Gary David Goldberg, the Emmy-winning writer who created two long-running hit sitcoms in Family Ties and Spin City, died yesterday from brain cancer in Montecito, California. He was 68. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.
As laid out in his enjoyable and agreeable memoir Sit, Ubu, Sit (from which this obituary will shamelessly crib), Goldberg stumbled his way into writing for television and film in his early 30s, a rather late start to a Hollywood career at the time. He’d already lived more than enough life to fill many TV shows, meeting his then-girlfriend, Diana Meehan, while working as a waiter, after having been kicked out of two colleges. (He and Meehan would marry in 1990, over 20 years and two children into their relationship.) The two traveled around the world with their dog Ubu (who would later become famous as the “face” of Goldberg’s production company, and during those travels, Goldberg became the lead in an Israel science fiction series, The Adventures Of Scooterman. The couple eventually settled in Berkeley and operated a day-care center, before Goldberg and Meehan made their way down the coast.
It would be a writing class taken at San Diego State University that would prove instrumental to Goldberg’s future career. Noticed by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nate Monaster, Goldberg very quickly broke into writing for first Norman Lear’s production company, then MTM Productions, the two dominant comedy centers of ‘70s TV. It was at MTM that he would thrive, becoming one of its most successful alumni. While there, he worked on The Bob Newhart Show and the short-lived but critically acclaimed Tony Randall Show, before winning his first Emmy for his work as a producer on Lou Grant. In this time, he also created a short-lived sitcom, The Last Resort, for MTM and won a WGA Award for a script he wrote for M*A*S*H. Unlike many TV writers—even great ones—Goldberg proved equally adept at writing comedy and drama, and he was quickly scooped up by Paramount, where he set up Ubu Productions in 1980.
It was there that Goldberg would begin the series that would define his career, Family Ties. Though it took Goldberg some time to see what his casting director saw in a young actor named Michael J. Fox, he was soon so won over by Fox that he personally stood his ground with NBC president Brandon Tartikoff (at a time when the show very well could have been passed on), after Tartikoff famously said he didn’t think Fox’s face would ever show up on a lunchbox. (After Family Ties was a hit, Fox personally sent Tartikoff—who always admitted his mistake, according to Goldberg’s book—a lunchbox emblazoned with the face of Alex P. Keaton.) Fox went on to win numerous Emmys for his work on the show, while Goldberg would win one for co-writing the script for “A… My Name Is Alex,” the famous stage play-esque episode that sent Fox’s character through a personal crisis.
Family Ties took some time to catch on. The show’s original conceit seemed straight out of Lear’s factory: Two former hippie parents had settled down in Columbus, Ohio, and now found themselves with children who were more conservative than them, particularly their budding Reaganite son, Alex. Yet the series was much more in the tradition of MTM’s sitcoms, where social issues would inform the storytelling but rarely dominate it. Alex’s conservatism was less a source of genuine political conflict with his parents than it was a source of laughs. The storytelling, which began with a more of a political bent, eventually turned into more of a typical family sitcom, too, with stories about the kids’ dating lives and the parents trying to help their kids through the crisis of the week. Alex also became the de facto lead of the show, even if it had originally been conceived of (at least by its network) as a vehicle for his parents, played by Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross. The elder Keatons were fun and all, but they proved far less interesting than Alex or their older daughter, Mallory (Justine Bateman).
What separated Family Ties from the many TGIF sitcoms of the era came from the lingering remnants of the show’s premise, its terrific cast, and, in particular, its writing. Goldberg’s scripts were always grounded in specificity of character, for he understood that the best way to draw an audience into the world of a TV show was to tell stories so specific that they start to feel universal. A teenage boy having his first serious relationship with a girl is an oft-told story, but in the hands of Fox and the writers headed up by Goldberg, it became something much more interesting and funny. Similarly, the show’s “very special” episodes succeeded thanks to this approach, as in the famous “Tom Hanks is Alex Keaton’s alcoholic uncle” episodes. (Family Ties made the very special episode look so easy that a great many other shows tried it; few succeeded.)
