On the "Growing Pains" set at Warner Bros. last month, someone had posted a publicity photo of Kirk Cameron, who plays the irrepressible Mike Seaver, with the notation: "Available as of 3/20/92. Will act for food and shelter. Help, please."
The message may have been facetious, but Cameron and many other television actors are indeed now out of steady jobs as more long-running series than usual bid viewers adieu this season. ABC's three departing veterans all receive their send-offs tonight, providing, the network hopes, a one-two-three ratings punch on the first Saturday of the May sweeps period.
"Who's the Boss?" leads off the evening at 8 p.m. with an expanded one-hour episode, followed at 9 by "Growing Pains," also an hour, and "MacGyver" at 10 p.m.
"There is a promotional hook," acknowledged Alan Sternfeld, ABC's vice president of program planning and scheduling. "The viewers loyal to the shows over the years will probably watch each one."
But the decision to air this "Night of a Thousand Goodbys"--as one show producer termed it--was based upon more than a potential ratings bonanza, Sternfeld said.
"When you have valued employees who have given valorous service, you like to give them a going-away party and this is a nice way to do it," he explained. " 'Who's the Boss?' launched a lot of other shows (which followed its time period) on Tuesday nights--'Perfect Strangers,' 'Head of the Class,' 'Growing Pains,' 'The Wonder Years,' 'Baby Talk,' 'Roseanne.' 'Growing Pains' was also very successful for us, and 'MacGyver' did a nice job with 'Monday Night Football.' So this is an evening where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
If the series are so valued, why cancel them?
"Like children who have matured and found their own lives, the shows sort of exhausted their story material," Sternfeld replied. "We felt we needed fresher shows."
The first of the trio to say farewell, "Who's the Boss?," was also the first to premiere--on Sept. 20, 1984, (the same date that NBC introduced "The Cosby Show," which will broadcast its final episode Thursday). The show told of former pro baseball player Tony Micelli (Tony Danza), who moved from Brooklyn to become housekeeper for posh Connecticut advertising executive Angela Bower (Judith Light) so as to give his daughter, Samantha (Alyssa Milano), a better life; story lines depicted Tony and Angela's deepening relationship, as well as the adventures of Samantha, Bower's mother (Katherine Helmond) and son (Danny Pintauro).
The 199th and final episode continues a plot line begun last week, in which new college graduate Micelli receives a job offer he can't refuse--in Iowa--raising the issue of a long-distance Tony-Angela romance. The resolution, said Blake Hunter, co-creator and co-executive producer with Martin Cohan, "doesn't walk away from our audience. We think the audience will be happy with the show."
Working on that final episode was difficult, according to Light. "It was hard to believe it's over. We all vacillated between denial and sadness. When you work with people for so long and you grow together, it's hard to leave. There was a tremendous amount of love between us, and I think it came across to the viewers. I also felt these characters had more to go through, that there was more life left in the show."
The characters grew along with the actors, Light added. " 'Who's the Boss?' was very important, very cutting edge for the '80s--these were people who were not stereotypes. She was successful and he was not afraid to be in the home. The show became not about the jobs but the people, and what happened to them over time. Angela became less uptight, more open and free because of Tony. And Tony allowed himself to go back to school and follow the profession of his dreams."
(The show may be leaving the American first-run air waves, but it continues in a unique version in England, Cohan said. A series called "The Upper Hand" is now in its fourth season, using the original "Who's the Boss?" scripts with only minor cultural and semantic changes, in what he believes is the first time an American show has been adapted overseas in this manner. In the works now is a similar edition for German television. All three shows will live on in syndication, of course, and there is already talk of sitcom reunions and "MacGyver" television movies.)
Coincidentally, "Growing Pains," which produced 166 episodes in seven seasons, was also about role reversal. In the initial concept, Long Island wife Maggie Seaver (Joanna Kerns) returned to work as a journalist after raising three children (Cameron, Tracey Gold and Jeremy Miller), while husband Jason (Alan Thicke) ran his psychiatric practice at home.
Also coincidentally, a character in the final episode receives an out-of-town job offer, when Maggie is asked to be a senator's media relations director and must decide whether to disrupt her family's lives by moving to Washington.
The closing premise was the idea of executive producer Dan Wilcox, who had been told by ABC that this was the show's last year when he signed on for the season. Knowing that the show was winding up did not influence his choice of material for the preceding episodes, though, he said.
"Some of it had already happened. Kirk had grown up and was troubled that his character hadn't. That's how Luke (a homeless teen-ager, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, for whom Cameron's character became a father figure) came. There was some talk of a wedding between Mike and Kate (Cameron's real-life wife, Chelsea Noble), but it didn't feel right. We added a boyfriend for Carol (Gold) and it could have gone to a wedding, but it didn't."
The series did continue to tackle serious subjects this season, such as Luke's homelessness; in the past it had depicted such problems as cocaine abuse, teen-age drunk driving and teen suicide.
"We expanded to use our platform, our captive audience, to address issues in the family dynamic that we felt were important," explained Thicke. "Though we never ignored our mandate to entertain, we also did not ignore our mandate to show this in our own 'Growing Pains' way--obviously, we did not handle teen suicide in the same way as '60 Minutes.' "
As with "Who's the Boss?," doing the "Growing Pains" finale was somewhat of an ordeal. "Every time we did the last scene in rehearsal, there wasn't a dry eye in the cast. It was very emotional," Thicke said. "When we finally (taped) it, we all gathered afterward and cried before going out to greet the audience. It was a private moment."
In direct contrast to the sitcoms' gloom, the filming of the last episode of "MacGyver" was actually cheerful, according to executive producer Stephen Downing.
"The atmosphere was up, because we knew ahead of time this was going to be it," he said. "We all had our feelings about going out with a bang. We're all very proud of what we've done for seven years."
The series itself was a rarity, an action-adventure program whose hero (Richard Dean Anderson) did not believe in violence. Earlier this season, viewers finally learned that MacGyver's first name is Angus; in this 138th episode, they--and MacGyver--learn that he has a son.
The show, which had previously dramatized social and environmental issues, also deals with the illegal role of Chinese slave labor in the manufacture of U.S-imported products. And though Downing does not bemoan the end of the series, he is keenly aware of the effect its absence will have on viewers.
"I've received tons and tons of mail lamenting the loss of this role model for kids: A hero who didn't use a gun and demonstrated that if you provide for your mind and use your mind after you've provided for it, you can get along pretty well in this world," he said. "That kind of audience response is what all of us are most proud of."