This popular domestic comedy was said to be the late President Ronald Reagan's favourite series during his White House years-in fact, Mr. Reagan wanted to appear in an episode, an offer the producers wisely yet politely declined.
Yet it's not hard to understand why Family Ties became a success with old and young alike. It managed to take an unusual premise-liberal former 60's "hippies" who raise three relatively conservative children in a relatively conservative decade-and infuse it with warmth and understanding. Sure, there were some of the typical sitcom conventions and structures. But Family Ties also worked because of a fine cast-especially young Canadian Michael J. Fox, who parlayed his role as oldest son Alex P. Keaton into a successful film and television career.
Family Ties was the brainchild of writer Gary David Goldberg, who began his television career as a writer and producer at MTM (Mary Tyler Moore) Productions before moving to Paramount in 1981. Goldberg's original concept had the show set as an hour-long drama. CBS considered the idea, but turned it down. Goldberg then took the show to NBC, where the late, great entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff convinced Goldberg to rework the show and make it a half-hour comedy.
To play father Steven Keaton, the manager of a public television station in Columbus, Ohio, Goldberg cast character actor Michael Gross. Former Bridget Loves Bernie and "Family" regular Meredith Baxter-Birney (the daughter of actress-producer Whitney Blake) played his wife Elyse. Justine Bateman, the sister of actor Jason Bateman, was cast as 15-year-old Mallory, a teenager more interested in boys and clothes than school and politics. Tina Yothers played nine-year-old Jennifer, who just wanted to be a kid. Casting the conservative, William F. Buckley-loving 17-year-old Alex was harder.
Matthew Broderick was considered for the role, but Goldberg insisted on Fox, who had appeared in projects in his native Canada and the short-lived drama Palmerstown USA. Tartikoff was against the casting; because Fox was shorter than the actors who would play his parents; he felt the character of Alex would not be believable. Goldberg fought for Fox, noting that "you send him out to get two laughs, he comes back with five". Tartikoff gave in, but warned Goldberg that Fox's face would not be "seen on a lunch box".
When the show began on September 22nd, 1982, Baxter-Birney was the best-known cast member to television audiences. But it wasn't long before Michael J. Fox became popular with viewers, as Goldberg had predicted. Fox's talent for delivery and physical comedy turned good episodes into great ones. The network and the producers made the decision to shift focus from Elyse and Steve to their preppy son. There was some grumbling, but the move proved to be the right one. For one thing, it helped buy time for Family Ties as audiences slowly discovered it during its first two seasons on the air.
In the fall of 1984, a scheduling change by NBC changed the show's fortunes. Family Ties would now follow a new family comedy starring Bill Cosby on Thursday nights. The Cosby Show quickly rose to the top of the ratings charts, powering "Ties" into the top ten. By the end of the 1984-85 season, Family Ties was American television's second most-popular series.
During that season, Fox was tapped to star in a new film about a time-traveling teen who goes back to 1955. Back To The Future was a blockbuster in the summer of 1985, sending Fox's career into overdrive. It also pushed Family Ties to even higher ratings, as the producers structured more episodes around his Alex character. One of the best remembered was an outing called "A, My Name Is Alex", where the normally conservative teen had to deal with his grief following the death of a friend in an auto accident. It helped Fox win the first of three consecutive Emmy awards for best actor in a comedy series. (Fox also got his revenge on NBC's Brandon Tartikoff, who had said his face would never grace a lunch box: Fox sent the network executive a Back To The Future lunch box-complete with the actor's face on the outside-and a note inside the box that simply read, "Eat crow, Tartikoff!")
Not that the other Family Ties characters were neglected. Baxter-Birney became pregnant in real life; it was written into the show when Elyse gave birth to little Andrew. Family friend Irwin "Skippy" Handler (Marc Price) became a regular on the show; he was a pal to Alex and had a major crush on the oblivious Mallory. One reason Mallory ignored Skippy was that she had fallen in love with aspiring but unconventional sculptor Nick Moore (Scott Valentine), much to the distress of Steve, Elyse and Alex.
By the fall of 1987, Family Ties was moved to Sunday nights in an effort to shore up one of NBC's weakest nights. Around the same time, Andrew suddenly grew to four years old, in the person of young actor Brian Bonsall, who looked up to Alex.
The series was shown in the UK on Channel 4 from 1985 to 1986 but only 50 of the eventual 172 episodes were shown.
Love came and went for Alex with a series of girlfriends over the seasons; one of his longest relationships included psychology student Lauren Miller (played by a pre-Friends Courtney Cox") for the final seasons and a young Tom Hanks appeared in three episodes. Before that, he had fallen in love with fellow student Ellen Reed. The TV relationship didn't last, but the actress who played Ellen, Tracy Pollan, eventually became Mrs. Michael J. Fox in real life.
By 1989, with declining ratings, Goldberg and the cast decided that Family Ties should end its run. That season saw the Keatons confront racism when a black family moved into their neighbourhood; Steve also suffered a heart attack that year. The final episode (which aired in May 1989) had Alex leaving the "family ties" to take his dream job with a Wall Street brokerage firm. Goldberg vowed there would be NO "reunion specials" for Family Ties.
But Goldberg would work again with Michael J. Fox, when the two teamed up for the ABC political sitcom Spin City in 1996. Fox's character of Deputy Mayor Michael Flaherty had some things in common with Alex P. Keaton-and that was just fine with the millions of fans who loved both Fox and Family Ties.
Published on March 17th, 2023. Written by Michael Spadoni for Television Heaven.