Retrocon 2024

Interview with 'Family Ties' creator, Gary David Goldberg

(This interview was originally published December 12, 2010 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

Mr. Goldberg passed away from brain cancer in June of 2013 at the age of 68, so this opportunity to interview him before that is even more special to me.

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I want to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Gary David Goldberg. In case you don't recognize the name right away, he is not an actor or musician. He is the creator of Family Ties, one of the best-loved and most successful television sitcoms of all time. After getting his start at MTM Enterprises (Mary Tyler Moore) working on such programs as The Bob Newhart Show, The Tony Randall Show and Lou Grant during the late '70s, Goldberg founded his own company, UBU Productions, in 1981. Under the UBU (named after his pet Labrador Retriever) banner, nine television series were created including Family Ties which ran on NBC from 1982-1989.

In my opinion (which happens to be shared by many others), simply put, Family Ties is some of the best television ever produced. And we have Gary David Goldberg to thank for much of that. Unfortunately, they just don't make shows like that anymore. Family Ties helped launch the career of Michael J. Fox and then they re-teamed again in the '90s to make Spin City which ran for six seasons on ABC. Among numerous honors, Goldberg has won multiple Emmy awards and Golden Globe awards. He has written, produced and directed several films including 1989's Dad which starred Ted Danson, Jack Lemmon, Ethan Hawke and Olympia Dukakis. You will get to know him better as we get on to some selections from my interview with Mr. Gary David Goldberg...

Q: I read that you got your start in television writing because you were watching an episode of The Bob Newhart Show one day, thought to yourself that you could write a script for that show, wrote your own script, sent it off to the producers, and then were hired as a writer for the show? Is that how it really happened? Do you believe in destiny?

Gary: Not exactly. Although Newhart was my first "official" writing job where I felt I was actually in show business. I was a 30 year old college student at San Diego State University in 1974. I took a writing class with a visiting lecturer, Nate Monaster, who was a professional writer, past president of the Writer's Guild and Academy Award nominee for 'That Touch of Mink' with Cary Grant and Doris Day. It was Nate Monaster who encouraged me to be a writer. He introduced my work to an agent who signed me which led to my very first paying job on a briefly-lived show 'The Dumplings', created by [Don] Nicholl, [Mickey] Ross and [Bernard] West of 'Three's Company' fame. That led to the 'Newhart' job. Yes, I believe in destiny. But, only if you work hard to make it come true.

Q: What did/do you have that made you a natural for comedy writing? Is it something that you can turn on and off or is it always on looking at every situation through that writer's eye?

Gary: I have a good comedy "ear," as it turns out. And a good "ear" for dialogue. And, a bizarre ability to insert myself into scenes as I'm writing them. It is hard to turn off the comedy "gene." And, it makes for some awkward moments socially if you're around people not used to looking at the world through that prism.

After The Dumplings and The Bob Newhart Show, Goldberg went on to write for The Tony Randall Show and Lou Grant. He was also a producer on Lou Grant and won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 1979.

Q: You started UBU Productions in 1981 and I believe your first venture was Family Ties which would go on to run for seven seasons on NBC. How did Family Ties originate and become a reality

Gary: The first UBU venture was actually a short-lived [lasted only about a month], well-reviewed show (they often go together), 'Making the Grade', starring James Naughton and also introducing George Wendt ["Norm" on Cheers] to America. 'Family Ties' actually began at CBS where it was turned down. I brought it over to NBC and Brandon Tartikoff. Brandon nurtured it and really made it happen. It was based on our family and families of friends I knew with similar backgrounds.

Family Ties debuted on September 22, 1982. The sitcom reflected the move in the United States from the cultural liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s to the conservatism of the 1980s. This was particularly expressed through the relationship between young Republican "Alex P. Keaton" (played by Michael J. Fox) and his former-hippie parents, "Elyse and Steven Keaton" (played by Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross). Alex also had two younger sisters "Mallory and Jennifer" (played by Justine Bateman and Tina Yothers) and younger brother born in Season 3 (played beginning in Season 5 by Brian Bonsall). Here is one variation of the opening sequence set to the series theme song "Without Us" performed by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams...

Q: When did you really know that you had a legitimate hit show that would end up being something extra special? Starting in 1984, you had The Cosby Show as a lead-in. How much do you feel that impacted the Family Ties jump in the ratings that same season? Now with so many choices to watch, I don't think programs will ever come close to getting the national attention (25+ million households!) that those shows received back in the '80s.

