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His 'Family Ties' Are Still for Fun, Not Profit

One in a series about the producers at the helm of some of television's most successful prime-time series.

January 20, 1988|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

At this point in his career, Gary David Goldberg could pack his bags, move to Tahiti and rake in the money while sunning on the beach--just for being the creator of "Family Ties," now in its sixth season on NBC.

"Legally, from a contractual standpoint, I haven't had to be here since the 14th show," Goldberg said cheerfully at his office at Paramount Studios, where he still comes to work most every day along with the rest of the "Family Ties" crew. "And what are we on, No. 133 now?"

Goldberg, executive producer of the family comedy (currently seen first-run on Sunday nights at 8, with reruns appearing weeknights at 7 on KTTV Channel 11), plans to be there as long "Family Ties" lasts.

"This is the pleasure, this is the joy--this is what I've been working toward," he explained. "You could take all this away from me, and I would start all over. I just honestly don't think I'll ever have anything like this again."

Coming from almost anyone else in Hollywood, the words might carry a tinny ring of insincerity. From this bearded, sunny-tempered, 43-year-old flower child, however, one easily buys the notion that fun, not profit, built the "Family Ties" empire.

Goldberg never thought about building an empire. Even now, he says, the most important part of his little dynasty, UBU Productions (named after Goldberg's now-deceased dog), is its day-care center on the Paramount lot.

"Family Ties" star Michael J. Fox describes the show's success as "just an extension of everybody loving everybody in a generically spiritual way" under the fatherly influence of Goldberg.

Goldberg, a true spirit of the '60s, spent 13 years as the perpetual college student, beginning at Brandeis University in 1962, exploring the world and ending up at San Diego State University in 1975. He was 31 before he decided to pursue a Hollywood career.

"I had been putting my energy into directions that had in no way involved making money or contributing to society in any way--I had a great time," Goldberg reminisced dreamily. "Then I decided to become a part of society, to have some impact on society. I was really ready to step forward and say: 'I want to be a grown-up.' "

Dropping back into society was as much fun as dropping out for Goldberg and Diana Meehan, the woman with whom he has lived for 19 years. Goldberg decided to become a television writer.

He was somewhat naive about the process. "I would mail out scripts on Monday, and on Wednesday I'd be at the mailbox saying, 'Why haven't they contacted me?' " he said.

"Diana was working on a master's thesis which became a book; we would sit back-to-back and write. I wrote scripts for 12, 14 hours a day for no money. We had no money whatsoever. It was energizing."

Eventually, his efforts paid off. His first job was at MTM as a writer for "The Bob Newhart Show." After associations with several other MTM shows, he launched UBU Productions in 1981.

Goldberg has executive-produced other series under the UBU banner, including 1982's "Making the Grade" and the 1985 "Sara." Current UBU productions include "The Bronx Zoo" for NBC, "Duet" for Fox Broadcasting Co. and "Day by Day," an as-yet-unscheduled NBC mid-season replacement. Goldberg is co-creator of "Day by Day," the story of a career-oriented couple who give up their jobs to start a child-care center in their home, but he was not actively involved in creating "Bronx" or "Duet."

Although UBU has four current productions, Goldberg said he saves most of his creative input for "Family Ties"; he does not want to be at the helm of all his company's product. "The idea of UBU is not to get all the shows looking like I created them," he said. "I try to create an atmosphere where people can do their own work."

Inspired by Goldberg's own bemusement at the philosophical clash between the children of the 1960s and their own children, "Family Ties" is the story of two former '60s college radicals, Steven and Elyse Keaton, and their four children. The biggest generation gap exists between the Keatons and their oldest son, Alex, the arch-Republican overachiever portrayed by Michael J. Fox. Bright, athletic daughter Jennifer Keaton is based on Goldberg's own daughter, Shana.

Although it slipped somewhat this fall after a move to Sundays from its golden 8:30 p.m. Thursday slot following NBC's top-rated "Cosby Show," "Family Ties" has spent the past few seasons as television's No. 2 comedy. It ranks 12th for the current season.

Goldberg credits two factors for the long-term success of "Family Ties": the universal appeal of family ties, and NBC, for nurturing the initially low-rated show during a period in TV when both comedy and traditional families were considered dead.

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