Family Ties: 1982-1989
Michael J. Fox
ALEX P. KEATON
"He was flawless," declares Meredith Baxter, "totally self-involved, a real mercenary at times and very shallow." In other words he was Michael J. Fox playing her TV son, the redoubtable Alex P. Keaton. But in Fox's hands, Baxter notes, the ultimate Reagan youth "had a warmth and depth. Who wouldn't connect with that?" Very few, it turns out, as ratings soared and the show, originally centered on parents Baxter and Michael Gross, was retooled to focus more on Fox, now 39. "People had to make adjustments," admits series creator Gary David Goldberg. "It wasn't going to be the show everyone signed on to do. We had the magic of Michael. That was just luck." And hard work, says Gross. "When I first met him, I saw ambition, in a very positive way. I thought, 'He just wants to swallow this whole.' " Fox was tapped in 1985 to star in the first of three wildly successful Back to the Future movies, filmed at night around the Family Ties schedule. "Even when he had the No. 1 movie and a No. 1 TV show," says Goldberg, "he never asked to have his parking space moved or his dressing room enlarged. He was the first one to show up and the last one to go home." Sadly, in 1998 the star and co-executive producer of the current hit Spin City announced that he has Parkinson's disease. Last month, Fox left the show to spend more time with his wife of 12 years, actress Tracy Pollan, 40, and their three children at their Manhattan home. He also plans to raise money for Parkinson's research. Amid an outpouring of sympathy, Fox remains optimistic. "Michael is very much a person in the present," says Gross. "He doesn't obsess about the dark side of the future."
Her band is called Jaded, but she's not. "You can bash childhood acting all you want, but it was a great experience," says Tina Yothers, 27, who became the Keaton clan's towheaded tomboy at age 9. With them she found a role model in her TV sister Justine Bateman ("I wanted to be like her so bad") and plenty of inspiration for her current gig as lead singer and co-lyricist for her band, which released its own CD, www.jadedonline.com, last year and will tour this summer. "Family Ties taped next door to Solid Gold," says Yothers, who lives in L.A. and dates Las Vegas club owner Robert Kaiser, 35. "So I got to see every Top 40 act coming through. I'd miss rehearsals and get scolded." But not by her TV dad, Michael Gross. "Tina was a gas," he reports. "We used to play tag. When we ended the show in 1989, I tagged Tina last. So she's been 'it' for 11 years now!"
It was all an act—a good one. As a ditsy, shopaholic teen, Bateman's Mallory "was more a departure from her real self than anybody else on that set," says her TV dad, Michael Gross. "Justine was no airhead." But unbeknownst to her castmates, Bateman battled an eating disorder during her Ties days, a revelation she made to TV Guide in 1996. "There were all these feelings that I never let myself feel," she said. "And all that builds up, and it never had a release." She has credited her recovery to a 12-step program she joined in 1993. Today, Bateman, 34, a born-again Christian who is single and lives in L.A., keeps a low profile. Her appearances have been limited to local poetry readings, the first season of 1996's Men Behaving Badly and roles in indie movies, including the not-yet-released romantic comedy Say You'll Be Mine. "She's terribly gifted," says Mine coproducer Michael Corrente. "I think she turns down more work than she accepts. She should be working all the time."
When 4-year-old Brian Bonsall joined the Keaton clan in 1986, his TV sister Tina Yothers was thrilled. "I was no longer the little one. I loved it," she says. So did Bonsall—for the most part. "Michael J. Fox taught me how to dive in his swimming pool," he says. "And he always listened to me." The downside: "I was with adults all the time and had to be patient like they were, and I'm not really patient." When Bonsall would refuse to do a scene, says creator Gary David Goldberg, "the guy who was able to bring him back was Michael Fox." Bonsall, now 18, who quit acting when his family moved to Colorado in 1994, has just graduated from high school. A guitarist, he's focusing on his hardcore band, the Late Bloomers. "Even if the band doesn't work out, I want to be associated with music somehow," he says. From a distance, Keaton matriarch Meredith Baxter can't resist some motherly fretting. "To think he's a punker," she says. "Just don't pierce your tongue, honey. That's all I ask."
"It was about a family who could and did disagree without breaking up," says Michael Gross, 53, explaining why Family Ties touched such a nerve. Truth be told, the character of Steven Keaton at first got on Gross's nerves. "He seemed ridiculously sane and responsible, a knee-jerk liberal who always did the right thing and did it easily," says the Yale drama school grad, whose favorite episode had Steven contemplating, and deciding against, having an affair. "I was not nearly as patient, kind and understanding as he was." Oh, posh. "He was my best friend for seven years," says his TV Mrs., Meredith Baxter. "He played with me more than anyone else did," says his TV daughter Tina Yothers. Gross, adds series creator Gary David Goldberg, was also "very gratified that Steven was revered by his kids, but they weren't afraid of him." While on Ties, Gross stepped into a ready-made family of his own when he wed Elza Bergeron, now 59, one of the show's casting directors, in 1984. "With Family Ties came a wife, two children, my first house, my first car, a dog," he says. "I was reeling from all the changes." After some time spent painting in the Southwest, Gross—who has made several appearances on the TV-movie crime series In the Line of Duty and last month played a therapist in Michael J. Fox's final episode of Spin City—now lives in Manhattan and is appearing as Ross in Macbeth. "I'm doing Shakespeare on Broadway," he says. "I'm exactly where I should be right now."
It happens all the time. In a restaurant recently, "the young man who was waiting on us came up and said, 'Excuse me, I just want to say that I always wanted you to be my mother,' " says Meredith Baxter, 53. So did much of America. In fact, Ties creator Gary David Goldberg wrote the part of unflappable Elyse Keaton with Baxter in mind. The actress had already spent four years on ABC's Family and "was a known quantity," says Goldberg. "She set the tone from the beginning." Ties was also a stabilizing force for Baxter. By the end of the run, her 15-year marriage to actor-director David Birney, with whom she had three children, was on its last legs. "Doing the show saved my life," says Baxter (who has two grown children from a first marriage and is newly separated from screenwriter Michael Blodgett). "I had a place to go." Baxter, who has appeared in some 40 made-for-TV movies (including last month's Wednesday Woman), launched a skin-care line in 1999 ("I use it, and my skin looks nice for an old broad," she says). She also played Fox's mom in two 1997 episodes of Spin City and last year reunited with Gross to perform onstage in Love Letters. Taping Family Ties' fast show was "heartbreaking," Baxter says. "We just stood there and wept in each other's arms."