I'VE never met a writer/producer like her," says Broadway and television actress Judith Ivey about Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. "She is refreshingly down-home. Or, as Linda describes herself `I'm an Amtrak girl in a jet world."'
Yet with three series - "Designing Women," "Evening Shade," and the new "Hearts Afire" - on CBS this season, Ms. Bloodworth-Thomason appears to be on a bullet train.
"Hearts Afire" actress Markie Post, who has known her for 10 years, explains where she finds her ideas. "She takes everything from her life and those around her. There isn't anything she can't turn into a joke or use as a scene in a script."
Meeting Bloodworth-Thomason was a surprise. She is not the slick career woman one might expect as the powerhouse behind two of CBS's biggest hits. She seems more like an eager young homemaker visiting Hollywood for the first time. She's unsettling, especially when she asks, "Are you comfortable? Would you prefer discussing this while we walk to the store for an ice-cream cone?"
Ms. Ivey gained insights into Bloodworth-Thomason's character after an informal interview for a part in one of her shows. "I met Linda when she invited me to stop by her office, for she wanted to tell me about a new character she was introducing in the seventh season of `Designing Women.' Nurturing a newcomer
"Listening to Linda's soft accent - a mix of Arkansas and Missouri - I unconsciously reverted back to my own Texas roots," Ivey says. When she realized it, she tried to get back to the "everyman accent" she had worked for years to perfect.
"Linda said, `Don't do that. The character is a Texan, and you sound just right.' "
"Once I signed for the role," Ivey says, "for the first time in my career, a writer sent me a profile of my role. Linda explained where my character was born, what her parents were like, why she thought as she did... I was well grounded in my role."
A CBS executive, who preferred not to be named, attests to Bloodworth-Thomason's ability to work well under pressure. "She was involved with the Clinton campaign and spent 16 hours in a trailer editing the Clinton film that aired at the Democratic Convention. I was concerned she wouldn't get the scripts written for the new series on time. Linda would come to her office at 11 a.m., write all night until 6 in the morning, and be back at the studio that afternoon. We've learned to just leave her alone and l et her do what she does."
In the early days at 20th Century-Fox, when she was writing episodes for "M.A.S.H.," her then-boyfriend Harry Thomason was producing "Wise Guy." When they married, they formed Mozark Productions.
Bloodworth-Thomason's upbringing cultivated her curiosity about American pop culture and politics. "I grew up with some good role models," she says. "My mother was a sweet, kind housewife, and my dad and his four brothers were country lawyers. We lived in the Ozarks, and our house had the only television set in town, which prophetically only got CBS. Neighbors would come by to watch TV and discuss politics. I grew up thinking Ike and Adlai were friends and hoping somehow I could make a difference." Political sensibility
Her feminist viewpoint shows up in the character of Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter, in "Designing Women."
Bloodworth-Thomason says, "Designing Women is like this big-mouth, brassy Broadway show, it's just meant for politics. Although `Hearts Afire' has John Ritter and Markie Post working in a Southern senator's office in Washington, DC, it's more romantic than political.
"I observe and take everything from life," she says. When she visited the office of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina to research her script, she was pleased to find baby photographs of kids named Strom who live in his home state.
"My TV senator isn't any one man, but really drawn from four people I know, plus my imagination.... There's something about folks from the South, it's like radar, we seem to find each other - like Dixie Carter, Annie Potts, John Ritter, Judith Ivey, Harry, and me all working together.
Her career hasn't been all glamour and grits. When actress Delta Burke exited "Designing Women," Bloodworth-Thomason became a target for the tabloids. One day, she visited Post in search of a respite.
"I got an instant perk-up from her 5-year-old, Kate. The youngster had a fear of bees and was getting rid of it by drawing a poster. Asking her mom how to spell the words, Kate printed on the bottom of the drawing, `Bees sting, watch out.'
"That's a reminder I need," Bloodworth-Thomason says. She made a copy of the drawing and hung it in her office. When her husband's lifelong friend, Bill Clinton, visited them, just before he announced he was running for the presidency, she told him, "You're going to have some rough times, you'll need this," and she gave him Kate's poster, which now hangs in his office.
Bloodworth-Thomason titled an early episode of "Hearts Afire" "Bees sting, watch out," and one of John Ritter's children will be drawing a poster, which is really Kate's handiwork.
Harry Thomason, a native of Arkansas, has been friends of Bill and Hillary Clinton for years. Mr. Thomason introduced Governor Clinton when he announced his candidacy in Little Rock, and he has since put his production work on hold until after the campaign.
Bloodworth-Thomason reflects on the day of Clinton's announcement. "It was a special day for us because my grandfather had been chairman of the Republican party in Arkansas and he went [only] to the sixth grade, like Bill's grandfather. Each of them achieved a lot with what they had. My grandfather went on to become an attorney and later a newspaper editor. He got into a skirmish with the Ku Klux Klan, who shot him, and that's why we had to move across the state line, 30 miles over the Arkansas border.
"Granddad helped, along with a lot of others, to write the Arkansas Constitution. Bill selected that exact spot, right at the old State House, to announce his candidacy."
When times are rough at work, Bloodworth-Thomason remembers a line told to her by Hillary Clinton: "`I was standing in the street, minding my own business, when a big, old ugly man came and tied his horse to me.' Sometimes I feel just like that."