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It might have been a made-for-TV Hollywood funeral. Under a blazing sunset sky outside Paramount's Stage 24, a throng of long-faced mourners was congregating. But the grievers weren't costumed in black, no one was in makeup, and these people weren't acting. Instead, the subdued crowd of 250 or so were the friends and relatives of the Family Ties cast and crew members, assembled to bear solemn witness to the final taping of one of the most popular comedies in television history.

With such an enviable record in a medium that almost seems to enjoy chewing up and spitting out sitcoms, why would a huge hit like Ties walk away from success? The only answer being offered is that it is best to quit while you're ahead and to pull the plug after seven successful seasons of sky-high Nielsens before somebody pulls it for you. "It's certainly better to choose to leave the game than to be benched," says Michael J. Fox, who, contrary to suspicion, was not threatening to leave the show. His and the other cast members' attachment to Family Ties was evident just before the taping. As they were introduced to the audience, each actor wore a grim, wavering smile—except for Meredith Baxter Birney, who simply broke into sobs.

After the airing of Family Ties' 176th—and last—episode this Sunday (May 14), the lights will go out permanently in a quaint Columbus, Ohio, house whose exterior was never seen, whose front lawn was never mowed. And when the Family Ties contingent, lugging five Emmys, finally wave goodbye to their fans, they'll leave behind an empty niche—and fond memories as one of television's best-loved nuclear families.

If the Cleavers agonized over bad report cards in the '50s, the Keaton clan provided Leave It to Beaver's '80s update. After its debut on Sept. 22, 1982, this sentimental NBC sitcom about a pair of grown-up flower children trying to cope with kids today aired episodes on teen suicide, premarital sex, Alzheimer's disease and divorce, but always retained an optimism about the healing powers of home and hearth. The program was even in perfect harmony with the politics of the times. According to the White House, Family Ties was Ronald Reagan's favorite show.

If the sitcom provided a prime-time touchstone for fans, it also did the same for its cast. "It wasn't just a show for us," says the series' creator, Gary David Goldberg, 44, who admits that at times his own family served as script fodder. "It was intertwined creatively with our own lives."

No one experienced Family's blessings with more force than a young Canadian-born, previously unknown actor who burst to stratospheric fame as the Keaton family's firstborn (presumably in pinstripes).

Before Ties, "I was doing basically nothing," says Michael J. Fox, 27, who for the last three months has been sandwiching series work around the filming of two—yes, two—sequels to his 1985 hit, Back to the Future. "Without this show, I'd be digging ditches in Vancouver. It was a complete economic and emotional godsend."

Ruminating about the show's long run, Fox confesses to a case of the seven-year itch. "If you were in the fifth grade and someone started to tell you about graduation, you couldn't even imagine it," he says. "But that scenario is exactly what we've lived out here. We love each other like classmates, but we're looking out the window a lot these days."

Perhaps the biggest Ties-related life change for Fox came in 1985, when actress Tracy Pollan was introduced as Alex Keaton's first "serious girlfriend." Though the romance lasted just one season onscreen, it flourished in real life. Pollan married Fox last summer, and the two are expecting their first child next month. Impending fatherhood, says Fox, leaves him "very pumped. I don't know what to expect, really. But I've been getting a lot of books on it. There's a really wonderful timing in that the end of the show will just precede the birth of our baby. That's a really nice transition."

As the show's most stellar by-product, Fox has film projects lined up that will keep him busy until 1992. Next out for him is Casualties of War, a film co-starring Sean Penn that's due for release in August. "Doing a movie right now is a very good anesthetic," he says. "It means I don't have a whole lot of time to sit and deal with the impending end of this part of my life."

Fox admits he seldom catches old Ties episodes, although his wife does. "She'll say, 'Family Ties is on.' My standard line is, 'I was there at the time.' But the thing about this show is that it is immensely watchable. We're all really proud of that." But Fox, like other cast members, says that the show will always represent something more than a résumé entry. "In terms of marking periods of your life, it's a really flashy home movie. You can look at it and immediately know exactly where you were at that time in your life. Family Ties is a section of my life that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world."

If Ties served as rocket fuel for Fox's career, it left Justine Bateman's fizzling on the launchpad. After seven years of playing the vapor-brained Mallory, a fashion-conscious teen with a shop-till-you-drop mentality, Bateman, 23, has yet to capitalize on her Ties fame. Her one film, last year's insipid teen flick titled Satisfaction, produced little in the way of box office cash or critical contentment. So far, says the actress, there have been no other offers.

