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 TV: You were in the original Empty Nestpilot, 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 Nestwas 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!”
ENTV: 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.
ENTV: Charley was the classic “wacky neighbor” character and a great foil for Carol. How would you describe him, and how was he to play?
David: When I came back to work, my actor’s ego took a shot in the behind because my character changed from a test pilot in a leather jacket to an idiot who wore white Bermuda shorts, knee socks and worked on a cruise ship. I had become “Gopher” from The Love Boat. But, let’s face it, they were writing to my acting range: lying, smarmy car salesman and obnoxious, mooching neighbor. I didn’t have to work too hard to get there. I got to barge into the kitchen, lay a couple of zingers down, get some laughs and get kicked out by Harry. It was a great character that was pretty much the real me. I’d usually have two or three scenes a week. Richard used to kid me that I was the highest paid “under five” (five lines or less) in the business. Ha ha ha, he was right! I figured out that one week (Garth Brooks week) I made money by the word. I think Park exaggerated that to $10,000 a word, but it was really only $2,500.
Richard worked hard. “You bastard,” he’d say to me, “I’ve got to carry this show on my back, memorize 40 pages, and you waltz in with your silver bullets that I set up and get laughs?” He was joking, of course, but he was right. He worked his ass off. He used the dining room table on the set as his workplace. He was always there, the captain of our ship. I learned a lot about being a professional from Richard. And he was smart! One time on the show, Charley was being kept by an older, rich woman that today you’d call a cougar/MILF. Harry has a scene with Charley where he tells him to just stop seeing her, that it’s not right and to give everything back. Basically, the writers were going for a visual gag where I take off all the clothes she gave me, and I’m left standing there in only my boxers and a pinky ring: “And give back the ring, too.” But it didn’t make any sense. This is what Charley has lived for all his life, free everything, and it wasn’t working in rehearsals.
Richard took me aside and fixed it in about a minute without rewriting a thing but switching the lines around. Pure genius. At notes, when the writers and actors go back and forth about what is and isn’t working, Richard starts talking about this scene and dances all around, telling the writers we have a problem because of this and that. I’m sitting there wondering why he just doesn’t tell them the fix he came up with. Then I finally get it. He’s so considerate and intelligent! He’s trying to get the writers to come up with it themselves and write it. They have egos, too. They got pretty close, but it wasn’t as good as what he came up with. But what a guy, huh?
ENTV: Dinah Manoff said the episode where Carol and Charley sleep together is one of her favorites. What are some of yours?
David: That show where we sleep together was almost impossible to do. Dinah and I are such pals and loved being bitchy to each other on the show in character. We had to kiss. You know, it’s that moment when you stare into each other’s eyes and slowly come together, stop, then go in for the kiss. We couldn’t get through it in rehearsals because we kept cracking up. It was like incest. And in front of a live audience that knows the show and the characters, they went crazy, and we’d crack up again, which just makes the audience go crazier. I think Dinah finally said, “Fuck it. Let’s make out.” And we just kissed between takes in front of the audience for two straight minutes, so everybody could get used to it for the scene. She’s pretty smart. That’s two things; pretty and smart.
“The Fracas in Vegas” was a fun episode, written by David Richardson. He wrote a lot of great episodes, and I’m not just saying that because we’re friends and I owe him money. “Overboard” was fun. I got to wear one of my gazillion different costumes. I think I was a guru in that one. I was a one-legged pirate with a parrot on my shoulder in another show. I was always in some sort of weird costume. Once I was walking across the stage wearing a killer whale costume and our warm-up guy, Michael Burger (who was brilliant, by the way), asked me if I’d answer questions from the audience. My face came out of the whale’s mouth, and it had these two rubbery arms that bounced every time I turned my head to talk. So now I get asked by an audience member how, as an actor, I prepare for each week’s show. I have a plaque that Doug Smart gave me with the answer: “If I was a better actor, I wouldn’t have to wear these fucking costumes!”
“Brotherly Shove” was another one I couldn’t stop cracking up in. Peter Scolari played my brother, Deiter Dietz. One of those chemistry things, I guess. Years later, I guest starred on his show Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, and the same thing happened.
ENTV: Tell me about working with your castmates.
David: Dreyfuss was a big pain in the ass, because he couldn’t remember his lines. We had a photo shoot for his birthday once where I had to hold his chin up with one hand and hold a giant piece of birthday cake in front of him. The cake was made of hamburger. The drool from Bear’s mouth was cascading down my arm and pooling up on the floor. They finally had to get a mop and then a bucket. I took a shower afterwards with Mr. Clean. Hmmm, that came out kinda weird, didn’t it?
