Family Ties was a classic 1980’s sitcom that explored the growing cultural divide between the hippie movement of the 1960’s and the more conservative movement that was currently going on in the 80’s. The show’s creator, Gary David Goldberg had noticed a growing trend where parents who came from the free love and liberalized ‘60s were having kids who were distancing themselves from those ways of thinking. Instead, they were getting into the more materialistic and conservative views of the Reagan era. Goldberg thought this contrast would make for an excellent family dynamic. So he created the show around a family of two former hippies who had 3 kids. (Later on, a 4th joined the group to coincide with actress Meredith Baxter’s actual pregnancy.) The eldest son was Alex, who began the show already espousing the conservative views of the now prevalent “Reagan Revolution.” The show ran on NBC for seven seasons, from 1982 to 1989, and was a hit for the network. It also created a breakout star in Michael J. Fox, who was able to catapult his success on the show into a major film career in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In this video, we’re taking some behind the scenes looks at Family Ties! So stay tuned, as Facts Verse presents: Family Ties Cast Finally Addresses Behind-the-Scenes Drama!
The Show Is More Relevant Than Ever
In 2020, the cast came together for a reunion over Zoom. They talked for a while about their memories from the show, and how it could actually act as a model for the way people should be able to converse and connect with people they disagree with. Steven Gross, who played the father, Steven Keaton, remarked on how the politics in the 1980’s was a much more kind and respectful time, and that even those at the height of political power were often able to find ways to work with each other. He cited the famous stories of President Reagan fighting all day with Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, but then at night drinking whiskey with him and having civil conversations. Gross lamented the fact that these days there is a lack of that kind of respect and civility. And he said he loved the fact that even though the show was set around basic political disagreements and differences in viewpoints, the family was always able to sit around their kitchen table and come to compromises, and speak with civility to each other. Tina Yothers, who played Jennifer Keaton, echoed his sentiments. She talked about how she has two teenage kids, and she’s trying to find ways to teach them how to navigate through society and democracy in general without developing hatred for those who disagree with them. She said “we need to definitely come back to the Keaton’s kitchen table.” Meredith Baxter, who played mother Elyse Keaton, was happy to report that in her family there are plenty of political divides, but that everyone gets along. Perhaps this was influenced by years of sitting at the Keaton table!
Literal Character Changes
The role of Alex P. Keaton turned Michael J. Fox into an overnight sensation. He made the part his own, even ad-libbing the “p” in his character’s name during his audition. The producers enjoyed that so much they added it into the script. But before Fox was able to take on the part, it was originally given to another now-famous actor: Matthew Broderick. Matthew, like Fox, was a young up and comer, who emanated a fresh faced and innocent vibe, with elements of wisdom and sarcasm. Gary David Goldberg thought he’d be perfect for a conservative and preppy 80’s youngster, and actually cast him in the part. But to Goldberg’s surprise, Broderick turned him down. At the time, he wasn’t living in LA, and he didn’t want to make the move just to try out a new sitcom. Obviously no one knew at that point the major hit it would become. Regardless, the decision was a frustrating one for Goldberg. He then began looking and more and more audition tapes, reportedly shaking his head in frustration with each one. Finally, he saw Michael J. Fox’s tape. At first, he was less than impressed. He felt he had played the part too condescending and snarky. But casting director Judith Weiner saw something in Fox. She convinced Goldberg to bring him in to the studio and test in person. She also coached Fox to play the character more earnestly, which he did. Goldberg was blown away. He offered Fox the part, and the rest is history.
Figurative Character Changes
The role of Mallory was a classic “dumb” sitcom character. Her lack of intelligence became the source of many jokes, especially juxtaposed to her brother, the brilliant Alex. And when most people think back on the show, that’s the primary dynamic they remember. But that wasn’t always the case. Mallory, played by Justine Bateman, wasn’t supposed to be a dumb character. Originally, she was written as a middle of the road, normal sister. In fact, in the pilot episode, there was a reference to her being quite smart. In the episode, she talks about how much she is enjoying being a cheerleader. In particular, she loves that she can bring smiles to people’s faces as she does it. And then she likens herself to a famous mathematician and philosopher, Albert Schweitzer. She joked that she was Albert, but with pom poms. So clearly the producers, at that point, didn’t intend for her to be a dumb character. But they eventually changed their minds. At one point, Alex made fun of Mallory, and in the moment, Mallory assumed it was a compliment. That resulted in a huge laugh from the studio audience. As soon as the producers noticed that, they made the decision that they’d lean into that aspect of the character. So they quickly made Mallory less and less smart, which was ultimately the source of a lot of great jokes throughout the series.
You might assume that these big time sitcom stars all rode onto the lot each day in fancy cars. But, at least, at the beginning that was far from the truth. Reportedly, at the very beginning of the show, Michael J. Fox didn’t even own a car. So he would alternate his method of transportation – sometimes he’d take the bus to work, and other times he’d hitchhike to the studio! It’s wild to think that a man who very soon became one of the biggest stars on the planet was standing with his thumb out, hoping to get picked up to go film one of the biggest shows of the 1980s. At one point Meredith Baxter offered to give him rides to the studio. At the time, he lived in a tiny apartment in Brentwood. The big problem was that Fox was not exactly a punctual person. And Baxter very much was. Fox later joked that if she was picking him up at 8:30, he would wake up a 8:29. And then he’d promptly jump in the shower. He’d come stumbling out a few minutes later, having forgotten pretty much everything he needed to bring, including his script. But he also recalled the thrill of being picked up and brought to set in a flashy Mercedes by a beautiful movie and TV star. For her part, Baxter said that she enjoyed giving him a ride each morning, but that the main issue was the punctuality. She is a particularly punctual person, and he was decidedly not. She joked that she’d pull up, and from outside she’d hear Fox turn on his shower, and she’d say to herself, ‘Really, that’s what you’re doing now?’
Steven Gross also had a transportation issue, but not involving a car. He was an advocate of eco-friendly transport, so he would ride his bike from his home to the studio. He had also been a long time bicycle rider, and enjoyed the exercise. But he ran into issues when he got to the studio lot. Apparently they were only accustomed to people driving onto the lot, and didn’t know how to handle a bicycle rider. Gross said that the security booth literally told him he couldn’t bring his bike onto the lot. He argued with that, noting that he had been specifically given a parking space, and he was allowed to park any type of vehicle he wanted into that space, including a bicycle. Eventually he ended up having to get special permission to simply ride his bike to work! He did this for the first two years of the show, before eventually giving in and taking a car to work.
Drama on Set
When the cast came together to talk over zoom in 2020, they revealed the truth about the drama behind the scenes. And the amazing truth was… there really wasn’t any! Michael Gross flat out said that there weren’t a lot of problem overall, and literally no controversies behind the scenes on set. He said that he always had trouble understanding the stories he’d hear about the drama on the sets of other shows in production. That was mainly because Family Ties was, as he put it, “perfection.” The cast also talked about how they made a point of treating the guest stars well too. On most shows, the main cast is very close, having spent so much time together. And then people who come in to act on an episode, or a handful of episodes, often feel shunned or left out. And it’s most often not meant as a hostile act. It’s simply that they are the new person joining a group that’s been working together every day for a few years. But the Family Ties cast had all experienced that process from the other side, and knew it was lonely for guest stars. So they made it a point of always making sure that any guest actors joining the set would always feel welcome.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Who was your favorite character on Family Ties? Let us know in the comments section below!