Behind-the-Scenes Facts From 'Family Ties'
| LAST UPDATE 02/24/2022
Many details of the famed American sitcom Family Ties are probably still etched in the memories of its fans. But we found quite a few facts about the 1980s show and its cast that might have gone unnoticed.
Tracy Pollan Wasn’t Fond of Michael J. Fox
In Season 4, Tracy Pollan was cast as Ellen Reed, the love interest of Alex P. Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox). When asked about her first impression of Fox, she didn't have the best things to say...
"He was feeling good about himself. I think I thought he was kind of full of himself," she confessed. But she went on to admit that she got a "completely different impression" of Fox after the two started working together, calling him "funny and so smart." She even had a crush on him, joking she helped him win his first Emmy.
A Rumored Off-Screen Romance
In the last two seasons of the sitcom, Courteney Cox was cast as Alex's girlfriend, and tabloids were quick to spin stories about a "steamy affair" between the two actors in real life. Rumors of the off-screen romance began just as the relationship between Fox's and Tracy Pollan's characters ended.
"People always want to read there's romance when it's just two actors having a good time working with each other. I'm having a great personal relationship with Tracy and a great professional relationship with Courteney," said Fox, addressing the rumors. As Cox put it, she never had a relationship with her co-star.
Michael J. Fox Almost Got Fired
After the first pilot of Family Ties aired, Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC at the time, insisted on letting Fox go. Fox discussed the issue with Parade, saying, "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."
"So years later, when Back to the Future hit and Family Ties was the number two show on TV, I made Brandon a lunchbox with my picture on it," Fox laughed. "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."
Scott Valentine Was "Overpaid"
Scott Valentine, who played Mallory's boyfriend Nick Moore, shared that he would find his role on the show a bit trivial at times. "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," he told radio station CJAD 800 AM.
The now 63-year-old actor went on to say, "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." Imagine feeling bad for being overpaid!
Meredith Baxter’s Mysterious Disappearance
Remember when Meredith Baxter mysteriously disappeared for a while during the show's third season? She missed a few of the show's episodes to give birth to twins! As it turns out, Baxter was pregnant for most of the season, and the show's directors were able to cover up her pregnancy with props and loose-fitting clothes.
So Baxter, who played Elyse Keaton on the show, managed to keep her pregnancy a secret throughout the show's season. Baxter and her then-husband, David Birney, divorced a few years later, after which she married screenwriter, Michael Blodgett. She is currently married to Nancy Locke.
Fox Thought Alex Was "Scared"
In an Inside the Actors Studio interview, James Lipton asked Fox to describe Alex Keaton's character. Fox's response was, "I always thought of him like a mansion made out of rice paper. 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 went on to explain that many of the character's qualities reminded him of himself and that the role changed his perspective of acting. "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," he shared.
Scott Valentine's Three Pilots
The show's producers had originally planned for Nick Moore, played by Scott Valentine, to appear in only one episode of Family Ties. However, the audience instantly fell in love with the character, and his role in the show eventually became more permanent.
Soon, the character became so popular that the network tried creating spin-offs about Nick Moore. In one storyline, Nick moved to Detroit to live with his grandfather, and in another, he worked at a daycare center for juvenile delinquents. After three unsuccessful pilots, NBC decided a spin-off wasn't going to happen.
Mallory Keaton's Changed Character
Those who remember Mallory Keaton in the show's earlier episodes might know that she wasn't always a dim character. Justine Bateman explained that when Alex would make fun of Mallory, she would "pretend it was a compliment." When the writers saw that, they thought, "'if she thinks that's funny, that's so great.'"
"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,'" she recalled. "And I say, 'Oh, kind of like an Albert Schweitzer with poms poms.' What Mallory became, of course … She would never have a line like that."
The Show Coincided With 'Back to the Future'
Michael J. Fox's contract with Family Ties initially prevented him from being able to join the cast of Back to the Future. When their plans to hire Eric Stoltz to play Marty McFly didn't work out, the Back to the Future studio sought out Fox again. He said, "Was I prepared to do both the show and a movie at the same time?'"
"All of a sudden, I came back from Christmas break, and I went to work on Family Ties," the award-winning actor continued. "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."
Fox's Parkinson's Disease Diagnosis
Fox was sadly diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1991, after which he was warned that his nervous system disorder would leave him with "ten good working years." Following his diagnosis, he signed a three-film contract for For Love or Money, Life With Mikey, and Greedy.
He starred in ABC's Spin City, which ran from 1996 to 2002 and quit in the fourth season because of the nervous disorder. During season 3, Fox admitted to the cast and crew that he was diagnosed with the disease. He was replaced by Charlie Sheen but continued to make guest appearances, including in the show's final season.
