'Thirtysomething' at 30: The Highs, Lows and How the ABC Drama Broke the Mold

Thirtysomething Controversial Episode: Strangers

Although no physical contact was shown between two gay male characters on in the episode "Strangers," a scene that depicted both actors laying in bed together after sex led advertisers to pull their commercials from the show. ABC went on to remove the episode from the show's rotation in response to the negative attention.

Had it not been for some home remodeling, there might never have been a Thirtysomething.

Marshall Herskovitz and his partner Ed Zwick had taken a development deal with MGM Television in the mid-1980s, even though they were far more interested in making movies than a TV show to follow their Emmy-winning telefilm Special Bulletin. That’s why, Herskovitz now admits, “we felt we were scamming people a little.”

“It was a sleight of hand on our part,” he recalls of the deal that would lead to thirtysomething, the seminal ABC drama that on Sept. 29, 2017, celebrates the 30th anniversary of its premiere. “Frankly, the deal was more a chance for me to make enough money to put a second story on my house and not have to work for a few months. We were told that the only thing we had to do was try selling a TV series. So meetings were set up and we went to pitch at ABC. As the meeting approached, we had maybe five or six ideas that were pretty standard television. There was a moment a couple days before we went in when Ed and I looked at each other and realized one of those ideas might actually sell and that’d be a disaster because we’d have to make it. So we literally said to each other, ‘What is something that has no chance of selling but if it somehow does, we wouldn’t mind doing it?’”

That “something” turned out to be thirtysomething. Baby boomers Herskovitz and Zwick realized that outside of Kate & Allie and Saturday Night Live, they weren’t seeing a lot of their baby boomer peer group on television. That led to conversations about doing a series that not only captured who their generation was but did it without making them be doctors, lawyers or cops. As they talked things out, they realized how they and their friends were all struggling with the same issues: fear of marriage, having kids and not really understanding how to be a parent and not having a clear career path.

“There were a few movies that preceded us, like John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven, Larry Kasdan’s The Big Chill, Woody Allen’s movies … all of these partook of personal experiences from those filmmakers,” explains Zwick. “They could trade on the currency of their lives and find within the details the stuff of drama and comedy. We were real admirers of those pieces of work and how they presented the filmmakers’ unique voice, their generational voice.”

Aided by the confidence that came with a project they took personally, they sat down to put their idea on paper.

“So, in the course of 24 hours, we sketched out seven characters and wrote a manifesto based on the idea that adulthood presses upon you whether you’re ready or not,” Herskovitz continues. “We realized that this was something very personal to us and unlike anything that was on TV. So we went in to meet at ABC with a bunch of people who were also in their 30s and dealing with these same situations in their lives.”

Once the pitch was done, he and Zwick got a polite, “We’ll think about it,” and left the room. As they headed to the parking lot, though, Zwick realized he’d forgotten his car keys back in the conference room.

“Feeling kind of embarrassed, we went back and knocked on the door,” Herskovitz recalls. “We walked in and they said, ‘Good, you came back! We want to do this!’”

Thirtysomething debuted Sept 29, 1987, on ABC and within a year had won an Emmy for best drama series and was on its way to becoming more than a show. It turned into such cultural phenomenon, the title made its way into the dictionary and, subsequently, into TV history. Now, as thirtysomething actually turns 30, the creators and cast reminisce about how the series changed everything from how Americans saw television to how the actors went to the grocery store and talked about their ex-girlfriends.

Putting the Band Together

Herskovitz: The casting process was different for each character. For instance, literally the second Tim Busfield walked in, we relaxed and said, "Thank God this guy exists!” He was cast before he even opened his mouth.

Timothy Busfield (Elliot Weston): I’d just ended my run on Trapper John, M.D., and said, “I’m not doing TV.” I had movies lining up to do and I’d started a theater in Sacramento so I was going to just focus on those things. Then my agent sent the script and that made me think maybe I could do TV one more time. I was going in to audition for the role of Gary, but felt like I was too young. I needed to grow a beard. But they said they wanted me to read for Elliot, which was a smaller part. After that, Marshall and Ed came to me and asked which one I’d want to play. I told my agent, “I don’t know anything about being the guy with a lot of relationships and can’t commit but I can definitely fuck up a marriage. I’ll be that guy.”

