There’s never a dull moment when talking with Golden Globe nominated actress and activist Park Overall, who played Nurse Laverne Todd during the show’s run. In this interview, Park tells us about her fight to ensure that Southerners were portrayed well on screen, the illness that sometimes made her “extraordinarily difficult” and the time Bea Arthur left her speechless!
Empty Nest TV: I’m interested to know your casting process. Was Laverne conceived as being this Southern spitfire or was that something you were able to help flesh out once you got the part?
Park: I went in for a part on another sitcom, and there were two people in the room. One was Fern Champion, a very famous casting director, and the other was a man. The man asked me to read the part a different way, I did, and that was that. A couple years later, it turns out that man was Paul Witt, of Witt Thomas Harris Productions [the team behind Empty Nest], and Paul’s wife, Susan Harris, had written the part of Laverne for me. So when I went in to audition, I was the only person there. I adored Paul Witt. He was the greatest. And he could handle me.
ENTV: I once heard you say that about him in an interview, and you referred to yourself as “extraordinarily difficult” during Empty Nest. What did you mean by that?
Park: I was unwell. I had come down with Epstein-Barr, and no one knew. I’m diabetic, too. So I didn’t know I was sick. And I was also busy defending Southerners’ integrity, and that was hard. The writers often went for the cheap joke, because they weren’t Southern, and they didn’t know. And I wouldn’t have it.
ENTV: As someone from Appalachia myself, one of my favorite things about Laverne, and your portrayal of her, was seeing a strong Appalachian character who wasn’t just a joke or a stereotype. Was that something you had to fight hard for?
Park: I had to fight very hard for that, and thank you. I fought to keep her with some integrity. I think I won, but I made it hard on everyone. I wasn’t well, I didn’t know I wasn’t well, and it was exhausting.
ENTV: As I’ve talked to others, they’ve always mentioned your love of roller skating around the studio lot. Why roller skating?
Park: You can’t put me in a cold studio and expect me to sit around, waiting for something to happen. I was going insane, so I got me some skates. And they let me skate. It saved me. I also got pretty good at it! So they were very kind to let me skate around the lot.
Here’s one of my favorite stories. We taped at Ren-Mar Studios, a lovely, intimate studio, and there were always animals around because of [dog trainer] Joel Silverman and other shows. I got to meet an orangutan. I hate to say it, but the orangutan is boring. It’s a very boring monkey. Well, one day there were these other monkeys – maybe spider monkeys, I don’t know, little skinny monkeys – in the back of a pickup truck in a cage. So I skated over there with a cup of coffee in my hand and was right up in there with those monkeys, and one looked at me, and I looked at him. He looked to the right, and I looked to the right to see what he was looking at. He looked to the left, and I looked to the left. Then he looked to the right, and I looked to the right, and he stole my coffee! He grabbed it right out of my hand! I felt so stupid – monkey see, monkey do!
ENTV: Tell me about working with the cast.
Park: I loved Richard Mulligan so much. He was a great man. He set a very high bar of excellence, and we all had to toe his line. He didn’t ask for anything. He just set a standard that was very high. And we had great chemistry.
I adored David Leisure. He usually had a smaller part, and one day he came upstairs – he may’ve had one line that week – and said, “I’ve figured this out, y’all. I’m making $10,000 a word!”
I got to meet some great people who were very good to me, like Danny Thomas [who guest starred on an episode]. He stood there one day holding court with the producers and writers as we were doing run-throughs. Richard was behind me in the nurses station, waiting to make an entrance, and Danny was just going on and on. I was getting kind of worried at Richard having to wait so long. I don’t remember the joke Danny was telling, but midway through he looked at me and said, “Where’s Richard?” And I said, “He’s in place, sir.” So he went on and finished his story, and then he said, “You know, Bette Davis would never cross this line until Marion Davies was in place!” And Richard burst out from behind and screamed, “Marion’s here, dear!” And Danny did this little ‘keep on truckin’ walk and got into place! You don’t see guys like that anymore. They had class. Richard was a very classy guy.
