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.

The Tony Randall Show: It May Have Been Judged Too Quickly

As we wind up our “Don’t Judge Me” blog series, today we’ve been sent to the bench to sit along side Judge Walter Franklin (Tony Randall) on The Tony Randall Show. Judge Franklin is a middle-aged, single-parent, widower living in Philadelphia. His extremely bright kids–teenage daughter Roberta (Devon Scott) and preteen son Oliver (Brad Savage) live with the judge, along with daffy housekeeper Bonnie (Rachel Roberts). At work we get to know his severe secretary “Miss” Janet Reubner (Allyn Ann McLerie), court reporter Jack Terwilliger (Barney Martin), and Mario Lanza (Zane Lasky), no not THAT Mario Lanza, but an overbearing assistant the judge does not care for. Judge Eleanor Cooper (Diana Muldaur) plays his co-worker and “lady friend.”

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In the second season, Penny Peyser took over the role of Roberta, and Hans Conried joined the cast as Walter’s father. A lot of famous guest stars found themselves in front of the judge during the two years it was on the air. A handful of stars who appeared around Judge Franklin included Victor Buono, Beverly Garland, Michael Keaton, Hal Smith, David Ogden Stiers, and Dick Van Patten.

If this sounds a little bit like the concept of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where we see a professional at work and at home, that’s because The Tony Randall Show was produced by MTM Enterprises and created by Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses. This was the duo that produced The Bob Newhart Show a few years earlier.

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The Tony Randall Show debuted on ABC in 1976. When ABC cancelled the show, it was picked up by CBS for a second season. Surprisingly, the show was not cancelled by ABC for low ratings. The show was holding its own going up against Hawaii Five-0 and Best Sellers on Thursday nights. Apparently, Patchett and Tarses did not get along with Tony Randall.  Unfortunately, they did not get along with each other either, and on top of that, they refused to take calls from ABC president Fred Silverman. Tiring of the drama, Silverman ended the show. On CBS, the show moved to Saturday nights and was on at the same time as Operation Petticoat and The Bionic Woman. When CBS cancelled the show, it was done for good.

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Reflecting on the show, Grant Tinker remembered “Tony was born to work in front of a live audience, and the writing was largely first rate. Ultimately, however, three strong egos could not live together. Since Tony was obviously essential, Tom and Jay retreated to their office and oversaw from a distance, giving two of MTM’s younger writers, Hugh Wilson and Gary David Goldberg their first chance to produce.” (Wilson would go on to create WKRP in Cincinnati and Goldberg would create Family Ties and Brooklyn Bridge.)

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At least this turmoil produced some good results. Goldberg said from his time on The Tony Randall Show, he learned you need to hire good people and let them do their job, and that if you have to remind people you are the producer, you’re probably not a very good one.

Ken Levine discussed working with Randall in his blog from June of 2007 (kenlevine.blogspot.com/2007/06/working-with-tony-randall.html). According to Levine, Randall “was the consummate professional. Not only did he know all of his lines, he knew everyone else’s too. . . . I loved working with Tony Randall. Of course, it helped that he thought I was funny and that I didn’t smoke.”

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Everyone seemed to enjoy working with Randall. In a Television Academy interview, Asaad Kelada, one of the directors for the show, described Randall as a “fascinating, erudite, funny man.” He talked about the way he warmed up an audience before the show with his stories. It must have been a fun set sometimes because Kelada said he used to wear a sweater over his shoulders, and it became his trademark. One day he said there was a bit of extra energy on the set, and he suddenly realized absolutely everyone on set from the cameramen to gophers to stars were wearing sweaters, blankets, or towels around their shoulders. The Television Academy also did interviews with Abby Singer, production manager for the show, and Hugh Wilson about his writing and producing. Singer said Randall was “a good guy.” When asked if the rumors that Randall was particular were true, he said “Yes, he was so particular it was unbelievable. You couldn’t even whisper when he was on the set, but he was a sweet guy.” Wilson backed their comments up, saying “It was super to work with Tony Randall. He was a vast library of show business information and very nice.”

Despite all the problems on the set, Randall was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role of Judge Franklin. He lost to Henry Winkler for Happy Days.

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I could not find any official DVDs for The Tony Randall Show, but some of the episodes can be found online. It sounds like the show had all the right ingredients but either did not have enough time to find its true voice or appeared a bit too late in the 1970s at a time when things were changing in television programming. Anytime you can watch Tony Randall on the small screen (or the big screen for that matter) is a special opportunity.