NBC’s Family Ties is currently the second-most-watched television show in North America. The Cosby Show, the sitcom that precedes it on Thursday nights, is still No. 1, but with the two most recent episodes, Family Ties has overtaken Cosby in at least two major cities: New York and Chicago. Maclean’s Senior Writer Brian D. Johnson recently spent three days on the set of Family Ties to prepare a profile of its young Canadian star, Michael J. Fox. His backstage account of how the show is put together:
Wednesday: Paramount Pictures Corp. is the only major studio lot left in the district officially defined as Hollywood. “Park your car beside the blue sky,” orders the guard at the studio gate. The “sky,” it turns out, is a giant blue-painted backdrop, erected to provide
movie cameras with an illusion of wide-open spaces. The lot itself consists of 32 cream-colored sound stages, each the size of an aircraft hangar. And under the cavernous roof of Stage 24, the Family Ties rehearsal is under way.
The show’s basic cast and crew—together since the show began five years ago—have developed a relaxed but efficient routine. Working nine months of the year, the actors take a fresh script home with them each weekend. Then they read through it together on Monday and Tuesday, while writers make revisions. On Wednesday and Thursday they rehearse the final script—before taping the show in front of a live audience Friday night. Facing rows of cushioned bleachers, the stage is divided into three sets. In the middle is the Keaton family’s cluttered kitchen. To one side is the living room; to the other, a set deco-
rated as a banquet hall for the show being rehearsed—episode No. 118.
Titled Band on the Run, the script features baby-faced blonde Jennifer Keaton (Tina Yothers) as the lead singer of an all-girl pop group called the Permanent Waves. Stepping in to manage their career, the opportunistic Alex Keaton (Fox) changes their name to the Swinging Corporate Raiders, dresses them in ball gowns and turns them into a vapid lounge act.
Fox is the most active presence in the studio. Constantly darting about the stage, he seems to be implicitly directing the scenes, setting the pace and the mood. And during lulls in the action, he remains restless, singing snatches of rock songs and making witty asides. In faded jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap, he is scruffier than his Alex character. But he displays the same controlling vigilance.
In one scene, as the teen singers stand sullenly in front of the couch, Alex coaches them through a tired rendition of “Mister Sandman.” Reading from his script, Fox spontaneously leaps onto the couch and, without losing a beat, walks along the back of it to deliver a line to Tina. He then turns to director Andrew McCullough and says: “I don’t know if that’s way over the top, but it might work. Do we have to worry about reality or what?” Then, recalling two legendary screen actors, Fox adds: “Cary danced on the couch. Fred walked on the walls.” McCullough nods approval.
During a break, Fox ducks outside for a cigarette—two, in fact, in rapid succession. The episode they are rehearsing, he says, is the most farfetched in the history of the show. And he relishes the opportunity to stretch Alex’s conservative behavior into entrepreneurial sleaze. “I feel so oily,” he says. “I love it.” Thursday: Camera-blocking day. The cameramen rehearse their angles while the actors run through the scenes. Technicalities slow the pace. Energy lags. “It’s one of those weird days,” says Fox, who has worked late the previous night on a new Pepsi commercial. “People don’t like to yell, so they just say strange things to each other.”
Even a good marriage carries undercurrents of domestic tension. But after such a long history, relations among the show’s cast and crew remain remarkably harmonious. Says Michael Gross, who plays Alex’s father: “One day you turn around and say, ‘My God, has it been five years?’ I didn’t think the show would last for more than a couple of weeks.”
Asked if he is frustrated to be acting in Fox’s shadow, Gross is cautious: “To answer that in any depth, I’d have to be controversial—so I won’t. Every actor likes to keep occupied. Otherwise, you’re like a farmer being paid not to grow
corn. But no one begrudges Michael his success.” Gross, who recently performed in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler on the Los Angeles stage, misses the challenge of live theatre. “This is fat man’s work,” he says. “You keep heading past the pastry tray and never get any exercise.” On the wall above the tray of donuts and bagels backstage, a note from Justine Bateman, who plays Alex’s older sister, advertises the sale of her tealblue 1986 Alfa Romeo for $15,000. Bateman, whose career is on the move, has stepped up to a Porsche. The 20-year-old
actress will star as a singer in a movie to be shot next summer titled Sweet Little Rock 'n' Roller. And Yothers, her TV sister, has just recorded her own album. In Hollywood, it pays to be versatile.
