Marsha Warfield joined the Empty Nest cast at the start of season six as Dr. Maxine Douglas, the hard-driving head of the Canal Street Clinic. In this interview, Marsha tells us what it was like stepping onto an established show, about the time Marla Gibbs played her mother and what was really in Maxine’s coffee cup!
Empty Nest TV: You joined the cast during a retooling period for the show in season six. What’s the story of how you became part of Empty Nest?
Marsha: After Night Court, we were shopping around pilots and things with the network for a show for me. I’d had a talk show, and I was still doing stand-up. The next thing you know this opportunity came up, and I ended up on the show.
ENTV: Stepping onto an established series wasn’t unfamiliar territory for you, having done that on Night Court as well. What was it like to once again become part of a show that had already developed a steady groove?
Marsha: I grew up going to different schools, and I’ve had a lot of different jobs. And every time you do stand-up, you’re going into a whole new environment with a different infrastructure. Every gig is a whole, self-contained, new experience. So going into an established TV show is pretty much the same thing as any other gig or experience I’ve ever had.
ENTV: Tell me about Dr. Maxine Douglas. How would you describe her?
Marsha: You know, I never approached characters like that. I got to know them just like you got to know them. She developed over time. She was a strong, independent woman who was trying to fit into this thing that she was in but not really a part of. She wasn’t part of the family. She wasn’t close like that. It was a work environment kind of thing. She was just working and wanted to be a good doctor.
ENTV: Did you have much input into the direction of the character?
Marsha: I never tried to influence the direction of the writing. The character was the invention of the writers. They made her up, and I embodied her. As far as wardrobe, I did have some input into that and some of the sets. One time, we went to her apartment and, when we got there, it looked a lot like The Golden Girls house or Harry’s house. I said, “Maxine wouldn’t live like that. She wouldn’t have the wicker furniture and the floral designs. She would have a more upscale, sleek kind of place.” She was a young, single woman. So I did have some input there.
ENTV: Many of your scenes were with Richard Mulligan and Park Overall. Tell me about working with them and the rest of the cast.
Marsha: Richard was a wonderful person, a wonderful friend and a nice man. You just can’t say enough nice things about him.
Park and I are polar opposites. If you can find two women who were more different and still be both American women, I don’t know how. I’d seen the show, and I loved Park’s character. I loved working off her and playing off her.
Estelle Getty was a sweetheart, just the nicest lady. We had a lot of down time in TV, and Estelle and I would have long talks in the dressing room. She wouldn’t say “Picture it…” but she would tell me things about her past. She was just a fun, nice person to hang out with. It was a dream situation. You don’t realize it until you’re not in it. I had a great relationship with everybody. I enjoyed going to work.
ENTV: My favorite “Maxine” episode is the one where her mother, played by Marla Gibbs, visits. What was that like for you?
Marsha: I love Marla, and it was a great experience to work with her. When it came up who would play my mother, it was very interesting. A lot of names came up that I didn’t think anyone would ever consider. Ruby Dee. Della Reese. For some reason, it didn’t work out for Empty Nest, but Della did play Roz’s aunt on Night Court. But when Marla was available, that was great.
ENTV: Do you have any favorite episodes or scenes?
Marsha: There’s the biggest laugh I think I’ve ever had, anywhere, and I didn’t really have it. It was Marty Pollio. He played a mime. I walked up to the audience, and I did something, and he did something. I don’t even remember what it was, but it stopped the whole show. The audience laughed so long, we had to retake it because no laugh could last that long on TV. Whatever it was, it just got the biggest laugh. I remember the laugh, but I don’t remember what I did to get it. Isn’t that strange?
ENTV: I’m learning a lot of interesting stuff in this interview series with one simple question: Do you have any favorite behind-the-scenes stories to share?
Marsha: Well, there was never really coffee in my coffee cup. It was always Coca-Cola. And there was one episode I had to smoke, and I wasn’t smoking then, so that was pretty interesting. But it wasn’t a problem. For some strange reason, I managed to get through it, and it didn’t make me crave smoking or want to go back to it. Other than that, I don’t know. Nothing goes on behind the scenes!
ENTV: In the finale, we didn’t get much closure for Maxine. So if the show were to get the reboot treatment that seems to be the trend today, where do you think she would be?
Marsha: She’d be Surgeon General. No doubt about it!
ENTV: Let’s talk about the present. You’ve been away from the spotlight for a while, but you’ve literally stepped back into it recently and are doing stand-up once more. What made you decide to take the stage again?
Marsha: I want to. There’s never any good reason to get into show business except you want to. It’s just something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, so I decided to give it a shot.
ENTV: And how’s it going so far?
Marsha: It goes like it goes when you’re new. Sometimes it’s great; sometimes it’s not so great. And you’re always your own worst critic. That’s just the process. It’s like asking how rivers flow. They flow like they flow, so you just ride with it or you get out of it.
ENTV: So what’s next for you?
Marsha: Stand-up is what I do, so I’ll pursue that and let it take me wherever it will.
To see where stand-up takes Marsha, follow her on Twitter @MarshaWarfield.