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.

Family: The Perfect Blend of Intelligent Writing, Superb Acting, and Warm Fuzzy Feelings

This month we are doing a 1980s Rewind, looking at some memorable shows from that decade. We start with one of my all-time favorite series, Family. I think this is one of the most disrespected and underrated shows from the past fifty years. It had an amazing cast, and the scripts were intelligent and well written.

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The show ran on ABC from 1976-1980, producing 86 episodes. The critically acclaimed show had three well-known producers: Leonard Goldberg, Aaron Spelling, and Mike Nichols. Jay Presson Allen created the series, and she wrote every episode.

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Kate (Sada Thompson) and Doug (James Broderick) Lawrence are an upper middle-class couple living in Pasadena, CA. They have three children: Nancy (Meredith Baxter Birney), Willie (Gary Frank), and Letitia (Kristy McNichol), known as Buddy. Doug is a lawyer, hoping to become a judge. He is a warm-hearted person who often finds humor in their family situations. Kate is a practical woman but can come across as a cold woman. She can be quite passionate and loves her family very much but has trouble showing a lot of affection. She always does what she feels is morally right. She has sacrificed her dreams to stay home and raise her family. Later in the show she does go back to school to major in music.

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The original cast with Elayne Heilveil as Nancy

In the pilot, Nancy was played by Elayne Heilveil, but Meredith Baxter Birney took over the role once the series began. Cheryl Ladd also auditioned for the part of Nancy. Spelling remembered her and later cast her in Charlie’s Angels. Nancy finds her husband Jeff (John Rubinstein) in the act of cheating on her and moves back to her parents’ home, living in their guest house with her son Timmy. Even though Nancy and Jeff are divorced, they are friends, and he appears on the show often and is involved in Timmy’s life. The Lawrences also had a son named Timmy who died when he was little. Nancy and her mother often butt heads. In the second season, Nancy decides to go to law school and is very successful.

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Willie is always trying to find himself and can’t quite decide who he is. He has a high IQ but drops out of school. He dreams of being a writer and later works for a photography studio for a while.

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Buddy was a tweenager. Buddy is a tomboy and well liked by her friends and family. She had two famous boyfriends during the show: TJ played by Willie Aames and Leif Garrett. Buddy is much closer to her mother than Nancy is. Nancy and Buddy have a trying relationship too, although they both want to be closer. Willie and Buddy are very close.

Everyone in our actual families could find someone in the show to relate to. I notice myself looking at the show from a different perspective now than I did in my teen years.

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There were 24 different directors during the series’ run. Richard Kinon directed almost 25 percent of the shows. Kinon had directed episodes of many classic shows including Bewitched, Hogan’s Heroes, The Patty Duke Show, The Partridge Family, Room 222, and That Girl. After Family, he would direct a quarter of The Love Boat episodes. James Broderick directed four of the episodes. Not surprising for me was learning that Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick also tried their hand at directing. Both of them were also listed as producers and writers of the show. They would later go on to help create thirtysomething, a show we’ll learn about next week. Both men were also involved with Once and Again and Nashville, among other shows.

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The storylines were very realistic and handled with delicacy and intelligence. Some of the topics the show tackled included breast cancer, infidelity, senility, divorce, adoption, terminal illness as well as the typical teenage issues faced by most youth.

In the last season, the Lawrences adopt Annie Cooper (Quinn Cummings) after her parents are killed in a car accident. They were her parents’ friends and their choice for guardians if anything happened to them.

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Rubinstein who played Jeff composed the theme music. Apparently, he inherited some musical genes from his father, Arthur Rubinstein, the famous classical musician. He has continued his dual career in both acting and composing since the show ended.

A couple other cast members also had famous relatives. Broderick’s son is Matthew Broderick, actor, and Baxter Birney’s mother was Whitney Blake who played Missy on Hazel, among other roles.

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The show was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 1977, 1978, and 1980. Thompson, Frank and McNichol all won Emmys, and Broderick and Baxter Birney were nominated as well.

