Married ... With a TV Show

Nick and Jessica Are Parting, Sonny and Cher Divorced, But Many TV Marriages Last


Nov. 29, 2005 —  Jessica Simpson, who once mistook Chicken of the Sea for canned poultry and wouldn't eat Buffalo wings, theoretically because she never saw a buffalo fly, must now debate the virtue of playing out her marriage on TV.

After months of denials, the couple announced last Friday what every tabloid seemed to already know: After three years of marriage, and three seasons of "Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica," they are officially separating.

TV has a reputation for ruining relationships. Sonny and Cher ended their relationship like Abbott and Costello — embittered performers who hardly spoke to each other. And now, in the age of reality TV, many more couples are tempted to test their wedded vows under the prying eye of a TV camera.

At least Nick and Jessica did better than Liza Minnelli and David Gest. Their union lasted 16 months, and after opening their home to VH1 camera crews in 2002, they began suing the network to get back the footage, before unleashing lawyers on each other.

Of course, reality TV has had its success stories. Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne are still together after 23 years. Britney Spears and Kevin Federline survived their own reality show, and they're currently caring for their newborn son.

And just as Nick and Jessica were calling it quits, Christopher "Brady Bunch" Knight announced last week that he and his co-star/girlfriend Adrianne Curry (also of "America's Next Top Model") are now planning a wedding and another season of "My Fair Brady."

Just to be sure that this is truly a match made in reality TV heaven, the couple met on VH1's "The Surreal Life."

Award-Winning Husbands and Wives

Let's be fair to Nick and Jessica. Even if "I Love Lucy" could only stave off Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball's inevitable divorce, there are more than a few happily married couples who played happy (and unhappy) couples on TV.

"St. Elsewhere" stars Bonnie Bartlett and William Daniels made Emmy history in 1986, when they became the first real-life married couple to win acting awards on the same night, for their portrayals of Dr. and Mrs. Mark Craig on the cult TV series. They've now been together 54 years.

Another married couple, "L.A. Law" stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry, had a torrid affair on NBC in the late 1980s, while simultaneously earning three Emmy nominations. They've been married for 33 years, even after trying to kill each other in "Assault and Matrimony."

Years earlier, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss were Emmy-nominated husband and wife for their 1967 sitcom "He & She." Though the series only lasted one season, they recently celebrated their 44th anniversary.

Of course, when you're a TV star and you've got a famous spouse, you can always count on guest appearances. Brad Pitt showed up on "Friends." Hal Holbrook visited Dixie Carter on "Designing Women," but when a marriage fails, that no longer seams like such a good idea.

In the late 1980s, Tom Arnold joined "Roseanne," as a staff writer, and became a regular during his marriage to the show's star. Predictably, his character disappeared when their marriage hit the skids. But it should be noted that Roseanne's first and third husbands — comedy writer Bill Pentland and bodyguard Ben Thomas — also made guest appearances.

In the end, the set of a TV show is just like any other workplace, and it's not uncommon for husbands and wives to punch the same clock without punching each other.

Here's a look at some Hollywood couples who have put marriage to one of the most unforgiving tests — living and working together. Some went well, and a few are legendary disasters.

20 Years: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
TV lovers will always remember zany Lucy stuffing chocolates in her mouth as they sped down the conveyor belt. She was the "Vitameatavegamin Girl," the crazy lady who staggered into the subway with a trophy stuck over her head, and the whining housewife, perpetually crying "Ricky!" as if it were a four-syllable word.

But Ball should also be remembered as a trailblazer. In 1940, when the then-blonde starlet married the 23-year-old Cuban refugee-turned-conga player, he was six years her junior. TV executives feared this multiethnic marriage was not ready for primetime, so the couple eventually formed Desilu productions, giving them unprecedented control over their careers. Desilu later bought RKO, making Lucy the first female head of a Hollywood studio.

In truth, the lighthearted domestic bliss of "I Love Lucy" didn't reflect their marriage, and that's not just because the show depicted them sleeping in separate beds, far enough apart to park a Hummer.

Long before the show hit the air in 1951, Ball had filed for divorce. She never signed the papers, and they were remarried, prompting Groucho Marx to send a congratulatory telegram that read, "What's New?"

We can thank Lucy and Desi for reruns. They proposed the practice to stay on the air while she was pregnant with Desi Arnaz Jr. (and her character was pregnant with Little Ricky). This was at a time when network censors wouldn't permit actors to say "pregnant." Rather, they had to say "expecting," or as Ricky Ricardo would say, "e'spectin!" The birth of Little Ricky was a TV event, watched by a then-record 44 million people.

The couple's 20-year union came to an end in 1960, after they wrapped production on their second show together, "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour." Lucy married Garry Morton, Desi served as executive producer on "The Lucy Show," but rarely performed.