Hitchhiking to Work
One would think that with a $65 million net worth, a TV star wouldn't have to hitchhike to work. But, as it turns out, Michael J. Fox had to do just that when he played Alex Keaton on Family Ties. To be fair, though, he probably became worth all those millions after his job on the show.
Legend has it that Fox would hitchhike from his home in Brentwood to the set of Family Ties in Hollywood. However, we assume that the actor found a new means of transportation as the show became more and more popular and as he acquired more roles in various movies.
Brian Bonsall's Breakout Role
Young Brian Bonsall joined the cast of Family Ties in 1986 to play the older Andy Keaton. And although the auditioning process can be quite nerve-wracking for many actors, it apparently wasn't the case for four-year-old Bonsall, who landed the role in his first-ever audition!
Brian Bonsall quickly rose to fame, winning three Young Artist Awards for his performance on the show. And his work on Family Ties wasn't the only successful part of his career - he was also nominated for a Young Artist Award for his role in Do You Know the Muffin Man?
Skippy Handelman's Comedy Career
Fans of Family Ties probably remember the Keatons' neighbor "Skippy" and the hopeless crush he had on Mallory. Marc Price, the actor who played Skippy, saw his career continue to grow after the show ended and confessed, "A lot of people know me as Skippy, and that doesn't scare me."
"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 get recognized as Marc Price in due time," he assured. He also added that, although people come to his current comedy shows to see Skippy, "they get to meet Marc Price."
'Family Ties' References in 'Spin City'
After Family Ties wrapped, Michael J. Fox starred in the ABC sitcom Spin City. Before eventually leaving in 2000 because of symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, Fox won a Primetime Emmy and three Golden Globe Awards for his portrayal of Mike Flaherty. And for fans who paid close attention, many references were made to Family Ties.
Not only that, but a few guest appearances from Family Ties stars were made on Spin City, including Meredith Baxter-Birney and Michael Gross. These two actors played the parents of Fox's character as regulars in Family Ties and as guest stars in Spin City.
Brian Bonsall's Trouble With the Law
Despite his successful career and the many opportunities that lay ahead, Bonsall ended up getting into a bit of legal trouble and never returned to acting. Instead, he became a musician, forming a rock band called Late Bloomers with his friends in 1998. He is currently a member of the band Sunset Silhouette.
Bonsall's private life seems to have recovered from that difficult period as well. A husband to Courtney Tuck since 2017 and now a father to a 2-year-old boy, Bonsall has publicly expressed affection toward his family. "I love my little family so much," he wrote in a 2020 Instagram post.
Matthew Broderick Almost Played Alex
The Nice Work If You Can Get It star was offered the role of Alex Keaton on Family Ties = but reportedly turned it down because he was reluctant to move to L.A. Although Gary David Goldberg, one of the show's producers, wasn't too excited about Matthew playing the role, he eventually watched his audition.
Discussing the audition, Goldberg recalled, "I'm thinking, 'Matthew who?' It was like 'boom.' He nailed it. He just played who he was, he played the other 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?'"
Fox Based His Performance on His Brother
Michael J. Fox was able to relate to his character, Alex Keaton, quite a lot on the show. He has shared that he found a lot of common qualities between himself and the character but also mentioned that much of his portrayal of the character was based on his own brother.
Fox explained, “My brother was so funny at the dinner table that you’d wait for what he had to say. He’s 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.”
Guest Stars on the Show
Throughout the seven seasons of the series, several famous celebrities appeared as guest stars on the set of the show. For example, Tom Hanks played “Uncle Ned” in many episodes - and even had to chug a whole bottle of vanilla extract in one of the episodes!
Another Hollywood star to be featured on Family Ties was Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Susan White, the lawyer who worked for the Keatons after Jennifer was suspended from school. Additionally, The Terminator star Gina Davis played the family's housekeeper.
At This Moment Became a Hit
At This Moment by Billy Vera had been around for a good six years before it was featured on Family Ties in 1985. In that year and the one that followed, the song was played several times in various episodes of the show and was subsequently discovered by a wider audience.
After being played on the show as the breakup song between Alex and Ellen, it became so popular that it quickly shot up to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. That was quite an advancement, compared to the No. 79 spot it held when it first came out in 1981.
The Truth About the "Ubu" Dog
The show's audience probably remembers the image of the black lab that appeared, along with the production company's name, at the end of every episode. But it's less likely that fans knew the dog actually belonged to producer Gary David Goldberg, who had the pooch by his side in college and afterwards when he traveled the world!
"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," Goldberg shared with Emmy TV Legends. Although the dog, named Ubu Roi, unfortunately, died in 1984, the logo appeared once again in Spin City and in Brooklyn Bridge.
The Cast Reunited
After the show ended in 1989, the cast of Family Ties wasn't too fond of the idea of a series reboot at the time. In fact, they were so determined to prevent any possibility of the show starting a new season that they tried to suggest having the Keaton family members die in a plane crash in the season finale!
