The Newfoundland Herald, Sept 9-15, 1989
Despite a shaky beginning, the veteran sitcom cast of Empty Nest managed to do what few other TV shows have accomplished in recent years: get renewed for another season. This year Empty Nest will be broadcast on NBC on Saturday nights at 11:00. The show is also one of the few remaining American shows being picked up by CBC, scheduled for Thursday nights at 8:30.
Empty Nest stars Richard Mulligan as a widower pediatrician, who makes his home in Miami, Florida. During most of his career, Mulligan’s character Harry Weston was obsessed with his career. After the death of his wife, however, Weston is forced to take another look at his life, and the relationship he has formed with his two adult daughters. Much to his discomfort, he discovers that they have grown into unique people who have little time for his fatherly illusions.
Mulligan’s co-stars are the actresses who play his two daughters, Dinah Manoff and Kristy McNichol. Both are veterans of numerous TV ventures. McNichol, in fact, was a well-known chid-star, and it was with some difficulty that she made the transition into the adult actor. Although her character’s occupation, a police officer, is completely unbelievable, McNichol makes the most of her lines, and she and Manoff have perfected a finely tuned give and take.
There is no doubt who the star of the show is, however. Mulligan first achieved fame as the much loved character Burt Campbell, from the ’70s comedy, Soap. The show was far ahead of its time with its biting comedy and inventive satire of witless television, and Burt was always at the forefront of the show’s madness. Mulligan played his character, whose life was strewn with a series of personal disasters, with a manic intensity that almost made the whole thing believable.
Mulligan told TV Guide that playing the character of Burt was one of the hardest things he had ever done, as the character was always in so much trouble.
“The guy was kind of like my best friend during those years,” Mulligan said. “Which wasn’t easy, because Burt had so many problems.”
Fortunately, Mulligan has left Burt behind in Empty Nest. Harry Weston has his share of troubles, but they are of a much quieter and more ordinary nature than being kidnapped by aliens (as once happened to the hapless Burt on Soap). In fact, the show was originally envisaged as a spin-off of the popular Golden Girls, which takes an adult approach to the troubles four aging women experience as they try to grow accustomed to their new lives.
With the strength of Golden Girls behind it, Empty Nest seemed destined for similar success. However, the adult-oriented humor that works so well on Golden Girls did not take hold on Empty Nest. After a period of floundering around, however, the producers began developing some of the show’s minor characters. Minor characters have been neglected in TV sitcom writing in recent years, but they have formed the core of shows like Night Court. It was not until Empty Nest‘s writers began developing the show’s supporting cast that they were able to crawl out from under the shadow of the Golden Girls‘ influence.
Personally, Mulligan has had his share of problems. He is known to be a hard worker, whose efforts to master his roles border on obsession. He recently separated from his third wife, a decision he attributed to a large part to his work habits.
“It was very difficult for her,” he told People magazine. “When I’m working I get absorbed. On Saturday I put in three to four hours studying scripts, and on Sunday five to eight hours.” This is in addition to the 14 hour days that are the routine in sitcom work. While Mulligan has expressed some sadness about the breakup, he does not seem to regret any of the work he has put into Empty Nest. “One of the reasons I love acting is that I get lost in it,” he said in his People interview. “I gotta do it. I know my responsibilities. I’m the head guy here.”
Mulligan is not the only character on the show who is connected to Soap One of his co-stars, Dinah Manoff, was also a cast member in the show, though her part was far less memorable than Mulligan’s. Far more enjoyable for her has been her role on Empty Nest. Among the pleasures of the show has been a growing friendship with co-star Kristy McNichol.
“We are just like sisters,” McNichol said in a TV Guide interview. “We are very close, we double date, we even took a vacation to Hawaii together.” McNichol is also quite positive about her relationship with Mulligan. She recently told People magazine that he has taken on a patriarchal role in her life.
“My real father and I were never close,” she said. “He left when I was three. Richard has shown me what it’s like to have a father. We are that close. I would have loved to have someone like that as a father. Strong and funny and fair.”
According to all predictions, viewers should not expect any big changes to the show in the coming season. All the main cast members are returning, including Dreyfuss, the scene-stealing dog. And anyway, if you have something good going, why change it?