35 Years: Barbara Bain and Martin Landau
In a classic example of the problem of bringing marriage to work, Barbara Bain was forced to leave "Mission: Impossible," shortly after becoming the first actress to win three consecutive Emmys, for her portrayal of the show's femme fatale Cinnamon Carter.

Producers got into a contract squabble with her husband, Martin Landau. She was fired, and the two fled to Britain to star in the short-lived TV series "Space: 1999."

After two seasons in polyester uniforms that even "Star Trek" extras would chuckle at, Bain and Landau hit on rough times. In 1983, they soon found themselves marooned in "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island," and a few years later, they were divorced.

Landau returned to prominence with three Oscar nominations, including a win for his turn as Bela Lugosi in "Ed Wood." But Bain's TV and film work has since been scant, and she complained to People magazine in 1996 that the "Mission Impossible" controversy unfairly left her with a reputation as "a pain in the ass."

38 Years: George Burns and Gracie Allen
In 1922, when they started in vaudeville, George Burns had the funny lines and Gracie Allen played it straight. But George found that Gracie got more laughs, and rewrote the act. It was around that time he fell in love with his partner, even though she was engaged to another man.

In 1926, they began 38 years of wedded bliss, until her untimely death in 1964. At first, they didn't acknowledge they were man and wife, to avoid even a whiff of scandal. "We were the only couple on radio who got married because we had to," said Burns, who always acknowledged his beloved as the real talent.

"Gracie's the kind of girl who shortens the cord on the electric iron to save electricity," Allen once said, explaining her character's unique logic. It wasn't acknowledged until years later that their eight-year run on TV only ended because she was developing heart problems.

George resurrected his career, becoming the oldest actor to receive an Oscar, when he won in 1976 for "The Sunshine Boys." He lived to 100, smoking cigars, making jokes, and always in the company of young ladies, but never remarrying.

50 Years: Ozzie and Harriet
When Ozzie Nelson dropped out of law school and began playing clubs around New Jersey with his band, Harriet Hillard signed on as a sassy vocalist. Three years later, in 1935, they married, and TV's archetypical nuclear family was born.

Until surpassed by "The Simpsons" in 2004, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" was TV's longest-running comedy, with future pop star Ricky Nelson and brother David virtually growing up on the show. The exteriors of the Nelson's TV home were the family's actual residence in Hollywood Hills. Their marriage lasted until Ozzie's death in 1975.

10 Years: Sonny Bono and Cher
In the end, Sonny and Cher were probably happier with their TV careers than their marriage. Their 1975 breakup brought the top-rated "Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" to an end. After striking out with solo shows, they reunited as divorced co-hosts of the revamped "Sonny & Cher." They even continued to sing "I've Got You, Babe," though court documents suggested otherwise.

From the very beginning, this was an affair destined to spawn made-for-TV movies. He was a mustachioed 28-year-old meat deliveryman who wrote songs. He found that his 16-year-old girlfriend could sing, and they began performing at bowling alleys as Caesar & Cleo, where he played the clueless hipster and she became a master of marital put-downs.

Cher, of course, became a musical icon and Oscar-winning actress. Sonny went on to become mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and a congressman, despite not voting until he was 53. When Bono died in a skiing accident in 1998, Cher gave her former hubby a touching eulogy, recalling that when they met, the first thing he told her "was that he was a descendant of Napoleon."

"Now you have to realize," Cher recalled, "he was talking to a girl who thought that Mount Rushmore was a natural phenomenon."

Sonny and Cher weren't the only divorcees who returned to TV together. George Hamilton and Alana Stewart co-hosted the short-lived "George & Alana" in 1995, 20 years after they called it quits, with Stewart officially billed as "his beautiful former wife."

10 Years: Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen
This is a situation only Sam Malone would find himself in: In 1996, Ted Danson starred with his newlywed bride, Mary Steenburgen, in "Ink," playing freshly divorced journalists who work in the same office. Just before announcing that she's leaving the paper, she finds that she's been promoted to become her ex-husband's boss.

"My mother in Arkansas doesn't understand it at all," Steenburgen said of "Ink," which was quickly nicknamed "Stink," and didn't last a season.

Still, Danson and Steenburgen, who met on the set of 1994's "Pontiac Moon," have kept working together. They again played estranged lovers last year in the TV movie, "It Must Be Love." In it, they're trapped in a snowstorm together, and, well, and you can probably guess the rest.

50 Years: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans
In 1944, when Dale Evans and Roy Rogers began working together, she was working on her third marriage and he had tied the knot twice. Two years later, she was divorced, he was widowed, and at a rodeo, he proposed. Thus began 50 years of "Happy Trails."

The King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the West rode together (he on Trigger, she on Buttermilk) through 27 films and two TV shows, recording more than 400 songs along the way.

Perhaps one secret to their longevity: No public displays of affection, at least onscreen. As he once famously said, "I get to kiss the horse."

That's not for everybody, but Trigger never complained.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.