Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"Family Ties": oral history of the 1980s sitcom – part 4 – Michael J. Fox

Introduction to the Family Ties oral history (including the list of interviewees and links to each part).

What was your impression of Michael J. Fox?

Cindy Fisher (s1): We got along great, and I'm sure it helped that we knew each other prior, especially since I was a last-minute casting.
John Putch (s1, 2, 5): Sweetest guy on earth. He was collaborative and I remember we would do a lot of laughing. He was still fresh off the boat from Canada. I think he had done one other TV sitcom before that did not run too long. Not sure about that. Bottom line: salt of the earth and extremely talented, as we all learned.
Chris Hebert (s1, 2): He was very polite and likable and professional.
Lisa Lucas (s1): Michael J. Fox was very pleasant and very serious, more serious than I expected. I think his character was funnier than Michael. That was my take at the time. It was the first season so I think he was just committed and working hard and not getting distracted. He wasn't taking anything for granted.
Terry Wills (s1, 2, 5, 6, 7): I remember thinking this kid is tremendously talented and has a great career ahead of him. He was also a lot of fun to work with—always a gentleman.
Kerry Noonan (s1): I already had met Michael J. Fox since he used to live in the apartment next door to my then-boyfriend, Lance Guest. In fact, when Michael was short of money, before he landed Family Ties, he sold off some of his furniture and his framed posters to Lance. I remember a great poster of Meryl Streep and John Cazale in Measure for Measure at Shakespeare in the Park. He was a nice guy but we didn't hang out on set since the whole episode revolved around him, and he was busy.
Edward Edwards (s2): So willing to rehearse and run lines off the set. We tried out some bits in the dressing room and then showed them to everyone on set. This was true of Meredith and Michael Gross equally. They were a dream cast. It felt so much like a stage play rather than a TV sitcom. And I always felt that the producers, writers, and director followed the rule: best idea in the room wins. There was very little ego involved.
Tanya Fenmore (s2): The other actors were all amazing, professional, considerate, and terrific to work with. No diva egos at all. Tina and Justine were so sweet. Director and Gary David Goldberg were fantastic and, of course, Michael J Fox! I remember a funny gag where I was supposed to be a total klutz (actually, that wasn't a stretch for me…pathetic but true…). I kept opening and banging the refrigerator door on him and they kept the gag in.
Kaleena Kiff (s2): He was cooler than cool and the definite star of the show at this point. I didn't see very much of him as our scenes involved him just watching us rather than interacting with his "Christmas Past" family.
Kate Vernon (s2): I adored Michael. He was so cool, so relaxed—at his young age, such a consummate professional. You could tell he had so much on his shoulders but the character suited him so much. He was so loved by everybody. They'd hand him pages every twenty minutes, it seems, and he was able to memorize.
Eileen Seeley (s2): Just a regular great guy that was sleeping in his car one minute and the lead in a hit sitcom the next. He was warm, funny, and very genuine. I later auditioned for the role of his mom (Lorraine Baines) in Back to the Future but was deemed too tall.
Debbie Gilbert (now Webb) (s2): I have known Mike for a long time. Not as an actor, but later in my life I married agent Elliot Webb (Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann, later co-chair of ICM). Elliot's agency represented Gary David Goldberg along with an endless list of Hollywood's most talented writers. [As the wife of an agent], I spent over twenty years entertaining in my home—Gary, Mike… It was hard to be with Mike when he was not feeling well (we visited him a few times on the set of the new show he was shooting in New York). Gary's passing—also a difficult time. In fact, my best friend ended up buying Gary's house. When she and I were cleaning out the basement (the Goldbergs had left things behind), I couldn't help think about the past. How could I ever guess as a young girl that one day I would be where I was years later…
Susan Isaacs (s2): MJF was a prince. He included us guest stars when we went to the cafeteria. He made us feel like one of the gang. Two years later I was on the lot for another audition, and MJF was driving around in a studio cart. I said hello. He stopped to ask me how things were going. Just the fact he was such a huge star and remembered me meant a lot. Like I said, a prince.
Kathleen Wilhoite (s2): Michael J. Fox was funny and kind. He was a cutup. I liked him. He was nice to me.
Lenora May (s2): Nice guy. I hung out with him in his dressing room with everyone and he wasn't a snob about having everyone in there.
Alan Blumenfeld (s2, 3, 4, 5, 6): Such a sweet, collaborative hard worker. Really a leader. Always remembered who we [guest stars] were. I know the show originally focused on the parents, but as everyone knows, Michael Fox generated [such] chemistry with the audience that he became the focus.

He was so prepared, so memorized. We'd do the camera blocking on Thursday, run-through on Friday at 5 and 7 pm, and there were a lot of rewrites in between. Michael had the bulk of the work in each episode. When all of a sudden you're handed 15 new pages or sometimes a full rewrite, Michael was invariably fast, easygoing, and able to incorporate the changes. That was a real lesson in professionalism to me.

