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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.’”
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.