Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Looking for Lillian Randolph

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

5 a.m. = semi-random thoughts

-Babies don't really have special, stay-at-home wear, do they? I mean, I have my favorite "not going anywhere" outfits, like the rolled-up blue jeans with the growing hole in the left knee and the v-necked shirt with orange and pink shells. But babies these days seem like they're always so fashionable, so ready-to-go. Obviously they don't decide what to wear, period, let alone what to wear when they're having a pajamas day. I mean, I know they have pajamas, but do they have special, extra-laid back pajamas?

-Why are all my insecurities about teaching channeled through political metaphors? For instance, why do I sometimes wonder, "Am I the Jimmy Carter of teachers?"

-Speaking of politics, I still want to read an academic paper on Elmo and Bob Dole's use of the third person.

-Yesterday the student I bought my coffee from told me that the puppy he and his wife are fostering is named Julie Taylor. I was like, "Julie Taylor...why does that name sound so familiar?" Friday Night Lights, he told me, and I scream-laughed with joy. Apparently all current puppies at Motley Zoo Animal Rescue are named after characters from the show. One of Julie Taylor's brothers is Matt Saracen. Hilarious but also a bit creepy, right?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why Are Almost all of These Women White?

C'mon, Grey Lady, get it together. It's only been a few weeks since The New York Times caused an uproar for publishing Alessandra Stanley's inaccurate, clueless, and offensive piece about Shonda Rhimes and her TV creations. One of the conclusions that Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor, reached was that a lack of diversity in the ranks of culture editors could have contributed to the piece's  publication; she notes that, "among the 15 culture editors...just a few are nonwhite." 

Now this week's Sunday Book Review is focused on Women & Power, and what do you see when you scroll (or flip) through the contents? Of the 13 photos or drawings of women or girls that accompany each article, 11 are white. (I'm providing the link here although it appears that the table of contents in this order will only be available until the next Book Review replaces it). There's Diane Sawyer, Lena Dunham, Gail Sheehy, and Kirsten Gillibrand, among others, and then there's Sonia Sotomayor and a story about The Underground Girls of Kabul, which chronicles the practice of passing girls off as boys in Afghanistan (one such girl and her mother appear in the accompanying photo). Two books profiling nonwhite women, two images; that's it. This even when some stories - such as a piece about abortion rights and the origins of birth control pills - involve and affect all women and are illustrated with drawings, drawings that easily could have depicted nonwhite women.

At the end of her piece about the Stanley article, Sullivan wrote, "This contentious chapter may not seem like a welcome gift to anyone involved. But if The Times takes it seriously – looking hard at its diversity and its editing practices — it can be exactly that." It's clear that The Times isn't looking hard enough; I plan to email Sullivan to tell her just that.

Under the Dome with Only Microsoft for Company

Confession: I have not read Under the Dome, but I have watched it. It is so very nearly bad enough to be wonderful, but not quite. Anyway, I was curious how the book compared, so I read James Parker's New York Times review, which includes plot details such as President Obama writing a letter to the town's dome-entrapped citizens and a second selectman seizing control of the police department, ready to enact his right wing agenda now that de facto secession from the U.S. government has occurred. Parker closes:

     The coalition that forms against him includes a journalist, a librarian, an Iraq
     veteran, some acned skateboarders and an English professor from
     Massachusetts who (rather wonderfully) has just edited an issue of
     Ploughshares. Get ready, libruls, King seems to be saying: If the dome
     comes down, you’re going to need one another. 

In other words, it's the then-present day of 2009, a year after Obama's election, and it's recognizably our world, complete with our president, our war, and our literary magazines. It's got guts and gore, but it also has a political viewpoint.

In contrast, on the TV show the Iraq War veteran is retained, as well as the power-hungry government official, but there's nothing Iraq or Tea Party-specific about either of them. And the Zuzu's petals of the whole thing, Ploughshares? It's not there either, George. Yet we're in our world, product-placement-wise, from Microsoft to Prius, and others have written about the strange and unlikely ways these products have been introduced on the show. I know I'm writing seriously about a not-serious show and a book I haven't, ahem, read, but I think it's worth noting that Bad Stephen King Adaptation + Microsoft doesn't only = cringe-inducing viewing. It's that some proper nouns have ascended while others have been erased. It's Microsoft - Politics which creates such an empty vessel.

