BREAKFAST AT PARK OVERALL'S HOUSE in North Hollywood won't win any culinary awards. First there's the coffee: The milk curdles as soon as it hits the brew. Overall checks the expiration date—it's three weeks ago. No matter. Chomping on a piece of string cheese, she bolts from the dining room and returns cradling a half-full mason jar. When she unscrews the lid, the eye-watering smell of megaproof moonshine fills the air. "I don't drink it," says the 34-year-old actress in her thick Tennessee drawl. "I give it to powerful men in Hollywood."

Then the trademark laugh of Nurse La Verne on NBC's Empty Nest explodes through Overall's nose. "I'm a snorter," she admits. And a creature of impulse. "There's nothing calculated in what she says," says Steve Zuckerman, one of Nest's directors. "She feels acting in her gut."

La Verne is similarly uninhibited, especially when sparring with—and usually upstaging—her pediatrician boss, Dr. Weston (Richard Mulligan). But where Overall is bouncy, the tart-tongued La Verne is acerbic. Overall modeled the character, she says, on sisters Regina and Becky Jones, friends back in her hometown of Greeneville, Tenn. "They're good mountain girls," says the actress. "Working girls who paid their own way and done their own thing."

Although Overall now earns a five-figure sum per episode, she hasn't strayed far from her own country roots. A 1989 red pickup truck sits in the driveway of her two-bedroom ranch-style home, and her Harley-Davidson chopper is in the shop. (Her passion for motorcycles and their riders—"I like gear heads"—landed her on the cover of Outlaw Biker magazine last spring.) But Overall is no Beverly Hillbilly. "People used to hear my accent and assume I was stupid," she says. "But I'm proud of it." Besides, there's erudition in her background: She is the only child of Jack Overall, a retired court magistrate, and Frances, a former professor of English at Tusculum College in Greeneville. Nor has her life been as carefree as her quick laugh and high spirits might indicate.

When Overall was 9, she and her mother spent a year in London, where Frances was on sabbatical. While there, Park developed an unquenchable thirst and went to see a doctor. "By the time I was taken to the hospital, I was in a coma," she says. The diagnosis was diabetes, a disease she would only later come to terms with. "Through my early teen years, I didn't take care of myself," Overall says. "I was drinking, eating cake.... Finally, when I was about 15,I said to myself, I don't feel good anymore. I gotta stop this.' " Since then, she has been diligent about her daily insulin regime—especially on the Nest set, where she and Mulligan, a fellow diabetic, demand meals on time. "This disease could kill me," she says.

In Park's college years she wasn't as self-assured. Uncertain of what career to pursue, she spent six tuition-free years at Tusculum—courtesy of her mother's position on the faculty—eventually getting her English degree in 1981. Off campus, she says, "I was a wild child. I enjoyed men and pool very much."

In 1983, Overall auditioned for and won a role in Body Passion, a low-budget thriller being filmed in Hendersonville, N.C. On the set she met cameraman Ron Schlaeger. The movie sank, but Overall was encouraged enough to head for New York City to pursue Schlaeger and—shyly—other roles. "I used to take her to the auditions, haul her right up to the door, and push her through," says Schlaeger, 35. One night during a showcase performance at the Chelsea Theatre Centre, she was spotted by a producer of Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues and cast as a replacement for the play's tenderhearted prostitute—the same role she later played in the 1988 movie.

But it was Overall's appearance in a failed 1987 TV pilot called The Line that led to her being cast as La Verne the following year. The shift to California prompted Overall and Schlaeger, who had been living separately in New York, to move in together. A wedding, though, is not in the offing. "I'm not big on marriage," says Overall. "I'm too immature."

Don't tell that to the folks back in Greeneville—who already declared a Park Overall Day last May 1—and are responsible for a hefty portion of Overall's fan mail. "Every country child has a dream," she says sweetly. Then she snorts, "People think I can help them, but I can't even get the garbageman to stop coming at 7 A.M.!"

MARY H.J. FARRELL
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff.