In the ’80s, thanks to Ronald Reagan, conservative views were taking over America. The dreams of hopeful flower children from the ’60s and ’70s were slowly fading out like bright stars growing dimmer and dimmer.
One man, Gary David Goldberg, decided to capitalize on the general ambience by creating a show bridging those two worlds. He called it Family Ties.
A show about two former hippies and their conservative kids, Family Ties brought heartwarming values, healthy discourse, and the possibility of getting along despite not having the same outlook on life to the screen.
Time to gather around the Keaton’s kitchen table again and enjoy some behind-the-scenes stories of one of America’s favorite families of all time.
“Hip Parents, Square Kids”
Family Ties brought something new to the table of family sitcoms. Instead of having the parents be conservative and the kids rowdy and rebellious, Family Ties turned the concept on its head and made the parents hip and the kids square. The premise was refreshing.
The show’s parents, Elyse (Meredith Baxter) and Steven (Michael Gross) Keaton, were an Ohio-based couple who grew up as starry-eyed hippies. As they grew older, their views became more moderate, but they still held liberal values, which was often a cause for entertaining clashes between them and their conservative kids.
Alex P. Keaton Was a “Scared Kid”
Michael J. Fox played Alex Keaton, a briefcase-holding high school student who carried his Wall Street journal around and took his economic studies seriously. A tad self-absorbed, Alex spoke with a bold, confident tone. But according to Fox, Alex wasn’t as self-assured as he believed himself to be.
“He looked amazing, he felt good about what he presented to the world, but you could poke your finger through it any time you wanted to,” Fox told the host of Inside the Actors’ Studio, James Lipton. “He’s a kid who’s putting on all this stuff, and when it was really effective was when you see him naked. You see he’s just this scared kid.”
Fun Fact: Fox based the character on his sharp-tongued brother, who had great timing and always knew what to say. “My brother was so funny at the dinner table that you’d wait for what he had to say,” Fox said.
Alex Appealed to Both Sides of the Spectrum
Republicans and Democrats rarely agree with each other. But when it came to Alex P. Keaton, the show’s viewers, regardless of their political views, all agreed that he was a great character. Fox told Emmy TV Legends, “As the character developed, Republicans really took Alex under their wing and made him a poster boy for the movement.”
And so did the Democrats. “At the same time, too, social liberals were writing me letters saying, ‘Way to go satirizing that point of view.’ So, I was loved on both sides, and that was uniquely about the character and uniquely about the show,” Fox added.
Fox Was Told His Face Wasn’t Fit for a Lunchbox
When Brandon Tartikoff, then-president of NBC, watched the show’s pilot, he loved it. There was no doubt in his mind that it would become a hit. But there was only one caveat: the boy. Tartikoff told the producers, “I love the show, you’ve just got to get rid of the kid. I can’t see that face on a lunchbox.”
Thankfully, Fox wasn’t fired. And years later, when Family Ties was the number two show on TV, Fox made Brandon a lunchbox with a picture of his face printed on it. He handed it to him with a letter that read: “This is for you to put your crow in. Love, me.'” According to the actor, Brandon kept it on his desk until the day he died.
Before Michael, Came Matthew
Among the many young men with dreams of playing Alex P. Keaton was Matthew Broderick. The young actor had a clean look to him; he was perfect for such a preppy, well-behaved character. He instantly caught the attention of the show’s creator, Gary David Goldberg, who, after watching his audition, decided to cast him on the show.
Broderick ended up turning it down because he didn’t want to move to L.A. Goldberg was disappointed, shaking his head in disdain at every audition tape that came his way. Even Fox didn’t impress him at first. But thanks to casting director Judith Weiner, who spotted some serious potential in Fox, Goldberg agreed to give him a shot. When he came into the studio, “it was like ‘boom.’ He nailed it,” Goldberg later stated.
Mallory Keaton Wasn’t Supposed to Be Dumb
In the first couple of episodes, Mallory Keaton (played by Justin Bateman) appears to be just a regular, normal sister. In the show’s pilot, she talks about cheerleading and how much she loves helping and bringing smiles to people’s faces. “Kind of like an Albert Schweitzer with pom poms,” she says.
But as the show progressed, Mallory became a character who would never in a million years describe herself as Albert Schweitzer. The transition from brainy to dumb began when Alex made fun of her, and she took it as a compliment. Their dynamic made people laugh. Producers saw that and went, “Okay, let’s go in that direction.”