Not every story based in our world needs to ground itself in our real political names; of course alternate-reality narratives and straight-up allegories can offer politically and culturally astute commentary. I just think it's interesting when we keep the signifiers without the significance; for example, keeping the Iraq War veteran in name only. What does this accomplish? What box does it check off? Is it just a shorthand for, "This character is an experienced badass who has been through the shit"? Does the director think, "Let's show a photo of him with his Army buddies and their guns and call it a day"? How do actual Iraq War veterans feel about such characters?

I'm writing this late at night/early in the morning, so maybe my brain is fuzzified, but I'm also wondering now about political cameos on shows such as The Good Wife. Is this another example of a signifier without significance?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Throwback Thursday

Hula was my friend Jenny Gillespie's zine; this issue (#2!) is from the summer of 1996, when I was 16 and she was 15. I found this on my bookshelf and thought I'd share the back cover with you because a) it manages to celebrate a throwback while being one itself, and b) Say Anything-era John Cusack + cabbage = enjoyment, yes? Regardless of how you'd actually answer that question, happy Thursday. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Steinbeck vs. Very Tall Trees (or Things to Learn in California)

This summer I taught a class, re-watched Family Ties, and finally read The Grapes of Wrath, which I loved and was not alone in finding unfortunately yet inspiringly still relevant. So I was excited to visit the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA. If you haven't been, and you're a mostly-uninformed Steinbeck admirer to any degree, I recommend it. I learned about his reporting - on migrant workers and World War II, among other subjects - how the themes of The Grapes of Wrath earned him an invitation to Russia at the start of the Cold War (not exactly a common occurrence), and how critical derision about him receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature caused him to give up writing fiction. (It eventually became clear that he never truly gave it up). I learned about books I'd never knew he'd written - In Dubious Battle, about a farm workers' strike; The Winter of our Discontent, about consumerism and morality in the U.S. - and was reminded of America and Americans, a collection of essays and the last book of his published while he was alive.

There was also a very cool exhibit about a group that recreated the Joads' journey from Oklahoma to California to mark the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath; they collected oral histories from workers, activists, and other people, some of which are shared in the exhibit. (You can find more info about it here, too; although it says the exhibit ended in July, they must have decided to extend it).    

But the center was also disappointing and odd: if you were unlike me and were mostly-informed about Steinbeck, there's little offered that you won't already know; the main exhibit is large and contains a lot of information, but there's no commentary, let alone analysis, that seeks to puzzle out themes, arcs, or evolutions in his life or work or tie them to contemporary issues. (The possible exception is a collection of "Steinbeck in the news"-type clippings, but it was dominated by stories of the recent big-name Broadway revival of Of Mice and Men). And in some cases, there are frustrating, gaping holes: a display of Steinbeck's college correspondence names the recipient but nothing about who she was.

What's also odd is the museum's apparent desire to satisfy both adults and children; there are a lot of interactive features, some of which can cross generations. (For example, the In Dubious Battle section includes two candlestick telephones; you pick up the receiver to hear dialogue from the book). But others, such as a red pony that children can climb onto, well, not so much. I've never read The Red Pony, but a cursory glance at some search results reveals that it's generally taught at the 6th grade level or higher. But the museum pony seems aimed at much younger kids (or middle schoolers who want to - wait for it! - horse around). It's great to try to get kids excited about literature, but at what point are book-related activities made so accessible to young ages, the "related" part stretched so thin, that the book itself is lost? When kids have a chance to practice braiding a rope, are they learning about a book or about…braiding a rope? Meanwhile, the adults among you are wondering, Who was that woman he wrote the letters to?! 

