that she died at her home this morning.
She was 76.
Somers's publicist, R. Couri Hay, told People:
“Suzanne Somers passed away peacefully at home in the early morning hours of Oct. 15. She survived an aggressive form of breast cancer for over 23 years. Suzanne was surrounded by her loving husband, Alan [Hamel], her son, Bruce, and her immediate family.”
Somers had just told People she was feeling "optimistic" about her latest bout of cancer, and that she'd just returned from six weeks of grueling physical therapy in the Midwest.
Her hope for her 77th birthday — October 16 — was: "I have asked for copious amounts of cake. I really love cake.”
Somers had been a ubiquitous presence in American popular culture for some 50 years, ever since a brief appearance as Blonde in T-Bird in the surprise hit American Graffiti in 1973. (She later used the title The Blonde in the Thunderbird for a one-way show on Broadway in 2005, but it ended early.)
She became an overnight household name thanks to her casting as Chrissy Snow on Three's Company (1977-1981). Incredibly, the racy aspect of the sitcom was the fact that a guy (John Ritter) and two girls (Somers and Joyce DeWitt) ... were living together. That's it. That was considered so out-there that the guy, Jack, felt compelled to pretend he was gay, just so their nosy landlord (Norman Fell) would not think any hanky-panky was going on.
It was the '70s.
A classic dumb blonde in the first season, Chrissy became more and more broadly stupid as the seasons wore on, but Somers was anything but. Recognizing her value as one of TV's top draws, she demanded a per-episode raise from $30K to $150K. She also wanted a percentage of profits.
The response was Chrissy was relegated to brief phone calls until Somers was fired. A lawsuit was settled, but not in Somers's favor, unfairly tainting her for several years as a "problem actress." Her co-stars didn't appreciate her rocking the boat, leading to decades of estrangement.
My headline for Somers calls her out as a Queen of Camp, and I believe this for many reasons. Camp, to me, is camp when it's done earnestly, without any hint of a tongue being in any cheek anywhere. Somers was like this. She proceeded with total confidence, often hilariously, yet was obviously a very bright (and successful) person.
Her first step on the road to Queen of Camp was her work in Las Vegas. Back then, it wasn't Adele and Katy Perry and Lady Gaga; no, Vegas, while an extremely moneyed town, had cheesy performers like Somers, who could carry a tune, just not very far.
In 1980, she published the not-to-be-believed book of poetry Touch Me, so camp it has been read aloud by actors in the NYC show Celebrity Book Club. Merely reading it brings gales of laughter. Behold Kristen Wiig:
She sued Playboy when the publication churlishly published early-years nudes for which she'd posed, but which had never seen the light of day. Reminiscent of the way Mickey Rooney slammed Silent Night, Deadly Night only to then appear in one of its sequels, Somers settled with Playboy, gave the money to charity ... and then posed nude for them in 1984.
In 1985, she appeared in one of the tawdriest, most amazingly good-bad miniseries ever, an adaptation of the Jackie Collins best seller Hollywood Wives. In it, she played a nymphomaniacal actress — and her leading man was a pre-legit Anthony Hopkins! And the theme song was by Laura Branigan! You must watch.
As much fun as it was to laugh at/with Somers — and this is meant affectionately, as it is meant for similar figures (Maria Montez, Vera Hruba Ralston) — her ridiculous Thighmaster TV ads in the '80s not only extended her 15 minutes, they made scads of money and inspired her to launch her own products. Because of that, Somers was said to be worth about $100M when she died.
That doesn't mean that her 1989 ads on behalf of bed-wetting aren't bizarrely funny.
Somers, who was still dedicated to making an acting comeback, did so with a semi-successful run on the syndicated sitcom She's the Sheriff (1987-1989), a terrible show beneath her talents.
She hilariously played herself in the made-for-TV movie Keeping Secrets (1991), based on her 1987 memoir, but was served much better by the pleasing sitcom Step by Step (1991-1998).
By the time that show ended, she was wealthy and eager to try different things, leading to a stint as the Candid Camera reboot's co-host (1997-1999). She'd had a short-lived daytime talker in 1994 and tried again with a 2012 online talk show that was worthwhile for bringing her back together with DeWitt. Their filmed reunion was fun to watch. Somers had also buried the hatchet with Ritter ahead of his 2003 death.
More camp came with her hoofing on Dancing with the Stars (2015).
By this time, Somers was far better known as a self-help guru than as an actress (she had quit entirely after 2001). This was due in part to her tragic diagnosis with breast cancer. Beating the disease without chemo, though, made her believe she held special medical knowledge. Instead of considering her survival could have been fortunate or due to factors we may be incapable of understanding, she became an outspoken advocate for alternative treatments, sometimes — arguably — to the detriment of those who listened to her. She was frequently chastised for her assertions, and her belief that toxins were to blame for many things, from cancer to school shootings.
She also was not fluoride's friend.
But whatever she did, when it came to her own health, it worked for her — she beat cancer back for more than 20 years, quite a feat.
In her later years, Somers never let me down as a camp queen, embracing the newfangled focus on personality and reality over artistic accomplishments in a Kardashian way. For example, she posed nude (awkwardly) at 73, she outed her pal Barry Manilow in 2015 (accidentally, and without malice), and she made headlines after bragging that she, in her 70s, and her husband, in his 80s, had sex three times before noon. Daily.
In a non-Kardashian way, Somers actually had a prolific career as a write, publishing 25 titles from 1980-2017, many of them devoted to fitness and how to age sexily.
I was never a fan of Somers's beliefs, but she was a riot, and I will always adore her on Three's Company, a show that is hard to watch in 2023.
She is survived by her husband of 46 years, Alan Hamel, 87, by her son from her first marriage, by his daughters from Hamel's first marriage and by six grandkids.