If you were a fan of sitcoms in the late ’90s, it’s a safe bet that you’ve at least seen one episode of Suddenly Susan. The four-season series was renowned for its star-studded cast, high season one ratings and surprisingly poor reviews from critics. There was a lot that went on behind the scenes – tragedy, loss and controversy – that lead to the #3 show in America being canceled after just four seasons.
Suddenly Susan Was One of NBC’s Top Primetime Shows in 1996
The sitcom followed the story of magazine columnist Susan who suddenly separated from her rich, vain fiancé.
It was Brooke Shields’ first regular series and she hilariously depicted the ups and downs of being an independent woman who was taken care of her entire life.
Suddenly Susan Was Created Just for Brooke Shields
Brooke Shields was already a star when Suddenly Susan came to fruition – in fact, she sparked the idea for the whole sitcom. After starring in numerous films like Pretty Baby, The Blue Lagoon, and Endless Love, Shields was dubbed “the Face of the ’80s” by Time (where she graced the cover).
Fresh off the heels of a successful run as Rizzo in Broadway’s Grease!, Sheilds garnered some buzz among NBC execs when she made a cameo on Friends as a crazy Joey Tribbiani fan. This helped persuade Warner Bros. and NBC to build a sitcom around the star and schedule it in one of the most coveted Primetime slots. This show became Suddenly Susan, but not before some major edits.
Average Pilot Ratings Led to a Complete Rework of the Show
NBC was really determined to make Brooke Shields’ new TV show a success. This is why it was completely reworked after the pilot episode which, according to Rolling Stone, was judged by viewers as “good but not great.”
NBC invested even more money into the sitcom and reworked the entire premise. Instead of Susan being a book editor in Pasadena, California, she became a writer at a trendy San Francisco magazine called The Gate. The show was also completely recast and given a brand new production team. With NBC’s edits, the show’s first season was a success, but nothing could prepare for the tragedy that awaited in later seasons.
Kathy Griffin Was Unhappy With Her Low Wage on the Show
In 2017, Kathy Griffin is a household name, but when the controversial stand-up comedian Kathy Griffin landed her breakout role on Suddenly Susan, she was totally unknown. This didn’t stop the star from fighting for what she believed in after she discovered that she had a significantly smaller salary than her male co-stars.
While it’s unfortunately typical in Hollywood for actresses to make less than their male counterparts, that doesn’t mean it’s right. Griffin had the second lowest salary on staff and made four times less than Judd Nelson (who she claims was fired from the show). Griffin wasn’t going to sit around and let that happen…
Kathy Griffin Demanded Equal Pay
Griffin recognized how utterly awful it was that she made so much less than men in the cast. She pushed for her agents to negotiate a raise, but they laughed. Griffin was still relatively unknown at the time but really carving out a niche audience of her own.
Because her agents refused, Griffin took matters into her own hands. The actress marched down to the office of Warner Bros. exec Peter Roth and demanded equal pay. She put a number on a napkin and slid it over to Roth. It sort of worked, but not as well as she had hoped. “It was an all-out brawl,” she told Variety. “I got a raise. I still didn’t make equal to what the guys were making.”
Tragedy Struck the Cast of Suddenly Susan
By Suddenly Susan’s third season, ratings continued to fall but it remained one of the top 100 shows. Unfortunately, the cast suffered a major tragedy that they could never recover from.
On March 22, 1999, David Strickland, who starred as a rock critic named Todd Stities, committed suicide in his Las Vegas hotel room. The actor had been hiding a massive secret – he had a drug problem and was in trouble with the law. The stresses of work, legal issues, and his addiction eventually caused the actor to cave under pressure and tragically commit suicide. How he spent his last days was dark, sad and a shock to his fans everywhere.
How David Strickland’s Stresses Caused Him to Cave under the Pressure
Strickland was just 29-years-old when he took his own life in a Las Vegas motel. According to court records obtained by The Associated Press, he had been busted for cocaine possession in October of 1998. He was placed on 36 months of probation and was to appear in court on the day he died.
