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Video: ‘Family Ties’ 20 years later

By
TODAY contributor
updated 2/7/2008 11:58:48 AM ET 2008-02-07T16:58:48

The principal cast of  “Family Ties” all gathered for the first time in 18 years on Thursday to help promote a new memoir by the creator of the iconic 1980s television sitcom, Gary David Goldberg.

The idea had been for Goldberg to be on TODAY alone to promote “Sit, Ubu, Sit,” whose title is taken from the tagline of the show that ran on NBC for seven seasons, ending in 1989. But the cast members, including Michael J. Fox, wanted to be on with Goldberg to celebrate the show, its success and the careers it launched.

“Had it not been for this book, we would not have had this reunion,’ said Michael Gross, who played Steven Keaton, the father of the clan. “This is the first time in about 18 years that we have all been on the same piece of real estate at the same time.”

Sitting in the TODAY studio in two rows of director’s chairs, the six cast members needed no time to catch up on all the time that had passed. “We are all instantly again who we were 25 years ago when we all met,” Goldberg told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer.

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Goldberg was a late bloomer in the Hollywood writing business. A sometime actor from Brooklyn who led a gypsy lifestyle with his dog, Ubu, and the woman who would become his wife, Diana Meehan, Goldberg was 30 when he took up writing. He was 38 in 1982 when NBC bought his pilot, “Family Ties,” about a nuclear family of five. (Another child, Andy, played by Brian Bonsall, would be added later.)

“By one of these quirks in the time-space continuum, we were the only nuclear family on television,” said Goldberg, and that immediately set the program apart.

As the nation settled into the Ronald Reagan years, the show would be preceded on the NBC menu by the Huxtable family in “The Cosby Show,” giving the network the No. 1 and No. 2 shows on television. It was followed by “Cheers,” another highly popular show. At its height, “Family Ties” was watched by a third of America’s television audience.

“We caught the crest of a wave there,” said Fox, who played Alex P. Keaton, the ultraconservative, success-obsessed son. “We thought we were having fun with it, but it was having fun with us,” he said of the show. “It was big, it was huge.”

It’s a mystery of life why some shows are popular and others aren’t. Goldberg writes in his book that readers have to connect with a sitcom family and want to be like that family. They also have to believe by watching the show, they’ll learn how to become a better family themselves. (Read an excerpt from Goldberg’s memoir, “Sit, Ubu, Sit”)

But the characters dictate where the show is going to go, and “Family Ties” was no different. Goldberg’s original idea was to have it revolve around the liberal parents, Steven Keaton, a bearded public-television executive, and his wife, Elyse, played by Meredith Baxter, an architect. But it soon became about the children, especially the buttoned-down character of Alex played by Fox.

“The thing about a sitcom is it’s going to take on a life of its own,” said Justine Bateman, who played daughter Mallory. The youngest daughter, Jennifer, was played by Tina Yothers, who was 8 when the show started; she revealed that she had the flu when she auditioned and almost threw up on set.

“I felt if they saw me throwing up, I wouldn’t have a job tomorrow,” she said, to which Goldberg replied with a laugh, “If she had thrown up she would have been fired.”

Goldberg also confessed that he wanted to cast another young actor, Matthew Broderick, who was then an unknown actor four years away from his breakout title role in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” in the role of Alex. But Broderick was acting in New York and didn’t want to move to California.

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Fox had auditioned for the role, but Goldberg thought he was too much of a smart aleck and rejected him. A production assistant nagged Goldberg into bringing Fox back for a second audition, at which he won the role.

It was a lucky thing for Fox and Hollywood, and he’s said he was on the verge of giving up his dream of an acting career to go home to Canada when he landed the part.

“I was eating cardboard,” he said. “I was playing duck-the-landlord. It was bad. It was bad.”

All said that what made the show work for so long was the selflessness of the cast and their genuine affection for one another. “You’re looking not only at a talented cast, but some of the most important people in my life,” Goldberg said.

“There was the humor, we were very topical,” said Gross. “Every episode ended with a group hug.”

NBC wanted to do an eighth season of the show and offered the cast an enormous amount of money to do it, but they all felt it had gone far enough.

