By Dave Flynn
A comedy series, featuring a family of liberal parents and children with opposite viewpoints, made for interesting and very humorous storylines back in the 1980s.
Family Ties main star when it began was actress Meredith Baxter, who had several hit sitcoms to her name. The programme was set in Columbus, Ohio, and Meredith played Elyse Keating and her husband, Steven was played by actor, Michael Gross.
The couple had two daughters, Mallory (Justine Bateman) and Jennifer, (Tina Yothers) and a son, Alex played in a breakout performance by Michael J. Fox!
Family Ties premiered on NBC in America in Autumn 1982, at the late time of 9.30 pm on Wednesday nights. Its main competition was The Fall Guy, starring Lee Majors on the ABC network and for the spring of 1983, Family Ties was moved to Monday night at the earlier time of 8.30 pm.
Shortly after it began in America, it was screened in Ireland on RTE2 on Tuesday nights, where it gained a popular viewership.
Steven and Elyse were still liberal from their 1960s days, which was a time that they spent protesting on ‘Ban the Bomb and ‘Save the Whale’ marches. Great comedy usually ensued between the Keaton parents and in particular the conservative Alex.
The two girls, dizzy Mallory and brain-box Jennifer gave the parents headaches in different ways.
As the first season got going, producers realised that Fox was proving popular, and they began to write more storylines with him at the centre. Alex was a supporter of President Ronald Reagan and it was widely reported in the 1980s that Reagan called Family Ties his favourite programme.
After first season its ratings weren’t major, but it was successful enough to be picked up for second and third seasons.
In the third season, Elyse became pregnant with a fourth child, reflecting Meredith Baxter’s real-life pregnancy. A second son was born to the Keatons, named Andy, and in the next few seasons, he quickly grew up to be played by child actor, Brian Bonsall.
Michael J. Fox was invited to be lead in the movie, Back to the Future in 1984. His tv and movie production teams facilitated him as much as possible, and he worked practically around the clock on the movie and on Family Ties.
Back to the Future became a huge hit, and a sequel and other movies came in the offing for the 25 years old actor. The movie success of Fox had a benefit for Family Ties because from very low ratings, it bounced into No. 5 in the ratings for the 1984/85 season.
There was tension in the series with other cast members when storylines became more focussed on Alex, (according to a 2011 book by Meredith Baxter) but Michael J. Fox didn’t leave the series even after his movie career took off.
In its fifth season, Family Ties went to No. 2 in the ratings in America, even though it was now screened early on Sunday night, directly opposite the drama series, Murder She Wrote, on the CBS network.
Also in the fifth season a new character, Nick (boyfriend of Mallory) joined the hit comedy series, and proved to be very popular. Nick, played by Scott Valentine was a happy-go-lucky type of guy who was unambitious but proved to be Malory’s soulmate. The character was liked by viewers and producers, and was even approached to be the star of a Family Ties spin-off series. However it never got off the ground.
At the height of its fame in 1985, the cast and crew flew to London to do a tv movie, Family Ties Vacation. It was a critical failure, and didn’t reflect the magic that the series had on its home ground in America.
When the series was coming to an end in 1989, Michael J. Fox won a Golden Globe for Best Actor. He had been nominated three times before, and the series had been nominated for three Best Series Golden Globes.
Fox won three Emmy awards as Best Actor for Family Ties, and the series also won two Emmys for camerawork and for writing.
Michael J. Fox met his real life wife, Tracy Pollan, on the series back in its early years, when she played his girlfriend. Courtney Cox, from the hit sitcom Friends, played his girlfriend for the final two years of the series.