Estelle Getty didn’t drool as bad as Dreyfuss, but she was pretty bad with lines. She made that part of her character, and it worked. If you ever watch The Golden Girls or Empty Nest, watch how she nails a joke. She turns downstage, towards the camera, and delivers a punch line. She does that because that’s where the cue cards were with her lines written on them. And what’s weird is that, at the table read, she would be perfect. As the week progressed, she’d lose a little something. By tape night, she couldn’t remember a thing. Oh well, it happens to us all. Now days, I have to look at my driver’s license to remember where I live. And it’s an old license, so I end up in somebody else’s house.
Marsha Warfield and I had a connection way before Empty Nest. I’m not sure if it was an NBC connection, because she was on Night Court taking over for all the other actresses who had died in the same part. But she and I had worked together and appeared together a couple of times. Her comedy was much more than her just being droll. She had her own talk show in the early 90s and had me on with M.C. Hammer. Being the quintessential tight-assed white guy that I am, I had no idea who he was. Marsha is funny, fast and cuts deep. I can say that more than once I found myself laughing in a pool of my own blood.
Lisa Rieffel was a great kid. She had the impossible job of becoming the third sister after Kristy McNichol left the show. She was very good, but it didn’t work out. When her band, Killola, was in L.A., I went with my daughter to see her perform, met her after, and we caught up. She was totally punked out!
I’d like to catch up with Paul Provenza someday, too. After he was on our show, and we closed down, he went to Northern Exposure and shut that show down, too. If you have a show you’re trying to get rid of, Better Call Paul! He produced the movie The Aristocratsabout the dirtiest joke in the world that everybody knows but you can’t tell except in private. I went to see it at a theater, and I guess a lot of people thought it was going to be like a Disney film or something because, by the end of the film, there were only 10 of us left, ha ha ha!
Park Overall had a thing about jokes involving Southern culture or the image that there is nothing but rednecks. Lines like “chiggers on a mountain woman” drove her nuts. Of course, even she would admit it’s a short drive for her to “nuts.” (Love you, Park!) But she made even that low-hanging fruit work, because she’s a good actress. What I mean to say is that she’s a good actress for someone from Tennessee. (Love you, Park!)
Kristy McNichol had the best instincts. Unlike myself, who made a meal out of every line, she did more with less. She was winning Emmys at 8 when I was waiting on tables at 30. One time, we had a guest director who was watching her performance on stage. After the scene, he got in her face and said she missed all the comic beats. She asked him where he was watching from, and he said, “Right in front of you.” She told him to go look at the monitor replay and see what comic beats are missing there. She was right on! They were all there for the camera. When she had to leave the show, the chemistry got unbalanced. Seriously, look at what they did to try and fix it. They brought in Paul Provenza, Marsha Warfield, Lisa Rieffel and Estelle Getty, all great actors, to fill that gap. When she came back for the last two shows, she slipped into that role so seamlessly that it was like she’d never been gone. There was a lull in the taping on the final day, everything was dead quiet on stage, and Victor, one of our great prop masters, accidentally verbalized what everyone had been thinking: “So, Kristy…where you been?” There was this uncomfortable moment then everybody started giggling. That turned into sweet tears.
Richard Mulligan was true to his character, Harry Weston, for seven seasons, even though every once in a while the writers would try to get him to be Burt from Soapagain. He wouldn’t do it. Only once did he do it. In the last season, they ran out of ideas all the time, and we were getting last-second script rewrites constantly. One show, we were two minutes short, and even after the last set of rewrites we were still two minutes short. Richard said, “Okay! You guys have been trying to get me to do this for years. I’ll fill your two minutes at the top of the show, and you don’t need to write anything. Just roll the cameras.” So for two minutes, Richard did a Chaplinesque silent version of Burt from Soap making coffee and toast. It was the funniest thing on the show. He was incredible.
Dinah Manoff. What did Dorothy say to the Scarecrow? “I think I’ll miss you most of all.” Love her so much! Which is funny because that first season I thought she was a total bitch, and she was driving everybody crazy. And I told her so. And she replied, very calm and matter-of-factly, back to me, “Well, thank you for that information and for telling me. But would you mind calling me Dinah and not Dianna because that’s my name.” And there was a silent but implied “DUMBASS” at the end of her sentence. Been in love with her ever since. Unlike me, Dianna, sorry, I mean Dinah, has an acting pedigree. She’s been in some great films. Films I paid to see. So when I thought she was working way too hard to make things in the show make sense, it’s because she’s really an actor doing what good actors do. Unlike me, who just makes things bigger, louder and more like F Troop. But sitcom is a different animal. There just isn’t enough time ever. In the first season, Dianna, sorry, I mean Dinah, had given herself so much business she couldn’t get everything timed out right. After about three blown takes, and this is in front of a live audience, she put her head down on the counter and said, “I’m so sorry. I just wanted to do this so badly!” Hal Cooper, our producer and director at the time, came over the loud speaker like the voice of God and said for all to hear, “Well, so far you have.” That broke the tension, and the next take was perfect because she could laugh at herself. What a pro! Love me some Dinah!