Friday, 5 p.m.: Taping day. On Fridays, scenes are shot first without spectators, then taped again with an audience at night. Editors later assemble the episode from the best footage. But everything is behind schedule and nerves are frayed. A crowd of extras has materialized, and they have spent most of the day standing around like recent immigrants. “This is like a biblical epic,” says Fox, who is finally showing fatigue. Fighting off yawns, he fuels himself with cans of, what else, Diet Pepsi.
6 p.m.: The cast and crew eat dinner in a mess hall next door—beef brochettes cooked on an outdoor barbecue. During the meal, Fox becomes loquacious about his role. “Alex,” he explains, “can be manipulative, self-centred and pompous. But that side of him can be sanded away. I tend to think of it as a rice-paper wall that you can poke holes in and reveal this vulnerable kid that gushes out.”
7:15 p.m.: Show time. The bleachers are full, mostly with invited guests. The rest are fans who lined up for tickets at 6 a.m. Fans usually make a better audi-
ence than friends, explains the show’s creator and executive producer, Gary Goldberg. An emcee warms up the crowd and introduces the cast one by one. Then, with a warning bell that sounds like a fire alarm, the first scene gets under way in the kitchen. “We always try to start the show there,” says Goldberg. “People really identify with that kitchen.” In five years, set furniture has periodically been replaced, but Goldberg does not dare change the kitchen wallpaper: “Sometimes I think that wallpaper is keeping us on the air.”
As the scenes unfold, Fox displays a newfound energy. He forgets his lines more often than anyone else, but there is a spontaneous spark to his performance. Later, he attributes his revival to a ritual dose of vitamins and flower-pollen tablets that one of the producers gave him before the show.
During breaks between scenes, the emcee gives away T-shirts, fields questions to the actors and directs the spotlight onto everyone from the stage manager to the fire marshal. As the night wears on, the audience responds to the scenes with uneven laughter. But one spectator has a resonant guffaw that fills every opening in the dialogue. He is 26-year-old Michael Conley, a TV syndication administrator at another studio who has not missed a single Family Ties episode in five years. Conley is not paid for his appreciation, but feels as if he were part of the cast. “Some people have the gift of acting,” he says, “and some people have the gift of laughter.”
9:10 p.m.: The audience leaves, but the cast stays onstage to tape additional shots. Only five-year-old Brian Bonsall, who plays the youngest Keaton, gets to go home early. Brian has become such a keen participant that if any of his scenes end up on the cutting-room floor, his mother has to break the news to him
gently before he catches the show on TV.
10:15. p.m.: The wrap. Their work over, cast and crew drink Mexican beer and eat pizzas onstage in front of the Keaton living room. Fox spends an animated half hour with a seven-year-old boy who is dying of cancer. A few times during the season he invites a terminally or chronically ill child to the taping and spends time with him afterward. He does not appear to treat the visit as a duty: he seems to derive sincere pleasure from it.
11:00 p.m.: Fox and Goldberg discuss the upcoming Super Bowl Sunday. Fox will fly by helicopter to the stadium and tape a pregame video show for MTV. Goldberg will watch the game at his Malibu beach house with his close friend, producer Steven Spielberg. Goldberg, a 42-year-old fa-
ther of two, is a former student radical. “I still find it incredible,” he says, “that I, of all people, should be responsible for the most moralistic, mainstream family show on television—my wife and I aren’t even married and we’ve lived together 20 years.”
11:30 p.m.: Fox heads off in his Ferrari with a dark-haired date. He has the weekend off. But on Monday he will back in the land of domestic make-believe. “I work so hard at it,“ he says, “because it isn’t really work. It’s like removing yourself from the world as you know it.”
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