Over the past couple of months, I’ve received a bunch of emails from readers asking me to explain the specifics of my involvement with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” I’ve thought a lot about whether or not to talk about this publicly, but have decided to tell my story 1) because it’s a part of my life that happened, and a part that has had an enormous impact on me, and 2) because I recently received an email from a reader who had something very similar happen to her, and wanted my advice on how to deal with the situation on an emotional level. So yes, I think it’s an interesting story, but I also think it’s an important one to tell given that many young people deal with similar issues.
My involvement with “Sunny” was complicated by two factors: 1) I was romantically involved with my co-star and the creator of the show, Rob McElhenney, for many years, and the demise of our relationship was what ultimately led to my forced exit from the show, and 2) I was very young – about 23 years old – when the following events transpired, and was so intimidated by the people with whom I was working (including top-level FX executives) that I felt that I had no voice whatsoever.
Here’s what happened. When I graduated from college, I moved out to Los Angeles, where I knew absolutely no one except for my ex-boyfriend, Rob. We began dating again, first casually, and then very seriously. Shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles, Rob conceived of the idea for a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style show that centered on a group of four actor friends living in LA (this, of course, was later changed to four friends working in a Philadelphia bar). Over the next year or so Rob, myself, and our friends Glenn and Charlie shot two pilot episodes for the show, which at the time was called “It’s Always Sunny on TV.” Other friends filled in the remainder of the roles – most notably Mary Elizabeth, who played “The Waitress” and later married Charlie – but the core group was the four of us: me, Rob, Glenn, and Charlie.
It was exhausting work that took many months to complete: we improv-ed out many scenes before Rob actually wrote them, and if one of us wasn’t on camera for a particular shot, he or me (ha) was probably standing off to the side holding a boom mike. Much of the first two episodes (which included several plot lines taken directly from my life, such as my insistence that everyone remove their shoes before entering my carpeted West Hollywood apartment) were shot at my place or at Glenn’s. When we needed more DV tapes, we all chipped in and drove my Chrysler LeBaron to the Rite Aid on Sunset. It was a busy time, but an exciting one – we all felt like we were participating in the creation of something really great, something with enormous potential.
When the two initial episodes were finished, Rob began shopping them around to networks. And a miracle happened: FX offered to shoot a “real” pilot for the show. All of a sudden we were on an actual set, with for-real makeup artists and someone else to hold the boom mike. Things seemed to be going swimmingly, but we still had trouble believing that all of this would actually pan out. At one point, one of the guys (I believe it was Glenn, but I could be wrong) called a meeting in Rob’s trailer: “What if the network wants to pick up some of us, but not all of us?” Together, we four agreed that they took all of us…or none of us. We were in this thing together – had been for over a year now – and we simply wouldn’t allow them to split us up.
Around that time, my relationship with Rob began to unravel, and I started to sense that I was on unsteady footing on the set, despite our “all for one” pact. I was surprised to learn that Rob, Glenn and Charlie had all been made executive producers, while I simply remained the lead actress. I went very quickly from being at the center of the project to standing on the periphery, and…truth? It felt like it had everything in the world to do with my gender. To me, FX felt like a cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking old boys’ club. I was welcome when I was the girlfriend of the creator, and once I wasn’t…well…I was persona non grata – and my role in creating their new pet project was forgotten.
I said nothing because, to be honest, I was totally intimidated by my surroundings, and felt so lucky to be starring in a show at all that I didn’t want to go around demanding more, more, more. In retrospect, though, I find it odd that my agents, Innovative Artists, didn’t speak up on my behalf, given that they were well aware of my extensive involvement in the show’s creation and development. But chances are they probably doubted that the show would ever see the light of day.
The pilot wrapped, and shortly afterwards I ended my relationship with Rob. During one of our break-up conversations, I was told in no uncertain terms that if I did not stay in the relationship, I would be off the show. However, I felt strongly that we were not functioning well as a couple, and moved into the house that we had been planning to share alone. I honestly didn’t believe that I would actually be fired from the show because of romantic complications, given that I had spent over a year devoting my life to “Sunny,” and had been so instrumental in its success.
But sure enough, a couple of months later my agent and new manager (a manager who quickly disappeared from my life once I was no longer the lead on a show) called to tell me that while Rob, Glenn and Charlie had been picked up for the series, I hadn’t been. The network, they said, felt I was “too pretty” to be believable as a Philadelphia bartender, which makes total sense: TV shows generally hire unattractive people as lead actors, and I was recently voted Miss Universe. Didn’t you know?
I got a small payout, Rob ended up marrying the girl who he hired to replace me in the role of Sweet Dee, and I haven’t heard from either Glenn or Charlie since the day I ended my relationship with Rob.
Was I angry for a very long time? Was I bitter? Oh, absolutely. I’ll be honest: it took me years, years, to get over this, and the healing process wasn’t helped by the fact that I had to see my former friends’ faces staring down at me from posters in Times Square. (In truth, I was angrier with Glenn and Charlie than I was with Rob, who I understood was too hurt to work with me every day. We were each other’s first love, and I will always wish Rob nothing but the best.) Did I consider suing? Yep. I decided not to because I couldn’t face the prospect of going to court to fight a man whom I had cared about – and still cared about – so deeply, and because as a struggling young actress I was frightened by the prospect of challenging a powerful network all by myself.
But am I angry now? Am I bitter? Not in the slightest. It was a situation that was handled poorly by all involved, and I am not blameless here: I’m sure I could have dealt with the breakup better, and I know that I was frightfully naïve in failing to stand up for myself during contract negotiations and in trusting that my agents knew what they were doing.
I’m telling you all this because the last thing that I ever thought would happen actually happened: things turned out, quite simply, for the best. When I was fired, I fell into an extremely deep depression, not helped by the fact that my career as an actress effectively came to a standstill (the first question asked of me by every casting director that I met with in the year following the show’s debut was, “Why were you fired from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?”). When my mother told me that months, or perhaps years from now, I would look at my life and be unable to imagine that things could have turned out in any other way, and that I would be happy, I thought she was insane. Sure, mom, I thought…one day I’ll wake up and be just thrilled that my bank account is bereft of millions and I’m still sitting in the waiting room, hoping for a guest spot on Ghost Whisperer.
But my mother was right, as is usually the case. When I look at my life today – at the apartment that I love, at the little white dog rolling around at my feet, and at the husband without whom I could not get through one single day – I am happy. I don’t know what direction my life would have gone in had I not been fired from the show, but I do know that I wouldn’t be here, where I am right now…and I wouldn’t give up “right now” for all the money and all the fame in the world.
Am I proud of “Sunny”? Hell, yeah. I’m proud of its success, and I’m proud of my role in creating it, but most of all I’m proud of that 23-year-old girl who refused to compromise her values for a role on a TV show.