ENTV: How was it the week Garth Brooks was on the show?
Park: It was wild! He sang after we did our second taping, alone with his guitar. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. I think I even cried, and I don’t usually get emotional. Oh, honey, him alone with that guitar – it made your hair stand up! He’s got it.
ENTV: You guys shared a crew and studio with The Golden Girls, and Estelle Getty joined the Empty Nest cast for the later seasons. How were those ladies to work with?
Park: Estelle was my favorite. She was so good to me. Now that’s a wise old woman right there. She and I got along real well. She understood me. For instance, I’d gotten nominated for some Golden Globes during Empty Nest, and I was walking over to Estelle at the ceremony when Michelle Pfeiffer and her boyfriend at the time, Fisher Stevens, came along. We were all maneuvering toward Estelle’s table. Well, I’d met Michelle at a reading, and she was darling to me. I said to her, “Hello, Michelle. I’m sorry you didn’t win.” And they both stared at me as if I were a Martian. I’m not usually taken aback by things, so I looked at her and said, “And I’m sorry I didn’t win either! Hello, Estelle!” Estelle just nodded at me like, “Well done.” It was one of those nice moments with a wise old woman.
Betty White, all I can tell you about her is she’s too good to be true. Bea Arthur couldn’t stand her. Did you know that?
ENTV: Yes, I’ve heard Betty White say Bea didn’t care much for her.
Park: No, Bea couldn’t stand her! I’ll never know what that was about, but it was fascinating to watch. Bea sort of wore everything on her face. You could feel Bea. She was a very formidable woman.
When you’re filming on camera days, it will play throughout the whole studio on your TV. I walked out to the parking lot one day, and Bea grabbed me by the arm, between my shoulder and elbow. She had a hold of me good. I mean, she’s digging into me, and it’s hurting! And she says, “What are you going to do about it, Park? What are you going to do?” And I said, “About what, Bea?” She says, “Kristy McNichol is chewing gum! What are you going to do?”
ENTV: So what did you do?
Park: I didn’t know what to do! I said, “Bea, I’ll mention it.” She was beside herself. And, I don’t know if you can tell this one, but one day, she had this huge book in her hand. My mother was an English professor, so I’ve always been under the mistaken idea that other people read books, you know? So I skated up to her, and I said, “What’re ya readin,’ Bea?” I was reading something intellectual; I forget what. And she looked at me with that look and said, “Park, I like a lot of fuckin’ and suckin'” and just walked off. I never will recover from that one!
ENTV: I’ve heard that you were looking to leave the show somewhere around season five or six. Is that true?
Park: I never really was, but they thought I was. I was sick and miserable and didn’t know I was sick. But my father would never let me break a contract! He wouldn’t have it. I wasn’t going anywhere. I maybe wanted to, but I wasn’t going to break a contract. Since they didn’t know I wasn’t going to leave, I guess they had Marsha Warfield come in so that, if I did leave, there’d be somebody there. But I didn’t understand any of that, because I was never going to leave anyway.
ENTV: I thought your character and Marsha’s played really well off each other.
Park: Marsha is a genius. She’s really quick and very funny. She and Richard got on real well.
ENTV: Let’s talk about the present. When I look at my website’s analytics, one of the most-searched phrases that leads people there is “Where is Park Overall now?” So, what’s the answer?
Park: I ran for Senate in Tennessee in 2012, and I pulled East Tennessee. Until we got to Memphis, I was doing fine. So I was very proud of that. I’m a big-time environmentalist, and I work at it six days a week. I was on the cover of the Knoxville paper not long ago, fighting for my river. I’m dangerous, and I’m gettin’ ‘er done. I enjoy it more than I ever enjoyed acting. It’s more meaningful to me. It matters. Now, it also means a lot when people say, “Park, you brought me a lot of joy.” That does mean a lot. I’m thrilled to talk to you and thrilled that people still care about Empty Nest. In retrospect, I’m not sure how much I enjoyed it, but I did work very hard, and I made a great character with what they gave me. And I’m very grateful for that. It was a great part of my life.