Scott Valentine Was Paid a Bundle of Cash for Grunting
Mallory’s boyfriend, Nick Moore, was played by Scott Valentine. The actor, a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, took his profession seriously. At times, he felt like his character was a bit too dumbed down for him. “I’m so glad I went to all the other fine acting institutions so I could grunt on primetime television,” he sarcastically told Montreal’s radio station CJAD 800 AM.
It wasn’t all bad, however. Scott admitted it was a lot of fun and the cast members were an incredible group to work with. But he knew that the role didn’t show his full potential. “There were times where I only had to utter two guttural utterances in a show, and they paid me a bundle of cash for it. I felt bad at times,” he added.
They Wouldn’t Let Him Ride His Bike
Each morning, Michael Gross, who played the patriarch Steven Keaton, would hop on his bike and ride to Paramount Studios. Initially, he wasn’t allowed to enter the gates with his bike. The guards didn’t allow bicycles on the Paramount lot. The actors got their own parking spaces, but no space was reserved for a bike.
Gross wasn’t willing to give up his eco-friendly trips to work. Why risk getting stuck in traffic when you can pedal your way through the streets instead? He insisted they let him in, telling them, “You’ve given me a parking place!” They eventually agreed.
Michael J. Fox Would Carpool to Work With Meredith Baxter
Meredith Baxter played Elyse Keaton, the family’s compassionate, easy-going mom, who despite having kids with such opposing views, never tried to force her “flower child” opinions on them. As it turns out, she was just as caring off-set as she was on! After hearing that Michael J. Fox was taking the bus each day to the studio, she offered to give him a permanent ride.
“Meredith would kindly give me rides to work,” Fox reported, adding that he was an absolute mess at first, waking up late and jumping in the shower at the last minute. Meredith reminisced at the cast reunion: “I could hear the shower turn on, and it’s like, ‘Really, that’s what you’re doing now?'”
Tracy Pollan Thought Fox Was Full of Himself
Season Four introduced us to Ellen Reed, Alex’s new love interest. Reed was played by Tracy Pollan, who thought her co-star Michael J. Fox was a bit pompous. “He was feeling good about himself. I think I thought he was kind of full of himself,” she admitted.
But first impressions are deceiving, and when they started working together, Pollen realized how wrong she was. “I got a completely different impression and how completely opposite from that he was—just funny and so smart, and just all of these other things came through,” she shared.
Fun Fact: Pollan and Fox ended up marrying in 1988! They have four kids.
Fox and Courtney Cox Were Rumored to Be an Item
The last two seasons of Family Ties had Courtney Cox join the cast as Alex’s girlfriend, Lauren Miller. It wasn’t long before rumors swirled around the two young co-stars. People assumed that Fox had broken up with Pollan for his new love interest, Cox.
Fox brushed off the rumors immediately, saying, “People always want to read there’s romance when it’s just two actors having a good time working with each other.” Cox spoke up too, adding, “I’ve never been to a nightclub with Michael. I’ve never even been to some of the clubs the tabloids named.”
Brian Bonsall Found It Difficult to Grow Up in the Spotlight
A child star on the rise, Brian Bonsall joined the cast in 1986 as the Keatons’ fourth child and second son, Andy. When the show wrapped up, he moved back home and finished school. Afterward, he struggled to find out what to do with his life. And, as happens with many child stars, he began acting out. Since the show ended, he’s had multiple run-ins with the law.
In 2004, he was arrested for drunk driving. In 2007 he was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. Two years later, in 2009, he was back in jail. This time, for pounding his friend’s head with a stool. In 2010, he tested positive for marijuana and was put in cuffs again for violating the terms and conditions of his bond.
The Set Was Free of Drama
Normally, TV shows, especially ones that go on for several seasons, have a juicy collection of dark secrets and scandals behind the scenes. But not with Family Ties. During their Stars in the House reunion, the actors came together to dish about what went on when the cameras stopped rolling. “There was no controversy, not a lot of problems,” Michael Gross recalled.
“I didn’t know how contrary some shows could be and how some casts quarreled the way they did. I mean, I just thought it was all perfection the way ours was,” he added. The regular cast got along great, and so did the guest stars. The recurring cast made it a goal of theirs to make every guest feel right at home!
Wrestling Matches and Water Gun Fights
Tina Yothers, who played the Keatons’ third child Jennifer, dished in an interview that the whole cast had a blast shooting the show. “I mean seriously, the water gun fights, the wrestling matches. We got in a lot of trouble. We weren’t the most well-disciplined cast because we would have so much fun together!”
