Nostalgia Done Right: The Family Ties Creator Who Gave Me A Shot

In the summer of 1991, I was sitting next to my sister in the back seat of my parents' Toyota Previa, reading a book about Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World." We were driving across country because my parents were afraid to fly, Hopewell Junction, N.Y., to Los Angeles, California, where I was going to become the next Michael J. Fox.

I'd been sent the book by Gary David Goldberg, the creator of the television series Family Ties, who died last week of brain cancer. The show initially focused on two hippie parents but eventually came to center on Fox's smarmy young Republican, Alex P. Keaton. After a rather whirlwind audition process, I was cast as Alan Silver, the dashing, athletic, impossibly smart young man at the center of Gary's newest show, Brooklyn Bridge, which chronicled his Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn in the 1950s. Though Nathaniel, Alan's younger brother, was the chronologically correct version of Gary (the show began in the early '50s, when he would've been 8), it was clear my character was Gary the teenager, navigating the shoals of adolescence while under the influence of his domineering but ultimately doting Grandma Sophie (played by Marion Ross).

Family Ties made Gary Goldberg very rich and very famous. But you got the feeling that everything in his career was leading up to Brooklyn Bridge. The show spared no expense. We were routinely over budget and past deadline because of Gary's (and his creative team's) maniacal attention to detail. Brooklyn Bridge was CBS's most expensive show and, in a time when Nielsen ratings were paramount, one of its least productive. Somehow, we were allowed to make 35 episodes, a testament to the belief the network had in Gary's vision to recreate the nostalgic fantasyland of his childhood. Judging the aesthetics of Brooklyn Bridge in the context of a modern period piece like Mad Men doesn't do our show justice. By 1991's standards, Brooklyn Bridge was top-of-the-line when it came to authentically conjuring another place and time.

Perhaps because of how personal Brooklyn Bridge was to him, Gary and I were never particularly close. He was always very cordial, and my family once spent a weekend at his ranch in Vermont along with a number of other cast members. But the relationship seemed mostly circumstantial. Fox called Gary a "mentor" in a statement about his death. Gary was not a mentor to me. When he was on the set, he was aloof, occasionally taciturn, and there was always a bit of wariness among the cast and crew, which happened to vanish when he wasn't directly overseeing production. (Perhaps that's the case with all showrunners, though it didn't really jibe with what I'd heard about him before production began.) I don't have a lot of memories of interactions with Gary because most of the time they were muted, brief. I was far closer with the other writers and directors. I do remember occasionally playing impromptu pickup games on his specially designed basketball court in a corner of the Paramount lot. He had bad knees, so he wasn't playing as much as he used to or would have liked.

Mostly, though, I remember wanting to make him laugh. Whenever he was on set for a rehearsal, or a table reading, I wanted to hear his chubby chuckle. It meant I'd delivered the dialogue perfectly—dialogue he had often written. It was a point of pride, and, quite honestly, a relief.

Nostalgia Done Right: The Family Ties Creator Who Gave Me A Shot

Reading reminiscences in the days following his death, I had totally forgotten that Gary created Spin City after our show went off the air, a success that presumably helped ease the pain of Brooklyn Bridge's failure. But though I had very little contact with him after our cancellation in 1993, I have a feeling that Gary never really recovered. He was bitter at the network for all the time-slot shuffling, was convinced we hadn't been given a proper chance to succeed. Whether that's true or not, Brooklyn Bridge was the full flower of Gary's artistic sensibility, his "auteur" moment. And despite glowing critical praise, the public rejected it. One likely doesn't ever fully recover from that—not creatively, anyway.

The New York Times obituary called Gary a "writer and producer who created warmhearted television shows." Normally, I wouldn't view such a description as a recommendation. But Fox recently called attention to Gary's impeccable ear for a gentle, observational humor that was incisive without being mean-spirited: "A line like, ‘Why are there two milks open in the fridge?' You could tell it was from Gary, so well observed without being trite or sappy." The recollection made me think of our pilot, when Grandma Sophie wants to know what Alan would like for dinner over the next several days so she can defrost the meat. Alan observes wryly that perhaps she also wants to know what he'd like to eat "a week from Tuesday." That was Gary at the peak of his powers, able to strike in a brief exchange the right notes of absurdity and devotion, at once sweet and exhausting, that is the essence of the overbearing Jewish—or Italian, or Irish—grandmother.

Something else Fox said in the same article, shortly before Gary died, struck me as well. "Gary is one of those guys who has no guile in him." No guile? Really? Surely he's exaggerating. Everyone has to have at least a little guile, right? Especially among the piranhas of Hollywood. But whether or not Fox's statement is literally true, the spirit is not lost. Brooklyn Bridge was a very earnest show, almost too earnest at times. But that earnestness emanated not from the treacle of typical sitcom tropes, but from Gary's foundation of family, loyalty and baseball. Throw in the residue of his '60s-era dissent and the result was a show that felt fresh and, well, yes, warmhearted. Brooklyn Bridge wasn't lazy schmaltz. It was truly the life Gary lived because Gary didn't grow up in TV. He grew up in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Bridge belongs to the part of my life that almost feels like it didn't happen. I certainly didn't become the next Michael J. Fox. But Gary's legacy, for me, is an appreciation for the healthy uses of nostalgia, as both a comforting reflex and a melancholy diversion. Nostalgia can be an easy trap for television writers who are content not to challenge audiences, who serve up sanitized characters and familiar TV situations. Brooklyn Bridge was sweet, but it wasn't familiar, which is why critics liked it and why it probably failed. The nostalgia of Brooklyn Bridge was earned because it was overseen by Gary and his tender, tireless approach to the material, not by a cynical scribe-for-hire. And though our show didn't get a chance to fully realize his vision, Gary taught me that the things we remember are beautiful and difficult and elusive, and that they deserve care when we unearth them.

Ebbets Field is now an apartment complex. Gary is gone. Nostalgia helps keep them both alive. Sometimes, it's OK to be sentimental. For a little while, at least, Brooklyn Bridge allowed Gary David Goldberg a genuine glimpse of his past. I'm glad I was a part of it.

Danny Lanzetta's most recent novel is called Gadfly. He is currently working on his third book. He is also a spoken word artist, a professor of writing, and a degenerate Knicks fan. You can see/hear/read his ravings at dannylanzetta.com.