I haven't seen him in years and years.
Timothy Busfield (s3, 5): I just fell in love with the guy. He was just really helpful and really great. I wasn't the first Doug and I knew that going in. I knew when I left there would probably be other Dougs after. We loved playing off each other. I set him up well and I think he liked that I knew that. I was there to help him be funnier and at the same time be funny myself. We laughed the entire process. It was endearing how funny Fox was. Most sitcoms are made funny by funny actors, not just funny writing, and Mike proved that again and again in his career. The environment was so creative and Mike had such freedom to come up with ideas and Gary let him go. I had not seen that before in TV. Michael and I became really great friends offstage.
Matthew Barry (s3): Michael knew my film work so that was impressive and he was very complimentary. Nice guy.
Lily Mariye (s3): He was much shyer than I expected him to be…the only impression I had of him was as Alex P. Keaton: brash, opinionated, outgoing. He was very kind and very helpful, especially when I explained it was my first job on a sitcom or multi-camera show.
Michelle Meyrink (s3): My strongest memory of working on
Family Ties was that Michael J Fox really took care of me. It was my first (and only) sit com, and he realized that. He helped me through the experience of the live audience, the constantly changing lines, the somewhat stressed out producers. He was supportive and a joy to work with. Looking back at that time, I am so impressed with his heart. He was just being a supportive with nothing in it for himself. I have never seen him since. Thank you Michael, wherever you are.
Robert Costanzo (s3, 4, 5, 6): I loved Michael. I thought he was kind of brilliant, actually. Michael was nuts about me personally. He'd always say "Costanzo, you're one of the funniest guys I've met." I said "So let's develop a series" and he said "You're not that funny." (laughs) He didn't want/need to do another series at that point.

When I saw him at Gary's memorial, he remembered me. But there were a lot of people around and we didn't have a lot of time to talk. They were all there—Tina was not there, I think. Michael spoke very lovingly of Gary, how Gary was his mentor. I think he was the only actor who spoke.
Nancy Everhard (now Amandes) (s3): He was nice but not real outgoing. I was surprised that he smoked.
Norman Parker (s3, 5, 6): I was, and still am, in complete awe of Michael's comic timing. The first time I saw him get larger laughs before he delivered the line that was supposed to be funny, I understood I was in the presence of genius.
Adam Carl (s3): I really liked him. He was very friendly and had incredible energy. If memory serves (though I could be wrong about this), during the week I worked with him he was splitting his time between the
Back to the Future set and Paramount, where Family Ties was taped. He must've been exhausted.
Peter Scolari (s4): For someone so young he was so calm and confident. Granted by that time he was already having huge success in feature films. We were already aware—people talk in the business—we knew he was a straight shooter. He was messing around with guitar at that time. He was very supportive of my work. At one point he said he wished we had more to do together.

There was a very high level of intellect at work when he played Alex. It was a sexy concept—conservative kid raised by ex-hippie parents. He played it with a self-awareness and a swagger and he still loved his parents and sort of pitied them for their naïve liberal democratic beliefs. My first Emmy nomination, I lost to Michael. If you're going to struggle with your own ego and expectations and are privileged to be nominated, the best way to lose an award is to somebody exceptional.
Gracie Harrison (s4): It was quite a thrill to meet him. He was becoming a very successful film star at that time, and I so admired his work on the show.
Robin Morse (s5): He was unbelievably charming, very down to earth, and an all-around nice guy.
Jonna Lee Pangburn (s5): This is where I would like you to quote me. Working with Mike Fox was heaven! He was unbelievably gracious. I remember he looked around and said "Hey! She is looking into my eyes! We can have fun with this!" And so we did! I believe he was always looking for some kind of a connection—eye-to-eye contact—and whatever crazy result came from that. Off the set…well, heaven! What a gracious and charming person!
Margaret Nagle (s5): Michael J. Fox was in character, hyper, super smart, and always in control. You could see his mind going a mile a minute.
Brian McNamara (s5): I don't know where to begin… I was playing his best friend, yet I had never been seen [on the show] before. We needed to let the audience know immediately [how close Alex and I were supposed to be]. In our very first rehearsal, I was sitting on the Keaton's kitchen counter, a ghost that Alex sees just after my funeral, and he came over and gave me such a huge hug that I knew we were gonna be just fine! Very generous actor and very funny!
Sonia Curtis (s5, 6): Michael J. Fox was nice, a little reserved but always professional. He gave me a huge compliment one day and said he loved the moment where Skippy and I were about to kiss because he said I was so focused and in the moment.
Stuart Pankin (s5): I gotta gang my remembrances of the cast together 'cause it was a long time ago. Like I said, they all were very generous and kind to the guest cast. We never became drinkin' buddies, but I do think back on them fondly.
Dana Andersen Schreiner (s5): Super nice guy. Very friendly and welcoming. He liked to chat between rehearsals and he was super excited when I told him that my husband, Bill Schreiner, had recently directed the "original Michael Fox" in a film. [That Michael Fox] was the reason Michael J. Fox had to use his middle initial. SAG won't let people use the same name of someone else already in the union. Michael J. Fox kept asking me questions about Michael Fox. He said he had always wanted to meet him and often wondered about him. It was funny because when I asked the older Michael Fox what it was like to share a name he just sighed and smiled. I got the feeling it was kind of a drag for him but he was too polite to say so.
Amy Lynne (s5): Nice enough but wasn't really accessible. He was a little aloof but he was working a lot at the time, he was running ragged. I saw him only in the corner. To me he was quiet. It might just have been because I was younger.

