Family Ties Bind Us Together

Last week’s blog was about Meredith Baxter.  Today we are taking a more in-depth look at one of the shows she is best known for, Family Ties.

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Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse Keaton (Meredith Baxter) are liberal ex-hippies with three children when the show starts out: super conservative son Alex (Michael J. Fox), shopping maven, boy-crazy daughter Mallory (Justine Bateman), and easy-going Jennifer (Tina Yothers). Later they have a baby and Andrew (Brian Bonsall) is added to the family. The name Keaton was a tribute to Diane Keaton. (One fun fact is that Both Baxter and Gross had the same birthday, being born June 21, 1947.)

The concept was based on the life of Gary David Goldberg and his wife Diane when they transitioned from flower children to suburban family. Goldberg explained that “It really was just an observation of what was going on in my own life with my own friends. We were these old, kind of radical people, and all of a sudden, you’re in the mainstream . . . now you’ve got these kids and you’ve empowered them, and they’re super intelligent, and they’re definitely to the right of where you are. They don’t understand what’s wrong with having money and moving forward.”

Debuting in 1982, the show was on for seven years, producing 172 episodes.

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Originally Ed O’Neill was considered for the role of Steven, and Matthew Broderick was slated to play Alex. When Broderick’s father became ill, he had to decline. (Broderick’s father played Baxter’s father on the show Family in the 1970s.) Another source simply stated that Broderick decided he didn’t want to move to LA. Fox made the role his own and won three Emmys. Despite his disdain of his parents’ ethics and lack of materialism, Alex was a likable character. When Goldberg explained why he liked Alex but not Alex’s philosophy, he said, “With Alex, I did not think I was creating a sympathetic character. Those were not traits that I aspired to and didn’t want my kids to aspire to, actually . . . But at the end of Family Ties, when we went off the air, then The New York Times had done a piece and they said, ‘Greed with the face of an angel.’ And I think that’s true . . . [Michael J. Fox] would make things work, and the audience would simply not access the darker side of what he’s actually saying.”

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Steven and Elyse went to school in Berkeley; he is now the manager of a public radio station in Columbus, Ohio and Elyse majored in architecture.  Although she has been a stay-at-home mom, during the run of the show, she is now ready to return to work.

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Fox with Scott Valentine, Mallory’s boyfriend Nick

Rounding out the cast was Alex’s friend Skippy (Marc Price), Mallory’s boyfriend Nick (Scott Valentine), and Ellen (Tracy Pollan) who was Fox’s girlfriend and later wife in real life.

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The theme song is a memorable one. “Without Us” was written by Jeff Barry and Tom Scott. For the first season, it was performed by Dennis Tufano and Mindy Sterling, and for some reason, it switched to Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams for the rest of the show’s run.

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Freddie J. Rymond was the set decorator for the show. In an article “The Set Design of Family Ties” by Cathy Whitlock in 2012, we catch a glimpse of the thought process of Rymond’s creation.

“Rymond explains, ’Most sitcoms evolved around the living room in those days, and they all pretty much had the same furnishings. Rymond received numerous requests from viewers regarding the kitchen set’s appliances; of particular interest was the Wolf commercial-style range, an item that was gaining popularity in the consumer-driven ’80s. Executive producer Gary David Goldberg, who was very specific about the set’s decor, had a Wolf range in his home in Los Angeles. The kitchen was the epicenter of the Keaton family’s activity and one of the multi-camera sitcom’s three primary sets. . . At its best, set decor defines and supports a character—here, hanging above the bed of Alex P. Keaton is a poster of conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr., rather than, say, Farrah Fawcett, who was probably the more popular poster subject of the time. The bedside WKS lamp comes from the local public television station where father Steven Keaton works. Rymond used what he called a ‘conglomeration’ of accessories to decorate youngest daughter and resident tomboy Jennifer’s bedroom. A pop-cultural mélange consisting of a Cleveland Browns pennant, a white iron–and-brass bed, and a world-globe throw pillow round out the set. Mom and dad Elyse and Steven’s master bedroom was reminiscent of so many interiors of the ’80s—shelves filled with clutter and white porcelain figurines, tchotchkes and knickknacks from a lifetime of family vacations.

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Although the show was a comedy, it tackled some dark subjects including alcoholism, incest, and death. In one of the earliest episodes, Mallory is scared and confused when “Uncle Arthur, a close friend of the family and her father’s co-worker at the television station, makes a pass at her. Meanwhile, Steven prepares a farewell tribute to Arthur to air during the station’s pledge drive. In season five, Alex works with a renowned professor on an economics paper. Reviewing the final content, he finds the hypothesis is incorrect, but the professor wants to submit it with false data. During the final season, the Keatons are delighted by a surprise visit from Elyse’s Aunt Rosemary. The family starts to notice a difference in her actions, and Rosemary finally admits she is becoming forgetful. A doctor diagnoses the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The finale was a very emotional time for the entire cast. In an article “Cutting the ‘Family Ties’” by Daniel Cerone on May 2, 1989, some of the stars discuss what the week was like. In the final episode, Alex gets his dream job on Wall Street and is moving to New York City.

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The article interviewed the cast. “‘We taped the last episode in front of an audience of family and friends,’ said 27-year-old Michael J. Fox, who joined the show in 1982 as an unknown Canadian-born actor and parlayed his role as the conservative, wise-cracking Alex Keaton into a flourishing film career. ‘I was fine until the curtain call, then I started weeping. I felt like an idiot, until I looked around and realized I had company.’ Baxter also commented on the end of the show, ‘This week has been so much more grueling than anyone expected,’ said Meredith Baxter Birney, who plays Alex’s mother, Elyse Keaton. ‘Everyone involved thought the show would just sort of take care of itself. No one was prepared for what we went through. It was awful.’”

Goldberg also discussed the finale, “‘Last night was extraordinarily emotional,’ agreed 44-year-old Gary David Goldberg, whose UBU Productions produces ‘Family Ties’ in association with Paramount Network Television. ‘It was a very surreal feeling. We started a half-hour late because everyone was crying and we had to redo their makeup. The sadness is overwhelming. It’s like raising a great kid who you love to have around, and then he has to leave you and go to college.’”

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Although the show was based on the differences between the generations, it was not their differences that made the show one of the most-watched sitcoms of the decade. Despite their range of values, the kids loved and respected their parents. The parents truly liked their kids. While the show was very funny, it was also heart-warming. There was unconditional love in the family. Alex could be very sarcastic to Mallory, but then we would see them having an intimate conversation in the kitchen late at night. While the elements that separated the characters is what drew us to the show, it was the qualities and love that they shared that kept us coming back.

What’s Going On? Nothing. Then It Must Be Seinfeld.

August 13 is International Left Handers Day. Looking at classic television shows, there are plenty of famous left handers to celebrate including Pierce Brosnan from Remington Steel, Lisa Kudrow from Friends, Sarah Jessica Parker from Square Pegs, Goldie Hawn from Laugh In, Bruce Willis from Moonlighting, Mary Kate Olsen from Full House, Drew Carey from The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Tim Allen from Home Improvement and Last Man Standing, and Ed O’Neill from Married . . . with Children and Modern Family.

Any of these actors would be worth writing a blog on, but today we are going to concentrate on a show that featured two left handers: Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander. Seinfeld celebrated the continuing misadventures of neurotic New York City stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his equally neurotic New York City friends.

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This show, always defined as being about nothing, was on for nine years, producing 173 episodes. The show featured one of the most unique concepts for a sitcom.  Like Burns and Allen, Jerry Seinfeld stars as himself, a comedian. He and three of his closest friends live in New York City and we get to listen in to their conversations, adventures, and boring daily chores. Each of the main characters has his or her own quirky traits.

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Debuting in 1989, the show was created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. The characters were based on people they knew. Jerry’s best friend was George Costanza (Jason Alexander). His ex-girlfriend and now close friend Elaine Benes (Julia Louis Dreyfus) was often stopping by his apartment to discuss life. Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), known as “Kramer,” lived across the hall from Jerry.

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Jerry is usually the calm in the storm in the group, handing out advice and being the voice of reason. He is a germaphobe and a neat freak. He always has a box or two of cereal on top of his refrigerator and we often see him eating it. He also loves the Mets. Jerry was an Abbot and Costello fan in real life and if you watch the show closely, you will see many references to the show and the actors.

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George has been Jerry’s friend since high school. He has a lot of poor traits including being cheap, a liar, and often petty. He often uses an alias, Art Vandelay, as part of his elaborate lies. However, he is loyal to Jerry.  Other actors considered for the role were Danny DeVito, Nathan Lane, David Alan Grier, Kevin Dunn, and Brad Hall.

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Elaine is trying to find Mr. Right but has to date a lot of Mr. Wrongs to get there. She is sometimes to honest for her own good. She has several jobs during the course of the series. Dreyfus beat out Rosie O’Donnell, Patricia Heaton, Mariska Hargitay, Jessica Lundy, Amy Yasbeck, and Megan Mullally for the role.

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Kramer is his wacky neighbor. He wears vintage clothes and is a bit naïve, but intelligent and caring.  As Kramer (Michael Richards) became more popular, his entrance applause grew so prolonged, that the cast complained it was ruining the pacing of their scenes. Directors subsequently asked the audience not to applaud so much when Kramer entered.

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Another recurring character on the show is Newman played by Wayne Knight. Newman lives in the same apartment building as Jerry. He’s a mailman. He bonds with Kramer but doesn’t like Jerry at all.

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Many episodes are based on real life experiences of Seinfeld and David.  Characters and plots from past shows are often referenced or expanded on. Like real life friends who have inside jokes, several themes reappear. Plots are often everyday activities. In one show, Jerry, George, and Elaine spend the episode waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant.

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Like Friends, it truly was an ensemble cast. While the audience loved Kramer, each of the characters was equally important. In a May 14, 2018 Variety story, authored by Scott Huver, who was reflecting on the popularity of the show, Jason was discussing the last episode. His quote sums up how crucial they all were: “And he (Jerry) said this really beautiful thing. He said, ‘For the rest of our lives when anybody thinks of one of us, they will think of the four of us, and I can’t think of any people that I would rather have that be true of.’ And as we all began to weep over the fact that Jerry had said that, that’s when they started calling our names and we had to go out and pretend that everything’s just hunky dory.”

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Unlike many other shows, Seinfeld was slow to gain a fan following. In season four, they finally it the top 30.  However, the show ranked number one for its entire final year.

Jerry Seinfeld received five Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, but never won. The show was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series from 1992-1998 but only won the Emmy in 1993.

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Jerry Seinfeld turned down an offer from NBC that would have made him one hundred ten million dollars for a tenth season of the show.  There was talk this past year about a Seinfeld revival. After watching Will and Grace’s revival, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Rarely do revivals live up to their predecessor’s quality.

The finale was viewed by 76 million people. Many fans found the show offensive. The entire group of friends are taken to jail for violating the Good Samaritan law in Massachusetts. They watch an overweight man being robbed and instead of getting help, they mock him.

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None of the friends did the right thing, but perhaps Seinfeld and Alexander can be excused since they were left-handed. Finales are tough especially for a much-beloved show and this one did not do the show justice. In my opinion, it deserved a more creative going away party.

“The Ultimate Definition of Success is to Repeat It” says Jeffrey Benjamin

After reading about That Girl and what a tough time Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell had finding new roles that did not stereotype them as Don and Ann, I thought about actors who were able to transcend that hurdle.  I could think of numerous actors and actresses who were able to have two important television roles.  Mary Tyler Moore began as Laura Petrie but Mary Richards was also a strong character.  Ron Howard grew up from Opie Taylor to Richie Cunningham.  Kristy McNichol lived out her adolescence in Family and then moved to Florida as Barbara in Empty Nest.

I started to do some research and found the following actors who had numerous television series.

Alan Alda – Of course, his iconic role was Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H.  From 1972-83 he kept us laughing or crying in Korea.  Since M*A*S*H he has taken on roles in several television series including ER (1999), West Wing (2004-06), 30 Rock (2009-10), The Big C (2011-13), and The Blacklist (2013-14).

Fun Fact:  He got his start on the Phil Silvers Show in 1957.

 

Meredith Baxter – Most people remember her as Elyse Keaton in Family Ties (1982-89), but for me it was Nancy in Family (1976-80).  Other shows include Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-73), The Faculty (1996), Cold Case (2006-07), The Young and the Restless (2014), and Finding Carter (2014-15).

Fun Fact:  Her mother was Whitney Blake, Missy on Hazel.

 

Sally Field – I think most people will always think of Sally Field as the Flying Nun (1967-70).  Her first show was Gidget (1965-66). As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, she had a role in the forgettable Hey Landlord (1967) and she was The Girl with Something Extra (1973-74).  Like Alan Alda, she also had a recurring role in ER (2000-06), and her most recent show is Brothers and Sisters (2006-11).

Fun  Fact:  She won an Emmy for her appearance on ER.

