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04.08.10

Inside the Desperate Housewives Drama

In the wake of Nicollette Sheridan’s lawsuit against Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry and ABC, former staffers on the show voice their own gripes to Nicole LaPorte.

In the wake of Nicollette Sheridan's lawsuit against Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry and ABC, former staffers on the show voice their own gripes to Nicole LaPorte—describing clashes on the set, Cherry's oft-spoken desire to kill off Sheridan's character, and Teri Hatcher's blueberry pancake meltdown.

Stories of diva behavior on and off the set of Desperate Housewives are by now legendary. Ever since the infamous Vanity Fair cover shoot that dissolved into a lady brawl during the show's first season, no one has ever imagined that working there is idyllic.

But in the days following the news that former Housewives co-star Nicollette Sheridan is suing the show's creator, Marc Cherry, and ABC Studios for assault, gender violence, and wrongful termination, among other things, it's emerging that it's not only the actresses' behavior that has caused waves. Regardless of what happened between Cherry and Sheridan, and the suit's eventual outcome, a number of sources who spoke to The Daily Beast said that Cherry does indeed create a difficult work environment in which clashes with actors and writers are routine.

"He will dress you down in front of the staff. He will assault an idea," said one former staffer. "He is very confrontational in this way. He has hissy fits."

Though the sources—all of whom were formerly on staff on Desperate Housewives—said that Cherry is not physically abusive and cannot imagine him hitting or slapping someone with an intent to hurt, as Sheridan is claiming that Cherry did, they unanimously say that to work for Cherry, especially if you are a woman, is to be marginalized and demeaned.

"He hates women," said one person who has worked on set. "It's apparent on set that he's a fan of cute, gay men, not women."

"He will dress you down in front of the staff. He will assault an idea," said another. "He is very confrontational in this way. He has hissy fits."

No one wanted to give more specific examples for fear of being identified by Cherry or ABC.

ABC would not comment beyond a statement that was issued earlier in the week. Ditto for Sheridan's attorney, whose original comment was forwarded to The Daily Beast via her publicist. (To read those click here.) A call to Cherry's agent at Paradigm was not returned; nor was an email to the Desperate Housewives publicists. The Daily Beast did talk to Cherry's personal publicity agency and described the contents of this piece, but received no official response.

A producer who has worked with Cherry defended him, however, saying that the portrait of Cherry as a volatile screamer was too severe and that he was just "extremely passionate."

"Like so many executive showrunners, there is a strength and leadership… Marc has a very clear vision of what he wants. He's not a saint, but he's not a monster."

But some former staffers tell a different story. They say that Cherry's most tumultuous relationships have been with Hatcher and Sheridan, who are the most outspoken members of the cast, which also includes Eva Longoria Parker, Marcia Cross, Felicity Huffman, and Dana Delany. The fights tend to break out when the actresses don't like what's been written for them, and Cherry, insulted, lashes out. "Nicollette is someone who very baldly says what she's thinking, and sometimes it might be insulting to the writing and it's something he'll take offense to," said one source.

Relations between Cherry and Sheridan became so bad that two sources claim that Cherry had long wanted to kill off her character, Edie Britt, before she was actually written off the show last year. "He would say it every week," said one source, "When can we kill her off? He really did not like working with her." (Though the decision was mainly driven by a desire to keep the show's plot interesting.)

Sheridan has been very vocal about her unhappiness over her termination and it is an issue in the lawsuit, which claims that in September of 2008, Cherry hit her across the face after she questioned something in the script. Cherry immediately went to her trailer to "beg her for forgiveness," and the complaint says that Sheridan reported the incident to ABC. She claims that Cherry's behavior continued until February of 2009, when Sheridan learned that her character was being killed off.

Reports have surfaced claiming that the incident occurred when Cherry was acting out a scene for Sheridan in which she was meant to be slapped by her husband.

Cherry has not officially commented or responded to the suit.

It's the more general charges in Sheridan's suit that are bringing out a chorus of "Amens" among some former staffers, who strongly echo the actress' claims of gender discrimination and a harsh work environment, saying the conditions are more severe than on other television shows.

Ironically, given the show's subject matter, female writers on the show get the worst of it, and are mostly kept out of the "polishing room," instead relegated to their "caves." This person said that the writing "posse" that Cherry surrounds himself with and most treasures, consists of mostly straight men.

This situation strikes some as illogical when characters' story lines involve such issues as menopause, aging, and pregnancy. These people say that while discussing these issues, Cherry listens primarily to his male writers, and that female writers get "a hostile face and a dismissive wave, and a 'You need to go shut up and sit over there, while I listen to this guy.'"

One source said that the bias became so apparent that some writers who felt discriminated against began referring to themselves as "the unwashed."

According to IMDb, of the 39 writer-producers who have worked on Desperate Housewives since it first aired in 2004, only 14 are women. And many of those were short-lived. Saturday Night Live alumnus Julia Sweeney left after half a season.

The allegations are in jarring contrast to Cherry's public image, which was cemented when Desperate Housewives became a surprise mega-hit. To the press, and most of Hollywood, Cherry was a schlumpy, jolly, and witty gay man who, until he struck gold at the age of 42, had been struggling for years, unable to find TV work and living with his mother. (Cherry's first major writing gig was for The Golden Girls.)

It was a true, Hollywood rags-to-riches story, and everyone loved it. Cherry himself became a star.

"When you hear him speak at the Writers Guild, he's super smart and charming, and you're like, 'No way is this guy a jerk,'" said one source. "But if you work for him…"

When Cherry was called away from the show to do publicity during Season 2, Desperate Housewives suffered. Ratings sank, and critics began wondering if the show wasn't just a flash in the pan success.

This apparently jolted Cherry badly, and, ever since, he's been back to being an intensely hands-on perfectionist, not just in the writers room, but on set, where he frequently acts out scenes for the actors, and in the editing bay.

But if he is a diva, he's not alone. Hatcher, said a former employee, once caused a morning-long crisis when she had to shoot a scene in which her then-pregnant character, Susan Mayer, wolfs down a stack of pancakes. Not wanting to stuff herself with carbs over numerous takes, Hatcher insisted that blueberries be put on the pancakes so that she could stuff herself with those, instead. Inevitably, there was a showdown with Cherry, who ultimately caved.

"It's constant drama," said one source.

Judging by Sheridan's suit, it's not going away any time soon.

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.