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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.
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.
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.'”
Fox left the sitcom as a regular in 2000 to deal with his Parkinson’s disease, Charlie Sheen came on to replace him, and Goldberg retired from TV in 2002 with the end of the series.
Goldberg was born on June 25, 1944, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn and raised in a noisy apartment building (think the Kramdens’ place in The Honeymooners) that was crowded with his caring, extended family. In the building was his grandmother Jenny and grandfather Jack, and they had the clan’s only TV set, phone and car.
The sports-obsessed Goldberg graduated from Lafayette High School but then got kicked out of Brandeis University and Hofstra University. In 1969, while holding down a job as a waiter at the Village Gate nightclub in New York’s Greenwich Village, he met his future wife, Pan Am flight attendant Diana Meehan. They hitchhiked around the world for more than a year with Ubu — something Alex Keaton’s hippie parents might have done — opened an “organic” day care center in Berkeley, Calif., and eventually moved to Southern California.
Somewhere in here, after living on a kibbutz and responding to an ad for English-speaking actors, he amazingly starred as the title character in an Israeli sci-fi series, The Adventures of Scooterman.
“In 1998, I received treatment for my knee by an Israeli therapist,” he recalled in 2008. “We spoke about Israel and I mentioned Scooterman and he just froze. It was like he had met Elvis. I thought he was kidding me and then he called his brother, they yelled to each other over the phone, and then I believed him.”
As a 31-year-old student at San Diego State, Goldberg took a writing class with visiting lecturer Nate Monaster, a former WGA president who had earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing the 1962 romantic comedy That Touch of Mink, starring Cary Grant and Doris Day. (Future producer and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy also was in his class.)
“It was Nate Monaster who encouraged me to be a writer,” Goldberg noted.
Monaster showed Goldberg’s work to an agent, and that led to a job on the short-lived 1976 NBC sitcom The Dumplings, a Norman Lear show that starred James Coco and Geraldine Brooks as owners of a lunch counter in a Manhattan office building.
Goldberg then landed a job as a writer for hire on CBS and MTM Entertainment’s The Bob Newhart Show for producers Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, and they later recruited him for ABC’s The Tony Randall Show, which starred the actor (post-The Odd Couple) as a widowed judge. From that producing pair, Goldberg learned to ignore network executives’ phone calls and notes whenever possible.
Goldberg was promoted to producer, and when the show was canceled (after a final second season on CBS), Randall told him at the final party, “I have one regret … I wish I could buy stock in your future,” he told the Archive of American Television.
Goldberg then shifted to such other MTM productions as Lou Grant, which he produced, and The Last Resort, a 1979-80 sitcom revolving around a group of college students working in a hotel kitchen that he created (it lasted 15 episodes). He also wrote a 1978 episode of M*A*S*H that earned him a WGA award.
In between Family Ties and Spin City, Goldberg didn’t fare as well (at least in the ratings) with his next two creations, the Timothy Busfield-starring Champs for ABC and the semi-autobiographical series Brooklyn Bridge, which aired from 1991-93 on CBS.
Brooklyn Bridge received a Golden Globe for best comedy series, eight Emmy nominations and a Humanitas nom for enriching television, but it survived just two seasons. “I had my childhood canceled. It was very personal,” he once said.
Goldberg also created another series, The Bronx Zoo, a 1987-88 drama that lasted two seasons on NBC and starred Lou Grant star Ed Asner as an iron-fisted principal of a Bronx school.
In 1989, Goldberg made his feature film debut when he produced, directed and wrote the screenplay for Dad, starring Lemmon as a 78-year-old retired factory worker hopelessly dependent on his domineering wife (Olympia Dukakis). Ted Danson played his son, a character modeled after Goldberg.
In 1995, Goldberg co-wrote with Brad Hall the film Bye Bye Love, which starred Paul Reiser, Matthew Modine and Randy Quaid. And for his final credit, he produced, directed and wrote the 2005 film Must Love Dogs, a film about Internet dating that starred Diane Lane and John Cusack.
Goldberg moved to Vermont and wrote a 2008 memoir, Sit, Ubu, Sit: How I Went From Brooklyn to Hollywood With the Same Woman, the Same Dog, and a Lot Less Hair.
Goldberg and Diana eloped in 1990, more than 20 years after they met. He never seemed to be obsessed with the riches that came along with his career. “Once we started to be together, we wanted to collect adventures, you know, the way other couples wanted to collect furniture or money,” he said in 2008. She founded the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles.
In addition to his wife and his daughter Shana, survivors include another daughter, Cailin. Shana is an Emmy-winning writer and producer whose credits include Mad About You and Friends; she worked on both series with her future husband, writer-producer Scott Silveri. Cailin is a screenwriter who last summer married Rob Dubbin, a writer for The Colbert Report.
Asked during his Archive of American Television interview how he would like to be remembered, Goldberg said: “I was a guy who showed up for work and took the chance for finding out whether I could do it or not. … I’d like to think I made my success not at the expense of anyone. Success was accidental.”
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