Tina said she was frequently stopped by fans of the show who swooned over Michael J. Fox. They would say, “Oh my God, you touched Michael J. Fox! Can I touch you?” to which Tina would reply in disgust, “‘Gross! He just pinned me down and farted on my head! He’s my brother, he’s gross!”
A Bit of Kleptomania
Some cast members found it difficult to separate from the show. So, when it ended, they took a bit of it home. Michael Gross snatched a clapperboard that was used on episode number 83. And Tina Yothers took some of the props home as well.
Tina Yothers admitted to stealing a lamp and an additional prop. “I stole a lamp!” she giggled, adding, “I stole this thing behind me that hung in the kitchen [too].” We doubt their innocent thefts bothered anyone. Hey, after several years on set together, it’s hard to say goodbye.
The Time Slots Fluctuated
Most networks preferred keeping their showtimes consistent so as not to confuse their viewers. But Family Ties was switched around a lot when it aired. During the first season, the network moved it from Wednesday to Monday.
Then, in Season Two, it was moved back to Wednesday before being shifted once again, this time, to Thursday. Ultimately, Thursday night proved to be the best time to air it. Fans were pleased to see that the network decided to keep it there for the remaining seasons.
It Never Reached Number One
Despite having a massive fan base, Family Ties never reached number one on the network’s chart. During the first two seasons, the time slot wasn’t consistent, so it was hard to keep track of the ratings. Once they settled on Thursday, they began to see some coherent results.
During Seasons Four and Five, Family Ties peaked at #2 on the chart. Sadly, by Season Seven, the audience had had enough, and the once loved family sitcom slipped down to number 40. The network then decided to wrap things up for good.
Three Attempts at a Nick Moore Spin-Off
Nick Moore, played by Scott Valentine, was supposed to be a one-time character on the show. But viewers loved him so much that he became a series regular. His popularity skyrocketed to the point that the network decided to give him his very own show. Three pilots were made.
All three of them failed. The first show was named Taking It Home, and it showed Nick moving back to Detroit to live with his grandfather, who was played by Herschel Bernardi. Bernardi passed away in 1986, so the project was scrapped. The second show was about Nick working at a daycare for teenage delinquents. And the third was about him living in New York with his sister. The last version was almost picked up, but at the last minute, Valentine decided to pass.
Fox Juggled Family Ties and Back to the Future
While working on Family Ties, Fox was offered a role in the sci-fi film Back to the Future. Because of his contractual obligations to the sitcom, he couldn’t ditch them and move on. But he also didn’t want to give up a chance to be on the silver screen.
He decided to take on both projects simultaneously. Which proved to be quite the challenge. “I ended up getting about three hours sleep a night for the next three or four months because they had to get the movie out that summer,” he shared. But it was well worth it. The film was a huge success and made Fox into an even bigger star.
The Dog at the End Was Goldberg’s Pet, Ubu Roi
The last shot at the end of every episode showed the UBU productions logo and featured a picture of a dog with a Frisbee in its mouth along with a voiceover saying, “Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog.” The dog, a black Labrador Retriever named Ubu Roi, was actually Gary David Goldberg’s dog.
The picture of Ubu was taken near the Louvre in Paris, during a trip to Europe where Gary and his wife hitchhiked across the continent. “As far as hitchhiking goes, most people who picked us up, picked us up because of Ubu,” the show’s creator recalled.
Whatever Happened to Skippy?
Marc Price was cast to play the Keatons’ annoying yet somewhat endearing neighbor who was obsessed with Mallory: Irwin “Skippy” Handelman. After the show wrapped up, he continued making people laugh by becoming a stand-up comedian, touring the country with his humorous routines.
Admittingly, people usually come to his shows because of Skippy. But that doesn’t intimidate him. “I’m certainly Marc Price [during the stand-up],” he once reported. Marc also tends to take it easy when people approach him with silly questions like, “Hey Skippy! Did you ever do it with Mallory?”
Alex Wasn’t Supposed to Be the Star of the Show
When creating Family Ties, Gary David Goldberg wanted the focus to be more on the liberal parents, Elyse and Steven Keaton, than on their kids. But by Episode Four of the first season, it was clear that young Alex was receiving most of the viewers’ compliments. The buzz was all around him.
Michael J. Fox perfected the character. He was clearly in his element playing Alex, and critics seemed to pick up on it. From 1985 to 1989, Fox received an Emmy nomination for Best Lead Actor. He won the award in 1986, 1987, and 1988.