Though Family Ties was very low-rated in its first season, NBC had faith in the program, which was rewarded when The Cosby Show turned the series into a top 10 hit in its third season. It would eventually leave its comfortable hammock after Cosby and fall slightly in the ratings, but it ended on its own terms after seven seasons, when neither Fox nor Goldberg thought there were stories left to tell. (According to Goldberg’s book, Fox would later, at least somewhat seriously, suggest this was the wrong call.) The cast members went on to other projects, while Goldberg had a suddenly massive production company to run.
Of the numerous projects Goldberg launched between Family Ties and Spin City—including writing and directing his first film, 1989’s semi-autobiographical Dad—the most significant was probably 1991’s Brooklyn Bridge, which lasted only two seasons but attracted substantial critical acclaim and awards attention. The series, a riff on Goldberg’s childhood in 1950s Brooklyn, hoped to become a hit at the level of Wonder Years, but it was smaller and quieter than that program, with fewer obvious period details and no narrator to place the audience at a remove from its sincerity with occasional ironic quips. Grounded by a terrific performance by Marion Ross as, essentially, Goldberg’s grandmother, Brooklyn Bridge is one of the great, lost series, with hardly even a clip on YouTube to demonstrate why it was so beloved by such a small audience. Goldberg would later say of its cancellation that it was like having his own childhood canceled. Tellingly, he discusses the series very little in Sit, Ubu, Sit.
Goldberg’s book seems at times to alternate chapters about his relationship with Meehan and chapters about his relationship with Fox, and it’s not hard to see why: They were likely the two most significant people in terms of his personal and professional lives. After a handful of failed series (including a drama, The Bronx Zoo), Goldberg reunited with Fox to co-create Spin City. The young writer he would create the series with, Bill Lawrence, would go on to become one of the most significant figures in TV comedy of the last 15 years and also one of the most significant finds for Goldberg in a long career of finding talented young writers and grooming them for greater things, something he had learned to do at MTM. While Spin City wasn’t as good as Family Ties or Brooklyn Bridge, it had a fun energy and a great ensemble cast, and it allowed Goldberg to try his hand at a workplace sitcom, something he hadn’t done in a while.
Unfortunately, according to Goldberg’s book, the show nearly cost him his relationship with Fox, the two squabbling over the direction the series would take. (Fox wanted the show to be darker and more cynical than it ultimately ended up being, according to Goldberg’s account.) Goldberg—freely admitting that he had trouble realizing that Fox was now a giant star and not the kid he had worked with years earlier, as well as that the show’s production in New York (which kept him from his family in Los Angeles) was something he never warmed to—eventually decreased his level of involvement in Spin City, leaving it in the capable hands of Lawrence and others. This also allowed Goldberg and Fox to repair their relationship before it soured irreparably. The two would continue to be collaborators and close friends, and Goldberg was one of the first to know of Fox’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, early in Spin City’s run. Spin City would run six seasons—four with Fox (who won an Emmy for his final year) and two with Charlie Sheen—and it would prove another feather in Goldberg’s cap.
After Spin City, Goldberg deliberately slowed down, retiring from television and focusing his efforts on film, where he wrote and directed 2005’s Must Love Dogs. That, unfortunately, proved Goldberg’s final credit. His legacy lives on not just in the many, many reruns of shows he created or worked on, but also in his two daughters, both of whom are now television and screenwriters in their own right. (Indeed, his daughter Shana Goldberg-Meehan has worked on numerous sitcoms, most notably Friends.) At his best, Goldberg was capable of terrifically warm series that didn’t sacrifice humor for the moment meant to tug at the heartstrings. That may not seem as edgy or original as some other programs, but it, in many ways, is harder to pull off. Goldberg made it seem easy, and that will hopefully be his legacy.