Herskovitz: Ken Olin and I were already friends. And we knew his wife Patricia [Wettig] too. I thought he would be way too handsome to play Michael. We had to confront our own assumptions and realize, “Why can’t Michael be handsome?” It was a difficult moment when we told Patty we were casting her, but not as Ken’s wife.

Patricia Wettig (Nancy Weston): It wasn’t the news that I wouldn’t be married to my real-life husband that upset me. It was the fact that my character had one line in the pilot. So I had to trust Ed and Marshall that they’d actually write and develop her. I shouldn’t have worried.

Zwick: Marshall had to tell her, “Even though you have one line in the pilot, you’ve got to trust us that we’re going to do well by character.” Meanwhile, Peter Horton was a friend of mine and was very much hoping to become a director. This show seemed to him like a detour from what he thought his path would be.

Peter Horton (Gary Shepherd): I’d met Ed when we lived in the same neighborhood. I knocked on his door one day and said, “I have a dog and you have one so let’s do doggie daycare.” From there, our wives got to be friends too. He told me he was working on a pilot and asked if I was interested. I said I’d stopped acting so my answer was no. He insisted so I looked at it and it was the best pilot I’d ever read. He told me to just come, audition and see what I thought after that. Then he pulled me aside and said, “This is never going to go. But if it does, you can direct one of our first six episodes and if for some reason it really goes, we’ll kill you off in four years.”

Melanie Mayron (Melissa Steadman): Ed and Marshall had seen me in a movie called Girlfriends that had come out and sort of put me on map in a cool way. I had to fly out from New York for a reading for the network. Polly [Draper, who played Ellyn Warren] and I both flew out. We had to audition for all these execs in a small theater, doing a big scene with Peter and we were getting all worked up and excited in the waiting room.

Mel Harris (Hope Steadman): I’d only been acting for about a year or so when I got the call to audition for Marshall and Ed. Then I heard ... nothing. It sounded like they’d interviewed everything in a skirt between Los Angeles and New York. But finally, I got a call to go read for the network. I’d done one pilot in my life before that, with Aaron Spelling and David Soul, shooting it in Hong Kong. It didn’t go so after that, for me, the business was my business and not my life. When I walk out of an audition, I’m done. The sides go in the trash and it’s on to the next thing. I went home and husband was there on the phone and said, “They want to talk to you.” And that was it.

“You’re Not a TV Show!”

Busfield: At the time, you could find a great dramatic role on television but you’d be on a doctor show or you’re a spy. Finally, here was a great dramatic role that felt personal. Our show wasn’t the first to try doing something about family, but the others didn’t do it as well. Still, people freaked out. The press we got was horrible at first. We did our Television Critics Association panel, and it was the old guard that was out there. It seemed like every critic out there was over 40. One woman got up and said, “You’re not a TV show! You’re a primetime soap!” It was brutal. People didn’t want to move off their feelings about what TV was.

Horton: I remember that TCA news conference and the press in that room was vicious! One woman said, “Who we are we supposed to care about? You’re all so whiny! Who’s our Fred MacMurray?” Ed and I said afterward, “This thing is dead.” Then, press people came up individually to say, under radar, “We really like it.“

Harris: I remember that TCA not being an overwhelming love fest. People who wrote the negative reviews were all there. When we debuted, I would say 50 percent of the people liked the show and 50 percent didn’t. I hung all the negative reviews on my refrigerator. Then we became such a demo hit and a culture phenomenon, it forced the negative reviewers to go back and re-review us. For us, it was good.

Mayron: This was the first show to focus on just us and our feelings and the mountains we have to climb every day. You don’t have to be the president of the U.S. or a famous star. You just have to be you. You just have to get through the day. That’s why ultimately so many people related to our show.

Herskovitz: We kept assuming people would hate us and the show would go away. Ed and I were convinced that the show was a disaster, presiding every day over what we figured was a failing project. We prepared for public humiliation about what piece of crap it was. At the same time, the bar we set for ourselves creatively was so high. Then, I’ll never forget the night the pilot aired. It was 10 p.m. in Los Angeles and when it finished, they cut to the local news and there was Tawny Little, the ex-Miss America anchor, sobbing. Her mascara is dripping down her cheeks and she’s saying, “I can’t believe that show! It was so amazing, like my own life!” That was the moment for me.

Friends Before Friends

Mayron: The unique thing about the show is that it was just about friendship and feelings. Usually TV is about bigger plots that that but Marshal and Ed said we were to be about the minutiae of life, not the disease or crime of the week. It’s the little shit that people care about that can still feel like really big stuff.

