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Remembering actress and entrepreneur Suzanne Somers, dead at 76

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Actress Suzanne Somers died yesterday after battling breast cancer for more than two decades. As NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas reports, Somers parlayed her comedic talents into entirely new endeavors as an author and wildly successful entrepreneur.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Suzanne Somers first caught attention in a role in the 1973 film "American Graffiti." She was on screen for less than 10 seconds and didn't say a word, but her beauty and charm were more than enough. That scene in "American Graffiti" got her an audition for the sitcom "Three's Company," which premiered in 1977.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME AND KNOCK ON OUR DOOR (THREE'S COMPANY THEME)")

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Come and knock on our door.

JULIA RINKER MILLER: (Singing) Come and knock on our door.

CHARLES: (Singing) We've been waiting for you.

RINKER MILLER: (Singing) We've been waiting for you.

TSIOULCAS: For five seasons, Somers was a star on one of the most popular shows on television, playing the ultimate ditzy blonde. But after she demanded a raise from ABC, she was fired. That didn't end her television career. There was a short-lived show called "She's The Sheriff," which ran for three seasons in the 1980s. And through most of the 1990s, she starred in another sitcom, this one called "Step By Step." She even sang on that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STEP BY STEP")

SUZANNE SOMERS: (As Carol Foster-Lambert, singing) Tonight we'll put other things aside.

(As Carol Foster-Lambert) Come up here.

TSIOULCAS: But in the meantime, she developed a whole other role as a business mogul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOMERS: I used to do aerobics till I dropped. Then I found Thighmaster.

TSIOULCAS: Somers began a long stint as the spokesperson for the Thighmaster workout device, one of the quintessential As Seen On TV products of the 1990s. Somers and her husband, Alan Hamel, came to be the sole owners of the business. Somers told the podcast Hollywood Raw last year she had sold about 15 million Thighmasters at around $20 a pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOLLYWOOD RAW")

SOMERS: For someone who played the dumbest blonde on television, I have a really good brain (laughter).

TSIOULCAS: She was open about her health struggles. In 2018, she talked to Yahoo Lifestyle about her cancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOMERS: When you hear those three words - you have cancer - wow. That's coming face to face with your mortality.

TSIOULCAS: Even as she was battling cancer, Somers remained very much in the public eye. She wrote more than two dozen books, including 14 bestsellers. The books centered around health and wellness, and she also appeared on "Dancing With The Stars."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DANCING WITH THE STARS")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Well, I said come on over, baby. Baby, you can't go wrong.

TSIOULCAS: After her death, tributes poured in on social media from her friends and former colleagues. Fellow actress Morgan Fairchild said the two supported each other through health challenges. Fairchild wrote, quote, "when we ran into each other, she would lean over and whisper, we're survivors." Also on social media, singer Barry Manilow wrote, quote, "she was the sister I never had and my close confidant forever. We shared triumphs and heartaches. I will miss her dearly and hope that she is now out of pain and at peace."

TSIOULCAS: Today Somers would have turned 77 years old. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME AND KNOCK ON OUR DOOR (THREE'S COMPANY THEME)")

RAY CHARLES AND JULIA RINKER MILLER: (Singing) Three's company, too.

CHARLES: (Singing) Come and dance on our floor.

RINKER MILLER: (Singing) Come and dance on our floor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.