This review was corrected on May 11, 2003.
A groovy trip back to the simpler times of Big Three television, “Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of ‘Three’s Company'” is a blast of a biopic that’s probably far from accurate, but who cares when its primary concern is Suzanne Somers’ self-described jiggle-worthiness? With a “Boogie Nights” look and feel that highlights ABC’s battles with its network stars, Peacock producers — yes, the history of the Alphabet’s entendre-laden meal ticket airs on NBC — give what could have been total trash a sexy spin that serves notice to tube suits that not all sweeps programming has to be so damn serious.
It’s hard to grab hold of what “Three’s” strangest thread is: That it airs on a rival? The eerie lookalikes who stand in for John Ritter, Joyce DeWitt and Somers? The decision to even tell this tale at all, considering the oversaturation of E!-like dirty laundry skeins? All three, actually, but it’s still a hoot to watch. And with “Lucy” and “Hitler” dominating the May stunt lineup, let’s hear it for a light and loose contribution that requires a tiny attention span.
Considering it was exec produced by DeWitt, it’s no surprise that the pic comes off as one big dig at Somers. DeWitt’s account is of a show that started out as a simple remake of Brit hit “Man About the House” and ended up as a nasty fight due exclusively to Somers and husband Alan Hamel’s (Christopher Shyer) inappropriate attempts to make her into a goddess (a la Farrah Fawcett).
In 1977, ABC president Fred Silverman (Brian Dennehy) greenlit “Company,” claiming the country needed a jolt. Though the edgy “All in the Family” was the top-rated title at the time, other faves included the “safe” “Sanford and Son” and “Phyllis.”
Getting two leads they wanted in well-liked comedian John Ritter (Bret Anthony) and stage actress DeWitt (Melanie Deanne Moore), the brass had a hard time finding a third until Somers (Jud Tylor), whom everyone remembered as the T-Bird beauty in “American Graffiti,” was offered the role. Three thesps bonded immediately, and “Three’s Company” rocketed to Nielsen’s top echelon, where it stayed for the next three years.
But then came renegotiations, and Somers became public enemy No. 1. After discarding longtime manager Jay Bernstein (Wallace Langham), she put her future in the hands of Hamel, and it was a complete mess. After she held out, skipped work and went public with her complaints on “Donahue,” ABC turned the tables, suing Somers to stop her successful Las Vegas act, smearing her name in the press and, eventually, whittling her function down to a one-spot at the end of every episode before getting rid of her.
Strangely, fact that the actors are playing real, live people isn’t the least bit distracting. Though there are obvious physical differences, the overall behavior of “Three’s” trio is handled with tongue comfortably in cheek by the relative newcomers. As a comparison, in the ads for NBC’s upcoming Martha Stewart bio — both were directed by Jason Ensler — Cybill Shepherd looks nothing like her onscreen counterpart, but the casting seems jarring.
Handling the Hollywood excess of it all with humor that doesn’t venture into silliness or sarcasm, Ensler and screenwriter Elisa Bell have done a terrific job at speeding along the five-year deterioration, promoting the heady days of “Three’s Company” and Somers’ self-destruction that led, among other things, to a terrible Newsweek cover — hurriedly put together after DeWitt and Ritter backed out of the photo session since they weren’t comfortable with Somers’ status — a lame spinoff for Ritter (“Three’s a Crowd”) and Somers’ afterlife as a pitchwoman for Thigh Master.
Supporting players are a howl, especially character actors Daniel Roebuck and Michael David Simms (reminiscent of Hank Azaria and David Paymer in “21”) as greedy execs without a conscience. Barbara Gordon, Terence Kelly and Gregg Brinkley as Audra Lindley, Norman Fell and his replacement, Don Knotts, respectively, have just the right touch without going overboard, though Dennehy gets by once again only by screaming.
Late-’70s/early ’80s touches abound, from roller rink-ish clothing to not-so-hip hairstyles. A talking-head interview with DeWitt is scattered throughout, but it’s pointless and should have been nixed. Her presence is a constant reminder of just how one-sided this gripe really is.
Pic originally was skedded for an April airing.