In 1982, thanks to Ronald Reagan, America was becoming more conservative. Back then NBC was struggling a bit in the ratings: its famed Thursday night comedy block hadn’t started yet, and sitcoms about nuclear families were scarce. To capitalize on the dearth of family-oriented sitcoms, Gary David Goldberg created a show for NBC about Columbus, Ohio-based couple—and former liberal hippies—Elyse and Steven Keaton, who were now raising three (later four) kids, one of whom was a Reagan-loving young Republican named Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox).
Loosely based on Goldberg’s life, Family Ties was grounded in comedy, but also tackled intense issues such as alcoholism, incest, and death. “The show was more focused on getting Humanitas Awards than Emmys,” co-star Justine Bateman told Entertainment Weekly in 2015. “I don’t know if there was anything the [writers] wanted to do that the network said no to.”
Family Ties quickly became a ratings juggernaut; a third of all American households watched the show. Despite its success, Goldberg decided to call it quits after seven seasons. Family Ties's series finale aired 30 years ago, on May 14, 1989, with Alex moving to New York City to take a job—though not before giving his family a heartfelt goodbye.
Decades later the show is remembered for the Keatons’s wit, and the warm, fuzzy family values it enacted.
1. Matthew Broderick was the creator's first choice for Alex P. Keaton.
Gary David Goldberg saw an audition tape of Matthew Broderick and wanted to cast him Alex P. Keaton, but Broderick turned down the part as he didn’t want to move to L.A. Goldberg saw Michael J. Fox’s audition tape but didn’t feel he was right for the role. “I just thought, ‘No,’” Goldberg later told Emmy TV Legends. “And Mike is such a gifted actor that he could make his choices very specific, and he could play any role any way, and he had made a very specific choice that day in the room at Paramount to play the darker side of Alex Keaton, and it didn’t work.”
But casting director Judith Weiner kept hounding Goldberg to cast him, and finally Goldberg agreed to see Fox again. “So, [Weiner] calls him in, and I say, ‘Anything you want me to tell you?’ He goes, ‘No, just do it better, huh?’ And he gives me this little smile, and I’m thinking, ‘Matthew who?’ It was like ‘boom.’ He nailed it. He just played who he was, he played another side. He was Mike. And as soon as he left, I turned to Judith and I said, ‘This kid’s great. Why didn’t you tell me about him?’"
2. Michael J. Fox saw Alex as a "scared kid."
On Inside the Actors Studio, host James Lipton asked Fox, “Who is Alex Keaton?” “I always thought of him like a mansion made out of rice paper,” Fox replied. “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. And then the fun was watching him react to that and recover from that and hoist himself back up to that place where he thought he was.”
Fox said he saw a lot of himself in Alex, and that the role taught him quite a bit about acting. “What I learned about acting, especially doing that show, is that I thought of acting, when I was younger, as something [where] you put on a character. You’re trying to be somebody else, and really what it is, is trying to take stuff off. That’s the great fun of playing Alex: he is 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.”
During an interview with Emmy TV Legends, Fox said he also based the character on his smart-ass brother, who had great timing. “My brother was so funny at the dinner table that you’d wait for what he had to say.” Fox said. “He’d put his glass of milk down and from the minute he took the glass of milk from his mouth you’re waiting for what he had to say. So later, all that became a part of Alex.”
3. Alex P. Keaton was beloved by conservatives and liberals alike.
Finally, some good news on bipartisanship: Republicans and Democrats both loved Alex. Fox grew up in Canada and “wasn’t a part of any American political construct,” he told Emmy TV Legends. “As the character developed, Republicans really took Alex under their wing and made him a poster boy for the movement. 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. It was one of the shows where it just caught a time. It just found its niche.” (So much so that Ronald Reagan reportedly expressed interest in making a cameo on the show.) “The central values, the family element of it, that part of it, I think, was a value that appealed to both sides of the spectrum. So it was unifying in that sense.”
