In 2000, writer/producer Allison Gibson had an idea for a television sitcom which was set in Houston, Texas. The lead character, Sally, was a wisecracking single mother of three children, each of whom had various emotional issues. Sally’s husband had left her for another woman who, because of their connection to the same man, considered Sally to be her best friend, but Sally considered the other woman to be her nemesis. This odd combination of characters and situations produced hilarious comedic mayhem.
The lead character was named Sally because Allison wrote the part with a specific actress in mind. This Sally had won a host of awards for her acting including two Academy Awards. Her career in television began in 1965 with a comedy called Gidget followed by The Flying Nun two years later. She had been in a slew of blockbuster films including Smokey and the Bandit, Steel Magnolias, and Forrest Gump. This Sally, Sally Field, was not interested in the sitcom and turned it down. Allison needed a new Sally.
As luck would have it, Nell was shopping around for a sitcom to star in. Nell began performing as a child in a singing group with her siblings. She had planned to become an elementary school teacher, but the trajectory of her life was forever changed when she sang the Star-Spangled Banner at a rodeo in Kentucky. Her short performance led to a singing and acting career which has lasted four decades so far. Nell played a variety of roles in movies and television from a gun-toting tough woman who helped defend her town from creatures living underground to Colonel Sanders in a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial in which she wore the full goatee, white hair, and signature suit.
Nell was set to play “Sally,” the title role in the show. That was the plan until the very last moment. The production crew filmed the pilot twice in front of two different live studio audiences, one in the afternoon and another in the evening. In the afternoon show, Nell’s character’s name was Sally. In the evening show, Sally’s name was replaced with Nell’s real first name. Everyone involved in the creation of the show paid close attention to both audiences to gauge their reactions.
After filming both pilots, it was clear that the audience responded more when the name Sally was replaced with Nell’s real first name. Their reaction was such that the name of the show was changed again. The show was a huge success and ran from 2001 to 2007. Based on the audience’s reaction, the show, originally called Sally, then Deep in the Heart, was renamed again with the first name of its star, Reba McEntire.
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