Nicole Nourmand (s5): Michael J. Fox might be one of the nicest people I've ever met in my life. He did not let the fame get to him. He treated all of the kids who were co-stars with so much love and respect. He introduced himself to all of us and played around with us.
Alyson Croft (s5): He was friendly, talkative, and inclusive. He would joke and talk with us all the time. I learned so much just by watching him work. He was always funny.

Jason Naylor (s6, 7): Mr. Fox was a great pleasure to work with. His talent and work ethic, to say nothing of his amiable and humble demeanor, made a lasting and inspiring impression. I particularly recall his generous sympathy upon seeing me on the first day of shooting for my second episode, "Simon Says." In the interval between the two episodes, I had grown my hair out and had harbored a faint hope that it might not be absolutely necessary to cut it short again for the job. It was, however, and though I believe I bore it with due aplomb, I was not unmoved. Mr. Fox, upon my newly shorn arrival on set, lamented "Aw, I was hoping they were gonna let you keep it!" in a friendly tone that went a good way toward easing the transition.
Ellen Latzen (s6): Michael was fantastic. From the first moment I met him, he was so warm and friendly. I was already an avid
Family Ties viewer, but I'd truly fallen in love with him after Back to the Future. He was just as adorable in person, although I do recall thinking he was pretty short in real life. Filming with him was exhilarating. He was such a professional, with impeccable comedic timing and command of his character. The role I played was such a special one within the context of the episode, as Alex isn't his usual right-wing, self-absorbed, narcissistic self. He shows a lot of humanity and empathy, especially towards my character, and I ate it all up. Michael made me melt, both on camera and off, and that made the experience that much more memorable.
Victor DiMattia (s6): I thought he was very nice. As a young kid, you don't always properly interpret the actions of adults and some actors of his caliber came across to me as intimidating or even mean, whether intentionally or otherwise. He had a really good understanding of how to work with children. I liked him.
Darrell Thomas Utley (s6): He was one of my favorite guys on the set. He was really nice, however very popular and one of [the most in-demand] actors at the time. He took the time to play with me on the set and teased me around. I remember seeing a Lamborghini on set and someone said it belonged to him.

Susan Kohler (s6): I remember waiting backstage before an entrance with Michael and the little boy who played my son. Michael was such a big star by then and seemed to carry a big responsibility for the show and yet he was friendly and gracious and easy to talk to.
Hilary Shepard (s7): Michael was the sweetest guy and got a huge kick out of me saying "bunchy" in my fake Eurotrash accent. He asked me to say it over and over and would crack up every time! I loved that he was very confident and didn't let the fact he was so much shorter than me get in the way. I've worked with a lot of short actors who didn't like me in heels and who insisted on standing on an apple box. Not him! I ended up being cast as his wife in a Japanese commercial years later and he took one look at me and said "Hey! It's the 'bunchy' girl! You're hilarious!" I was shocked he remembered me!
Christina Pickles (s7): Michael Fox was so friendly and great to work with. I remember him telling me that he loved St. Elsewhere and watched every episode. Which of course made me very happy.
Nick Rutherford (s7): I'm not sure if I even met him because my part on the show was pretaped. He was a pretty big star at the time and I don't think he was even on the set that day.
Byron Thames (s7): Didn't always come to rehearsal. Extremely on top of his game. When he came in, he nailed it the first time.
Jaclyn Bernstein (s7): Most of my scenes were with Michael J. Fox. At the time, he was a huge star on the cover of just about every publicity magazine out there. In fact, I remember having my teeny-bopper magazine on set, looking at the cover with him on it, looking up, and there he was! It was surreal. And just about as thrilling as it could be. He has that star quality. Absolute charm coupled with total humility. He was endearing and kind. A real treasure. It's no wonder why he has become an icon in television with such a prolific career both on and off screen.

Timothy, what was the literal next step with you and Michael after hitting it off on set—did you exchange phone numbers?

We went out and probably got drunk. We hung out a lot before I moved to Sacramento and he moved east.

Would you call him now and go over old times?

I don't have his number! I would love to, would tell him I love him.

Part 5.

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