It was in early July, when she had fallen six months behind in rent, that Brett Butler fully came to grips with how dire her circumstances had become.
Facing imminent eviction from her Los Angeles apartment, the comedian and actress — who at her career peak during the mid-1990s was making $250,000 per episode as the star of the ABC sitcom Grace Under Fire — confided in one of her closest friends, Lon Strickler, a blogger who chronicles real-life supernatural encounters. (Butler herself claims to be able to communicate with the dead and once even tried to launch a Crossing Over-style talk show.)
“I told him, ‘I might’ve waited too long to do this, but I am so screwed right now,’” Butler, 63, recounts in her Georgian lilt. “‘I’ve been ashamed. Almost ashamed to death.’” Says Strickler: “I decided that it was in her benefit if I tried to form a GoFundMe account for her.”
Butler is no stranger to hard times. When she was discovered doing stand-up in New York City during the mid-1980s, she already had overcome alcoholism and an abusive marriage — the result of a self-fulfilling cycle of violence, as her father was an abusive alcoholic, too. Later, the pressures of starring on the hit Chuck Lorre sitcom Grace, based on her own life (except the parenting thing — Butler never had children), led to a Vicodin addiction. (She got hooked on the painkiller after being prescribed it for sciatica.) By her own admission, the drug abuse made her an erratic nightmare on set, causing co-stars to quit and the show’s abrupt cancellation in its fifth season, after just 14 of a planned 25 episodes were shot.
“At the bloody bitter end, I really was difficult,” Butler concedes. “I was out of my mind. Drugs will do that to you. The show should have been pulled sooner than it was.”
A few years after that, Butler fled Hollywood for Georgia, where she bought a bucolic property she’d spotted on the internet. That, too, ended badly. After failing to keep up with mortgage payments, she literally lost the farm. Contrary to an Entertainment Tonight segment that aired in 2011, however, she never lived “in a homeless shelter.” She insists she always had a roof over her head and that an ET producer, who paid her for the appearance, fabricated the homelessness detail for ratings. “I have no idea why she did that,” says Butler. “But once that gets out there, it just goes everywhere.”
She credits Charlie Sheen with saving her life in 2012. The two had been acquaintances since the Grace Under Fire days. Sheen lobbied hard to get Butler a part as a cocktail waitress on his sitcom Anger Management — against the producers’ wishes, she suspects. She ended up being on the show for two years. “If it wasn’t for Charlie, there’s no way I would have been on that show,” she says. “It literally saved me.”
Flash forward to 2021, however, and amid the production slowdown caused by COVID-19, the specter of homelessness was looking to be more and more inevitable.
It took Butler a lot of convincing to submit herself to a crowdfunding campaign — not just as a matter of pride but also, she feared, the satisfaction it would give the enemies she’d made along the way. “He talked me into it,” she says of Strickler’s urging. “The way he put it was, ‘You can’t live your life based on being afraid of what haters will do.’ “
Strickler asked Butler how much she wanted to raise. “And I said, ‘I don’t know — what’s the cutoff line between needing something and being absolutely greedy?’ ” They decided on a goal of $15,000. The campaign raised $12,583 from 246 donors — enough to keep the wolves at bay for a little longer. Strickler since has pushed the target up to $20,000.
“She still needs a little more help,” he says. “She just needs one more little nudge to get back on her feet.”
In all, Butler filmed 112 episodes of Grace Under Fire. She only can remember about 80, though, and can’t bring herself to watch any of them — not even the highly rated early seasons, when she was still sober and at the top of her game. “I try not to go into yesterday,” she says. “I think the last time I watched anything I did that was old, it was my first Tonight Show.”
In that star-making appearance, which aired May 14, 1987, Butler emerged not with her familiar blond hair but as a curly-headed brunette. She joked about her “redneck” ex-husband and life as a woman in the Deep South: “All of us lost our cherished virtue in the back of a pickup truck holding on to a gun rack looking at a picture of a buck feeding out of a stream.” Johnny Carson declared the five-minute set “wonderful stuff. … It’s always such a thrill seeing somebody new come out and be so funny.”
From that point forward, Butler — who attended the University of Georgia before dropping out to focus full-time on comedy — was on TV “once a month,” she says. “I was that novelty — that Southern girl that uses big words.” That same year, she landed a writing gig on Dolly Parton’s ABC variety show, which lasted only one season.