Busfield: I remember that as a group, we realized the show was catching on and wanted to insulate ourselves and stay tight as a team. I’d come from Trapper John, M.D., where there were people in the cast who didn’t even talk to each other. So we decided to just no pay attention to what was happening out in the world and stay focused on each other and our jobs.

Horton: We were all in each other’s lives. I was just divorced so everyone would get to know my girlfriends here and there and talk to them about what was going on. Ken, Tim and I become almost like brothers. We meshed in each other’s lives, never feeling competitive with each other. Tim was the most practical of all of us. I remember there was a woman I brought to the set and while I was directing, he talked to her for a few minutes and then came over to say, “You should marry her.” He said this right in front of her. And he wasn’t wrong.

Art Imitating Life

Horton: Everything on thirtysomething was all very inside out, pulling from our lives and putting it on the screen. There was an episode where Nancy was having trouble with her son, and it turned out Ken and Patty had been going through something with their kids. Suddenly it was in an episode, and at first they were kind of mad as I recall. But that approach was scattered throughout our time on the show. I remember telling a story about a girlfriend I had in college named Susan Forrest. She’d broken my heart at the time. I mentioned to Marshall and Ed about a conversation between my mother and I where she said she never liked Susan Forrest and that made its way into the show. I’d heard through the grapevine Susan wasn’t happy about that.

Wettig: There’s a story I tell in the episode “Who’s Forest Is This?” where my character tells her son a story about his birth and his relationship to his father. That story is the real-life story about what happened when my son Cliff was born and how he responded the first time he heard Ken’s voice. But also Ken and I were very close friends with Marshall and his wife Susan Shilliday and it felt like we were all living the same life. The four of us would be out to dinner, or our kids would be playing together in the back yard, and those were the real life scenes that became thirtysomething.

Zwick: We mercilessly robbed the cast of their life experiences.

Herskovitz: When it was just Ed and I, we weren’t really stealing from each other. Each of us was just offering up things we shouldn’t have talked about from own lives. My wife at the time started to write for the show by writing a script on spec, which had certain similarities to our marriage that were uncomfortable for me. In the first season, Paul Haggis and I wrote an episode based on the death of my father. That was hard to do. It cut very deep but was very honest.

Zwick: My wife wrote for the show as well. Imagine writing a TV show about the difficulty of work and then dealing with its effect on your own marriage and work. The serpent begins to swallow its tail. I was actually speaking to my wife through the show when we didn’t have time to speak in real life. It got even more confusing in the second year, when Marshall and my wife were collaborating about two characters discussing their sexual relationship and deciding whether or not to have a second child.

Herskovitz: I’m collaborating with his wife on a script about people wondering if they should have another child and the difficulty that creates for their sex life. We came to an impasse because we didn’t agree which way script should go so I took her off that story, saying it needed to be done in a different way. I gave it to my wife, who read it and said, “I agree with Ed’s wife.” So it aired with no changes.

Slap Happy

Busfield: This was the moment when I realized how seriously people took the show. I was in the Gelson’s dairy section, reaching for the cream cheese. I turned around and a woman slapped me in the face. And she was big! She caught me right in the ear, which started it ringing. I backed up and she immediately covered her face, thinking she was just going to be swinging and missing. She was mad at Elliot for saying to Nancy, “Why don’t you ever shave your legs anymore?” She started apologizing and I let her off the hook but that was when realized, “Wow! We’re really getting to women.” I remember reading that particular line and giggling. I couldn’t wait to say it! I knew it would create a reaction. I just didn’t think it’d be a slap at Gelson’s. I will say that I steered clear of Gelson’s for a while after that, and let my wife do the shopping.

Wettig: I remember one time, taking my daughter to preschool and another woman who was dropping off her daughter asked me where I was getting my chemo done. She had been batting cancer that year. I had to explain that I didn’t actually have cancer and wasn’t getting chemo — that was my character. It was very moving and I felt a deep responsibility to be as truthful as I could be as my way of honoring the people I knew who were suffering from that horrible disease.

Harris: I do recall Ken and Patty got a lot of really weird stares out in public. It was, like, “Why are you two hugging? You’re not married to each other!”

