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From the Archives: Richard Mulligan; Starred in Sitcoms ‘Soap,’ ‘Empty Nest’

Richard Mulligan with "Empty Nest" co-stars Dinah Manoff, left, and Kristy McNichol.
(NBC)

Richard Mulligan, the rubber-faced actor best known for his Emmy-winning comedic roles in the television series “Soap” and “Empty Nest,” has died. He was 67.

Mulligan, who died Tuesday at his home in Hollywood after a long battle with cancer, earned an Emmy in 1989 for his performance in “Empty Nest,” in which he played Dr. Harry Weston, the widowed father of three grown daughters.

He also received an Emmy in 1980 for the soap-opera spoof “Soap,” in which he played sputtering Burt Campbell, the oddball husband who, during the course of the farcical show, grappled with his son’s being gay (the son was played by Billy Crystal) and was later kidnapped and cloned by aliens.

Friends and colleagues remembered Mulligan on Thursday as a hard-working performer and a gentle, easygoing man off screen.

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“He was a very thoughtful actor who took it very seriously,” said John Bowab, who directed Mulligan in episodes of “Soap,” “Empty Nest” and a short-lived ABC series in between—"Reggie.”

“As an actor he had a very clear vision of what he was going to play. It was not an accidental vision—spontaneity occurred only during rehearsals. . . . After a show he liked to have a couple of beers with the crew. He became just one of the guys. I just thought he was a delight, a comedy genius.”

Park Overall, a co-star on “Empty Nest,” shared a common bond with Mulligan because both had diabetes and reminded each other to take proper care of themselves.

“He was a gentleman first and foremost,” Overall said. “He was the best teacher for me in the world. He didn’t have a false moment in seven years [of the series]. . . .

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“He just had ‘it.’ He had it more in person than on screen. He was terribly attractive and very tall. . . . You don’t know how hard he worked. He was a workhorse. He carried the whole show on his back.”

According to Mulligan, he stumbled into acting by accident, having originally set out to become a playwright. In a 1995 interview, the actor recounted how a flat tire prompted him to stop at a community theater. Going in to drop off a script, Mulligan was asked by the artistic director to audition for the role of Andy in a Eugene O’Neill play, “Beyond the Horizon.”

“I thought, if I’m going to write for actors, maybe I should know better what it is that actors do,” Mulligan said. “So I decided to do the audition. And I did it, and I hated it. But they called and told me that I was the guy. So I did the part—again, in pursuit of knowing what it is actors do—and eventually got bit by the acting bug.”

Born in the Bronx, Mulligan served in the Navy and studied to become a playwright at Columbia University before embarking on his acting career. He made his Broadway debut in the 1960 production of “All the Way Home,” as an understudy to Arthur Hill.

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Three years later, Mulligan appeared in his first feature film, “Love With the Proper Stranger"—directed by his older brother, Robert Mulligan. A series of film and television roles followed, including a memorable performance as a mentally unstable Gen. George Custer in the 1970 feature “Little Big Man,” opposite Dustin Hoffman.

In the 1980s, Mulligan starred in a number of broadly comical features directed by Blake Edwards, including “S.O.B.” (in which he played a crazed movie director, paired with Julie Andrews), “The Trail of the Pink Panther,” “Micki and Maude” and “A Fine Mess.”

Still, Mulligan made his most lasting mark in television, working for producers Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas and Susan Harris on “Soap,” which ran four seasons, and “Empty Nest.” He was among a select group of actors associated with more than one successful series.

“Richard was a very intense actor and very concentrated—what we would say a very full actor,” said Robert Mandan, who co-starred opposite Mulligan as Chester, his philandering in-law on “Soap.” “He worked with his total self. He was a very sweet man, very gentle—personally not at all like Burt. I am quite shocked that he is gone.”

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Mulligan was married four times. His last marriage was in 1992, at the age of 60, to a 32-year-old former adult-video star, Serina Robinson. The union lasted only 10 months and ended bitterly, with Mulligan suing Robinson for what he characterized as her misleading account of the breakup in a supermarket tabloid.

Mulligan had lived for more than a decade in the Larchmont area. Illness prevented him from working after his roles in the made-for-TV movie “Dog’s Best Friend” and an unsold TV pilot in 1997.

Mulligan is survived by his son James and brothers Robert and James. There will be no services, and the family has suggested donations to the American Cancer Society in lieu of flowers.

news.obits@latimes.com

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