Strickland’s last hours were a beer-fueled party of prostitutes and topless women. Earlier in the night, before heading off to a topless bar with NBC star Andy Dick, he spent 20 minutes with a prostitute. While he didn’t leave a suicide note, he left a rather ominous message with the woman. “Important changes are going to happen in your life,” he said. His body was found at 11 a.m. on Monday morning.
How the Cast Reacted to Strickland’s Death
The cast was obviously shaken by Strickland’s passing and paid tribute to the actor with a series of public statements. I am devastated by the loss of my best friend,” said star Brooke Sheilds. “I pray to God David’s pure heart is now at peace.”
Judd Nelson also released a statement. “David was a good friend, a good man, and a truly gifted comic actor,”he said. “…I miss him already.” Kathy Griffin had a more controversial statement following his death. She believed that Strickland’s farewell episode was “tacky” because it was filmed too soon.
Todd’s Death Was Written into the Show
The writers behind Suddenly Susan decided to deal with Strickland’s death by writing it into the show. In the series season three finale, Susan calls Todd about tickets to a show after he fails to appear at work. His pager vibrates on his desk and Susan spends the day searching for him.
Throughout the day, Susan learns about good deeds Todd had done throughout his life. At the end of the episode, police visit Susan and the office staff but the details of his death are left ambiguous. The episode was a nice tribute to Strickland and was dispersed with interviews from the cast about David’s life.
Judd Nelson’s Exit
Nelson’s exit was unexplained during the season three finale, despite the fact that he was a major character. It led viewers to believe there was some kind of scandal behind his sudden departure. It’s really unclear what exactly happened to the star and if there was any drama involved (even though Kathy Griffin claims he was fired).
According to anonymous sources who spoke to the New York Daily News, the writers felt his character “played itself out” and there wasn’t anything else they could do. Apparently, it was a mutual decision and all parties agreed that it would be best for the show to let him go. Nelson almost didn’t take the show in the first place.
Judd Nelson Was Worried He Wouldn’t Perform Well on the Show
Before signing onto Suddenly Susan, Judd Nelson was nervous that the show would be really difficult for him to handle. Even though he had major experience starring in Blockbuster hits like The Breakfast Club, Nelson had only ever done a one-episode cameo on a TV show before.
“It’s like, ‘Could I do something like that? Am I so independent that I can’t punch the clock at the same place?’ So part of it was a kind of exercise. ‘Can I be responsible in this way?'” he told AV Club. He ended up taking the role because he met Brooke Shields at a charity event and knew it’d be a good experience if she was involved.
Suddenly Susan Struggled as More Actors and Executives Left the Show
Suddenly Susan ran for four seasons on NBC before it was canceled, but trouble within the show began in season three. After David Strickland committed suicide and Judd Nelson, who played Susan’s boss Jack Richmond, left the show, Andrea Bendewald, who played Susan’s frenemy Andrea Bendewalk, followed.
In addition to losing two major actors, the series developers and executive producers Steven Peterman and Gary Dontzig left the series, and nearly all of the show’s writing staff was replaced. That wasn’t the only way things changed in the fourth season…
A New Showrunner Switched up Susan’s Life at the Gate
Suddenly Susan’s new co-showrunner, Maria Semple, joined the staff in the third season before most of the writing staff and major executives left. With a whole new cast of writers and a brand new showrunner, the sitcom was bound to have some changes.
Under Semple’s watch, The Gate was bought by Ian Maxtone-Graham and turned into a men’s magazine. Maxtone-Graham brought in a U.S. Navy vet, a sports writer, and a freelance photographer. With the new additions to the staff, Susan had to prove her worth all over again. Unfortunately, the show suffered. It never quite had the same ratings after this major change.