I'm a sucker for the interactive as much as the next person; when I see a question in a big font asking, "How did Lennie want his beans?" and the instruction, "Lift the can," I lift the can. (Spoiler alert: there's a bottle of ketchup under them thar can). Then later in my trip, when I'm reading an educational display in Redwood National and State Parks about what makes redwoods so resilient, and it ends with the question, "What do you think is the biggest threat to redwoods today?", my first thought is, What do I lift to find the answer?! 

Then I think: oh, right. Humans.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Outside the National Steinbeck Center

Just got back from a great trip, which included a stop in Salinas, CA. I'm tired now, but maybe I'll write more about it later.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Amendments, Corrections, and Recommendations: A Final Family Ties Post*

Before I get to some episode recommendations and suggestions for further reading, here are a few updates, in no particular order:
  • I wondered if the Keatons had an answering machine; well, they do get one in season four, and the kids spend one episode changing the outgoing messages on each other, but then it never really figures in the plot again. (It seems to physically disappear, too, but don't quote me on that).

  • I wrote that we never see the Obecks - the Keatons' neighbors until they move out and the Thompsons move into that house - or Chrissy, Jennifer's best friend, but neither of those claims turned out to be true. We do meet one Obeck, daughter Liz, in the episode "The Big Fix" in season five. At the end of season five we also meet Chrissy, in a two-part episode about Jennifer trying to change to fit in with a popular crowd. 

"It's My Party" is a great example of a strange and not-great phenomenon on Family Ties: airing episodes out of order. Characters, especially Jennifer and Andrew, are clearly younger in "Party" than they have been for the entire season, and Alex's girlfriend Ellen is still around, even though she left for Paris ages ago. This episode was filmed in season four but - saved? forgotten? deemed subpar but trotted out to fill scheduling needs? It's unclear. (Which is not to say it doesn't have its great moments, my favorites being when Ellen gives Jennifer an old Mondale and Ferraro shirt for her birthday and when the parents try to decipher a note Jennifer has left them; it's a minefield of "like" and "okay?").

What can I say? I'm a sucker for political t-shirts...
…and textual analysis.

  • One more update before we move on: I speculated that one reason the show creates a friend for Alex only to kill him off might have been because the actors who had played his established friends were not available. I don't know if the writers or casting director considered killing off Timothy Busfield or Jeffrey Joseph's characters for "A, My Name is Alex" in 1987, but maybe you've heard of a little thing called thirtysomething? That started airing in 1987, as did The Popcorn Kid, a TV series that Joseph had a recurring part in. So these actors were a little busy. (Plus, Busfield had already been assigned double duty on the show; in addition to being Alex's friend, he was also cast in an episode's flashback sequence as one of college-age Steven's friends. But then again, what's two roles for the same actor? The show went higher for others). 

Both Timothy Busfield (top) and Jeffrey Joseph (above) appeared as Alex's friends in two episodes.
That amounted to close friendship in the Family Ties universe. 

Now for some recommendations! Let's start with a few individual scenes and then go to whole episodes. Of course, it depends on what you're looking for:

  • Are you looking for some feminist education for little boys? Look no further than "The Way We Were" in season six, which opens with Alex coming home to find his parents asleep on the couch and Andy playing garage. Alex sees a Barbie doll and picks it up. "What's she doing here?" he asks.
"That's Barbie," Andy says. "She owns the garage."
"Barbie owns the garage?"
"Really she's in Congress, but on weekends she's a mechanic."
"I think I see mom's influence here," Alex says.
"She also won the Nobel Prize in Physics," Andy adds.

The debate about Barbie's identity devolves into a tug of war.
These three actors are routinely great together.

  • Or maybe you feel stifled on the set and you want to see footage filmed outside?  This happens rarely on the show, and the first such images don't occur until the end of season three in the two-part episode "Remembrance of Things Past." Steven and the family return to his childhood home in Buffalo; his father has died and his mother is thinking about selling the house. Steven visits his father's grave.

  • Or perhaps you long for some good old-fashioned miming. When Jennifer gets her learner's permit in the season seven episode, "My Best Friend's Girl," Steven insists on giving her driving lessons. This includes a simulation in the kitchen, during which he says she ran a red light. Jennifer counters that there's a cop behind them. "I'm gonna try to lose him," she says.           

