Question: I was reading your Northern Exposure column, which reminded me of Joshua Brand and John Falsey, who created that show. Didn't they also do a show called A Year in the Life? Or was that just a miniseries? Thank you. Larry P., Portsmouth, N.H.
Televisionary: It was both, Larry, which for some reason reminds me of the old SNL gag about Shimmer: "It's a floor wax and a dessert topping!" But I digress.
Brand and Falsey, who also cocreated the acclaimed series St. Elsewhere and I'll Fly Away, came up with the idea of a miniseries depicting the events in the lives of an American family over the course of a year (hence the name). When it aired on NBC in December 1986, it was hailed for its quality and debuted as a regular series in August 1987.
The idea was to dramatize the family dynamic, warts and all. Though Americans loved the idea of the happy nuclear family, statistics of the time didn't paint such a rosy picture. Only 27.9 percent of families consisted of a married couple with children, the birth rate was down to a little more than half what it had been in the '50s and half of all marriages ended in divorce. (Not that I'm suggesting it's much different these days, mind you I'm just using mid-'80s numbers.)
"The family and romantic love are the great, abiding myths of American life," Brand told TV Guide when the miniseries launched. "The more separate we become, the stronger the myth of the family becomes. We long for a kind of family that no longer exists, that perhaps never existed for us."
Accordingly, the Gardners of Seattle, headed by father Joe (Richard Kiley), weren't hitting on all cylinders. Joe was widowed as the show kicked off. He butted heads with his oldest son, the less-than-ambitious Jack (Morgan Stevens); daughter Anne (Wendy Phillips) moved back into his house with her own children (Trey Ames, Amanda Peterson) after her second marriage failed; other son Sam (David Oliver) married hippie-chick Kay (Sarah Jessica Parker) and moved into the guest house and so on.
Falsey, for his part, knew both sides of the American family story. He grew up in Connecticut on a picturesque, wooded acre of land in a neighborhood where nobody locked their doors. But he also suffered through a divorce and avoided telling his grandmother about it for months.
For Kiley, who died of a blood disorder in 1999, much of the self-exploration that ran through the series was alien. "I grew up during the Depression," he explained. "The idea of doing what you wanted to was unheard of then. You got a good job, made a living and fed your children. That was as good as it got. You paid your way, you stayed with one lady, and you worried about what the neighbors would say." In a later interview, he took that sentiment a step further: "In those days, you didn't go off for a year 'to find yourself.' That was bull----."
Which didn't, of course, stop Kiley from going his own way and becoming an actor as a young man. He started out working with two puppets the prototypes for the famed Kukla and Ollie before Fran Allison joined them to shill for Marshall Field's department store in Chicago. From there, he worked in radio and New York's early TV business before hitting the stage, enjoying huge success as Man of La Mancha's first Don Quixote in 1965.
By the time he was doing TV roles again and had worked his way to playing Joe Gardner, the actor jokingly referred to the phase as his third career. Of course, playing the dad in a family drama wasn't necessarily any less risky than tilting at windmills on stage. In fact, there were more dangerous things to ride than a horse.
"Joe entered a senior bike race, and we bolted Dick's bicycle to the back of the camera truck for a finish shot," Brand recalled in 1987. "As he crossed the line, some sound equipment collapsed, knocking down a banner, which caught him and dragged him for about 50 feet, breaking some ribs and scraping him up very badly. We rushed him to the hospital. Two days later without complaint he was back at work. In my experience, people in this line just don't behave that way. Most would have flown to L.A. to meet with their specialists and stayed a week. Not Dick."
Kiley's response? "You make me sound like Ethel Merman."
Sadly, despite effusive praise from critics and the few people who watched the series, A Year in the Life didn't make it a year in series form. Its last new episode aired in April 1988.