The original pilot for Empty Nest aired as an episode of The Golden Girls on May 16, 1987, and beared little resemblance to what the show would eventually become.
The episode, written by series creator Susan Harris, starred Rita Moreno, Paul Dooley, Geoffrey Lewis, David Leisure and Jane Harnick and centered around the girls’ neighbor Renee Corliss and her doctor husband, George. Moreno played Renee, who was coping with the empty nest syndrome and was tired of George (Dooley) always being busy with his medical practice.
Completing the cast were Geoffrey Lewis as Chuck, Renee’s multiple personality-suffering brother, who at times was normal and times became the neighborhood’s oddball handyman. David Leisure was mooching neighbor Oliver, a test pilot. And Jane Harnick was Jenny, Renee and George’s daughter who was away at college.
In the episode, Jenny returns home unexpectedly to announce that she has broken up with her boyfriend. Renee, restless at home alone while George constantly works, accompanies Jenny back to school and decides she to try and get back into show business. George soon follows, vowing to make things better between he and Renee. Surprising his wife at her hotel, the couple turn the trip into their second honeymoon (which Renee points out was technically their first since they never had a honeymoon to begin with).
Creator Susan Harris stated that she was experiencing the empty nest syndrome in her own life at the time she wrote the script. But she was fearful that the show would become stagnant with a married couple complaining of being lonely week after week, despite the help that would no doubt come with a strong lead-in like The Golden Girls. So producers scrapped the idea of the Corliss clan, “killed off the wife” (in Harris’ words), and retooled the series around a widowed pediatrician.
While almost everything was different with the new concept, some aspects of the original pilot remained when the show actually premiered. The same interior set was used for the Weston house but a different home for the establishing shots. And David Leisure was still around as the annoying neighbor, but in the form of cruise ship pursor Charley instead of test pilot Oliver.
The episode was poorly received, remaining a least-favorite Golden Girls episode to this day among fans. In an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2000, Rita Moreno discussed what an awkward and unpleasant experience Empty Nest was for her. Also, in our Return to the Nest interview with David Leisure, he shares plenty of behind-the-scenes stories from the taping and how he transitioned to the full series.