As for whole episodes, that also depends on what you're looking for. But I will say that if you're a teacher or interested in education, you might find the episodes that center around teachers notable.

  • "Little Man on Campus" in season three is about Alex starting college and struggling: he considers dropping American Government because he got an F on his first paper - he doesn't think he can hack it in that class. (Notice how it doesn't occur to him to blame the teacher or make excuses for himself). But when he goes to drop the class, his teacher questions him until he gets Alex to understand how to make an original argument. And it's not an abstract discussion - it's a conversation, and argument, about Eugene Debs and Oliver Wendell Holmes. 
  • "Paper Chase," the final episode of season four, is about how Mallory nearly flunks her history class and doesn't graduate from high school. But with the encouragement of her family, boyfriend, and teacher, she passes her oral exam and graduates after all. Her requests for extra credit are rebuffed; her only recourse is hard work, and it works. (It's also fun to see the oral exam, which people such as Rebecca Schuman have tried to revive, in messy, Socratic action). 

    Skippy graduates too!
    How could I get this far with only the merest nods at Marc Price,
    who plays neighbor Skippy Handelman?
For instance, this shirt: starting in season five and continuing until the end of the show,
you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting Skippy in this shirt.
I still haven't figured out what that woman in the blue dress is doing.

  • There's "Paper Lion" in season five, which I mentioned in my discussion of Mason Adams in the in memoriam post. It's an interesting story: he's a longstanding, well-regarded economics professor, but he feels pressure to publish from the administration, so he pretends the data in his latest work isn't flawed. Alex calls him out on it, and the professor ultimately comes clean. "I am a teacher," he declares from the pulpit at an awards ceremony. "And in a college, there's nothing more important than that." Aw, sweetie, you want to say, reaching across the screen and back through time. What a lovely thought. 
  • And finally, there's the two-part episode "Read It and Weep" in season six. Jennifer wants to do her book report on Huckleberry Finn, but the school board has banned it (and a number of other books). She refuses to change her book and is suspended. Her teacher is afraid of supporting her publicly, thinking he'll lose his job, but after hearing her speak up at a community meeting, he and other teachers decide that they're going to stage a walk out to protest her suspension. This episode, like "Paper Lion," points toward the challenges teachers face, but although it also features someone proclaiming, "I am a teacher," it seems less enamored of the lone individual as role model; it suggests that an answer can be found in collective action. 
There's some fairly stilted dialogue in "Read It and Weep," including references to Supreme Court cases and characters reading aloud from Huckleberry Finn, but it's also an interesting portrait of censorship at the high school level and the school board overreach that was not uncommon in the 1980s.  

The vision of teaching on the show is lecture-driven, overwhelmingly male (of the aforementioned teachers, only Mallory's is female), and entirely white. So there are very real limitations to and problems with it - and there were in the '80s, too. But it makes for an interesting artifact with some still-applicable lessons.

On a different note, I'll also recommend "Heartstrings" from season seven, which was the only three-part episode in the show's run. Steven has a heart attack and undergoes surgery. There are flashbacks, but unlike with a clip show, they are to scenes we've never seen before, and they add to the story. Three episodes gives the narrative enough space to move from sadness and fear to humor and strength without feeling cramped or rushed.

Finally, some recommendations for further reading: 
* I think this will be my last post about the show. Thanks for reading! 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Thankfully Not Lost to the Movies

Leaving a TV show in order to pursue movie roles is not unusual; to give just one example, Claire Danes did this with My So Called-Life. (Although in that case the second season was hypothetical and, alas, not to be). Given how understandable this career move is, it's kind of amazing that Michael J. Fox didn't make it himself after Back to the Future was released in 1985.

Obviously I don't know the details of Fox's contract, but I do know that Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg initially had some concerns about Fox taking the part on Back to the Future because he was afraid he'd "lose him to film-stardom." Instead Fox filmed Family Ties during the day and Back to the Future at night and continued on Family Ties for four more years.

