Question: I was talking about this with my girlfriend and could swear I read somewhere that Family Ties was originally supposed to be about the parents but ended up being about the kids when they become popular. Truth or urban legend? Thanks and keep up the good work. Peter B., Coeur D'alene, Idaho
Televisionary: Not only is it true, Peter, it was foreshadowed by Michael Gross, who played man of the house Steven Keaton, though he probably didn't know it at the time. In 1982, while shooting an episode of the series in which Keaton kids Alex (Michael J. Fox), Mallory (Justine Bateman) and Jennifer (Tina Yothers) run amok when Steven and wife Elyse (Meredith Baxter Birney) are away, the actor engaged in a bit of unintentional soothsaying. "Maybe after several episodes Meredith and I will die, and then the series could really take off," he joked to TV Guide. "We could be killed in a car wreck, and the kids would continue on their own."
As it turned out, the shift in focus didn't require anything so dramatic. Mom and dad stayed alive and healthy and Fox ran away with the show just the same. That particular episode, said show creator Gary David Goldberg, revealed that the actor "was my heavy hitter." When Alex took control of the family, "the studio nearly fell down laughing."
Two years later, Gross's conjecture had become fact, and he knew it. "Michael Fox does get most of the notice," he said. "I could worry about the fact that I went to Yale [drama school] with Meryl Streep. But I'll be honest with you: It isn't helpful for me to sit around and count the number of lines I have in an episode. Family Ties is something we're all just doing for a time. Frankly, I'm into counting my blessings."
And there were many to count. Though it hit some bumps in its first couple of seasons, Family Ties hit its stride once the producers realized Fox was their real star. Over the course of its 1982-89 run on NBC, it turned in very impressive numbers, climbing as high as the number-two spot for the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons. By 1984 Goldberg counted his biggest blessing: casting the actor in the first place. "[S]o much of the show revolves around him," he said. "Without Fox, we wouldn't be on the air."
The funny thing is, it almost didn't happen. When Goldberg sold the show to NBC, it was to be loosely based on his own experience. Like Steve and Elyse Keaton, he and his wife went from living the hippie counter-culture life to settling down with two kids and respectable careers. So when Fox walked in to audition, the role wasn't supposed to be the focal point. "NBC asked me if he was the kind of guy you'd put on a lunch box," Goldberg recalled. "I'd never heard of this as a criterion for actors. 'Maybe a thermos,' I said. 'Who knows?'"
In addition to the role being downplayed in the early days, Fox wasn't even supposed to play it. (Matthew Broderick (Biloxi Blues, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) was, but he decided he didn't want to be weighed down with series work.) "Michael came to see me in my office at Paramount and I wasn't impressed," Goldberg said. "I like to use basketball terminology, and I can only say that Michael is like me terrible in practice but much better in an actual game on the court." After the show's casting director convinced him to give Fox another shot, Goldberg signed the kid and watched his stardom grow.
Not that the shift from adults to offspring was an entirely welcome experience. "My initial reaction was a little anguished," the executive producer admitted. "I remember saying, 'I'm not interested in kids,' I'd rather go out and fail with what our show was than twist and bend it into something we didn't want to do. But we caught lightning in a bottle and we had to readjust; we couldn't ignore that."
No, they couldn't, just as the creators of Happy Days came to realize the Fonz (Henry Winkler) was their big draw and the producers of The Partridge Family learned to ride the raging appeal Keith (David Cassidy) enjoyed among his preteen female following. Still, to his credit Fox managed to keep his ego under wraps despite not only ending up on a lunch box (one of which decorated NBC head honcho Brandon Tartikoff's office), but receiving 10,000 pieces of an mail a year. "I'm afraid someone will take it away if I'm a jerk about it," he said. "I think one day they'll figure out I'm this ugly little runt from Canada with too many hockey scars on his body and the whole thing will go out the window." And what if he had let the screaming girls fighting to get near him at every taping go to his head? "Gary wouldn't let me get away with that crap," he added.
At the time, Fox was already worried about the future, concerned that at 22 he'd reached his peak and it was all downhill from there. "I've got everything I want," he said, "but sometimes it's scary to see your ambitions filled. Where do I go from here?"Good question. But starring in the successful Back to the Future movie franchise and then teaming with Goldberg to create another hit, ABC's Spin City, in 1996 was an even better answer.