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One Big Happy Family? : Why 'Roseanne's' Creator Left Hit Show After Dispute With Its Star

January 26, 1989|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

The new TV series was going to be called "Life and Stuff," or so its creator, head writer and co-executive producer, Matt Williams, thought.

He even put the title on the cover of the pilot script. "I wanted to establish it as an ensemble piece," he recalls.

So when the star, Roseanne Barr, insisted that the sitcom should be named for her, Williams balked. The fear, he says, was that by calling the series "Roseanne," it was going to be a star vehicle from the outset and put the comedian in too powerful a position to influence the show's creative development.

In the end, Barr got her way. And Williams' fear was borne out--ultimately at his expense.

That flap was just one of many that have plagued "Roseanne" during its first TV season, which is unusually early for any show to be so troubled, let alone one that jumped into the Top 5 of the Nielsen ratings so quickly.

More importantly, however, the situation at "Roseanne" spotlights what happens behind the scenes when producers, writers and actors battle for control over a series--a scenario that seems to be replaying itself more now than ever before.

In the last two years alone, Valerie Harper and Lorimar went to court over her removal from "Valerie"; creator and executive producer Glenn Gordon Caron was forced off "Moonlighting" because of wrangling with star Cybill Shepherd, and co-creator Terry Louise Fisher was ousted as a producer and writer on "L.A. Law" because of differences with executive producer Steven Bochco.

In the case of "Roseanne," the owners of its production company, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, resolved the ruckus by bowing to an ultimatum Barr delivered in December: that she would walk off the series after only 13 of the 22 episodes ordered for this season had been made unless Williams was thrown out. On Jan. 6, the Carsey-Werner Co. announced that Williams had "elected to move on" because of "creative tensions" with the comedian.

Carsey, whose company also produces the megahit "The Cosby Show" and its spinoff "A Different World," declined in an interview this week to explain the reasons behind the decision.

"Matt is a fabulous talent, and Roseanne is a fabulous talent, and it would be wonderful if they got along famously, but it didn't happen that way," she said. "But I don't want the subject of anyone's interest in the show to be who is staying and who is going, and creative tensions and stuff like that. It's wrong for us and it's wrong for the show for that to be the focus of anyone's attention."

Williams, however, sees his ouster as "symptomatic of an industry disdain for writers in general. The feeling is that writing isn't important, that what's important is the star. And to me, that's very, very sad," he said in his only interview since his ouster.

"The problem was who was going to have the final say on stories, scripts and the overall thrust of the show. As the creator and executive producer, I automatically assumed, rightly or wrongly, that I would have the final say. And, obviously, Roseanne thought she had the final say. And that, in essence, was the central conflict."

Barr, through a spokesman, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.

But others associated with "Roseanne" said in interviews that Carsey-Werner executives considered dumping her from the show last November because of the production problems she was causing, which included throwing temper tantrums, screaming at co-workers, locking herself in her dressing room, storming off the set and threatening on several occasions to quit.

Carsey denies this. Yet one Carsey-Werner associate explained at the time, "I don't know that she's indispensable."

Looking back, one writer said that "the feeling among the writers and producers was that we (still) had a show with John Goodman (who plays Barr's husband). But ultimately ABC owned the show and had the final say. And to them it was keep the star at all costs."

Carsey says that Barr has not been difficult to work with this season. "Of course, she's passionate about what she does and she cares very deeply about the character that she had created in her stand-up routines. And for whatever part of that she's using in this show, she cares very deeply about that. After all, she spent years on it."

Last week, ABC Entertainment President Brandon Stoddard acknowledged that he was "keeping an eye" on the turmoil at "Roseanne." But he also noted that following Williams' departure, "I think the problems have been resolved. . . . And I think things seem to be going along very well right now."

Stoddard's comments did not sit well with Williams, especially since ABC wants him to do another series. "The impression that's been given by everyone involved is that I just quit. I did not just walk off the show. I reluctantly stepped aside," said Williams, whose agent negotiated a sizable financial settlement for him--reportedly seven figures a year for several years--as well as a substantial interest in the series' profits.

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