I could not find a reason for it, but only the first two seasons have been released on DVD and that was in 2006. I have not seen the show in syndication for many years.

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One of my favorite television homes: the Lawrence house

Plans were made for a 1988 reunion movie. James Broderick had passed away, but he rest of the cast was on board. When the writers went on strike, the project was placed on hold and later dropped from production.

I watched a few of the episodes from season one. The show still holds up today.  Although it closely mirrored the social issues from its era, those topics are still relevant today. It may have included some melodrama, but it never was about melodrama.  It contained enough humor to offset the tragedy just like real life. Doug and Kate had strong moral values and they passed them on to their children but understood life was changing and they could not be close minded.

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Jay Presson Allen

Jay Presson Allen brought insightful writing to every script, but the incredible acting brought the characters to life.

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 13: FAMILY – cast gallery – Season Three – 9/13/77, Sada Thompson (Kate), (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Sada Thompson was not overly affectionate but calmed her children down and could discuss anything with them. They relied on her guidance and wisdom. She embodied class and elegance. I was surprised to learn that Lear had hired her to play Archie Bunker’s blue-collar neighbor, a plumber named Irene Lorenzo for All in the Family. I was not surprised to learn that Betty Garrett replaced her in the role because Sada had too much genuine class and didn’t yell loud enough for Lear. James Broderick discussed working with Thompson. He said he “was only one of her many fans. Sada is about as close as we get in this country to the British super actresses like Dame Edith Evans and Dame May Whitty. I’m sure if Sada lived in England, the Queen would have dubbed her Dame Sada a long time ago.”

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 21: FAMILY – cast gallery – Season Four – 9/21/78, James Broderick (Doug), (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Broderick flawlessly captured the fun nature of Doug Lawrence. Doug left the disciplining up to his wife most of the time and was not as serious as his wife. Doug and Kate were also very affectionate with each other.

FAMILY, Meredith Baxter Birney (aka Meredith Baxter), 1976-80
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Baxter Birney was the perfect combination of brains and beauty who wanted to be the wife and mother she saw in her mom as well as the respected lawyer she saw in her father.

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Frank portrayed the young adult who couldn’t figure out what he wanted from life. He was not a “sit behind the desk kind of guy,” but needed to make a living. Willie was more interested in the humanities and finding meaning in life. He always seemed to be in difficult relationships.  Early in his adult years, he fell head over heels in love only to find out she was pregnant before they met and she left him eventually but weaved in and out of his life for years. He later met his soul mate, but she had terminal cancer, so even though they married, they only had a short time together.

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McNichol was believable as a young girl moving into her teens and dealing with all the stress and changes teens go through.  She was funny, silly and loveable and could be irritating occasionally and whiny, just like teens are. McNichol appeared very mature for her age and seemed to have everything under control, but it was a façade. She said she “was like a miniature adult.” She’d go off to the set “every day with a little briefcase. I really think I grew up backwards.” Dinah Manoff, who guest starred on Family before acting on Empty Nest with McNichol said “Kris was the most adult kid I’d ever met. She didn’t even have to study her lines. They’d hand them to her right before she walked out on the set.”  Thompson once remembered that the adults “used to talk about how amazing it was that Kristy didn’t appear to feel any of the pressures of growing up as a successful child actress. The cost is enormous, you know, but Kristy didn’t seem to be paying it.” Unfortunately, she paid it with interest a few years after the show ended. When she was a young adult, she began to rebel and made some very poor choices, trying to recapture the childhood that she never got to experience.

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I don’t remember a lot about the role of Annie Cooper. Once Buddy began growing up, she was brought in to continue storylines kids could relate to. She had just been nominated for an Academy award for The Good-bye Girl and seemed to transition into the show easily.

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Hopefully the rest of the seasons are released on DVD so we can continue to appreciate the remarkable blend of writing, acting, and directing that was featured on this show.

Family–that says it all: joyful, heart-breaking, boring, exciting. loving, conflict and everything in between.