A steel magnolia Producer postpones politics to write the words that make America laugh


Picture this. Three sound stages on a Hollywood studio lot. Burt Reynolds is standing on one stage. Dixie Carter is standing on another. John Ritter is standing on the third. All are surrounded by co-stars, cameras, lights and crew members costing thousands of dollars an hour.

In an office on the other side of the studio lot is a woman writing at a computer terminal. She is writing real fast. Assistants come into her office, take pages off the computer printer and, then, run the pages down to the sound stages.

There the pages are given to Reynolds, Carter and Ritter so they can quit standing around, start acting and the cameras can roll on three TV series that will be seen in 50 million homes next month.

The woman at the keyboard -- the person whose words make "Designing Women," "Evening Shade" and a new series "Hearts Afire" -- is producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.

The description from the folks at CBS of what life is like these days for the 45-year-old Bloodworth-Thomason may be somewhat exaggerated. But probably not much.

"I just am basically behind on these three shows," Bloodworth-Thomason said recently in Los Angeles. "We don't have any scripts for this one show ["Hearts Afire"], I'll be honest. . . . Our motto around here is, 'Yes, you will die by the end of the year.' "

Bloodworth-Thomason is behind because, in addition to co-producing three network shows, she has been working on the presidential campaign of her long-time friend, Bill Clinton. She and her husband and co-producer, Harry Thomason, were key players in the triumph of the Democratic National Convention last month in New York.

Pulling eight straight all-nighters in the editing room, Bloodworth-Thomason produced "The Man From Hope" video biography of Clinton that was shown at the convention. Husband and wife designed the "walk" to Madison Square Garden the night before Clinton's acceptance speech. Bloodworth-Thomason is credited with Clinton's "comeback kid" line upon arrival at the Garden.

"Every time [CBS President] Jeff Sagansky calls me to see if I've started these scripts," Bloodworth-Thomason said, "I say, 'Jeff, I'm working on a part of history; you should be ashamed for even calling me.' But I think his shame is lessening."

The celebrity of Bloodworth-Thomason has been increasing exponentially since the convention. One reason for the burst of fame is that East Coast political consultant types were blown away by "The Man From Hope," and are asking each other, in effect, "Who was that masked woman?" who produced it.

Bloodworth-Thomason is a native of Poplar Bluff, Mo. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Missouri, she moved to Los Angeles where she sold advertising for the Wall Street Journal. Soon after that, she taught for two years at Jordan High School in Watts, which is when she started as a free-lance screenwriter.

Before long, she was writing for TV shows, such as "M*A*S*H." In 1983, she married Thomason -- a high school teacher and football coach from Arkansas who had gone west on a wing and a prayer to make films -- and they formed Mozark (Missouri and Arkansas) Productions, which has since made them rich.

Such facts are important with Bloodworth-Thomason, because so much of her work now involves autobiography. The central character in "Evening Shade," Wood Newton (Reynolds) is, like Thomason, a high school football coach in Arkansas. The title of the show itself, "Evening Shade," came from Hillary Clinton.

The biographical facts are also important, Bloodworth-Thomason says, because the Missouri-Arkansas roots are central to who she isand what she creates. She returned to the theme of Southern roots time and again when she met with TV critics and reporters as part of the fall preview press tour.

She talked about her grandfather, "who helped write the Arkansas constitution . . . got into a skirmish with the Ku Klux Klan, who shot him, and that's why we had to move across the state line, 30 miles over the Arkansas border."

And she spoke with a certain lyricism about another speech she wrote: "The day Bill announced [for president] was . . . in front of the old state house. And, in the bright sunshine, my husband read the speech that I wrote, which said, 'Together, we gather on the banks of the Arkansas River, which binds us all to the fathers before us, even your father, Bill, who you never knew.' And we all cried. . . ."

That sense of the South is what truly distinguishes Bloodworth-Thomason's best work. And it is the most important thing to know about her.

Because TV is so collaborative, it is rare that one person or two people can be credited with any major development. But Bloodworth and Thomason have managed to turn around decades of white-Southern stereotyping in popular entertainment. The one-dimensional Boss Hogg of "Dukes of Hazzard" has been balanced by the Julia Sugarbaker of "Designing Women," thanks to them. They have given us Wood Newton and Evan Evans (Hal Holbrook) instead of only the Gomers and Goobers.

With the Democratic convention behind her and the new season very much before her, Bloodworth-Tho

mason has promised that she is going to pull back from politics a bit, at least until November. But even that is qualified by her sense of how her Southern TV characters would and should behave.

"I don't think I will be talking about Bill Clinton on the shows before the election," she said, "because I'm just too publicly associated with him. But we will talk about politics in general."

"When I write, believe it or not, I try not to think in terms of Democrats or Republicans. I would say 'Clarence and Anita' [an acclaimed episode of "Designing Women" last year that dealt with the Clarence Thomas hearings] is the strongest political statement that I've made in a show. And I didn't think of it in terms of Democrats or Republicans . . .

"And I have to be true to who the characters are. You know, Julia has to say what Julia would say. . . . "Designing Women" is just made for politics."

And, then, there's "Evening Shade," which is set in Clinton's Arkansas.

"Since it's Arkansas, I really wanted to do some shows in which they had some very strong feelings about the election," Bloodworth-Thomason said. "But I guess we'll have to do it [after the election].

"We may, though, do a show where Charlie Durning runs for mayor and is accused of all sorts of heinous acts, and he has to decide whether or not it's worth it to be in public life."

In a sound stage on a studio lot somewhere in Hollywood, Charles Durning is standing around. In an office, a woman is writing . . .

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