Gary: We were really starting to come into our own at the end of our second year. And, Michael Fox was already becoming something of a phenomenon. We had a big supporter in Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC. We were up against a mega-hit in 'Magnum P. I.' starring Tom Selleck and finishing a distant second and sometimes third. But, Brandon was willing to hold on and he predicted that ratings would start to pick-up during re-runs when one-hour shows traditionally falter. He also predicted that we would, given the research he was seeing, begin to pull even with and maybe even surpass Magnum in the all important big city markets. That summer we regularly beat Magnum. And, one week we were #1 of all shows in the New York City market.

In fact, when Brandon called to say we were being moved out of that time slot and would be following a new show starring Bill Cosby I was initially very upset. Cosby had failed in previous TV efforts and was doing Jell-O commercials at the time. Then I saw the pilot (written by Ed Weinberger and directed by Jay Sandrich, two friends from my MTM days), and I quickly shut up. Best pilot I'd ever seen. And, we were lucky to become a part of that great Thursday night "must-see" viewing block with Cheers, Night Court and Hill Street Blues. I don't think that can ever be repeated given the fragmentation of the audience. When we were part of that, there were only three network options and we usually averaged 1/3 of the country and close to half the people watching TV at that moment. [That's mind-boggling considering an event like the Super Bowl averages between 40-50% of the households each year.]

Q: I read that the show was originally supposed to focus on the parents and that the audience reaction to Michael J. Fox's "Alex P. Keaton" character changed that direction. I also read that at first you needed convincing by casting director Judith Wiener that Fox was right for the character. In Fox's 2002 book Lucky Man, it quotes you as saying, "I know what I want and I know what I don't want. And I'm telling you, I don't want Michael Fox playing Alex Keaton." Then his second audition changed your mind and you had to convince Brandon Tartikoff that he was, as it turned out, perfect for the role. You had outstanding writers and an outstanding cast, but looking back, would Family Ties have worked to the same level (or at all for that matter) without Fox playing "Alex P. Keaton"?

Gary: Yeah. That just shows you it's better to be lucky than smart. I have a defense of my initial reaction to Mike, but it's a little self-serving. Moving to the more important question could Family Ties have succeeded without Michael Fox - I don't think so. Mike as Alex was just magic. And, just so compelling. Even now if I look at those re-runs, his work it takes my breath away. I think the "lucky man" there may have been me.

Q: You have to know Michael J. Fox as well as almost anybody. He is a special actor, a special person. What makes him so endearing in everything he does?

Gary: Michael is the person I most admire in the world. He is, as you point out, a special actor. And, a special person. Mike is authentic. He's whip-smart which sometimes gets lost. He's brave. He's compassionate. He is authentic. A lovable and loving human being. Sometimes they walk among us. Any more and it's going to get embarrassing.

Q: Take us through the Back to the Future time. I'm sure, at the time, this had to be a curse and a blessing. A blessing because it took Fox to a superstar level which would provide even more exposure for the show. A curse because it was probably a difficult schedule for the show during filming of the movie. Were you ever concerned that Fox would leave television and the show once he became a big-time movie star?

Gary: 'Back to the Future' was only a blessing. The work schedule did get a little more complicated - mainly for Mike. But, it was easily handled. Not only was it an obvious boon to the show to have him become a major movie star, but it was also thrilling to watch him get that chance to expand his talent. I never wanted anything he did on Family Ties or that contract he had signed to hold him back from all the places which that great heart and great talent could take him.

Q: How were you able to create the balance of being one of the funniest shows on television yet still deal with some real serious topics at the same time?

Gary: When we worked out the stories, I would always ask "what's the last scene about?" If we couldn't answer that question with some compelling reason for the audience to have allowed us into their homes for half an hour, it usually meant it wasn't a good story for us to pursue. Being funny was the easy part. And, I took that challenge seriously. I used to say in TV Guide it says, "Family Ties - Comedy." And, we had to provide that. But, our audience had given us permission to delve into the intricacies of family life and that obligation had to be met as well.

Family Ties was nominated for many Emmy awards and won several including Michael J. Fox winning Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for three straight years (1986-1988) and Goldberg himself winning for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series in 1987.

Q: I am so disappointed with the choices for FAMILY sitcoms especially on network television today. Back in the '80s, there were so many that were quality entertainment. I know ratings ultimately dictate the programming, but are you surprised and/or disappointed in the lack of family sitcoms on television today? Is this indicative of our society today that wholesome family sitcoms aren't as prominent in the network lineups?