4. Mallory Keaton wasn't always so dumb.
Justine Bateman, who played Mallory Keaton, told Variety that in the first couple of episodes, Mallory was “a normal sister.” “In fact, they have a line in the pilot where Alex brings a girl home to have dinner with the family and she says, ‘I really love helping people, and I really love cheerleading.’ And I say, ‘Oh, kind of like an Albert Schweitzer with pom poms.’ What Mallory became, of course … She would never have a line like that.” The transition from cerebral to dumb came from whenever Alex made fun of Mallory. Bateman would “pretend it was a compliment, and the writers saw that and went, ‘Oh, sh**, if she thinks that’s funny, that’s so great.’ So we just started going in that direction,” Bateman said.
5. Scott Valentine thought he was paid too much money to grunt.
Scott Valentine played Mallory’s boyfriend, Nick Moore, and felt the role was too dumbed down for him. “That was some tough stuff there,” he told Montreal radio station CJAD 800 AM. “I'm so glad I went to the [American Academy of Dramatic Arts] and to all the other fine acting institutions so I could grunt on primetime television. The primal dig, the date from hell. It was a lot of fun, but literally 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.”
6. Producers attempted create spin-offs around Nick Moore a total of three times.
Nick Moore, Valentine's Stallone-esque character, was only supposed to appear in a single episode of Family Ties but became a series regular. He was such a popular character that the network decided to give him his own show. Three pilots were made, and all three failed. The first was a show called Taking It Home, where Nick (last name Morelli) moves home to Detroit and lives with his grandfather, played by Herschel Bernardi. Bernardi died after filming, in 1986, so the project was canceled.
The second show centered around Nick and a daycare center for juvenile delinquents. “They said kids telling Nick he was an idiot wasn’t as funny as adults telling Nick he was an idiot,” Valentine told Spy.
The third time around wasn’t the charm Valentine was looking for either; Valentine shot a pilot where Nick lives with his sister and her kid in New York City in a show called The Art of Being Nick. The show featured a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who made a guest appearance as a lawyer on Family Ties), and did well when it aired in 1987.
“It came in number two and they still didn't pick it up,” Valentine said. “Then [the network] hemmed and hawed and went back and forth and finally towards late summer said, ‘Geez, we’d like a shot at this again.’ And I said, ‘You know what guys? If I do this I’m gonna be Nick for the rest of my life. And we should put Nick to rest right now.’”
7. Fox was almost fired because his face wasn't fit for a lunchbox.
Brandon Tartikoff, then-president of NBC, wanted to fire Fox after the pilot. “He said, ‘I love the show, you’ve just got to get rid of the kid. I can’t see that face on a lunchbox,’” Fox told Parade. “So years later, whenBack to the Futurehit andFamily Tieswas the number two show on TV, I made Brandon a lunchbox with my picture on it, and I wrote, ‘This is for you to put your crow in. Love, me.’ Brandon turned out to be a good friend and a great guy. He kept that on his desk until the day he died.”
8. Fox filmed Family TiesandBack to the Futuresimultaneously.
Because of his contractual obligations to Family Ties, Fox initially wasn’t allowed to do Back to the Future. But when things didn’t work out with actor Eric Stoltz, the filmmakers tried again for Fox. Right before Christmas break in 1984, Goldberg called Fox into his office and told him about the movie and asked, “‘Was I prepared to do both the show and a movie at the same time?’” Fox told Parade. “All of a sudden, I came back from Christmas break and I went to work onFamily Ties, and then that night I was standing in the parking lot with flaming tire tracks running between my legs—and my whole world changed. 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.” Of course the movie was a huge success and made Fox an even bigger star.
9. When Tracy Pollan first met Fox, she found him to be "full of himself."
At the start of season 4, the producers cast Tracy Pollan as Ellen Reed, a grounded love interest for Alex. On Inside the Actors Studio, Lipton asked Pollan what her first impression of Fox was and she said, “He was feeling good about himself. I think I thought he was kind of full of himself. And then we started to work together and 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 those first two weeks we worked together.”
Fox had an immediate crush on Pollan and credits her for helping him win his first Emmy. “I had this moment where I was looking at her and thinking, ‘She’s really good.’ She was so present," Fox said. "I really learned the importance of presence. I’d been having a lot of fun playing this guy for laughs, but I really felt, ‘Now I gotta work here. I gotta show up and do this because this actress is really the real thing.’ It was a profound moment for me, in a way.”