But, to the delight of the show's many fans, the cast did end up having a reunion in 2015 on Entertainment Weekly, where they discussed the show. At the time, Fox mentioned the show's audience saying, "People grew up with Family Ties. That's a very special relationship I enjoy with people."
Bateman Graduated College
Long after the end of Family Ties in 1989, Bateman decided it was time to take a break from her acting career and think about her plans for her education. She eventually enrolled in UCLA’s undergrad computer science and management program, graduating in 2016.
Discussing her post-graduation plans with The Hollywood Reporter, Bateman said: “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.”
Family Ties vs. The Muppets
Family Ties and The Muppets: a likely duo? Most fans would probably think not, but in reality, the two shows had a mutual admiration for each other! The Muppet Magazine even featured a photoshoot with Family Ties cast members Fox, Bateman, and Tina Yothers in its Winter 1985 issue.
In the article, the Family Ties cast got to pick The Muppets up from the airport, after which they attended a concert where English rock band The Police were performing. The Muppets were also mentioned several times throughout the seven seasons of the sitcom.
A Successful Show
Family Ties was such a success that it ran for an exceptionally long time - nearly a decade. The show's success won it several awards, of which three Emmy Awards were granted to Michael J. Fox as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his portrayal of Alex Keaton on the show.
NBC began airing reruns of the show on weekday mornings from December 1985 until January 1987, when it was replaced by Bill Rafferty's Blockbusters. Family Ties officially went into syndication in 1987, airing on MeToo, Disney Channel, FamilyNet, WGN America, Nick at Nite, and Hallmark Channel.
Tina Yothers' Career Growth
Tina Yothers' career has certainly grown since she was cast as Jennifer Keaton on Family Ties at just nine years old. She's made some accomplishments in the music industry as well, joining a band called Jaded with her brother, Cory. One of the band's singles was recorded in a Family Ties episode called "Band on the Run."
In 2004, Yothers landed the lead role in Lovelace the Musical and appeared as herself on The Weakest Link in 2001. She also made an appearance on Celebrity Fit Club when the show was in its fourth season and has been featured on the ABC show Celebrity Wife Swap.
The “J” in Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox's fans have probably wondered what the "J." in his name stands for. We'll admit that we've wondered the same thing. Born Michael Andrew Fox, the actor doesn't seem to have a middle name that starts with the letter "J," leaving fans to wonder how it made its way into his identity.
It turns out, the name came from his registration with the Screen Actors Guild, which requires actors to be registered with unique names. Unfortunately, the name Michael Fox had already been entered into the registry. Since he wasn't fond of "Michael A. Fox," he decided to adopt a "J," as a tribute to Michael J. Pollard.
Bateman Hopes the Play Doesn't Happen
In 2016, Variety delighted fans of the famous 80's sitcom when it announced the upcoming stage version of the show, tweeting, "Earlier this week, it was announced that playwright Daniel Goldstein is adapting the sitcom for the stage, with the production debuting in Dayton, Ohio next year."
However, one person who didn't seem to be too excited about the news was none other than the show's own Justine Bateman, who played Mallory Keaton. She took to Twitter to express her thoughts on the announcement, simply writing, "Ew, ew, ew, ew." Probably not the reaction her fans had hoped to see!
A Very Close Cast
Justine Bateman and Michael J. Fox, who played the roles of two siblings on the set of Family Ties, were had a great friendship - even off-set. When the cameras weren't rolling, they would reportedly spend their breaks sneaking out to smoke cigarettes.
In fact, some of the fun time, they had together during breaks included water gun fights. "We caught the crest of a wave there. We thought we were having fun with it, but it was having fun with us. It was big, it was huge," Fox shared with the Today Show.
On-Screen Relationship Becomes Off-Screen Marriage
Fans who shipped the romance between Alex and Ellen on Family Ties were probably sad to see the couple break up in the beginning of the show's fifth season. Fortunately, however, their off-screen romance was much more successful, and the two actors did end up living happily ever after in real life.
Although she's admitted that she initially found Fox to be slightly arrogant, Tracy Pollan eventually changed her mind about the actor. After dating for a while, the two stars tied the knot in 1988! The couple celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary in 2021.
Michael Gross And Meredith Baxter's Birthday
One interesting thing fans probably didn't know is that Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter, who played the Keaton parents on Family Ties, were born on the exact same day. With their birthday being on June 21, 1947, the two stars are 74 years old, as of 2021 - although they certainly don't look it!
The two actors, who played the liberal Steven and Elyse Keaton, maintained a great friendship off-screen decades after the show ended. In 2011, Gross discussed working with Baxter on the show, sharing that they "worked closely together" on set and "had fun together."