Here’s an idea for a sitcom sure to pull ABC out of its ratings slump: a mercurial TV star who keeps rehabilitation centers on retainer, berates her coworkers, and parades around the set like a demonic diva. An added bonus: It would be a cheap show for the network to produce. All ABC would have to do is take a camera and go behind the scenes of its troubled sitcom Grace Under Fire.
Regrettably, no one at the network is laughing. On Aug. 27, a spokesman for Carsey-Werner, Grace’s production company, confirmed that the show’s star, Brett Butler, 39, had once again entered rehab at an undisclosed treatment facility for what the company describes as a dependency on painkillers. (Last October, Butler received outpatient treatment at an unnamed institution for the same problem.) No one is giving details on what precipitated this new stint, but production on Grace has shut down. Although the show isn’t on ABC’s fall schedule, it had received a 25-episode order from the network as a mid-season replacement.
The development not only represents a telling blow for producers Carsey-Werner but also marks another step in the spectacular collapse of a series that only three years ago was a top 10 hit. Of course, trouble on Grace is hardly news: Butler’s clashes with her backstage collaborators have given the show five different executive producers in five years. But Butler’s erratic behavior first came into full view for many last season. While neither ABC nor Butler’s spokeswoman, Lisa Kasteler, would comment for this story, a number of people connected with the show say the nadir came during the production of ABC’s Vegas Night. That February sweeps stunt called for characters from Grace to travel to Las Vegas and interact with casts from the network’s other Wednesday-night comedies — Coach, Ellen, and The Drew Carey Show.
First, according to sources at ABC and the other series involved, Butler refused to fly with the other casts, demanding and receiving a chartered jet from ABC to make the 45-minute flight from L.A. to Las Vegas. Then she kept the other casts waiting at least two hours to film their joint scenes — a delay that, according to a network executive, cost ABC hundreds of thousands of dollars. The reaction of the other productions’ staffs to Butler’s behavior was a sobering experience for the Grace gang. ”The other crews were horrified with what we put up with,” says one ex-Grace staffer. ”We were used to it. It’s like being an abused kid — you get used to the hits.” Afterward, the crew of Drew Carey were given ”I Survived Brett” T-shirts by the show’s producers.
Butler’s backstage antics also resulted in some on-air fallout. Before the season began, Jon Paul Steuer, the then-12-year-old actor who had played Grace’s son Quentin on the show, abruptly quit. People familiar with the situation say his parents felt Butler’s behavior was detrimental to his well-being. According to printed reports (and confirmed by a number of people close to the show), Butler hiked up her skirt and flashed her bosom in front of Steuer. (His spokesperson declines to comment.) Once the season ended, actress Julie White, who played Grace’s best friend Nadine, also gave her notice. White’s lawyer, Peter Martin Nelson, says, ”Julie felt it was time to move on and do other things.” But network and production execs say White, like Steuer, had grown tired of Butler. ”It’s awfully difficult to play her best friend when you don’t get along in real life,” says a production source. Regarding the cast moves, a Carsey-Werner spokesman will only say, ”They both wanted to pursue other opportunities.”