Ties' demise "feels like moving out of your parents' house," says Bateman, who racked up a reputation as the show's most temperamental cast member. "It's like graduating from school. Like moving after you've lived somewhere for seven years to a town where you don't know anyone. It's like any new upheaval in your life."

There is a sense that, for her, cutting Ties is not such a happy endeavor. "I'm not crazy about talking about it to begin with," she says grumpily. "It's something that's far more private. But it's not the end of my book. It's simply the end of a chapter. How I feel is probably not what I'm going to tell America. I didn't when I had a fight with my parents or broke up with my boyfriend. It's something you try not to think about. It's something that's just going to happen. I don't know what I'm going to do next. I really haven't planned anything. I don't know at all."

That kind of downcast brat-talk would have rankled Elyse Keaton, the perennially chipper architect played by Meredith Baxter Birney, who at the series' inception was its best-known player. Ties' highly rated 1984 two-parter about the birth of baby Andrew paralleled Baxter Birney's own pregnancy with her now 4-year-old twins, Peter and Mollie. The series' conclusion coincides with the collapse of her 15-year marriage to husband David Birney.

At 41, Baxter Birney is experiencing video empty-nest syndrome. "I have such mixed emotions about the show ending," she says. "I'm excited about the prospect of being a free agent again, but I can't imagine what the future is going to be like. For seven years, it's been such a constant. There's always been a security in having a job, and I cannot imagine what it will be like not to be doing it. But I'm really excited to find out."

One easy call is that she'll spend time with the twins. "I want to lie facedown in the sand, be free to play with the kids and go to the theater," she says. "I have friends I haven't seen in 10 years. People are coming out of the woodwork. It's one of the most exciting things in my life. It's a renaissance, and I want to enjoy it. And then I'll go back and lie down again."

As Steven, the Keaton family's hand-wringing patriarch, Michael Gross was a highly regarded but basically unknown stage actor at the time of his Ties debut. "This is definitely the closing of a chapter in my life—almost my mid-life crisis," says Gross, now 41. Crediting the show with his marriage to Elza Bergeron, one of the program's casting directors, Gross says the end of Ties is either "a crisis or a great opportunity, depending on what day of the week you catch me. I don't know what the rest of my career is going to be like. I have no crystal ball. I thought Dukakis was going to be President. What do I know?"

Gross recently did some breakout work as a bad guy in the made-for-TV movie The F.B.I. Murders. But for now, his self-described role as "Dudley Do-Dad" will admittedly be hard to shake. "I just began an oil-painting class," he says. "I felt like doing something totally different. But my car goes the same route every morning; I'm on automatic pilot. I'm sure I'll have dreams about coming to the studio."

For Tina Yothers, who debuted in the show at age 9, parting too will be sweet sorrow. "This is the last one," she says, "and it's going to be sad. It's hard to think that it's ending. But it'll never leave my heart." Focusing on a singing career (her rock band, It's Magic, recently opened for Menudo), Yothers confesses to another ambition. Throughout the seven-year run, cast members have been scrawling graffiti behind the wall of the kitchen set. "When they're knocking down the set, I might sneak in here and take the wall home," she says. "I think everyone wants it."

Despite their obvious affection for the series, it seems that no one—including the show's other regulars, Brian Bonsall, Scott Valentine and Courteney Cox Arquette—wants the promise of a Family Ties reunion. But not, they insist, because anyone is sick of the show. "I don't think you'll see a sequel," says Michael Gross. "Gary Goldberg said we won't age as well as the Bradys. And I don't want to do that. It's a moment in time, these seven years, and I don't want to resurrect them for a two-hour special. I don't want to touch it. When it's been this good, leave it alone."

That tune may change in a few years, but for now it remains a bittersweet eulogy. Grieving fans will have to content themselves with reruns in syndication.

After the final taping of Family Ties, an episode about Alex's wrenching decision to leave the nest, the actors reappeared before the audience for their last bows, and emotion kicked in with full force. Fox and Baxter Birney broke down and embraced. Gross wiped tears from his eyes and hugged Bateman. Every cast and crew member was crying, and friends and relatives soon joined in.

An audience member asked Gary Goldberg why, after seven radiant years, Family Ties was pulling its own plug. "We don't want to abuse our moment in the sun," he replied mistily. "But tonight it does seem like a mistake."

—Susan Schindehette, Michael Alexander in Los Angeles