Delta Burke

Active - 1978 - 2008  |   Born - Jul 30, 1956 in Orlando, Florida, United States  |   Genres - Comedy, Drama

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Biography by Nathan Southern

In terms of public recognition, the unabashedly voluptuous, raven-haired American actress Delta Burke will ere be tied to her role as Suzanne Sugarbaker, one of the two main proprietors of the Sugarbakers interior design firm, on the blockbuster CBS sitcom Designing Women (a role she carried from 1986-1991). But those who have followed Burke's career diligently know that her experience extends to dozens of additional series roles and telemovies, making her a veritable queen of prime time. Burke claims an enduring off-camera impact on the American fashion world as well, and is a best-selling author.

Born in Orlando, FL, on July 30, 1956, Burke never met her biological father; she was raised by her single mother, Jean, and an adoptive dad, Frederick Burke -- an Orlando-area realtor. With an irrepressible beauty and the graciousness and charm of a southern debutante, Burke began working her way up through the pageant circuit, ascending from the Orlando Fire Department's "Miss Flame" contest to that of Miss Florida to the 1974 Miss America pageant -- which she promptly lost by failing to even make the top ten (an event that Burke later regarded as an enormous blessing in disguise). While celebrating her 20th birthday alone at a St. Augustine, FL, motel, a stalker assaulted her.

The cumulative impact of this turmoil drove Burke to England, where she put herself through the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (via her pageant winnings) and trained as an actress. When she finally returned to the United States, Burke soon secured an agent, and landed parts in now-forgotten telemovies during the late '70s and very early '80s. The turns began inconspicuously, with a bit role in the Suzanne Somers made-for-TV movie Zuma Beach, but in 1979, Burke shot up to instant first billing, heavily typecast as a Scarlett O'Hara-like "Southern belle" in the made-for-television feature Charleston. Unfortunately, the picture aired to devastating reviews and disappointing ratings.

Near the end of her three-season run as the star of the long-running HBO sitcom 1st & Ten from 1984-1987 (a Wildcats-like comedy with Burke as Diane Barrow, the owner of an NFL football team), Burke signed with producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason for the Sugarbaker role. Designing Women cast Burke, Dixie Carter, Jean Smart, and Annie Potts as the aforementioned Atlanta-area interior designers with a distinctly Southern flair. After debuting on September 29, 1986, the program bowed to sensational critical reviews and viewer raves. After flirting with ratings doom, the network ultimately gave the show a permanent slot in its Monday-evening schedule -- one that lasted until late May 1993.

Burke's weight fluctuation generated an enormous amount of tabloid fodder, and created friction between her and the Thomasons, which ultimately led to Burke's termination at the end of the 1991 season. Not one to be daunted, the actress attempted to rebound with a 1992 ABC sitcom, Delta, that cast her as a country singer striving for elusive stardom. Yet this program (developed and produced through Burke's production company) failed to connect with a sizeable audience, and folded within one year.

After a few starring roles in telemovies Burke landed a tremendous amount of off-camera success by manufacturing and marketing a line of plus-size clothes through her own clothing firm, Delta Burke Designs. Burke also authored and published a best-selling autobiography, Delta Style, in 1998.

In the new millenium, the TV queen began to appear in her first big-screen features. She appeared in the Mel Gibson romantic comedy-fantasy What Women Want and voiced a pooch in the 2003 family comedy Good Boy!. The comedic melodrama Sordid Lives found her appearing in a long-running indie success. In 2006, she also returned to series television, in a temporary role as Bella Horowitz, on David E. Kelley's comedy drama Boston Legal. In 2008 she had a major role in the made-for-cable romantic comedy Bridal Fever.

Off-camera, Burke famously married to Simon & Simon and Major Dad star (and fellow Southerner) Gerald McRaney in 1989.

Movie Highlights

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  • Was voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school.
  • Was awarded 18 pageant titles by the time she was 17; was crowned Miss Florida in 1974; competed in the Miss America pageant that same year.
  • Met husband, actor Gerald McRaney, on the set of her series Designing Women; he guest starred as one of her numerous ex-husbands. 
  • Created Delta Burke Design, a fashion line for plus-size women.
  • Penned an autobiography, Delta Style: Eve Wasn't a Size 6 and Neither Am I, in 1998.
  • Made her Broadway debut in 2004 as villainess Miss Mears in the musical comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie.
  • In 2008, opened up to the press about her longtime battle with depression.