Empty Nest is now on Laff TV! To celebrat
ENO: And speaking of actors, what can you tell me about working with the cast?
Doug: It was a blast. What can you say about Richard Mulligan? Just an amazing talent. When I was directing, I would tell him, "Richard, my job is to say 'action' and stay out of your way, and you make me look brilliant," because he had such talent and great instincts. And he was an amazingly generous actor. He understood the television process and the camera process. Sometimes a guest actor would miss their mark, and Richard would adjust his position around them to ensure they were covered on camera. He was just amazing.
And Dinah Manoff. I love Dinah Manoff. She is just an amazingly talented actress, and an excellent director. I loved AD-ing for her. Park Overall was at the same time just an absolute hoot and a pain in the butt, but the kind of pain in the butt that you don't mind putting up with. She's snappy, outspoken, brash and drop-dead funny. Marsha Warfield, again, a dry humor but very funny and talented and good at what she does.
Kristy McNichol, we loved her. We just absolutely loved her. Her nickname on the set was "Skippy." She had studied cosmetology at one point in time, and sometimes if my hair needed a trim she would take me into the prop room, sit me down and cut my hair. She is a wonderful, warm, funny and caring person.
Estelle Getty, what can you say about Estelle? She was four-foot-two of funny. We would tease her mercilessly and give her all kinds of grief over her stature in The Golden Girls. We didn't cut her any slack at all when she joined the cast. And David Leisure and I actually went to school together, but we didn't know each other when we were in school at San Diego State at the same time. I was in film and television and he was in the theatre department, and we didn't find out until much later that we were there at the same time. He is such a funny, goofy guy that you just enjoy being around.
And Bear was a 100-pound dog that thought he was a lap dog. He'd start with one paw on your lap, then put another paw on your lap, and by the end he'd have his whole body on your lap. He was the sweetest dog I've ever worked with.
ENO: Let's talk about season five, which was when the show was really sort of forced into a new direction with the departure of Kristy McNichol. What was the atmosphere like on set at that time?
Doug: It was a family in crisis. I want to be careful here not to infringe on Kristy's privacy, but I think she felt like she was in a lose-lose situation that didn't have anything to do with the show or her role in it. There were things going on in her life that were really weighing her down. It was a tremendously difficult choice for her to make, but she felt that to keep her head above water she needed to take a break from everything. And because we cared so much about her, we totally understood. We weren't thrilled that she was leaving, but we were more concerned with her wellbeing than with what we were going to do without her.
ENO: And at that point, the character of Emily, the youngest daughter, was introduced.
Doug: Yes, we had the character of Emily from the very beginning, but she was never seen, kind of like Norm's wife Vera on Cheers or Carlton the doorman on Rhoda: a character that was never seen but was there. So the producers decided that, owing to Kristy's absence, perhaps it was time to materialize this third daughter, Emily, played by Lisa Rieffel. Lisa was a very sweet and talented young lady, and it was a difficult situation to place her in, because I think the audience really grieved Kristy's absence. They had seen Kristy grow up on Family and she was sort of like America's sweetheart, so when she wasn't there the audience grieved her absence. So Lisa was put in a very tough situation, but she was a complete professional who did everything that was asked of her and more. So it was a tough, sort of strange season.
ENO: I've always thought, though, that season five was a really well written season as a whole.
Doug: [Laughing] Well, it had to be.
ENO: So, with season six, there were more changes, with Marsha and Estelle coming on, and I understand that Park was looking to leave as well, correct?
Doug: I don't have firsthand knowledge, but I think Park was up for a film role that she thought she'd be able to shoot during her summer hiatus, but somehow the film’s schedule shifted and suddenly clashed with her Empty Nest shooting schedule. The producers felt that they couldn't let her go for the number of episodes she would've needed to be gone, and as a result, Park wasn't a happy camper. I don't know if the decision to add Marsha to the show grew out of the thing with Park or if they just decided after five years to bring some fresh life into it. That often happens on a show around season four or five. For example, Richard had been playing a pediatrician, and I think the writers felt like they had run out of stories to tell about him dealing with children, so they moved him to the clinic. It gave him different kinds of patients and different kinds of problems to deal with. So I'm not sure what the circumstances were that led to Marsha's arrival, but we were sure glad she was there.
ENO: Tell me about what you've been doing since the show ended.
Doug: It was during the production of Empty Nest that I felt called to teaching. So while I worked on the show during the week, I got my master's degree in education on the weekends. When the show ended in 1995, I told my family that I wasn't going to look for another job in television. I was going to look for a teaching job. I taught a while locally and ended up at Southern Illinois University in 1997. They had a PBS station on campus. I put together a student production company, and we developed an entertainment program called Studio A Presents. We produced 100 episodes over five years, it got nominated for four Emmys and won two, and then I went off to teach at State University of New York in upstate New York for four years. Then I got a call from Asbury University, and they said they wanted to offer a class in sitcom production and actually produce a live, multi-camera, original sitcom. So we are now in our eighth season of our original TV sitcom called Friends Like You. We do the show in front of an audience just like we did on Empty Nest. And just last year I won an Emmy for directing it. So life is good. Here I am in my sixties and I can finally refer to myself as an Emmy award-winning TV sitcom director. Go figure!
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