Associate director Doug Smart worked on Empty Nestthroughout its seven-season run. In this interview with Empty Nest Online, Doug talks about the show’s weekly production schedule, what it was like working with the cast, and his move to academia.
Empty Nest TV: Let’s start at the beginning and talk about how you became involved with Empty Nest.
Doug: I had worked with producers Paul Witt and Tony Thomas on Benson and Condo, and they asked me to do a few episodes of the first season of The Golden Girls, as it got off the ground. So when they spun The Golden Girls off into Empty Nest, they asked if I wanted to work on the pilot and, if the show went to series, would I be interested in staying on? I had a great time on the pilot working with director Jay Sandrich, who is a legendary director, so when it came time to do the series, I was definitely on board.
I served as the associate director on the show. Hal Cooper, another legendary director, did most of season one. Steve Zuckerman joined the show at the start of season two and directed the majority of the episodes from that point on. I did direct about a dozen episodes during the run of the series. Other directors, such as James Widdoes, Bob Berlinger and Dinah Manoff, also directed some episodes.
ENTV: As an AD, what was a typical week like on the set?
Doug: We shared a crew with The Golden Girls, which was a Monday through Friday show, so the camera crew would work there on Thursdays and Fridays. We were a Wednesday to Tuesday show, meaning we would start a new episode on Wednesday and tape it the following Tuesday. So we would rehearse with the cameras on Monday, shoot on Tuesday, then they would go rehearse and shoot The Golden Girls on Thursday and Friday.
So our week started on Wednesday. We would come in for a production meeting, and all the department heads would go through the script from top to bottom, attacking whatever production issue would come up that week: props, wardrobe, sets, lighting, any kind of special effects, sound effects, anything that might need a day or two to create or wrangle. After that, the cast would come in and have a table read. We would try to get half or a third of the show up on its feet with some rough blocking on Wednesday and the rest on Thursday morning. In the afternoon, we would run through the script with the actors to make sure everything was on its feet. Thursday evening was the first writers’ run-through, so they could see what they’d written performed with the actors moving around on set to resemble what the scene would eventually look like on camera. Based on that, the producers would offer notes, and the writers had their own notes, and the writers would spend Thursday night rewriting. On Friday, we would get a brand new, fresh script, even if the changes were minimal. We would work all day Friday, do an afternoon run-through, and then I would work with the director, usually Stevie Z., designing all the camera shots for the week’s episode. We had what we called “the 85% rule,” meaning by the end of Friday, we would try to be certain that 85% of the shots would work. We would iron out the other 15% Monday and Tuesday.
As AD, I would have a meeting with the camera crew first thing Monday morning, translating all the shots we’d written into our scripts for the camera operators. They all had shot cards with roughly 200 to 250 shots per week in the script. The actors would do a “dry blocking” with the cameras, just to work through their paces while saving their energy for the show. At the end of the day on Monday was our first dress rehearsal, the first time the writers and producers could actually see a version of what the show was going to look like on camera, because they would be in a separate control room, watching on TV monitors as we cut the shots together.
We would also time all the wardrobe changes in the dress rehearsal, because when you tape in front of a live audience, you don’t want to make the audience wait too long. At the end of the day on Monday, we would get more notes from the producers, and we had the discretion of either adhering to or ignoring them, and it was about a 50/50 mix. Half the notes, we would say, “Okay, that’s a decent note,” and the other half we just ignored.
Because Tuesday was our “show day,” and we would be working late that night, we would come in at 11 a.m. and briefly go through each scene. Then by 3 p.m. the actors would go into makeup and wardrobe, and we would take care of any last-minute production needs.
We would then shoot a show with a live audience at 5 p.m. until about 6:15, break for dinner, get more notes from the writers and producers, and come in with a fresh audience at 7:30 and shoot it again until around 9. If we had any pick-up shots, we’d shoot those after the audience left, between about 10 p.m. and midnight. And then Wednesday, we would start all over again on the next episode.
ENTV: It’s interesting to hear such a thorough explanation of what goes on behind the scenes, because, as viewers, we only see the actors and the polished final product.
Doug: I have so much admiration for actors, because not only do they get a 40- to 50-page script every week, and have to learn it in five days and act it out in front of an audience on camera to be aired nationally, but they also keep getting revisions. So if the writers felt a joke wasn’t working at 5:00 in front of an audience, they would rewrite it and ask the actors to come in at 7:30 in front of another live audience, on camera, and deliver lines they’d never actually rehearsed. So I just have such admiration for actors who can do that week in and week out.
ENTV: 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.
ENTV: 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.
ENTV: 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 Familyand 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.
ENTV: I’ve always thought, though, that season five was a really well written season as a whole.
Doug: [Laughing] Well, it had to be.
ENTV: 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.
ENTV: 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!