Choosing Career Over Marriage, Workaholic Richard Mulligan Tries to Feather His Empty Nest

updated 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Keep your voice down when walking by Richard Mulligan's study. He's sitting there in a comfortable leather chair, his favorite roost for memorizing the scripts of his hit NBC series, Empty Nest, for writing a few other scripts himself and for sorting through the profundities of his favorite philosopher, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Unfortunately, in his many 16th-century volumes, Montaigne never quite dealt with the ramifications of fame. Being near the top of the Nielsen heap and bringing home a well-larded paycheck would fit most actors' definition of happiness. But most actors aren't Richard Mulligan.

A quirky, brooding, worrying compulsive, Mulligan, 56, is living in a pretty quiet nest himself. Third wife Lenore Stevens, fed up with his obsessive work habits, flew the coop 18 months ago, and the couple's 11-year marriage looks to be, as Hollywoodese has it, in turnaround. "We're not totally done on that," says Mulligan, who until Nest was probably best known as Soap's trouble-plagued Burt Campbell, a role that won him a 1980 Emmy. "It's not a done thing yet. We're just separated." But he doesn't argue with his wife's reasons. "It's been very difficult for Lenore. When I'm working I get absorbed. The demands on me are powerful. I'm busy."

Consider his calendar. "On Saturday, I put in three to four hours studying scripts," says the actor. "On Sunday, five to eight hours. During the week it's 10 to 5 at the studio, then you go home and study your lines for two or three hours more and go to bed." It's doubtful that Harry Weston, the pediatrician he plays on Empty Nest, has to work such an unrelenting schedule. "But I gotta do it," says Mulligan. "I know my responsibilities, that I'm the head guy here."

Although Mulligan clearly has great passion for his profession, he stumbled onto acting quite by accident. One of five sons of a New York cop and a housewife, Mulligan grew up in the Bronx. (His eldest brother, Robert, now 63, was the director of To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of '42.) Richard was educated at parochial schools and briefly considered the priesthood. A short stint at a junior seminary was more than enough to convince him that his vocation lay elsewhere, specifically in playwriting.

Right church, but wrong pew, as Mulligan discovered in 1953. Driving around Florida one day, where he'd moved to attend the University of Miami, Mulligan got a flat and pulled into a local gas station. Across the street was the little theater Studio M, where Tennessee Williams used to work out the kinks in his plays. "I had some of my plays in the trunk of my car," Mulligan remembers. "Maybe this was Providence." It was Providence with a twist. The theater's artistic director took one look at him and suggested he try out for a supporting role in the play that was being cast, Eugene O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon. Richard got the part and eventually very good reviews. "So I thought maybe I should keep on doing this."

His résumé is proof he made the right decision. In between the periods of frustration and unemployment that are the portion of any self-respecting newcomer to the business, Mulligan starred on the New York stage in Hogan's Goal and in Thieves with Mario Thomas, and he appeared onscreen in Little Big Man, S.O.B. and Trail of the Pink Panther.

But from the very beginning, he had difficulty figuring out how to meld a career and a personal life. His four-year first marriage to Patricia Jones, a girl from his old Bronx neighborhood, produced a son—James, 31, now a social worker—and a lot of conflict. "My wife would ridicule me about getting into acting," says Mulligan, who was divorced in 1960. "That last year it was, 'You're so stupid wanting to do this.' "

Things weren't much better in his seven-year second marriage to the late actress Joan (Only When I Laugh) Hackett. which ended in 1973. "When we first married, she was in a dry spell. And I was working. When her career began to climb, I was shooting a film in Africa and she was working in Hollywood," says Mulligan. "It was a two-career marriage that just didn't work."

"No matter how successful Richard has become," says his current wife, Lenore, "in his own mind, he's still one of five boys brought up in a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx." Lenore says Mulligan's career anxieties have been aggravated by the discovery that he is a diabetic and by the deaths of the couple's longtime pets, a dog and cat. The multiple crises "took their toll," says Lenore, an actress turned interior designer. "This separation is not about any third party. It's not about what he feels about me or what I feel about him. He's a totally giving, deeply feeling man."

It's an opinion shared by Kristy McNichol, who plays one of Mulligan's three daughters on the series. "My real father and I were never close," she says. "He left when I was 3. Richard has shown me what it's like to have a father. We're that close. I would have loved to have had someone like him as a father. Strong and funny and fair."

"He's a reflective person," says friend Tony Adams, who co-produced S.O.B. "He loves his books, loves to study and read." These days, there is no one to disturb Mulligan's studying and reading in his serene adobe home in Larchmont, an "old money" section of Los Angeles.

"We're going through a healing period," says Lenore, who lives in a condo near her estranged husband. "During the summer hiatus from Empty Nest, we're going to get together to share and talk. I don't know where it's going to go."

The signs are not altogether hopeful. "One of the reasons I love acting," says Mulligan, "and one of the reasons I'm in it is that I do get lost in it. Completely lost in it." With Empty Nest renewed for next season, Mulligan may not care to be found.

—Joanne Kaufman, Doris Bacon in Los Angeles

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