“I’d say creatively, for myself, whatever goals I had, had been met,” Goldberg said. “We didn’t want to abuse our relationship with the audience.”

Goldberg would later produce “Brooklyn Bridge” and reunite with Fox on “Spin City.” In that second partnership, the two had what are euphemistically called “creative differences” and didn’t speak for more than a year after the show ended. The two have reconciled and stay in touch regularly, and Fox insisted on coming to the TODAY Show, despite the Parkinson’s disease that affects his coordination and speech, to be with Goldberg.

Viewer e-mail answered

The cast returned later with TODAY’s Al Roker to answer some of the many e-mails readers had sent in, including one that asked about the peripheral characters Andy Keaton, neighbor Skippy Handelman (Marc Price), and aspiring artist Nick Moore (Scott Valentine).

Here’s a transcript:

Q: What happened to Andrew, Skippy and Nick? — Nancy, Interlaken, N.J.

Goldberg: They wanted too much money to be here. [Joking] We had to cut them off — Brian Bonsall is doing very well. I think he lives in Colorado. Scott Valentine is doing really well in California. We’re going to see him next week. I’m not actually sure where Marc Price is.

Q: Do you think “Family Ties” could be on the air today? — Christina

Baxter: It would certainly stand out and be different because there aren’t that many family shows. People want to see what goes on in families; you’re not seeing that reflected much today.

Gross: If the divorce rate is still as bad as it is, I think people would love to see an intact American family. I think that’s one of the reasons we did as well as we did, because families are in crisis in a way. This was a family that held together — a lot of difficult children.

Yothers: In the reality-TV era we live in today, I think people would be refreshed watching a show like “Family Ties.”

Goldberg: I would say no, because I don’t think the network executives are smart enough to put it on and give it the kind of attention it would need to stay on. There’s such fear in the business right now. There’s just a bunch of kind of craven people making the decisions, and they wouldn’t have the courage to let the show gradually grow.

Fox: There’s a generalness that doesn’t exist in terms of television. It’s all so fast. I was listening to the theme song, the “Family Ties” theme song. They don’t make theme songs anymore because that time’s too expensive. Just hearing that song and knowing it’s time to close the fridge and go sit down and watch the show — that’s gone now.

Roker: We’re getting a lot of questions, Michael, about you and your health. How are you doing?

Fox: I’m doing well. It’s a progressive condition, so it progresses. But then I’m a progressive person, so I progress as well. I have four great kids, and an unbelievable wife, who I got from the show. I’m totally blessed. We all got our bag of hammers and this is mine. I look around and people have a lot harder things to deal with.

Q: [For Tina] Were there any pressures from the producers to keep your weight at a certain level? — Marilyn

Yothers: No. They would all give me carrot sticks to eat — if that’s pressure. [Laughs] I was a big kid. Next to Justine and Meredith, I was two times their size.

Fox: She could beat me in an arm-wrestling contest.

Bateman: The greater pressure we all put on ourselves was just to excel with the material, to be really funny and have our acting have depth with the issues we were dealing with.

Q: What is your favorite show memory and why? — Virginia

Baxter: It’s gotta be the water fight. We started out with little small water guns. [Turns to Fox] But you sent your assistant out who came back with one of these big mother things.

Fox: I was a 22-year-old with an assistant and too much money: “Take the Ferrari. Get water guns.”

Bateman: The stage was soaked. We soaked the place.

Gross: We marked our territory.

Yothers: People thought I was the only kid on the set and they were way off.

Gross: We had a running thing — “Tag, you’re it,” and I tagged her at the final wrap party 18 years ago and Tina’s still “it.”

Fox: There’s so many moments. To show up every week and ... seeing these faces, and this is my family. Just that — the feeling you’re part of something, to be given a second family just out of nowhere. You’re just blessed with these people.

Gross: [Before doing “Family Ties,” he had been doing theater and rarely watched TV. He had no idea what Hollywood was like.] I thought all shows were this well run, all casts got along this well and all shows were this well written. Boy, did I take it for granted. I had no idea.

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