Tony award-winner Dinah Manoff played the endearingly neurotic Carol Weston. In this interview, Dinah discusses her favorite episodes, what it was like to direct the show, where she thinks Carol would be today…and confirms once and for all that Bea Arthur was not a fan of chewing gum!
Empty Nest TV: You had a history with Witt Thomas Harris Productions, and Richard Mulligan, having worked on Soap years earlier. Did that impact your involvement in Empty Nest?
Dinah: Yes. At first, they were nervous about casting me in the part. They weren’t sure I would be able to sustain what could and did turn out to be a seven-year run. Jay Sandrich, the director, had a talk with me after my audition, before testing for the network. He wanted to be sure that I understood the discipline and commitment it would take. They had worked with me when I was much younger, and I had a tendency to be confrontational. Jay was also concerned that I would get bored or frustrated with the material once Susan Harris was no longer writing the show. I reassured him and producers Paul Witt and Tony Thomas that I would be at all times professional, that I had grown up and was ready to settle into a series.
ENTV: I always thought Carol, perhaps more than any other character, had a rich evolution over the course of the series. How would you describe her, and what was it like to play her?
Dinah: I loved Carol. She was so deliciously and comically screwed up. She had all my insecurities times 100, and I could mine my own neurosis in a creative instead of destructive way. Carol was relatable to any woman who had been the best friend of the pretty girl. In this case, the sister of the pretty girl. Carol’s unattractiveness was all in her head. She saw herself as fat and ugly even though she was adorable. It made her a perfect victim for Charley’s barbs, because she was so sensitive. Carol really came out of Susan Harris’s own insecurities. I would disagree with you, though, about an evolution during the series. I think she became far less dimensional in the last couple of years.
ENTV: Tell me about working with the cast, especially Richard Mulligan and Kristy McNichol. You and Kristy had such great chemistry. I’ve heard you say in other interviews that, when she left, half your act left.
Dinah: Kristy’s and my characters were developed to play off one another. Barbara was confident; Carol insecure. Barbara got the hot guys. Carol picked losers. There was great comedy in our competition for our father’s attention, in our irritations with one another. We were like the odd couple. It was never the same after she left. I loved acting with Kris. We were first-rate sparring partners, and we genuinely loved and respected one another’s talent.
Richard was the maypole around which we and all the characters revolved. He was immeasurably talented and gracious. And though he was wickedly funny, acting with Richard was serious business. He expected a very high standard of professionalism on and off the set. I miss him.
David Leisure and I always had a blast working together. One of my fondest memories is of the episode where Charley and Carol sleep together. We are still great friends.
ENTV: Do you have any episodes that stand out as favorites?
Dinah: Gosh, I have the worst memory! I would have to go back and look at them. All the episodes where Kris and I were fighting were my favorites, for sure. And that aforementioned episode with David. There was also an episode with a very young, cute actor named Brian Bloom, who my character was tutoring and who, in the script, comes on to her. I’m not sure if it was my favorite episode, but I do remember having a very flirtatious and fun week filming, and I know that Carol had an extremely good time.
ENTV: Your mother, Oscar award-winner Lee Grant, appeared in an episode, which I think was the first time you’d worked together on screen. How was that experience?
Dinah: Well, unfortunately, it was not a great experience, and it wasn’t one of our better episodes. My mom didn’t feel a connection to the character as it was written and, because of that, she didn’t have fun. And because she wasn’t happy, I wasn’t happy. I think we both had such a big expectation of what it could be like when she did the show, and we were both disappointed in the product.
ENTV: You eventually moved behind the camera and directed several episodes. What was that transition like from actor to director?
Dinah: I was so grateful to be allowed to direct. It came somewhere around the fourth season and, just as Jay Sandrich had predicted, I was getting really bored and frustrated. I was always bossy and in everyone else’s business anyway, and Paul and Tony gave me an opportunity to channel my restless energy. I loved directing Empty Nest.
ENTV: You also wrote an episode the last season, in which Carol sort of became the therapist for her own psychiatrist – such an interesting twist for neurotic Carol. How did that idea come about?
Dinah: Well, my best friend was an actress named Valerie Landsburg (Fame), and she and I were dying to do an episode together, so we pitched an idea and were hired for the script. Unfortunately, the writers didn’t like our version and completely rewrote the episode. Looking back on it, they were probably right.
ENTV: My other interviews have revealed great stories and anecdotes that I never would’ve known to ask. Do you have any favorite behind-the-scenes stories to share?
Dinah: Well, none of mine are as good as the one Park told about Danny Thomas. I do remember an episode where Jane Lynch had a small part playing a Lamaze coach. It was one of her first jobs. She was so original and funny. We had some amazing guest stars, both on their way up and in their heyday. We had Steve and Eydie. I mean, how cool is that? We had Angie Dickinson.
Park’s story about Bea Arthur and the gum chewing is true, by the way. I had my own experience with that. I did a crossover episode on The Golden Girls, and I was chewing gum on their set. Someone warned me that Bea would see me and go nuts. I kept chewing just to see if it was true. She yelled at me to spit the gum out, and I obliged. Then, months later, she came over to the Empty Nest set. I think she was doing one of those quick guest appearance things. Again she told me to spit out the gum, and I smiled very friendly and told her “no,” she was on my set now, and I kept chewing away. She stormed off. Couldn’t handle it at all. Bea was an amazing actress and quite an enigmatic human. Other than the gum thing, she was great to hang out with.
ENTV: When we last saw Carol, she got married and finally left the nest. Given the current industry trend of rebooting sitcoms from Empty Nest‘s era (i.e. Fuller House), where do you think Carol would be today if we revisited her?
Dinah: Ha! I’ve never thought about it. Well, let’s see, Carol would probably be suffocating her daughter and son-in-law in some well-meaning way, and self-publishing her self-help books.
ENTV: After the show ended, you acted and directed steadily but have recently moved away from the spotlight. What are you up to these days?
Dinah: Well, when my twins turned 3 and my oldest turned 9, my wonderful husband and I decided it was time to get out of Dodge, a.k.a. Los Angeles. We moved to an island near Seattle with a very progressive and creative community. So now I am raising my kids, riding my horse, writing a novel, teaching acting, cooking vegetable soup from my garden…wait…who am I?