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One Last Visit Before Leaving the 'Nest' Empty

April 29, 1995|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NBC's "Empty Nest" ends tonight the way the show started: Pediatrician Harry Weston ( Richard Mulligan), his daughters gone from home, is alone with only his golden retriever-St. Bernard mix, Dreyfuss.

It's a simple conclusion to what has been a quiet success. Through much of its 170-episode, seven-year run, the show never grabbed headlines like "Roseanne," never became a critics' darling like "Cheers," never lured a cult following like the early "Seinfeld." Even when "Empty Nest" was still in Nielsen's Top 10 in the 1990-91 season, its producers joked that viewers remembered it as "the show with the dog."

So why did the series last so long? The producers credit a loyal group of fans--though not the young crowd that advertisers are looking for these days.

"I used to joke that the reason the (recent) ratings aren't as high is (that) the audience kept on dying," says Bob Tischler, one of the show's executive producers.

Says Mulligan, who won an Emmy for his role: "There are people who come up to me and say, 'So sorry we won't see you on Saturday night.' It's like we are moving out of the neighborhood. . . . I think that we will be held in just a very warm regard. We gave you a laugh and touched your heart now and again."

Audiences took to the story of Weston, a widower who lives with adult daughters: self-obsessed divorcee Carol (Dinah Manoff) and upbeat undercover cop Barbara (Kristy McNichol). There was also mooching, skirt-chasing neighbor Charley (David Leisure), who needled Weston at home, and Laverne (Park Overall), a cutting, Southern nurse who irked him at the office.

"People could relate to the show all around Middle America," McNichol says. "There's the professional father, the sibling rivalry between the sisters, the pestering neighbor, the quirky nurse, the dog."

McNichol, who left the show in 1992, returns in the finale, in which Barbara comes home to clean out her belongings. Harry is selling the house and taking a teaching position in Vermont. Meanwhile, Laverne gets hitched in her hometown of Hickory, Ark. And at long last, Carol walks down the aisle, to the relief of her father.

"I can't tell you how happy I am," Harry Weston tells Carol excitedly on hearing the news. She looks at him funny. Then he says to her: "Well, for you too."

The kids-return-to-the-roost premise was much different than the show's first episode. The pilot, which aired as an episode of "The Golden Girls," was about a couple struggling to adjust after their kids had left home.

After the pilot, creator Susan Harris was fearful that the show would become a "complaint of the week" between the bickering couple. So she killed off the wife, made Harry a widower and had his daughters drop by for frequent visits. By the second season, the daughters moved in.

"That certainly is a real lifestyle going on, where adult children move back with parents," Mulligan says. "It's really tough out there. And it got difficult being a parent again--especially in the first two seasons, where (Harry) was lamenting the loss of his beloved wife. I think that spoke to a lot of people."

Realism drew strong viewer response, such as an episode where Harry treated a kid with diabetes, another where he was shot accidentally by a 13-year-old boy.

This edginess carried to comic moments, especially as the Weston trio attempted to find new mates. Manoff's favorite: Carol tutored a 19-year-old (Brian Bloom), then slept with him. Or when she slept with Charley, to much embarrassment.

"All my favorites involve sex," Manoff says with a laugh.

"The comedy was so situational," she adds. "You didn't have to remember the joke, the joke was situation."

But the show was left with a "big empty space," as Mulligan calls it, when McNichol left.

"I had to choose between continuing the show and not being well," McNichol says. "It was the hardest decision I have ever made."

McNichol says that since she was 18, she has suffered from a disorder--akin to manic-depressive illness--that worsened when she turned 30. A chemical imbalance became uncontrollable, she says.

"I am very lucky," McNichol says. "You do find, as long you as have it under control, everything is fine."

Producers brought in a third daughter, Emily (Lisa Rieffel), but there wasn't the same rivalry between her and Carol. Instead, they shifted Harry to an urban clinic and gave him a fellow doctor, played by Marsha Warfield. Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty, reprising her role from "The Golden Girls") also joined the cast.

It wasn't the same.

"When Kristy left, half of my act left," Manoff says. "It's not that Carol couldn't be sustained as her own character. But Carol without (Barbara)--there's something lost. It was like Laverne without Shirley."

McNichol's return had been in the works ever since Witt-Thomas-Harris Productions and NBC decided that this would be the last season.

"I hadn't read for two years," McNichol says. "I didn't know if I was going to have it down pat. The first line out of my mouth, everyone said, 'Oh my God. It's the same person, the same character.' "

In the episode, the siblings start to bicker almost within minutes. "I wish you would have been at my wedding," Carol says.

"There'll be another one," Barbara chimes in.

The producers, writers and actors wanted to return the show to its roots for the finale, and there are few surprises. "We were looking for closure," says Tischler, the executive producer.

One executive's suggestion was nixed: to have Harry and Laverne get married. "It would get the headline in TV Guide," Tischler says, but it would be tough to explain.

Instead, "Empty Nest's" only closing stunner is reserved for the final credits.

Just watch for the dog.

* "Empty Nest" airs 8-9 tonight on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39).

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