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TV Family’s Cast Gets Over Its Own ‘Growing Pains’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This Sunday’s two-hour “The Growing Pains Movie,” which finds the Seaver kids returning home to help their mother campaign for Congress, will not be the first time the fresh-faced cast of the popular 1985-92 sitcom has regrouped since the series finale. There were three unofficial reunions in the mid-'90s at the weddings of stars Alan Thicke, Joanna Kerns and Tracey Gold, where paparazzi snapped the three smiling stars. Joined by cast mate Jeremy Miller, their arms wrapped around each other, this foursome presented the image of a still-united Seaver family front.

But someone was conspicuously absent. Where was Kirk Cameron, the series’ breakout star who played eldest son Mike? Was the hotshot too big to attend the weddings of his former co-stars? Think again.

“I totally would have come--I wasn’t invited,” says 30-year-old Cameron, munching on a heavily croutoned Caesar salad at an International House of Pancakes near his Agoura home. “But I was still happy for them. Those were their weddings, and they had the people there that they loved and cared about. It didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t one of those people.”

Though Thicke claims he mailed a wedding invitation to his TV son, Gold makes no apologies for leaving Cameron off her 1994 invite list. “If I’d invited him, he probably wouldn’t have come,” says Gold, 31. Juggling toddlers Sage, 3 1/2, and Bailey, 1 1/2, during a visit to her parents’ North Hollywood home, the star of countless TV movies admits to “diplomacy” in her comments regarding her former TV sib.

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“At the end, Kirk had drifted away from the show. When he got married during a summer hiatus up in New York, none of us were invited. He had pretty much made it clear he needed his separation from us.”

But it hadn’t always been that way. In the early years of the series, no birthday or holiday would pass without all the Seavers--Cameron included--in attendance. “In the early days of ‘Growing Pains,’ we communed all the time,” remembers Thicke, calling from a furniture store, where he was replacing items he lost in his recent divorce. “Nobody would ever have a party without the whole gang being there. And that did change. Kirk went through a slow withdrawal--a fade to black.”

Personal Changes in the Last Season

In the final seasons of “Growing Pains,” Cameron found both God (though he rejects the label “born again”) and a wife in on-screen love interest Chelsea Noble, who appears in the reunion as Mike’s now-wife Kate. “I definitely kind of made an about-face, going toward another aspect of my life,” admits Cameron. “I shifted my focus from 100% on the show, to 100% on [my new life], and left 0% on the show--and even the friendships that were a part of that show. If I could go back, I think I could make decisions that were less inadvertently hurtful to the cast--like talking and explaining to them why I just wanted to have my family at my wedding.”

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Following the series’ cancellation, Cameron made no attempt to maintain contact with his former co-stars. It had been eight years since he’d even spoken to Gold. Still, Cameron says, “I can’t speak for anyone else, but I had no deep-seated animosity toward anybody in the cast. Chelsea and I were ready to start a life outside of a television show, outside of Hollywood--outside of the circus I’d been in for seven years.”

As the sitcom neared its final season, the once tightknit cast members began to contemplate their post-"Growing Pains” lives. Gold had an additional burden to deal with--a widely publicized life-and-death battle with anorexia nervosa that forced ABC to remove her from the series’ final episodes. “The last season of ‘Growing Pains’ is like a blur to me--I can’t even remember the episodes,” admits Gold, who was allowed to return only for the series finale. “They said, ‘We’ve been canceled. You can come back for the last episode,’ but I was still very, very sick and an insurance risk.”

For Gold, the prospect of stepping back into that role for a reunion was initially unsettling. “My fear was, ‘Can I put myself back into an environment where I was so sick the last time I was there?,’ ” she says. “I was really scared that it might be a not healthy environment. Would I feel the same feelings I’d had?”

Despite insecurities and estrangements, the entire cast (Thicke, Cameron, Gold, Miller and youngest Seaver Ashley Johnson) was persuaded by ABC to return for the reunion, though Kerns, now a director on shows such as “Ally McBeal,” held out for a hefty paycheck and initially expressed interest in directing.

Mom Seaver Makes a Bid for Congress

The plot line of the reunion picks up where the series left off. When we last saw the Seavers, their house had been sold in preparation for a move to Washington, D.C., where Maggie had accepted a challenging media relations position. The final image before they left the house was of the family sitting on the floor enjoying a pizza--an intriguing image for viewers who were curious to see if Gold would take a bite of her slice. (She didn’t.)

Now, the family comes together to help Mom campaign. When all but Kerns (who was vacationing in Europe) appeared at a July press junket to promote the film a month prior to shooting, it was the first time much of the cast had seen each other since the series ended (though Thicke and Kerns had remained close golf buddies).

“Once I saw everybody again, I realized I was going to be OK,” says Gold. “It was a huge healing process for me. The way that I was at the end certainly reflected the way [my character] Carol was. I think I viewed ‘Growing Pains’ as kind of a bad high school yearbook picture that haunts you--'God, I hope nobody sees this,’ but the whole country had seen it. And now I’ve been able to go back and do right by Carol Seaver.”

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As for her anorexia, Gold says that and depression are issues she’ll always have to keep tabs on. “But,” says Gold, “I’m healthier than I’ve ever been. Being an actress, you always have to be conscious of how you look, so there’s no getting around that. But being a mother now, I have no desire to be sick.”

During filming in Canada, the children of Cameron, Gold and Thicke were ever-present on the set, providing the families an opportunity to interact on a personal level. “I have to say Kirk was so wonderful during the movie,” says Gold. “He just seemed really happy to be there.” Thicke agrees: “Kirk came back to us as a warmer, more tolerant, accessible person. He’s now more one of us. It was a genuine reunion for us off-camera.”

At the wrap party, the once-again cohesive cast exchanged home phone numbers and posed for group pictures--this time with the entire Seaver family intact. And just a few weeks ago, Noble threw a surprise 30th birthday party for Cameron. Among the faces in attendance: Thicke and Gold with their families.

“One of the best parts of doing this reunion was to be able to just reconnect again in a really nice way,” says Cameron. “It’s a lot less crazy of a time than when we were teenagers. It’s an opportunity to begin new friendships as adults, and I’m really looking forward to that.”

* “The Growing Pains Movie” can be seen Sunday at 7 p.m. on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).


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