Pollan (whose brother is famed food writer Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma) appeared on the show for 13 episodes between 1985 and 1987. On July 16, 1988, she and Fox married. Today they have four children.
10. There was a rumor that Fox and Courteney Cox were an off-screen item.
For the last two seasons of Family Ties, futureFriendsstarCourteney Cox joined the cast as Alex’s girlfriend, Lauren Miller. Rumors swirled that Fox had broken up with his former co-star, Pollan, and hooked up with Cox. “People always want to read there’s romance when it’s just two actors having a good time working with each other," Fox told People in 1987. “I’m having a great personal relationship with Tracy and a great professional relationship with Courteney."
Cox also brushed off the rumor. “I’ve never been to a nightclub with Michael,” she said. “I’ve never even been to some of the clubs the tabloids named. Even my stepfather called me up and said, ‘So, I hear you’re busy for Thanksgiving.’”
11. The Ubu Productions logo was actually Gary David Goldberg's dog, named Ubu Roi.
The now-iconic production company signoff tag at the end of every episode featured a picture of a black lab—Ubu Roi—with a Frisbee in its mouth and a voiceover saying, “Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog.” The photo was taken near the Louvre in Paris, during a trip where Goldberg and his wife hitchhiked across Europe.
“As far as hitchhiking goes, most people who picked us up, picked us up because of Ubu,” Goldberg wrote in his memoir, Sit, Ubu, Sit: How I Went from Brooklyn to Hollywood with the Same Woman, the Same Dog, and a Lot Less Hair.
“I just thought, you know, I want very little distance between who I was that day, and who I am now,” Goldberg told Emmy TV Legends. “I just don’t want a lot of distance there. So it was really nice to have that logo to always remind you who you are.” Unfortunately, Ubu died in 1984, but the logo lived on in Goldberg’s other shows like Spin City and Brooklyn Bridge.
12. Brian Bonsall had a difficult time transitioning to adulthood.
Beginning in 1986, child actor Brian Bonsall joined the cast as the Keatons’s fourth child and second son, Andy. In real life, in the years since Family Ties, Bonsall has had a few run-ins with the law. After the show ended, Bonsall moved to Boulder and finished school. In 2004 he was arrested for drunk driving, and in 2007 he was arrested for assaulting a girlfriend. Then, in 2009, he went to jail again, this time for breaking a stool and hitting his friend with it several times. In 2010, after testing positive for marijuana, he was arrested yet again for violating the conditions of his bond. Today, he tours as a musician.
13. Skippy Handelman is a stand-up comedian.
Marc Price played the Keatons's lovably annoying, Mallory-obsessed neighbor Irwin “Skippy” Handelman for the duration of the series. Since the show ended, Price has kept the comedy going by touring the country with his stand-up routines. “A lot of people know me as Skippy, and that doesn’t scare me,” Price told the Sun Sentinel in 1993. “People want me to hate that, but I don’t hate that, because that’s how people know me. I accept that and I look to getting recognized as Marc Price in due time.”
Price says people come to his shows because of Skippy, “but I’m certainly Marc Price and they get to meet Marc Price.” He’s thrilled when people approach him about his comedy but is okay with people asking him, “‘Hey Skippy! Did you ever do it with Mallory?’ That doesn’t bother me either.”
14. Justine Bateman graduated from UCLA in 2016.
After Family Ties, Bateman continued to act in TV shows—most notably playing a high-priced escort on an episode of Arrested Development called “Family Ties,” starring opposite her brother, Jason Bateman—but then decided to quit acting and go to college. She enrolled in UCLA’s undergrad computer science and management program, from which she graduated in June 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,” Bateman told The Hollywood Reporter just a few months before he graduation. Bateman documented her college experience with a Tumblr account, where she wrote, “I especially want a job or a company that is playing with very high stakes, swimming with very powerful players, and working with very ambitious projects. I want a big knife to cut into a big cake. And all the responsibility that comes with that.”
Updated for 2019.