Meanwhile, another working-class female comedian was getting noticed in Hollywood. “I remember the first time I heard Roseanne [Barr],” says Butler, who by then was on to her second marriage, to Ken Zieger, a contract lawyer and composer (they divorced in 1999). “I was brushing my teeth in another room when I heard her on The Tonight Show. And I came in the living room and told my husband, ‘She just knocked the door down for me.’ ”
Butler moved to Hollywood in 1992 after she was approached by Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, who created Roseanne, to star in her own sitcom. Grace Under Fire would closely hew to the Roseanne template: Both filmed on the same CBS lot in Studio City, and both aired concurrently on ABC. But where Barr — who was “always supportive of me,” notes Butler — mined working-class woes for laughs, Butler went further, finding levity in life’s darkest corners.
“I’ll never forget when we were shooting the pilot in front of a live audience,” she recalls. “And one of the jokes had to do with domestic violence: I said, ‘My husband was cleaning his fist, and it went off.’ When they laughed at that, that answered the question of, ‘Would this fly?’ “
It flew — until it didn’t. Lorre, who created the show, locked horns with Butler from the get-go, arguing over little things like whether Grace should be depicted potty training her youngest child (Butler felt she should not and refused to shoot the scene). “I wanted it to be a love letter to all the single, working moms out there,” Lorre told Playboy in 1995. In the end, he decided “life is too short” and quit the show after the first season. “It should have been a joy,” he said, exasperated and defeated.
The show nonetheless connected with viewers. Premiering in the plum slot after Home Improvement, Grace was the highest-rated new series on TV in its freshman outing, the fifth most-watched show of 1993-94 season. Critics adored Butler: In its review of her show, The New York Times said she “wields her Southern drawl like a lethal stiletto.” The show rose to No. 4 the following year.
By its fourth season — which coincided with Butler’s snowballing addiction — it plunged dramatically to No. 45. It was then that Butler entered her first rehab stint, delaying the fifth-season premiere by several months to November 1997. When she relapsed, missing multiple tapings, ABC decided to pull the plug. The aborted final season finished at No. 68 in ratings. Despite the chaos, Butler still managed to earn two Golden Globe nominations for best performance by an actress in a TV series comedy/musical — in 1995 and 1997.
“I’ll definitely take the hit for the crash and burn,” Butler says, then adds: “I think a lot of missteps go into things before they get to that point on different people’s parts — but I was the star of the show, so I need to take that full-on. I’m awfully guilt-ridden for a gentile girl.”
Butler finally got sober in July 1998 — “I should not have lived through 1998, honestly” — and insists she has not touched drugs or alcohol since. The journey to recovery was an incredibly trying one, and wounds persist. “In sobriety, people make amends,” she says. “And my list was exceptionally long. I called one particular person, and she said, ‘Oh, you want to apologize? Well don’t bother. I forgive you. But there’s something I’ve always wanted to tell you: There’s nothing that special about you.’ I could tell how long she’d been waiting to tell me that. I wanted to blurt out, ‘Yeah, people always go on drug-fueled death rampages because they think they’re really special.’ ”
Butler made about $25 million on Grace Under Fire, a fortune she piddled away on what she refers to as “profligate” spending and financial carelessness. “I was a little bit too trusting with some people that worked for me, and I had a lot of things stolen,” she says. “That’s just stupid on my part, not to have insurance for those things. And to loan and give a lot of money away. I really just felt so guilty for having it — I almost couldn’t get rid of it fast enough.”
As eviscerating as she can be with a one-liner, Butler always has reserved the harshest put-downs for herself. She fully realizes how some people never will sympathize with her situation. “I’m not the only one in this boat,” she says. “Most people that are in it never had the opportunities I did. It doesn’t really lessen my self-loathing or fear about it, but I do realize that.”
Finding post-Grace gigs proved elusive. There was the daytime panel show that never came to fruition (getting co-hosts to work with Butler became an insurmountable challenge) and a close-but-no-cigar reboot of the 1970s detective show McCloud, in which she was set to play the title character. “[Former Viacom president] Doug Herzog was hiring me for that,” she says. “Then someone new who did not care for me took over the network. You’re not going to be everybody’s cup of anything — and I guess that might go double for me.”