When I first read about this, I was surprised that he'd stay on a sitcom where he was frequently subjected to things like being crawled on by kittens…

…playing poker with babies…

…dressing himself and others like Abraham Lincoln...

…and having a photograph of himself eaten by a chimpanzee.

But it didn't take much reflection to see how obviously fun all of that would be. It's fun to be a mall Santa and promise little girls 100 shares of Aramco Petroleum...

…or talk to a dog in a vets' waiting room...

…or wear a bowler hat...

…or dress up as a molar.

In any one film, do actors often get such varied opportunities? There are many limitations to sitcoms, but within all the hijinks there's the gift of getting to inhabit a giddy range.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

All the Presidents' Sitcom

When I wrote about the transition from Nixon to Reagan, reference-wise, on Family Ties, I thought that there was a transition, a gradual diminishing of the former and ascendancy of the latter; that was how it seemed in season four, which aired from September 1985-May 1986. But now that I've finished re-watching the show, it would be more accurate to say that Nixon and Reagan co-exist, and over time the treatment of Reagan becomes sharper, moving beyond parody into moments of critique.

I started noticing the shift in season six. Elyse's aunt Rosemary shows up unannounced and exhibits signs of Alzheimer's. The doctor says, "Rosemary, you didn't remember who the president of the United States was" as an example of her memory loss. Rosemary (played by the wonderful Barbara Barrie) says, "I know Ronald Reagan is president. I just can't accept it."

Barbara Barrie; her most recent work was a small role on Enlightened.

Then, when Alex takes over Skippy's job as a mall Santa, a girl says she doesn't believe in Santa and wants to know why, if he's the real one, there are Santas at other malls, too. Alex answers, "I have some of my elves, uh, dress up like me to pick up the slack. It's the same way that President Reagan can't be everywhere, so he sends his assistants in his place."

"I don't believe in him, either," the girl replies.

Audiences might have recognized Ellen Hamilton Latzen from Fatal Attraction.
Here she's not asking for a rabbit, though.

These episodes aired in November and December 1987, respectively. By the end of the season, in May 1988, the Reagan jokes have grown in substance from denial and disbelief to biting commentary. Andy is making a popsicle stick bread box as a gift for Nick to thank him for teaching the children's art class at the Y. But Alex has other ideas; he wants to make Nick the Reagan Ranch out of popsicle sticks: "I even have plans for a little pop-stick Ron and a little pop-stick Nancy."

Elyse, listening in, asks, "How about a pop-stick jail for his Cabinet?" The studio audience laughter quickly builds to applause and cheers - one of the most enthusiastic reactions in the show's entire run.

Alex goes ahead and makes his own Reagan Ranch anyway.

What happened? I've got one phrase for you: Iran-Contra affair. By May 1988, the Tower Commission and Congressional committee reports have been released and Reagan has given speeches, but Casper Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, has yet to be indicted, and Oliver North is not yet on trial. It's also the middle of a presidential campaign, and many people have questions about George H.W. Bush's knowledge of and involvement in Iran-Contra.

Bush quickly becomes fodder for jokes on the show; the very next episode, the first of season seven, opens with the words, "All right, who did this?" It's late October 1988, and the family has defaced Alex's campaign poster of Bush.

And a few minutes later, Alex's girlfriend Lauren brings up Iran-Contra directly. "I'm not gonna vote for Bush," she tells Alex. "For one, I've never fully accepted his explanation of his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair."  (We never get to hear her other reasons because Mallory turns to her father and asks excitedly, "Bush had an affair?")

In between this episode and the election, Family Ties fits in one more Reagan dig. Alex is reading Robin Hood to Andy, but in the grand tradition of reading aloud to young children, he's changed the story. "It was about Robin Hood, how he stole from the poor and gave to the rich," Andy reports.