Michael J. Fox Developed a Disease
Family Ties catapulted Michael J. Fox into the spotlight, and once the show wrapped up, he went on to star in numerous other films and shows. Tragically, in 1991, at the young, young age of 29, he discovered he had Parkinson’s disease. He disclosed the news to the public several years later in 1998.
Fox has committed himself to finding out more about the roots of this disease. In 2000, he launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, an organization that has invested nearly $500 million into research to find a cure. The New York Times has called it “the most credible voice on Parkinson’s research in the world.”
Meredith Baxter Struggled With Alcoholism
Meredith Baxter, who played hippie mom Elyse Keaton, went on to write a moving memoir titled, Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame, and Floundering. In it, she revealed that she suffered from physical and emotional abuse from her ex-husband.
As a result, she slipped into the grips of alcoholism. Thankfully, she’s recovered since then. In 2009, she came out as gay and married a woman named Nancy Locke. Locke had also struggled with alcoholism, and the two met through a mutual friend who believed it would do both of them some good to have someone to talk about it with.
Meredith Baxter Is a Breast Cancer Survivor
Baxter was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998 but kept it under wraps for years. In 2013, the cancer returned, and she opened up to the media about it, believing that speaking up would help others battling it as well.
Baxter launched the Meredith Baxter Foundation for Breast Cancer Research and has fully devoted herself to the cause. The actress also owns a line of skincare products and donates a portion of her earnings to her breast cancer foundation.
Alex Keaton Appeared on Spin City
After Family Ties, Michael J. Fox moved on to star on another show, Spin City. He starred as Michael Flaherty, a brainy political strategist. The show made several references to Fox’s previous character, young Alex P. Keaton. They even mentioned his name in one episode.
One episode showed Michael Flaherty working as an environmental lobbyist who runs into an Ohio senator. The young, ambitious politician is named Alex P. Keaton. To this day, Fox admits that Alex Keaton was one of his favorite characters to play.
Justine Bateman Graduated From UCLA
After Family Ties, Justine went on to act on several other TV shows but eventually decided to halt her acting career for education. She signed up for UCLA’s undergrad science and management program. She graduated in the summer of 2016.
“When I graduate, I will either run a division of a company that is tech and entertainment together, or I’ll get funding for my own company with a focus on taking current technology to film far more complicated stories,” she told The Hollywood Reporter back in 2016.
Guest Stars Galore!
Family Ties had such a huge fan base that megastars reportedly rushed to the show for guest appearances. Such stars include Tom Hanks, Corey Feldman, Geena Davis, and River Phoenix. Whenever a guest star would appear, the cast made them feel right at home.
The show also introduced some lesser-known names who went on to be huge stars like Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Christina Applegate, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Other names include Tom Hanks and Courtney Cox. The famous “Friends” star appeared as Alex’s girlfriend, a psychology student named Lauren.
Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter Remain Friends
Michael Gross played the patriarch of the family, Steven Keaton, and began his acting career in the mid-’70s. He worked hard to climb the ladder of success. Starting at Yale, he got a Master of Fine Arts degree and then moved on to minor appearances on TV. Until finally, he landed the role of his life on Family Ties.
Nowadays, Gross continues to act. Other memorable roles include Burt Gummer in the horror Tremors films and appearances on the soap The Young and the Restless and the successful show, Suits.
Gross married Elza Bergeron in 1984. The two still live happily together. But Gross hasn’t forgotten his on-screen wifey. He and Meredith Baxter remain close friends.
Tina Yothers (Jennifer Keaton) Started Her Own Band
At only nine years old, Tina Yothers landed the part of Jennifer Keaton on Family Ties. After the show ended, she stuck to acting for a couple of years until finally shifting gears and moving on to her other passion: music.
Yothers formed a band named Jaded with her brother Cory. In 1998, they released a self-titled album. Tina Yothers also starred in a musical called Lovelace: A Rock Musical. But she hasn’t given up on TV just yet. She’s recently appeared on reality shows like Celebrity Fit Club and Celebrity Wife Swap.
America Needs More Shows Like Family Ties
In a fun Family Ties reunion, Michael Gross looked back at his time on the show and reminisced: “I loved the time that we were together. I think as you’ll all agree, a kinder, gentler politics,” adding, “when … Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan could sit down over a glass of Irish Whiskey and these two guys could hammer out compromises.”