During the early 2000s, Butler decided to leave Hollywood — and the looming threat of a relapse — and return to Georgia, where her three sisters (a fourth has died) still live. Her choice of homestead turned out to be less than ideal: “I moved to where the Ku Klux Klan has meth labs, basically. … It was about as grim as [it gets].” It was around that time that she started developing a profound attachment to animals. “At 40, I became one of those crazy ladies that starts to rescue everything — dogs, cats and especially horses,” she says. “Riding them, saving them, brushing them, hanging out with them. I felt like an 11-year-old girl.”
For a while, she had been counting on revenue from a Grace Under Fire DVD deal — what she thought would amount to $1 million total. The deal never transpired. Broke and her farm foreclosed upon, Butler returned to L.A. about 10 years ago to make a go at a comeback, bringing three cats and four dogs (only an elderly Rat Terrier named Kino still survives). “If you’ve ever driven 2,500 miles with a litter box in your truck — that’s a trip,” she says.
Butler has worked since then — and in some high-profile projects. She played an adoptive mother to Aja Naomi King’s character on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder in 2016; appeared on the HBO series The Leftovers; had a recurring role on season nine of AMC’s The Walking Dead; and most recently played the mother of Reese Witherspoon’s character on Apple TV+’s The Morning Show.
Nowadays, her reputation on Hollywood sets is a good one. “Brett came in to read for some FBI agent that was a one-off character,” recalls Leftovers showrunner Damon Lindelof. “She made all these really interesting choices. When an actor is on a show like Grace Under Fire, you don’t really view them as an actor — they’re playing a heightened version of themselves. But in her read, she gave a real performance. She was so good that I was basically like, ‘We’ve got to do something really cool for her.’ ” Lindelof ended up writing her a new, much larger part on the apocalyptic sci-fi series. She played Sandy, the gatekeeper of a tent city in Texas who pays Christopher Eccleston’s character $600 to beat her son with an oar. Says Lindelof, “She came in and crushed it.”
But those infrequent TV appearances do not pay like Grace Under Fire did — not even close. Butler says she earns a bit over a guild minimum, often $5,000 for a one-day shoot. Even her most dependable gig — she filmed 33 episodes of Anger Management — only covered her “cost-of-living” expenses, which includes $2,500 rent for the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her three pets (she won’t name the area but calls it “one of the beige-ist parts of L.A. — where they love Trump but won’t talk about it”) and ongoing care for the 19-year-old mare she left back in Georgia, a Tennessee Walker named Tommie. “It seems silly given the pinch I’m in, but a horse that old could end up being dog food, and I don’t want that to happen,” she says.
It was in 2019, after she had wrapped her work on The Walking Dead and began The Morning Show, that Butler was dealt yet another blow: a bout of depression unlike any she had faced before. “This stuff runs in my family,” she explains. “My dad was an untreated bipolar alcoholic, and stuff first started popping up for me when I was about 50.”
She likens the episode to a “monster that moved into my house.” Among its symptoms were suicidal ideations (“It’s a drag to wake up and go, ‘Oh … Damn. I woke up’ “) and agoraphobia — which almost too conveniently coincided with COVID-19 lockdowns. “The blanket of the pandemic was something I hid behind,” she says. “I let it cover my own insecurities or failings. But it’s time to come out of it.”
The past few years have been an unbelievably rough stretch for Butler. But, as she points out, they’ve been tough for everyone. And while she may be down, she’s not out. As Lindelof puts it, “We love comeback stories in this town.”
A comeback for Butler probably won’t come in the form of another sitcom, talk show or even in a series where she communes with the dearly departed. More likely is a long-delayed return to stand-up. The new routine might unpack how her careerlong preoccupation with finding light in life’s darkest corners had finally caught up with her, until all that remained was the darkness. “I’d need a few months to get it done,” she says of writing such a project. “Yeah, I’d say I could work under a 90-day gun.”
There are signs that the clouds have begun to part. Most notably, Butler recently pulled out a notebook and began jotting down jokes — longhand, as she did in the early days of her career — in anticipation of a return to stand-up. “I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done that,” she says. “I was so grateful. It was like something I did at the beginning, when there was no roof on my dreams.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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