"No, no, that's not Robin Hood, Andy," Steven says. "That's Ronald Reagan." (This is greeted by the studio audience with both laughter and, not boos or groans, but low sounds of moderate disapproval. The same mixture of sounds occurs when Alex tells Andy in a later episode, "You know how lucky you are, Andy? Born under Reagan, raised under Bush. I mean, with any luck at all, you will have a completely Democrat-free childhood." I really want data on the political makeup of the Family Ties audience).

Election morning dawns at the Keatons with some seriously depressed Democrats (this episode aired on November 13, five days after the actual election).

"In August, Dukakis looked like a shoo-in," Elyse says.

"Yeah, that was before he got into the tank," Jennifer notes, flashing her own newspaper.

But this is about as current events-y as Family Ties gets, and the tone of occasional critique dissipates in the final season; in fact, Bush is largely ignored. The show returns to Nixon when Jennifer writes a play about him for her history class and Alex tries to influence her script. Nixon is still an emotional flashpoint for the characters, but he's also a denatured joke; (the episode features Alex delivering a speech as Nixon, an extended impersonation).

Nixie, the Nixon fan magazine: one of many fake texts featured on the show. 
Others include the I Love Republicans pop-up book that Alex gets for Andy and,
my personal favorite, Shirley MacLaine's There Must be a Higher Power in the Universe if I'm Making So Much Money Doing What I'm Doing, which Steven brings home for Mallory. 

And Nixon is almost sentimentalized in the final episode; when Elyse goes into Alex's room one last time before he leaves home to take a job on Wall Street, it's Nixon's face that is visible out of the darkness. We feel Elyse's loss of Alex and feel nostalgic, and Nixon gets all wrapped up in those emotions. But then Elyse turns on the light, sits on the bed, looks at the picture, and abruptly turns it face down. It's a humorous break in an otherwise serious moment, and it reminds us that, although others at the time had difficulty separating the politics from the person, these characters were consistently able to do so. The mother loves the son, not the 37th president.

Research shows that we've become more politically polarized in the years since Family Ties. The June 2014 Pew Research Center report "Political Polarization in the American Public" notes: "Three-out-of-ten (30%) consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat and about a quarter (23%) of across-the-board liberals say the same about the prospect of a Republican in-law." Watching Family Ties has made me look at those numbers differently - I see the flip side more easily: that's 70 and 77 % of conservatives and liberals who would be OK with a family member marrying someone from another political party, not insignificant figures. I also think: what's so bad about unhappy? Steven and Elyse aren't happy that they raised a son who very early in life decided he was a Republican, but that's the son they have. And I wonder, how many Keaton families exist today - or even existed back in the '80s? My conservative brother raised conservative daughters; my more liberal brother is raising liberal children. Leaving aside all the similarities between the two major political parties today, do parents raise politically different children? And if they do, where can we find them on TV?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

In Memoriam

Of the many ways we could categorize the actors and actresses who were on Family Ties and are no longer living, here are a few: the grandparents; the guest stars who carried an episode; the scene stealers; the ones who were more voice than body; those who died too young and those who were older. Of course there is some overlap, and of course more than 30 years after the show began, there are more departed than I have room to mention here. Here are a few profiles and highlights:

The Grandparents

(Clockwise from top left: John Randolph, Anne Seymour, Dick Sargent, and Priscilla Morrill). Only Morrill, who played Elyse's mother, appeared in more than one episode, but the others turned in memorable performances, particularly Randolph as Steven's conservative father. He delivers both great smiles like the one above and a stinging rebuke of Steven's '60s ways. Seymour's long career stretched back to 1944 and included appearances on The Motorola Television Hour, The United States Steel Hour, and The Alcoa Hour - affiliations the character Alex would have no doubt admired. Sargent came out late in life, in 1991, just three years before his death from prostrate cancer.