ENTV: Any other behind-the-scenes stories to share?
David: Witt/Thomas/Harris, back in the 80s and 90s, was a juggernaut of TV production. We’re talking about when there were only three networks, not like today. So if you were on TV, it was pretty cool. It was like the old studio days of MGM and Warner Bros. Going to work for me was a treat. I’d grown up watching old movies and as a latchkey kid, so TV was my babysitter. The studio at Ren-Mar always had eight to 10 shows working at the same time, and I’d get to work with people I’d grown up with watching TV.
Paul Witt was one of the nicest “producers” you could ever ask for. But he did have a hard time remembering which of the 50 shows he produced you were on. And who could blame him? One of the actresses on It’s A Living was playing pregnant on the show. Seeing her on set, he congratulated her on her pregnancy. Everybody thought he was kidding until he sent her baby gifts. After Nurses got cancelled, I ran into him at a friend’s and co-producer’s wedding. We chatted for a moment, and he looked at me with empathy and asked, “So, how are you doing?” I said, “Hey, everything is great. The show is great, too.” I watched him roll through his mental Rolodex until he landed on David Leisure and not David Rasche. “Well, of course you are,” he said with a rye smile, trying to recoup.
I read where Park talked about Bea Arthur’s gum chewing phobia, which was true. She had radar that extended out about 100 feet and would walk over to you to have you spit it out. Also that she hated Betty White, which was true, because she felt that Betty was an actor/whore that would take any job, which is also true. But hell, Betty’s still working, and she’s 95!
Bea prided herself on never, and I mean never, blowing lines, no matter who else did. There’s a story that once Estelle kept blowing a line, which happened all the time, but both Rue McClanahan and Bea would do theirs right. Then Rue started blowing her line, and Bea was trying to keep it together. Finally, Bea started blowing her lines. It’s catching, you know? Anyway, Bea said, after blowing it two or three times after everyone else had, “This is going fucking terrible!” right in front of the audience. Betty, who wasn’t in the scene, stuck her head out through some doorway and said to the audience, “Well, I think it’s going very well, don’t you?” The audience started screaming with laughter. But Bea wasn’t laughing. Story goes that she went backstage and was going to kill Betty, and they had to hold her back. Anyway, that’s the story.
I had a dressing room next to Loni Anderson, who at that time was getting divorced from Burt Reynolds. I was getting divorced from one of the women I had married. And Richard was getting divorced from a really, really bad “What was I thinking?!” marriage. All three at the same time. We’d all meet in one another’s dressing rooms and have therapy disses about what jerks our spouses were.
ENTV: So what are you up to these days?
David: I am 99.99% retired. Actors don’t actually retire, the phone just stops ringing, but what else are you going to say? I live on a mountain at 8,000 ft. in Park City, Utah, where I can walk to go ski in the winter, or hike, go fly-fishing or play golf in the summer. Not too bad, eh? I still do some voiceover work, and there’s always charities who need a free M.C., which I’ve done about a billion of. I turn 65 this year, and Richard passed away at 67, so I’m going to enjoy what’s left on the end of my tape measure of life. I have an actor pal who says that if you look at your life like it is a tape measure, you’ll have so many on one side and so many left to go. I’ve got 65 inches on the “been there already” side, and if I’m lucky, 20 good inches to go. And by good I mean active and vibrant, before I’m in a diaper with a cat in my lap or going to Sizzler in a walker with an oxygen tank and a nose bib. By the way, a green oxygen tank and a walker is the dress code for both Sizzler and the Home Town Buffet.
ENTV: Finally, while it isn’t Empty Nest related, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your other iconic character, Joe Isuzu. How much fun was he to play? I loved the spoof endorsement campaign for Mitt Romney a few years ago.
David: This happens once about every 10 years or so to an actor. Look at Stephanie Courtney, for instance. Who, you ask? Flo, from the Progressive commercials. She’s really good. Member of The Groundlings improv company.
When I auditioned for the part, they were looking to ape Jon Lovitz from SNL. But his character was based on thinking up a lie. You only have 21 seconds in a commercial to get whatever it is you want to say out, and it wasn’t working for the casting people. So I just smiled and talked and apparently made it work because I’m just so damn sincere. I was having a very successful commercial career, but this really put me over the top. It also ended my commercial career because I was so identified with the product, I became Joe Isuzu! No one prepares you for a loss of anonymity. It took me a while to be gracious to people that only wanted to show me that they liked me by, out of nowhere, walking up to me and telling me a lie. At first I just thought, “Who is this crazy person, and what the hell are they talking about?” It was just that it happened so fast, being recognized. Anyway, it opened a lot of doors for me, especially Empty Nest, and I am very fortunate. I’m the luckiest guy from El Cajon, California.