During the ’90s, Brett Butler was a big television star. However, the lead of Golden Globe-nominated sitcom Grace Under Fire had her own demons to fight behind the scenes. Then, eventually, Butler was forced to leave the show – and, sadly, things only got worse for the star from there.
When Butler started on Grace Under Fire, though, she had a lot in common with her character. Like Grace Kelly, Butler had suffered from alcoholism; she had also spent time at the hands of an abusive husband. However, at the time that the star was cast in the ABC series, she had not had a drink for seven years.
Butler had also grown up seeing her alcoholic father physically abuse her mother; eventually, her mom took young Brett and her sisters and left him behind. Yet, things still weren’t easy: the family lived in poverty for a long time, for one. Furthermore, Butler’s mother suffered from depression, and often the children would have nothing to eat. As a teenager, Butler also started smoking pot and drinking.
But Butler eventually turned to humor for escapism. And she proved to be good at it, too, even if her abusive first marriage made things all the more difficult for her. After Butler’s husband fired a gun at her, though, she fled from him. Then she went to live with her mother in Houston and began working as a waitress in a comedy club. What’s more, Butler liked watching the routines performed so much that she decided to embark on an act of her own.
Consequently, Butler began performing onstage as “The Funny Waitress” – and she loved it. In fact, she felt like she had found her true calling in life, and she decided to get clean to pursue it, gradually weaning herself off marijuana and alcohol. Then Butler began doing her stand-up routine on the Manhattan circuit, and the act proved to be a success. She also married for a second time, to lawyer and composer Ken Zeiger.
In 1992, however, producers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey suggested to Butler that she should have her own sitcom. At that time, shows that were centered around single comedians and borrowed elements from their lives proved to be popular. Thus, Grace Under Fire was commissioned, and the show instantly became a huge hit for the ABC network.
Butler had been on TV before: she had worked on Dolly Parton’s short-lived show Dolly. Grace Under Fire made her a star, however, and the actress wasn’t happy in the spotlight. “Fame is such the opposite of what I’m trying to learn,” she told CNN in May 1996.
As the next few years progressed, though, more and more disturbing reports came from the Grace Under Fire set. First there was a rumor that Butler had flashed her breasts at Jon Paul Steuer, the 12-year-old boy who played her son on the show. Steuer was subsequently replaced with an older actor. Then Julie White quit, with sources suggesting to magazines that it was because of Butler’s behavior. Apparently, Butler was becoming more and more erratic.
At that time, Butler was addicted to drugs – painkillers, to be exact. Furthermore, that substance abuse was apparently taking a colossal toll on her and everyone around her. And while in October 1996 Butler received treatment in rehab, it seemingly had little effect – as by the next year, she was back there again. She was also costing ABC both time and money, which the network found unacceptable.
Then, when Butler appeared on The Drew Carey Show, her backstage behavior was allegedly so appalling that the crew were given “I Survived Brett” T-shirts as a present. Things were getting bad, especially since every on-set incident was reported on by the press. So, in 1998 ABC decided to cut its losses and cancel the show. As a consequence, Butler was out of a job.
That wasn’t all for Butler. Her husband left her, too, and she came close to dying from her addiction. And while by 1999 she was starting to give interviews to the media again, they were mostly full of apologies. “I lost a lot and created a great deal of wreckage and don’t have anybody to blame for myself,” she told Entertainment Tonight that year.
Unfortunately, things were soon to get even worse for the star. In 2011, after staying under the radar for a while, news hit that Butler had been living in a homeless shelter. All her riches were gone, and she was full of regret. Entertainment Tonight interviewed her. “I don’t think about what I survived,” she said. “I hope I forgive, I hope I’m forgiven.”
But Butler was keen to get herself back on her feet. She was thinking of making a reality show about herself as a psychic, as she believed she had the gift. And she was still performing comedy shows in LA. “The kids are coming up and going, ‘Are you still doing this?’ I think it’s something to do with me living through it,” she said.
Gradually, though, things started to improve for Butler. In 2012, for instance, she began starring as a bartender – also called Brett – in the Charlie Sheen show Anger Management. Then, the following year, the actress gave an interview to The New York Times about how she was getting on; there, she discussed how terrible it had been losing so much.
Butler told the newspaper, “I lost my husband, my job, the respect of people I admire greatly, everything. But I still didn’t sober up for another six months. The closeness that I came to dying was really remarkable.” Her reputation, too, had been lost to her. Butler explained, “I would meet people I’d never met before, and they’d say, ‘I hear you’re a monster.’”
In addition, Butler told the publication that she didn’t want to discuss what had caused her to become homeless. She only revealed, “It was totally my fault.” The star did however say that she believed that depression was the key thing responsible for her addiction and subsequent downfall. The mental health issue ran in her family, and she had inherited it.
Butler explained, “I tend to think of alcoholism and depression as an illness in someone else and a moral failing in myself.” She continued, “I didn’t realize until about two years into it how depressed I was. I took a quiz online and, basically, when I finished it, it said, ‘Go to the hospital.’ For a smart woman, I was really slow to pick up on it.” Consequently, she began taking antidepressants.
And while Butler’s journey to sobriety was certainly not an easy one, being offered the role in Anger Management apparently helped a lot. “I’m just trying to show up and be a good worker,” Butler said to The New York Times. “It does feel a little bit like being on probation, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m grateful just for the shot.”
As it turned out, Butler had plenty of reasons to be grateful, as more work arrived for her after her stint in Anger Management. Starting in 2015, she appeared in two episodes of The Leftovers. Then, in 2016 the star showed up in three episodes of the acclaimed Viola Davis-led drama series How to Get Away with Murder – meaning that she was back on ABC again.
What’s more, Butler’s How to Get Away with Murder co-star Aja Naomi King described Butler in glowing terms in a 2016 interview with Yahoo. King said, “She is hilarious. She’s really funny and just so nice.” The one-time Grace Under Fire star has clearly come a very long way, then – and, hopefully, her comeback is only just beginning.