Empty Nest is now on Laff TV! To celebrat
David Leisure played skirt-chasing neighbor Charley Dietz. David talks candidly (and hilariously!) about surviving the show's original pilot, what it was really like working with his costars, and the appropriate attire for dining at Sizzler. Plus, we ask him about Joe Isuzu, too!
Empty Nest Online: You were in the original Empty Nest pilot, which aired as a Golden Girls episode with Rita Moreno and Paul Dooley. Rita has said what an unpleasant experience it was for her. What’s your take?
David: Brandon Tartikoff had been at the helm of NBC for quite some time, and I’d been guest performing on a ton of NBC shows, comedy specials (one hosted by Brandon, Dick van Dyke and me, Mr. Lucky) and a lot of pilots that never saw the light of day. Empty Nest was difficult, because it was a 13-minute insert into a Golden Girls episode. The Golden Girls was number one for Saturday night back then. But trying to flesh out one new character, let alone five, in a new setting is hard enough when you have 26 minutes, let alone 13, so things were a little rough. Jay Sandrich, the director, was unhappy, Bea Arthur was unhappy, but I didn’t notice Rita being anything but gracious.
Paul Dooley was great. Geoffrey Lewis, brilliant character actor, Golden Globe winner, “backbone of this industry” kind of guy and father of Juliette Lewis, was funnier off camera than on because his part was a total gimmick. He played the brother to Paul Dooley's character, and he had a multiple personality disorder, so every time he came back into a room he was someone else. Looks funny on paper, but it didn’t work on its feet. (I have an ex who I swear had the same thing! I only married one of her!) Barbara Barrie, who played Hal Linden’s wife on Barney Miller, her daughter, I believe, played the daughter in the pilot, but I could be wrong. Her character was almost invisible.
I do remember a couple of really funny things. One is that, during the taping, Jay had to come out of the booth, onto the stage, and talk to me personally. He had to tell me to jack my energy down because I was so excited to be working with these people that, on my first entrance, I sort of bounced through the door instead of just walked in. Another was a great line I had that’s actually coming true today. Dooley was on the phone, and I interrupted him (a character trait that continued on) and asked what some spot I had on my face was while I was looking at it with his soup spoon. He said it was a liver spot! I whined back, “Oh no! Not a liver spot! My dad had liver spots! He looked like a Dalmatian!” That line killed!
And, finally, in a scene with Bea Arthur, my character called her Dot instead of Dorothy. After being chastised by her to call her Dorothy, Oliver, that was my character’s name in the pilot, who was too stupid to be intimidated by her, called her Dot again. This wasn’t easy because Bea Arthur herself WAS intimidating, and it was sometimes hard to separate her from her character. (Until she had a couple of drinks in her. Then she’d have me sit in her lap.) The slow-burn look she gave Oliver had a two-and-a-half-minute laugh spread! She frickin’ nailed it! But there was a tagline, and they cut the laugh to like a couple of seconds and used the line that should have been superfluous to the real comedy, which came from Bea herself. But that’s when I learned that you don’t fuck around with Susan Harris’s writing. And that’s a hard argument to win, because she’s so brilliant.
By the way, a lot of people don’t know this, but her son is author Sam Harris, who broke onto the scene with The End Of Faith. I hadn’t realized it either until I was attending a debate he was headlining at UCLA, and there was Susan and Paul Witt in the audience, and I finally put two and two together. I went down to say “hi” to them and gushed about all his success. Paul was funny and said, “Yeah, well, I raised him!”
ENO: When the show was retooled with Richard Mulligan at the helm, was your involvement a given or did you audition all over again?
David: I never thought the show had a chance of being made after that pilot. There didn’t seem to be enough there to warrant it. But go figure. I didn’t have to audition again. I had the job already. Richard had been so popular from his Soap character that we were off and running. That first season, he was nominated for a Golden Globe and won the Emmy for Harry Weston. Everybody was glad to see him back on TV. I was told I was going to be in maybe 13 episodes. I got to do 21. I was in every episode every year after that. I was walking across the set, sometime around the third season, when I finally realized what a lucky bastard I was. They “let go” the entire rest of the original cast and had kept me, the next-door neighbor! Damn lucky.
If you watch the first season, it’s really an “empty nest” to begin with. The daughters both have left home, and Harry’s a widower. After a few months, the writing staff was having such a difficult time coming up with reasons for the girls to “drop in” to see dad, it took up so much time in the script (laying pipe), that they finally had to move them back in the house. So, technically, that nest wasn’t empty anymore.
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