Gross then compared O’Neill and Reagan’s polite discussions to how the family dealt with issues. “In the same way, we hammered out our compromises in the family, and I think that’s one of the things that people loved about us,” he explained.
Michael Gross Owes His Career to a 5-Year-Old
Michael Gross auditioned for the show in New York City, where he had performed primarily as a stage actor. He tried out for the show, and in a matter of days, got a call back telling him they wanted to see him out West. Apparently, Goldberg’s daughter, Shana, saw Gross’ tape and said:
“Oh, I like that guy! I like that guy!” Gross joked that Shana still “takes 10 percent of my income for the rest of my life.” He laughed at the thought of owing his acting career to a then-5-year-old girl who enjoyed his performance.
A Dinner With Goldberg Helped Baxter Land the Part
A few months before the casting of the show began, the creator of Family Ties, Gary Goldberg and his wife Diana went over to Meredith Baxter’s house for dinner. Goldberg was talking to her former husband about the show, and Baxter chimed in to the conversation.
Several months later, she was called in and asked if she would like to be on Family Ties. “I had no idea what they saw or what happened, but I got the job, and he [her ex-husband] didn’t.” Good thing Goldberg spotted her that evening! Baxter’s performance on the show as Elyse was charming, endearing, and irreplaceable.
Yothers Was “Just Being a Kid” When She Got the Part
“I was 7 or 8 and I did a movie called Shoot the Moon, and Gary [David Goldberg] really liked the movie and liked my character,” Yothers told interviewers during the cast reunion. At the time, Yothers had just shot a pilot for a Disney Western and was fixed on doing that until Family Ties came along and shuffled the cards.
The Disney Western had horses on set, and shooting the pilot was a lot of fun. So, when Goldberg asked her whether she would be interested in starring on Family Ties, she asked him, “Are there going to be horses?” to which he responded, “Probably not horses.” Eventually she decided to go with him. “Well, I made the right decision not going with the Disney show,” Yothers concluded.
Brave, Diverse, and Refreshing
Family Ties’ characters showcased current affairs in a perfect manner and delivered the shift from the ’60’s and 70’s liberal ways to the 80’s more conservative manners in the best way possible – and this was the show’s main running theme.
The characters were all so diverse: different ages, different mindsets – each one representing a different point of view. Each of the Keaton kids was completely different and always discussed their individual views. Mallory, for example, was consumed by everything materialistic, and Jennifer was way more of a tomboy. Alex was a feisty republican, and then there was Andrew, the youngest and the most easily influenced of the bunch.
Michael J. Fox Was Given an Award by the Canadian Government
As well as being loved by fans of Family Ties, Michael J. Fox has also been praised by the Canadian government. Many people view him as an advocate for the country, and the government made sure to let him know that. He was handed a special award.
Fox has received numerous humanitarian awards and honorary degrees. And apart from a shiny star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the actor was also inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame. Looks like both America and Canada are super proud of Fox.
Andy Keaton Was a Result of Baxter’s Real-Life Pregnancy
When an actress becomes pregnant mid-show, it poses a challenge for the scriptwriters. What to do? Ditch the character and write her out? Or incorporate her somehow by creatively integrating the pregnancy into the storyline?
In Meredith Baxter’s case, they kept her on the show and added her real-life pregnancy into the script. Baxter’s pregnancy inspired the show’s writers to add another Keaton member to the bunch – little Andy. His addition turned out to be great, adding a bunch of spunk and humor to the family dynamic.
A Sad Ending
As Family Ties was coming to an end, the show’s producers debated how to end it. On the one hand, they wanted to leave room for a reunion show in the future, but on the other, they didn’t want to leave behind too many loose ends.
The cast members started to suggest different ideas. Their weirdest idea was a plane crash. Apparently, some members thought it would be a good idea to end things on a dramatic note. To go out with a bang! We’re glad they passed on the idea.
Still Referenced Today
Decades later, and Family Ties is still being referenced in several TV shows, movies, and even songs. There are so many memorable quotes from the show that it’s no wonder that its popularity still hasn’t fully diminished. Nowadays, fans who are in the mood for good nostalgia can watch the show on Netflix.
In fact, millions of Netflix users from the States watch it. At a time when politics and disparate points of views are usually a cause for fights, Family Ties is a refreshing look at the possibility of living together in peace, despite holding different opinions. Yes, it’s a scripted show, but the fact that the set was drama-free wasn’t scripted. The cast had a genuine connection, one we should all aspire to have with one another.