 

John Forsythe – While younger people only know him as the voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) or Blake Carrington from The Colbys (1980-86) which led to Dynasty (1981-89), one of my favorite sitcoms of all is Bachelor Father which John starred as Bentley Greg from 1957-62.  Before Bachelor Father, he starred in Lights Out (1951-2), Suspense (1951-52) and Studio One (1949-55). Before Charlie’s Angels, he was in the John Forsythe Show (1965-66) and To Rome with Love (1969-71). His last show was The Powers That Be (1992-93).

Fun Fact: Along with Harry Morgan and Meredith Baxter, he was on episodes of The Love Boat.

 

Harry Morgan – Harry Morgan is the king of shows, with 12 series to his credit.  He is probably best remembered for three of them–Pete and Gladys (1960-62), Dragnet (1967), and M*A*S*H (1974-83). His first sitcom was December Bride (1954-59) which spun off Pete and Gladys.  In the 60s before Dragnet he was in Kentucky Jones (1964-65) and Dr. Kildare (1965).  The seventies saw him in Hec Ramsey (1972-74) and Gunsmoke (1970-75).  After M*A*S*H, he literally was in After M*A*S*H (1983-85), Blacke’s Magic (1986), You Can’t Take It With You (1987-88), and Third Rock From the Sun (1996-97).

Fun Fact:  He was in an episode of the Partridge Family in the first season.

 

Bob Newhart – Bob Newhart gets the award for having the most shows with his name it in.  Fans fondly remember The Bob Newhart Show set in Chicago when he played Dr. Hartley (1972-78) or Newhart where he was the inn owner Dick Loudon (1982-90).  His first show was The Bob Newhart Show (1961).  After Newhart, he tried out Bob (1992-93) and George and Leo (1997-98).  Like Alan Alda and Sally Field, he also had a recurring role on ER (2003) and most recently has had a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory (2013-15).

Fun Fact:  The 1982-90 show had the best finale ever when the show ended with Bob in bed with his wife from the 1972-78 series thinking Newhart had been a dream.

 

Ed O’Neill – If any actor should have been stereotyped after a role, Ed O’Neill seemed doomed after Al Bundy in Married. . . With Children (1987-97), yet he now has an even bigger hit in Modern Family as Jay Pritchett (2009-16).  In between he was on the Big Apple (2001), Dragnet (2003-4), a remake of Harry Morgan’s show, and John From Cincinnati (2007).  Like Alan Alda, he took on a role on The West Wing (2004-05).

Fun Fact:  He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969 but was cut in training camp.

 

Dick Van Dyke – Finally, we have Dick Van Dyke.  Before I researched this blog, I thought he and Bob Newhart might have the most sitcoms to their credit.  He comes in with only four starring shows overall.  Like Bob, he never wanted to stray far from his name:  We had the iconic Dick Van Dyke Show as Rob Petrie (1961-66), The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-74), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1988), and then Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001). Like so many of these actors who have something in common with Alan Alda, Dick Van Dyke’s first appearance in a sitcom was also The Phil Silvers Show (1957-8).

Fun Fact:  He can trace his family line back to the Mayflower.

 

Why do some stars get locked into a role that they are never able to separate themselves from?  Think Henry Winkler as the Fonz, Lucille Ball as Lucy, or Don Knotts as Barney.  I think part of it is that we get so attached to these characters we almost want to believe they are real and the actor moving on destroys that image.

The above actors all had different situations that allowed them to move on more easily.  Alan Alda never had that hit show again.  After M*A*S*H, he took on dramatic recurring roles.  Meredith Baxter was in a  mixed genre of shows. Of her two hit shows, one was a drama, Family, and one a sitcom, Family Ties.  Dick Van Dyke had the same formula:  The first Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom, and Diagnosis: Murder, an action/mystery series.  John Forsythe and Harry Morgan came into show business during the golden days of television.  They were able to have extremely successful shows and characters and then start over.  Forsythe had 10 series to his credit, Morgan had 12. Sally Field, although starting out in television, was certainly better known as a movie actress.  Audiences were seeing her on the big screen as other characters so they perhaps don’t pigeon hole her into one role so much.  Ed O’Neill actually had success on two sitcoms about families.  Maybe Jay Pritchett is so successful because he shows what Al Bundy may have been like growing up in a more enlightened era where the fathers help parent and run the house.  And Bob Newhart, I think, was successful because he actually plays the same character in most of his shows, and we love that character so we keep looking for him, no matter what the show is actually titled.