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Suzanne’s career included movies, headlining in Las Vegas, books, a Broadway show called “The Blonde in the Thunderbird”, and lots of TV shows, which is how I met her many years later.
After her controversial run on the sitcom, “Three’s Company” (demanded a raise, fired, sued, lost), Suzanne performed in Las Vegas for a few years, then came back to TV as the star of a sitcom called “She’s The Sheriff”, followed by the hit series “Step by Step”, which led her to CBS in 1997 and to “Candid Camera”, where I was the announcer and audience warmup guy.
We were close in age, and both grew up in the Bay Area, she in San Bruno, me in San Jose, so I called her “San Bruno Girl” and she called me “San Jose Boy” when we worked on the show. Suzanne was an amazing person to work with – easy to be around, never “difficult” and a real professional on the set. Her husband Alan Hamel was always hovering. She was dyslexic, and sometimes had to stop a take to memorize her bits, and she was inclined to sing out loud, beautifully, whenever the mood struck her between takes. In a word, she was fun.
“Candid Camera” hired a paid audience for the most part – there’s a whole Hollywood subculture of people who come in and fill up the audience for a small amount of cash – usually $30 or so. That made for a tough group to warm up, and for some characters in the crowd. There were lots of students, reading books during down time, and an occasional stoner. Once, while she was reading her part, a guy in the audience stood up, grunted, and passed out face down over the two rows in front of him. Suzanne rushed to him to administer CPR. EMT reaction was immediate – a crew took the guy away in minutes. But it was impressive that Suzanne ran towards, not away from, an emergency. She was a true professional.
Part of my job as the show’s announcer was to introduce the principals; Peter Funt, who’d taken over the show from his father, Allen Funt, and Suzanne, with the line, “It’s Candid Camera! Here are your hosts, Peter Funt, and Suzanne Somers! Taking a bit of license, I would draw out her name, sounding like ‘Suzannnnnnnnne Somers!”. That was how I introduced them for the first season. When we began the second season, Suzanne came up to me and asked if I could pronounce her name more “musically”. I commented that I was surprised that she took 22 shows to correct me, and she said she didn’t want to interfere with my professional decisions.
Did I mention that she wrote books? Once, at the beginning of a new season of “Candid Camera”, I asked Suzanne how she’d spent her summer – “I wrote a book!”. Of course. Doesn’t everyone? She told me she’d gone to France and started writing a weight-loss book on the plane, and by the end of her stay, had completed it. She was definitely versatile – “Candid Camera” was taped on Saturday and Sunday once a month – two shows a day – and often on a Saturday, her husband would be waiting with a Winnebago in her parking space. After the taping, they would drive the Winnebago, which doubled as a dressing room, to wherever Suzanne was doing her “Vegas” act: San Diego, Orange County, etc. Alan kept her very busy!
Being a small part of a big show had its benefits. Often after a day’s taping, we’d all go to dinner. Spago was still a “thing” in Beverly Hills in the later 1990’s, and we ended up there a few times, with Suzanne, Alan, Peter Funt and his wife Amy, my wife Carol, and a couple of others, usually. It was a pretty cool experience for me. I remember walking into Spago once and seeing stars: Tony Curtis on a throne to our left, Leonard Nimoy, saluting Tony from the floor, and many others, like Spago owner and star chef Wolfgang Puck and PGA Champion golfer Payne Stewart.
Once, while leaving, Suzanne spotted Vanna White and Pat Sajak, so we all went with her to meet them. It was fun to be a part of the Hollywood crowd, even on the margins. Once, at a different restaurant, as we were being seated, Suzanne said to my wife Carol that she looked beautiful. I can’t explain the feeling, hearing that from her. Joy? Excitement? My heart knows. During that same dinner, Carol mentioned the notorious “Thigh Master” exercise device that Suzanne was demonstrating on TV at the time, and I mentioned the new “Ab Master”. Two weeks later the “Ab Master” was delivered to our door, compliments of Suzanne Somers!
Suzanne’s professionalism stood out for me, but through the years that I was associated with “Candid Camera”, what impressed me the most was her genuineness and her kindness. Suzanne even set me up for a funny line on the morning radio show I was hosting during the run of “Candid Camera”. We were doing a “phoner”, ostensibly to promote her latest book on weight loss, “Get Skinny on Fabulous Food”. I asked her how I could get started on her program. She replied “Well, first, take off all of your clothes”. What an easy setup, right? So naturally, I replied “Suzanne, I’ve been waiting a long time for you to say that to me”. Laughs all around, and we concluded the interview. After, I had second thoughts., so I called her to apologize. Her reply was perfect: “Oh Sam, are you kidding me? I’m a body babe! That was the perfect answer!”
Suzanne Somers’s obituary, and a lot of gossips, look to the bumps in the road that were navigated by the dazzling “Blonde in the Thunderbird”. I prefer to remember her kindness.
Rest in Peace, San Bruno Girl.