Eric Idle Joined the Cast
Eric Idle was also a new addition to Suddenly Susan’s cast. He played the character Ian Maxtone-Graham and transformed The Gate into a men’s magazine. He moved the magazine from its trendy uptown offices near the bay into a dingy Chinatown warehouse. Maxtone-Graham also came with a team of new employees that rounded out the cast.
Before Suddenly Susan, Eric Idle was best known for his work on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He also starred as a voice actor in the animated The Transformers: The Movie as Wreck-Gar along with numerous major film and TV roles.
Sherri Shepherd Joined the Cast
In the fourth season, Sherri Shepherd was brought on to round out the cast of Suddenly Susan. The actress starred in 23 episodes as Miranda Charles. After The Gate became a men’s magazine, Miranda Charles was brought in to be the executive assistant to the magazine’s owner, Ian Maxtone-Graham. Shepherd’s character was a U.S. Navy Vet.
Since starring in Suddenly Susan, Shepherd has had a very rich career with a long stint on The View. She Starred as Romona Platt in 80 episodes of the series Less Than Perfect and developed her own show, Sheri.
Currie Graham Nabbed a Leading Role
Along with Shepherd and Eric Idle, Currie Graham joined Suddenly Susan for season four. The actor starred as Nate Knaborski, a sports writer.
Since Suddenly Susan, Graham has cameos in various TV shows including two episodes of 24, one episode of Judging Amy, and one episode of CSI: Miami. He finally nabbed a reoccurring role as Nick Balco in the 2008 series Raising the Bar. Though his current work consists mostly of small roles, he did star as Lt. Thomas Bale in 21 episodes NYPD Blue.
Ratings Continued Falling Drastically After the First Season
Suddenly Susan had great ratings in the first season because it had an amazing time slot. The show aired on NBC right between ER and Seinfeld and garnered nearly 25 million viewers per episode. The show was never a success as far as critics were concerned, and it got mostly terrible reviews despite the high number of viewers.
In the second season, NBC moved Suddenly Susan to Monday night at 8:00 p.m. where it was forced to compete against Cosby. Suddenly Susan was no competition and its ratings fell from #3 to #71. The show never recovered and by the end of the second year, it brought in less than 11 million viewers. Things only got worse for the sitcom from here.
NBC Pulled Suddenly Susan
Suddenly Susan started as a hit but ended up falling into a downward spiral after one season. By the time most of the writing staff was replaced for the fourth season, the show barely ranked in the top 100. NBC had to make a call – they could keep pushing and try to save their show or cut their losses.
NBC ended up pulling Suddenly Susan from their prime-time lineup in June of 2000. The network pulled the show so quickly that four episodes from the final season remained unaired. Six months later, the network aired these episodes in the middle of the night. They were part of a marathon block during NBC All Night between 2:00 and 4:00 am, where all they had to compete with was infomercials and reruns.
Brook Shields Remained a Star While Ratings Tanked
Though the Show Seemed to tank in ratings andcritical reception after the first season, Suddenly Susan was a breeding ground for stars. The 30-minute comedy series had major talent, and actors like Sherri Shepherd and Kathy Griffin went on to become household names.
Brooke Shields, the star of the series, remained the in-demand model and actor she was before the show aired. She went on to have roles in a number of sitcoms including Just Shoot Me!, Lipstick Jungle and Nip/Tuck. She even played Miley Cyrus’ mom in three episodes of the hit Disney show Hannah Montana.
After The Show’s Cancellation, the Creator Went on to Create Dexter
Suddenly Susan may have been a failure if you ask critics, but that doesn’t mean the writers weren’t talented. After the show was canceled in 2000, Clyde B. Phillips, the show’s creator, helped create the Emmy-nominated Showtime series Dexter.
Phillips joined the crew after the pilot was already finished and served as the showrunner and a writer. Later he also became the executive producer, and in 2008, the Writers Guild of America nominated Dexter for Best Dramatic Series. Dexter became the first Showtime series nominated for a primetime Emmy and was nominated for 18 Emmys under his leadership.