Mayron: My character wore her suspenders backwards and I remember being out one time seeing a lot of girls doing the same thing. That was amazing! On the show, I also wore one earring and that set off a craze. I would run into women doing the same thing and they’d say they were doing it just because of me.

Horton: I’d grown up being a huge Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fan and was always starstruck by them. Then I was at an event right after the show came out and felt a tap on my shoulder. It was David Crosby, who said, “I just want you to know I’m a huge fan of yours.” That totally transported me because you never think you’ll be in a situation like that.

Herskovitz: The high point of the first season was when we were acknowledged by Mad Magazine. They did their parody version, thirtysuffering. That’s when I knew we’d arrived at a special point with the show. We understood people were going to make fun of us and we welcomed it.

“Stranger” Bedfellows

Mayron: The episode I probably liked the most was “Strangers,” which I think only aired once because it was so controversial. It had the storyline about two men in love. Melissa was questioning going out with her younger boyfriend while her best friend Russell (David Marshall Grant) ends up in bed with an art gallery owner. It got such a bad reaction from the far right.

Harris: There were a lot of story lines where we were breaking new ground. There was Nancy getting cancer. We had a really powerful first Christmas show, dealing with Judaism and Catholicism. And of course, there was the moment we showed two gay men in bed together. It was bandied about when the episode was written that it would never get on the air. However, even though I think some advertisers pulled out, ABC put it on. For me, that was great. It was a sign we had become more than just a show.

Horton: I think we were the first show on TV to have gay characters in bed and kissing. 

Herskovitz: That was the only time we ever lost advertisers, I think, when we showed two guys in bed together.

Zwick: That episode was our biggest battleground but the network would also put notes on the scripts like SBE, as in side breast exposure, which they made us take out.

Goodbye, Gary!

Horton: We also broke another barrier with Gary’s death. Back then, you didn’t kill off a main character but we did. I was told first, and it wasn’t a real surprise since that was the agreement I’d had when I first started. They told me to keep it quiet, which was easier because it was in an age before social media. Then I broke down and told Ken, and I think he told someone who told someone. So word got out.

Herskovitz: From the very first document we wrote about the show, we’d made it clear a character would die. These people experience happiness but also failure. They get sick. They die. And we wanted to show it all.

Mayron: The night the episode where Gary died aired, we had a potluck dinner at my house. Everybody was freaking out, gathered together around the couch like we were our characters in an episode. We’d all been stunned during the read-through when we found out what was going to happen. And as the audience got a punch in the gut watching that episode, we felt the same thing together.

Horton: There was a lot of hugging at the end of that night, and a lot of joking, like, “Hey, nice knowing you.” There was an ache of sadness as well as a kind of mindful appreciation for what we had. I wasn’t prepared for the level with which this resonated with the public. There was a period of time where everywhere I went, people felt the need to say something. It’d be out somewhere and using a restroom, and someone would come up and say, “Oh my God, you’re alive!” I’d be in the middle of an argument with a girlfriend and someone would come up to offer condolences. There was an awkward intensity for about six months after it aired and it really hit me how this had permeated culture far beyond just being a show people watched.

Why It Mattered

Mayron: After the show was canceled, you’d hear the term “thirtysomething” in everyday speech and in articles that weren’t even talking about the show. In a weird way, we had come to represent our generation. Melissa was a great example. She was a photographer and that let her represent all freelance artists not doing the 9-to-5 thing. Viewers went with that. At the end of the day, she was what the show was about. She wasn’t compromising her dreams but was still able to put a roof over head.

Horton: There’s always that self-narrative that “I’m the only one with these problems.” Our show said, “No, we all have them.” There was comfort in that. It’s a different time in TV now, but back then this was dazzling. Now you have to be really weird and violent and extreme. I don’t think there’s quite as much room for the mere intimacy we showed. You can do it if you’re a drug dealer who’s just murdered somebody.

Harris: The show’s legacy is it proved you could change the rules of television. You could tell a quiet story about people’s lives and they don’t have to be cops or doctors or lawyers. I’m not sure you could do that today.

Wettig: I think thirtysomething connected to people because it was so intimate. It was a show created to illuminate personal desire, not one created to reveal plot points. This doesn’t seem that remarkable now, but at the time it was unique. I remember one guy asking us, “What makes you guys the experts on our generation?” I don’t think that was the goal. I believe the goal was to be as straight forward as we could be about the sexual and emotional issues that existed between this one small group of friends. Just that.