Behind The Camera: The Unauthorized Story of ‘Three’s Company’ (2003) – A Review

Three's Company Unauthorized Story Behind the Camera tv movie
Behind The Camera: The Unauthorized
Story of ‘Three’s Company’

In 1977 every week viewers knocked on the door of the apartment of Chrissy, Janet and Jack and made Three’s Company a television hit. The pratfalling, comedic, innuendo-dropping, sexy show made stars John Ritter, Joyce DeWitt and Suzanne Sommers the biggest stars around.

But it wasn’t just zany slapstick hi-jinks and laughing studio audiences that made up the history of the show. There was some major drama going down. Fortunately a television movie co-produced by DeWitt was willing to tell the unauthorized truth of the behind scenes story of Three’s Company.

When I was little I used to love Three’s Company. I’d watch it endlessly on syndication and thought John Ritter was the coolest funniest guy around. To this day if I stumble onto an episode on late night TV I immediately know the episode and how the mistakenly overheard conversation is going to snowball into major confusion for the cast.

Three's Company John Ritter Suzanne Somers Joyce DeWitt
The real cast of Three’s Company

That’s sort of what egged me onto to revisit this TV movie. Actually just the other night I was channeling surfing and caught the episode when Jack breaks his leg and Janet wants to be alone in the apartment for a date and Mr. Roper thinks Jack might sue him for slipping on his wet stairs and…..I’m getting off topic aren’t I?

Anyway, since I caught that episode I thought I would rewatch this ‘documentary’ and luckily someone was kind enough to post it on Youtube. I think that might be the only way to watch this thing.

New ABC executive Fred Silverman (Brian Dennehy) needs a hit show for the sinking network, he ok’s this idea of adapting the British sitcom Man About The House for American audiences, decisions are made with the casting, a few pilots made, Three’s Company hits the air and is an instant smash and makes struggling actors John Ritter (Bret Anthony), Joyce DeWitt (Melanie Paxson) and Suzanne Somers (Jud Tylor) into stars.

The main crux of the behind scenes saga comes in the form of Somers wanting to be a superstar. Not being happy with just being part of the ensemble of the show Sommers reaches for superstardom with the help of her arrogant business managing husband as she demands an obscene pay increase.

Her and her husband are convinced ABC will bend to their demands. Somers begins to cause major headaches for everyone, especially when she refuses to show up for work. As a result Somers alienates the network, the producers and her co-stars. Inevitably she’s forced into the humiliating position of working out the remainder of her contract alone on an empty soundstage after which point she’s replaced with a new cast member.

Part of the fun of these ‘making of’ movies (aside from the juicy gossip and feuding we see re-enacted) is the actors who have to channel these well known personalities and see how they do. We’ve watched hours upon hours of these original shows and know the actors so well it can always be off putting to see someone else trying to play them. I always have trouble at first getting used to it. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

Three's Company documentary behind the scenes movie

Here, the cast of actors is alright. Anthony doesn’t look much like Ritter, but he does some of the wacky slapstick that I associate with Ritter pretty well. Tylor is a bit weaker, other than her being blonde there’s not much that screams Somers out to me.

I was actually surprised to see how they didn’t give her one good scene in this docudrama of playing the dumb blonde on set and showing the ‘jiggle’ she provided to Three’s Company, which became the popular criticism of the show.

I suspect there might have been some kind of legal issues that limited reenacting certain things from the ABC show since this television movie was made by NBC. That really would have helped since we never get an idea as to why exactly audiences were tuning into the show. Any stories that we might learn about the show itself gets pushed aside and the Somers drama takes center stage.

What were these three actors doing on that set that made them so popular and was making Three’s Company such a breakaway hit? No idea, we just have to fondly fill in those blanks ourselves. There’s one short brief scene of the cast filming the show and I noticed it was not a genuine Three’s Company scene from an episode they were doing, but more like a like a vague variation to one of them. I guess some things were off limits.

Paxson as DeWitt is probably the best out of the cast. Not only does she look similar to DeWitt and is awfully cute but she does a bit of that husky voice that DeWitt has. They should have changed her hairstyle as the show progressed through its seasons like the real DeWitt had done.

Somers comes off pretty bad here. She proclaims she only plays dumb on the show, but with her husband managing her career into the ground and jeopardizing her future it’s hard for me to not think of her as being stupid to let it go so far. Everyone recognizes his incompetence but her!

Somers’ husband Alan Hamel played by Christopher Shyer is fun to watch though. He’s such a confident know-it-all sleazeball that his relaxed attitude is funny as his wife’s career is going down in flames. He never gets shaken by any of it. I mean, is he going to do anything besides straighten his big collar and hair? When the producers finally get tough on Somers and she’s relegated to acting in a separate area with four lines of telephone dialogue I’ll admit I think it was long overdue. I’m betting Somers didn’t like this television movie very much.

DeWitt was the only original cast member involved in this TV movie, so it’s obviously going to lean towards her recollection of events. Not surprisingly her ‘Joyce’ counterpart comes off the best and most sympathetic out of the cast. She’s essentially the victim who’s betrayed first by Somers then later Ritter when he secretly keeps it from her the spinoff show he’s about to embark on after Three’s Company leaves the airwaves.

Three's Company making of movie documentary cast

I’m not going to say this all wasn’t accurate or the truth, but I think it would have been a bit more interesting to have some more different perspectives about the events from her co-stars, notably Somers. Was her husband that stupid? Did she really think she was that indispensable to the show and the network? I’m sure Sommers has her own point of view of her time spent on the show.

