Televisionary: Indeed she was, Francis. Bad enough to get her hit show cancelled after producers couldn't tolerate her tantrums, abuse and assorted acting out any longer.
However, it's not like ABC execs, and producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, didn't know what they were getting into when they signed the tart-tongued southerner to star in Grace Under Fire, a comedy about a divorced mother of three trying to make ends meet by working at an oil refinery after leaving her marriage to an abusive husband (a setup that drew from Butler's own life).
"There is a strong feeling at the network that they need to keep a lid on this one," an ABC insider told TV Guide shortly after the show's September 1993 debut. "The word is that Brett is a Roseanne in the making. They're terrified of creating a monster."
Butler wasn't a monster at first, but she was certainly somebody who understood that she had power and wasn't afraid to let people know it before Grace even launched. "Brett was on the set the other day and hated the script," another unnamed ABC exec said. "She said, 'I can't wait for this show to be a hit because there are going to be some changes made.' She's acting like she's got a 40 share already and her show isn't even on the air."
Not at that time, maybe, but with a cushy timeslot after the smash hit Home Improvement, it was number five in the Nielsens after its first season (just behind Roseanne, actually). By the end of season two, it was number four, behind Seinfeld, ER and the aforementioned Improvement.
By then, Butler had already forced out Grace creator Chuck Lorre (Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men), who was replaced in June 1994. He, too, predicted it from the very beginning he was a realist after putting in two seasons on Roseanne before Grace and though he tried to be diplomatic in the early days when discussing forecasts of Butler's coming storms, he didn't exactly sugarcoat the situation, either. "Once a show is established, America buys the personalities and the characters," he said. "They don't care who writes the show. You're totally expendable. Brett wants to write some scripts, so that'll be an interesting experience. And then six to 12 months down the road, she'll fire me and take over the show."
By 1995, tabloid papers and TV shows were running all sorts of tales of Butler's backstage antics. One print story had her browbeating her writers, firing 13 of the 17 and prompting the remaining four to go job hunting. "We have nine writers!" the star said, protesting what she said were merely vicious rumors. "One got fired earlier in the season. The rest are all upstairs right now."
"I have been dragged up and down the street all year," Butler added. "When you see your trash all over the street, you know people have gone through your garbage. You get blackmail threats from tabloids."
And some of the shots were more personal than professional. "I have a sister who talked to Hard Copy," she said. "I didn't watch it; it was demolishing. She made it perfectly clear that they offered her a great deal of money if she would say things about me. She wants what she thinks I have. It's been a struggle. I feel disappointed and betrayed."
But the stories of Hurricane Brett continued. She was addicted to painkillers. Reportedly, she flashed people on the set, and even exposed herself to 12-year-old actor Jon Paul Steuer (he left the cast shortly afterward). "It was just daily fits of temper," second-season executive producer Marc Flanagan said of his time on board. "One minute she would be happy, and the next she'd read an item [about herself] in the newspaper and it would be impossible to get her out of her trailer. Every day I would come to work and my hands would start to shake."
In January 1998, Butler's bad behavior culminated in her throwing a half-filled can of soda at Tom Straw, the latest of her executive producers, and cursing him out in front of a studio audience. That was it for Carsey and Werner, who'd kept the show going as long as possible they pulled the plug and shut production down five days later.
It's worth noting that nobody ever questioned Butler's talent or ambition. She had the stuff and, having survived a tough childhood and first marriage, was said to be a decent person underneath it all. But her demons got the best of her and a Hollywood machine willing to take a lot from the star of a successful series finally threw up its hands (after, I should point out, the show declined in the ratings).
And it was Lorre who, while still working on Grace, most successfully summed the situation up. "In the negative sense, doing a show like this is like building a Frankenstein monster," he said in 1993. "Once you put the electricity into those bolts on the neck, it's up and running and it can turn around and kill you."
Well, maybe not kill. But it helps to duck just the same.