His 'Family Ties' Are Still for Fun, Not Profit

Times Staff Writer

At this point in his career, Gary David Goldberg could pack his bags, move to Tahiti and rake in the money while sunning on the beach--just for being the creator of "Family Ties," now in its sixth season on NBC.

"Legally, from a contractual standpoint, I haven't had to be here since the 14th show," Goldberg said cheerfully at his office at Paramount Studios, where he still comes to work most every day along with the rest of the "Family Ties" crew. "And what are we on, No. 133 now?"

Goldberg, executive producer of the family comedy (currently seen first-run on Sunday nights at 8, with reruns appearing weeknights at 7 on KTTV Channel 11), plans to be there as long "Family Ties" lasts.

"This is the pleasure, this is the joy--this is what I've been working toward," he explained. "You could take all this away from me, and I would start all over. I just honestly don't think I'll ever have anything like this again."

Coming from almost anyone else in Hollywood, the words might carry a tinny ring of insincerity. From this bearded, sunny-tempered, 43-year-old flower child, however, one easily buys the notion that fun, not profit, built the "Family Ties" empire.

Goldberg never thought about building an empire. Even now, he says, the most important part of his little dynasty, UBU Productions (named after Goldberg's now-deceased dog), is its day-care center on the Paramount lot.

"Family Ties" star Michael J. Fox describes the show's success as "just an extension of everybody loving everybody in a generically spiritual way" under the fatherly influence of Goldberg.

Goldberg, a true spirit of the '60s, spent 13 years as the perpetual college student, beginning at Brandeis University in 1962, exploring the world and ending up at San Diego State University in 1975. He was 31 before he decided to pursue a Hollywood career.

"I had been putting my energy into directions that had in no way involved making money or contributing to society in any way--I had a great time," Goldberg reminisced dreamily. "Then I decided to become a part of society, to have some impact on society. I was really ready to step forward and say: 'I want to be a grown-up.' "

Dropping back into society was as much fun as dropping out for Goldberg and Diana Meehan, the woman with whom he has lived for 19 years. Goldberg decided to become a television writer.

He was somewhat naive about the process. "I would mail out scripts on Monday, and on Wednesday I'd be at the mailbox saying, 'Why haven't they contacted me?' " he said.

"Diana was working on a master's thesis which became a book; we would sit back-to-back and write. I wrote scripts for 12, 14 hours a day for no money. We had no money whatsoever. It was energizing."

Eventually, his efforts paid off. His first job was at MTM as a writer for "The Bob Newhart Show." After associations with several other MTM shows, he launched UBU Productions in 1981.

Goldberg has executive-produced other series under the UBU banner, including 1982's "Making the Grade" and the 1985 "Sara." Current UBU productions include "The Bronx Zoo" for NBC, "Duet" for Fox Broadcasting Co. and "Day by Day," an as-yet-unscheduled NBC mid-season replacement. Goldberg is co-creator of "Day by Day," the story of a career-oriented couple who give up their jobs to start a child-care center in their home, but he was not actively involved in creating "Bronx" or "Duet."

Although UBU has four current productions, Goldberg said he saves most of his creative input for "Family Ties"; he does not want to be at the helm of all his company's product. "The idea of UBU is not to get all the shows looking like I created them," he said. "I try to create an atmosphere where people can do their own work."

Inspired by Goldberg's own bemusement at the philosophical clash between the children of the 1960s and their own children, "Family Ties" is the story of two former '60s college radicals, Steven and Elyse Keaton, and their four children. The biggest generation gap exists between the Keatons and their oldest son, Alex, the arch-Republican overachiever portrayed by Michael J. Fox. Bright, athletic daughter Jennifer Keaton is based on Goldberg's own daughter, Shana.

Although it slipped somewhat this fall after a move to Sundays from its golden 8:30 p.m. Thursday slot following NBC's top-rated "Cosby Show," "Family Ties" has spent the past few seasons as television's No. 2 comedy. It ranks 12th for the current season.

Goldberg credits two factors for the long-term success of "Family Ties": the universal appeal of family ties, and NBC, for nurturing the initially low-rated show during a period in TV when both comedy and traditional families were considered dead.

"I thought, 'God, that's not true--family is the most important thing in my life,' " Goldberg said. "You see people who are families clinging to those rituals, to any kind of family reunion. The fact the family was being attacked on all sides made it even more precious. In order for this show to be a success, we had to accomplish three things: The audience had to want to be part of this family, they had to see themselves in this family, and they had to feel like they could watch and learn how to be a better family."

Some in the industry have suggested that "Family Ties" would not have been a success except for the show's cozy spot following "Cosby." Grant Tinker, Goldberg's former MTM colleague and chairman of NBC during "Ties' "first years, disagrees. "I'm sure he (Goldberg) admits that Cosby has been very helpful, but the show would have succeeded without Cosby," Tinker said. "It's a kind of 22-minute presentation of our underlying family values."

Goldberg gently but pointedly noted that "Family Ties," sometimes referred to as a "Cosby clone," was on the air two years before "The Cosby Show."

Goldberg first tried to sell the idea for "Family Ties" to CBS. They didn't buy it. He still delights in CBS' error in judgment. "The best thing that ever happened to 'Family Ties' was when CBS refused to take it," he gloated. "NBC is about getting the best show out; CBS is about showing their power. (NBC) didn't have the stuffiness and arrogance of CBS, and it didn't have just the . . . the arrogance of ABC--they weren't stuffy."

It has also been suggested that "Ties" wouldn't be a hit without the star-power of Fox--but NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff believes that one star can't make a show.

"I think if a show gets up beyond five years, it's really because the creators have stretched the concept to allow for evolution and new blood," he said. "The fact we don't have to do Michael J. Fox stories every week is a tribute to the fact that audiences are interested in everybody (on the show)."

And Fox said he would leave the show to pursue his blossoming movie career if it weren't for the presence of Goldberg. "Gary is the show," Fox said. "When you describe it, it sounds very corny--here's a guy with, like, 9 jillion dollars, but he comes to the story conferences, the after-run-through note sessions. That kind of involvement inspires him."

Goldberg said that even though "Family Ties" could get away with just going through the motions these days, he and the staff try to remind themselves to approach each season as if it were the first.

"Michael Fox and I go out to lunch once a year to remind ourselves of how lucky we are, and to say 'We're going to do another year--let's try to be great to each other, and not get crazy,' " he said. "It's good to remember where we were when we first met.

"It only takes a minute to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, are we the luckiest people who ever lived, or not?' "

Even with that inspiring attitude, Goldberg acknowledges that "Ties" might end after seven seasons, a total of 180 episodes. "One hundred eighty is a lot," he said. "There are touches of (burnout) now, when we say, 'Haven't we already done that before?' "

Goldberg said his next move is into directing feature films. "The thing for me to do is to get into a form where I don't know as much, to get at risk again," he said. "The one thing that is missing from 'Family Ties' is we're not at risk--I think it's good to be at risk creatively."

And after that, he might just take a year to rediscover how to do nothing. "I don't have time to daydream--that's what's missing in my life," he said. "There are times when it can make you cry, the idea of just waking up and thinking, 'What do I want to do today?'

"Diana and I, we do nothing great ."

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