There’s one interesting exchange when she’s holding up the network for a higher salary. Her husband demands she be paid $150,000 per episode like fellow big TV stars Larry Hagman, Alan Alda and Caroll O’Conner, to which the producer replies, “If we pay Suzanne $150,00 then we’ll have to pay Joyce $150,000 and we’d have to pay John around $200,000….”

That pay scale of Ritter earning more than his female co-stars is glossed over and would have been something of a valid argument on Somer’s side. The movie’s main focus (really only focus) is on Somers contract negotiations and the trouble she caused for the show, so they might as well have approached it from every angle they could have and gotten more mileage out of it. Yet, things are left very much black and white with Somer’s holding the network and producers up for ransom.

Brian Dennehy chews it up as Fred Silverman, ranting and yelling throughout the movie. Daniel Robuck as show producer Ted Bergaman (I can’t help it but no matter what I see him in I always think of him as playing Jay Leno in that Late Night movie – he’s done a lot of these behind the scenes TV movies) and all the network and show people are essentially money-grubbing villains.

They are the easy bad guys in all of this. It’s hard to like them when Robuck carelessly casts actors Audra Lindley and the apprehensive Norman Fell aside for their doomed spin-off show The Robers and could care less whether it’s a hit or not. Oh and Gregg Binkley is way too young to play Don Knotts but he does a decent voice imitation of him.

It’s a very straight forward uncomplicated story. The quality is what you would expect from one of these made-for-tv movies. A lot of it is set in offices, dressing rooms, soundstages. That always seems to be the way most of these ‘behind the scenes TV movies’ are. That probably helps with the limited budgets they have.

If you’re not a Three’s Company fan there’s really no reason to watch this. And even if you are I don’t think you’ll learn anything about the show that you didn’t already know before.


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3 Responses

  1. CKulik says:

    I have been meaning to respond to this post for some time, so I'm glad I'm catching up with it now. Like you, I'm a hardcore Three's Company fan–own all the seasons on DVD, have owned and read Chris Mann's book, and I'm well aware of all of the troubles with began with Suzanne until it was clear the real villains were the producers of the show. I saw this "doc" awhile back and took it all with a grain of salt; even though I sympathize with and love Joyce DeWitt, it's pretty clear this was from all her point-of-view, just like the newest one in this BEHIND THE CAMERA is from Dustin Diamond's point of view (though I refuse to watch that one).

    As for the whole Suzanne Somers thing, it's one of the most ironic things in television history; she was playing this dimwitted blonde bulb who suddenly emerged like the real thing. To give her credit, however, I do believe that her husband is largely responsible for her downfall and why she could never admit that to herself is alarming. (And she's still married to him to this day!). While I do think the cast members deserved a modest pay raise, $150,000 was just an astronomically ridiculous wage, even if other TV stars were raking in that kind of dough. Thus I lost respect for her, even if she claims her intentions were including the sympathies of John and Joyce. It's interesting: Joyce and Suzanne finally reunited on the latter's online web series, and it's pretty clear that Suzanne still registers a major disconnect, though they both confided in each other that the worst thing was undoubtedly the sexist nature of the producers. (Suzanne at least admitted she pissed people off, but underneath all the plastic surgery is was almost impossible to detect any kind of emotion). Watch it sometime!

    While I've seen and love almost every episode, the worst one was the final 2-part episode. Putting aside Joyce's feelings of betrayal (which I fully understand and agree with), it was just a highly depressing ending to a beloved show. Like the rest of the country, I believe the show should have ended with Jack & Janet getting married and even initiating a new sitcom from there–even the producers knew this, but they didn't give a damn! Another fan of the show disagreed with me awhile back, citing that a Jack-Janet marriage would have contradicted the free-love attitude of the 1970s; however, this was now the 1980s and they were much too mature to be labelled the "kids" as they used to by the Ropers. While I would surely buy THE ROPERS & THREE'S A CROWD if they ever come out on DVD, those final episodes were such a letdown.

    On a final note, do you have an all-time favorite episode? Incidentally, mine comes very late in the final season and that is the one where Jack accidentally gets a tattoo on his ass with the inscription "The Love Butt"…and Mr. Furley actually thinks Jack is getting a vasectomy! "Mr. Furley, it's nothing okay…I'm just getting rid of something I never should have had in the first place!" Also, one of my first reviews for DVD Verdict was on the British version, MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE (1973-1976) which is equally delightful! Chris 🙂

  2. I don't know if I would say I have a favorite episode, but I love the ones when Ritter just got to show off his physical comedy. I always remember the one when Jack tries to impress this girl who's an exercise fanatic, goes to workout with for the day and the following day is so sore and stiff can't make a move on her.

    One episode I caught recently that really reminded me how talented and funny Ritter was and showcased some of his best zany prat-falling antics was when he has to go to a private party on an island with Janet, he's terribly afraid to fly so he takes a bunch of tranquilizers and does some drinking. By the time he arrives he's completely out of it and does a terrific improvisational dance routine in the middle of the party. He's so funny hopping up on the bar, taking falls, grabbing random objects to use as his props. It was a later episode but that sequence was one of the best scenes from the entire series where he really got to shine. It has to be at the top of fan favorite episodes. Rewatching it again really reminded me why I used to consider him one of my favorite people on tv.

  3. Patrick says:

    The Day of Beer and Weeds is my favorite episode. They think Mrs. Roper is growing MJ in her garden. The Roper years are the best/

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