'Family Ties' Creator Gary David Goldberg Dies at 68

9:45 PM PST 06/23/2013 by Mike Barnes
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The influential writer teamed with Michael J. Fox for a second sitcom, "Spin City," and penned and directed the films "Dad" and "Must Love Dogs."

Gary David Goldberg, the genial two-time Emmy Award winner who mined his rich personal life to create such amusing and affecting entertainment as the Michael J. Fox sitcom Family Ties, has died. 

Goldberg, who later co-created Spin City, another series starring Fox, and the critically lauded Brooklyn Bridge, died from brain cancer June 22 at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was 68 years old.

The down-to-earth Brooklyn native collected seven Emmy nominations in his late-starting but illustrious career, winning an outstanding series trophy in 1979 for co-producing the CBS newsroom drama Lou Grant and a writing prize in 1987 for an episode of Family Ties.

Goldberg also penned episodes of The Bob Newhart Show and M*A*S*H and wrote and directed the features Dad (1989) starring Jack Lemmon and Must Love Dogs (2005). 

In 1980, Goldberg formed his own company, Ubu Productions, in partnership with Paramount. All of his series' credits famously ended with a photo of his beloved black Labrador Retriever in front of the Louvre in Paris, with Goldberg saying, “Sit, Ubu, sit! Good dog,” followed by a bark -- an enduring tribute to a beloved pet.

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Based on his life and families of friends he knew with similar backgrounds, Goldberg created Family Ties in the early 1980s and pitched it to CBS, which turned him down. He then brought it to innovative NBC entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff, who "nurtured it and really made it happen," the writer once recalled.

Family Ties, which debuted on Sept. 22, 1982, reflected the shift in the U.S. from the cultural liberalism of the 1960s and '70s to the Ronald Reagan conservatism of the '80s. That sharp right turn was embodied by Fox, a baby-faced Canadian who played 17-year-old, tie-wearing Alex P. Keaton, the oldest kid of aging flower children played by Meredith Baxter-Birney and Michael Gross. Justine Bateman and Tina Yothers portrayed his sisters Mallory and Jennifer, respectively.

How autobiographical was Family Ties? "Totally autobiographical in concept," Goldberg once said. His wife Diana "and I were the parents, and our daughter Shana was as smart as Alex but could shop with Mallory."

Initially, Goldberg did not want to cast Fox (Matthew Broderick had already turned down the role). But hounded by his casting director, he agreed to a second reading by the actor and was sold. Fox would become the series' breakout star.

"The Republicans took Alex under their wing and made him the poster boy for the movement," Fox said in a 2001 interview, "while at the same time social liberals were writing me letters saying, 'Way to go,' satirizing that point of view. So I was loved on both sides. It was one of those shows that just caught a time."

For the 1984-85 season, NBC shifted Family Ties from Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. to Thursdays in the 8:30 p.m. slot, with the new Cosby Show serving as its lead-in. It would become the No. 2 show in country, attracting an average of 28.2 million viewers at its peak, as a pivotal part of the network's "Must-See" lineup that included Cheers, Night Court and Hill Street Blues.

When Family Ties was at its best, Goldberg recalled in a 2007 interview with the Archive of American Television, "we got what I call the 'Laugh of Recognition,' a deep laugh. When you can get that laugh, you own the audience in the right way. They know you know them, they know you know their story, they can laugh at their own foibles."

Family Ties aired for 180 episodes for seven seasons through May 1989, with the comedy earning 19 Emmy nominations and five wins. 

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Goldberg later recruited Bill Lawrence (who recently had been fired from Friends) to create Spin City -- the first successful TV series from the fledgling studio DreamWorks SKG. They cast Fox, now a movie star, as New York Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty, coming up with the idea for the show while on the cross-country flight to pitch the actor. Spin City taped in New York and ran on ABC for six seasons and 145 episodes from 1996-2002.

"Mike wanted to prove himself to a whole new generation," Goldberg recalled. "He said, 'No free ride … I want to do it in a different way.'"

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