Gary: I'm not really "up" on what's playing on TV these days. Or even what's playing in the theaters. We've more or less "dropped out" of the current popular culture. And, it's comforting in a similar way to what it was like for us in the '60s being part of that terrible and useless word - "the counterculture" - this time our "counterculture" involves the books we were supposed to read in college, long walks in the woods and our dogs.

Q: I just recently interviewed Billy Vera about "At This Moment" which is actually one of my favorite songs of all time. The first time I heard it, like much of the country, was on Family Ties. What a phenomenon that was. I couldn't think of a better song especially for that moment the following season when Alex and Ellen break up. Billy said it was Michael Weithorn who discovered and proposed it for the show. Were you involved in choosing that song at all? What feelings, if any, do you have about that song now?

Gary: Michael Weithorn is solely responsible for the Billy Vera song, "At This Moment," being on Family Ties. He had written the episode that featured Alex and Ellen (Michael and Tracy) and one night he was walking by a club on Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica and he heard the song coming from within. He fell in love with it. He gave me a tape of it. I played it in the car on the way home and I actually had chills when I heard it. It seemed so perfect. I played it over and over again on the ride home. And, then in the morning we bought the rights to use it. Still get chills when I hear it.

Here is a clip featuring the song "At This Moment" by Billy Vera as it was used on Family Ties...

Q: Regarding your production company tagline, is that you saying "Sit, Ubu, Sit... Good Dog" and Ubu actually barking?

Gary: Yeah that's my voice saying, "sit Ubu sit." The "bark" is actually one of the sound engineers fooling around. We decided to keep it in.

Here is a quick video clip of the iconic UBU Productions tagline...

Goldberg was then creator and Executive Producer of the critically acclaimed semi-autobiographical series Brooklyn Bridge which ran from 1991-1993 on CBS. That was followed by Spin City which Goldberg created along with Bill Lawrence and ran from 1996-2002.

Q: Spin City was another series with simply outstanding writing and an outstanding ensemble cast. Michael J. Fox was fantastic as usual, but Charlie Sheen was up to the task as well when he took over in Season 5. I really enjoyed the "Stuart" character played brilliantly by Alan Ruck who I have been a fan of ever since he played Cameron in Ferris Bueller. He has brilliant comic timing and his non-verbals are hilarious. I am interested in how Ruck was cast in that role and how it was working with him for six seasons.

Gary: Alan Ruck came in to read for the part and Michael Fox, Bill Lawrence and I all just immediately knew he was "the guy." Alan is one of the hardest working, most professional, lovely and talented actors I ever had the good fortune to work with. But, everyone in that cast was that way. Just a dream.

Q: In your 2005 film Must Love Dogs, you worked with the incredible John Cusack and Diane Lane among a dream cast [also including Christopher Plummer, Stockard Channing, Elizabeth Perkins and Dermot Mulroney]. Cusack had roles in some iconic '80s films and I am a big fan of much of his work since then. I am very interested to know how it was working with Cusack in particular.

Gary: On 'Must Love Dogs,' John Cusack was an absolute delight to work with (all the actors on that film were). John loves to improvise and so do I, so I would often just leave the camera rolling at the end of scenes to see what he might do. He's also an excellent writer. And, I would guess that at least a third of what John did and said in that film was his creation.

Q: Tell us about your 2008 book Sit, Ubu, Sit: How I Went from Brooklyn to Hollywood with the Same Woman, the Same Dog, and a Lot Less Hair. I have to believe that it is a gratifying and therapeutic experience writing your own memoir?

Gary: The book was great fun to write. And, interesting (for me anyway) to kind of re-trace the path I ended up taking. I meant it as a love poem to my wife and to Michael Fox. And, of course to Ubu. Three "people" who I loved and who changed my life.

Q: What is Gary David Goldberg up to these days? Are you officially retired from Hollywood?

Gary: I'm a full-time grandpa now. And, while I'm not "officially" retired it's just about inconceivable to picture myself back in show business. I had a great time. But, truth is I've never been happier than I am right now.

I am honored that Gary took the time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. I feel truly special to receive this kind of generosity from an industry icon. I highly recommend reading his book. As one reviewer described it, "A refreshingly likable memoir about a guy who made it to the top without stepping on or over anyone else."

I want to take this opportunity to again thank Gary David Goldberg for proving that nice guys don't always finish last, for reminiscing some about the '80s with us, but even more for giving us the gift of Family Ties which is some of the best television the '80s or any other decade has to offer. Sit, Ubu, Sit. Good dog. Woof.

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