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Living the Life of Goldberg : 'American Dreamer' Reflects New Stage of a Successful TV Writer's Existence

October 21, 1990|DANIEL CERONE | Times Staff Writer

If good television writing comes from personal experience, Gary David Goldberg has enough material to program a TV network. Whereas many of today's top TV producers were as children fed intravenously through the TV tube, Goldberg learned about life the old-fashioned way: He lived it.

While his contemporaries sat in Ivy League classrooms, Goldberg, a Brandeis University dropout, traveled around the world with his girlfriend, Diana Meehan, and pet Labrador, Ubu. In 1982, his roadside philosophies became the basis for "Family Ties," the sitcom about an idealistic pair of grown-up flower children raising materialistic kids in the Reagan era of supply-side economics.

Now, headlong into the '90s, Goldberg's personal life once again has inspired a TV series to reflect the times.

The new comedy "American Dreamer," on NBC Saturday nights, stars Robert Urich as a foreign TV correspondent whose wife's death prompts him to quit network news and move to a small Wisconsin town with his two children. There, he writes a homespun newspaper column with help from his emotional secretary, Carol Kane.

"American Dreamer" is about getting back to the basics, and that's a place that Goldberg, the real American dreamer, has a "desperate longing" to be.

"I wanted to do a show that was very much about the position I find myself in right now," Goldberg said, "which is a man about 45 who all of a sudden looks around and he says, 'Whoa! How'd I get here? What's it mean? What am I doing? Am I the guy I set out to be?' "

Goldberg sat back in a chair in his Paramount Studios office. The walls were coated thick with family and group photos, his youngest daughter's artwork and a bank of TV industry awards. Playground laughter drifted through an open window from the studio's day-care center, which Goldberg insisted Paramount build.

"That's the question I ask myself," he continued. "Am I the guy I set out to be?"

Goldberg, who reportedly pocketed $65 million last year when "Family Ties" sold in syndication, can afford to be--or do--just about anything he chooses. His feature film debut as writer and director of 1989's "Dad" was a critical success.

Now he's applying his Midas touch on the set of "American Dreamer."

"As soon as you hear the words come out of his mouth, everybody sighs this sigh of relief because they know it's right," said Urich, who last played the title role in ABC's "Spenser: For Hire."

"It's like hearing this universal truth coming out of his mouth. It's dazzling."

And all this from a 46-year-old man who didn't file an income tax report until 1975, took his first professional job as a TV writer at 31, and after two children and 21 years with Meehan finally decided that the relationship was working and married her earlier this year.

When Goldberg first began writing in 1975, he and Meehan were attending San Diego State University, the only school that would allow them a baby and a dog. They lived on Meehan's teaching assistant salary of $344 a month.

"The interesting thing is, we never talked about getting rich. We never talked about being famous. That was never an issue. We just talked about how great it must be to work as a writer."

Goldberg grew up a basketball jock in Brooklyn and dreamed of becoming a physical education teacher. "It was my singular identification of myself, as an athlete," he said.

After graduating from high school in 1962, Goldberg was recruited to play basketball at the liberal Brandeis University. What he found there--a strange new world of art and politics--shattered his simple image of himself as an athlete. "I was just gliding through this life. Then all of a sudden you go to a place where someone says, 'Oh, you play ball. That's nice. What else?' "

Without the skills to survive at Brandeis, Goldberg dropped out. Over the next 10 years, he waited tables in Greenwich Village, traveled the world and opened the Organic Day Care Center out of his home in Berkeley, before finally returning to school to finish his degree at San Diego State.

One day an instructor who had seen his work plucked Goldberg from his class, took the nervous student into his office and pronounced him a writer, conferring upon Goldberg his confidence like a king knighting a battle-weary warrior. Goldberg's quest had ended.

In 1975, Meehan started a communications doctorate at USC (she would eventually found and direct the school's Institute for the Study of Women and Men) and Goldberg sold his first sitcom script. He spiraled upward to work on "The Bob Newhart Show," produce "The Tony Randall Show" and create his first sitcom in 1979, CBS' "The Last Resort." In 1981, he formed UBU Productions (named for his dog).

In "American Dreamer," Goldberg tears down TV's invisible "fourth wall" and ushers viewers into the mind of Urich, who stands in a black limbo set and speaks directly to them. It was a technique first used in "A, My Name is Alex," an Emmy-winning episode of "Family Ties."

Now, for the important question: Is Goldberg the guy he set out to be when he was young?

Goldberg smiled. "I've got to say, I think so," he said warmly. "You know, there's still obstacles I'm working on in my path. But basically I'm a guy I think I would have been proud of."

American Dreamer airs Saturday at 10:30 p.m. on NBC.

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