The Guest Star

(Clockwise from top left: Jack Somack, River Phoenix, Brownie McGhee, and Mason Adams). If you're of a certain age, Phoenix is the one who stops you in your tracks; he shows up in that argyle sweater to tutor Alex in Advanced Non-Euclidean Geometry in season four. He's a 13 year-old math whiz, a graduate student already, and he falls for Jennifer only to discover that she, like, actually likes 13 year-old things and not attending tenure parties. Neither Phoenix nor Somack are given much to do in their roles - Somack plays a sweet small business owner and Alex's boss in season one - but they are fun to watch. In contrast, the show revolves around Adams and McGhee when they guest star in seasons five and six, respectively. McGhee was a blues musician with a long career who had started acting in the late '70s, and he plays a musician-turned-bus driver who Alex convinces to come out of retirement for a performance. Adams is one of Alex's economics professors; you may know him from Lou Grant. I'll write more about his performance when I post about recommended episodes, but for now I'll just say that the portrait he paints of higher ed in 1986 feels alternately eerily prescient and like a beautiful object lifted from a time capsule.

The Scene Stealers
(Left: Mary Jackson; below, Ron Karabatsos and Anne Ramsey). Jackson sells the Keatons a gun in season one after their home is robbed; (they decide to get rid of it by the end of the episode, which is titled charmingly, "Have Gun, Will Unravel"). Ramsey you might recognize from Goonies; she's yet another nanny/housekeeper candidate. She thought the advertised salary was a "misprint" and lambasts germs during her interview. Karabatsos is the plumber who lends his truck to Steven during the two-part "Birth of a Keaton" episode where Elyse goes into labor at PBS during a pledge drive - and a blizzard. He's a genial, bearish presence during all the stress.

More Voice than Body
We never see Bill in the season three episode where Alex and his friend James (played by Jeffrey Joseph, still very much alive!) work at a student help hotline, but we hear him loud and clear: he's looking for a reason to live. Alex and James are new to the hotline and scramble trying to help the suicidal Bill. There are a lot of moments like the one pictured, where they look at speakers, and it's a testament to the script and Sam Whipple's voice that we feel as captivated as Alex and James. Whipple actually shows up in the next episode, but his role is far more minor in the flesh than it is as the confused, vulnerable, but ultimately hopeful Bill. Whipple himself died of cancer at 41.

There are better images of Meg Wyllie in the season five episode where Alex meets with a psychiatrist to talk about the death of his friend, Greg. But we quickly learn that her power is in her voice. The lights come up behind that window and we simultaneously hear Wyllie's chirping, prodding voice saying, "I'll bet Alex knows the answer." We're in his memory of being seven years old with his teacher's voice repeating "Alex knows, Alex knows" separating him from his classmates socially, putting pressure on him to succeed. Wyllie's back is turned to us most of the time; she does so much with just her voice. Her scenes in this episode reminded me of The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On, published in 1971, around the time Alex would have been seven. (If I'm remembering correctly, Albert Cullum dedicates his book to "all those who died in the arms of compulsory education."Alex, of course, survived).

The Young  

(From top to bottom, left to right: Bridgette Andersen, Diana Bellamy, Bibi Besch, and Stephen Lee). The line between "young" and not, when it comes to death, can get subjective after a certain age, so to throw my subjective two cents in, I feel like anyone younger than 70 can count as "young." Andersen, who played kid-Mallory in a season one flashback, reportedly died of a drug overdose at age 21. (She's possibly best known for Savannah Smiles, a movie I loved as a kid). Besch (who plays Jennifer's steely high school principal in season six) was 56; Bellamy was 57 (she plays a warm, encouraging therapist who leads a group that Alex and his girlfriend Lauren attend). Both women died of cancer. Stephen Lee was Jennifer's aggrieved manager at Chicken Heaven, a fast food restaurant; Jennifer's friend and co-worker wreaks havoc, including spraying water all over the prep area and Lee, the boss. Lee died just a few weeks ago of a heart attack; he was 59.

The Older Ones

Doris Belack (left) had acting credits that included the film Tootsie and TV that ranged from The Patty Duke Show to Law & Order (she had a recurring role as a judge). On Family Ties she was Mallory's boss at a clothing store. Julie Harris (right) also had credits that went back to the 1940s; she played Mallory's older college classmate who Mallory discriminates against because of her age. (We'd call Harris's character "non-traditional" now, though demographically she's becoming far more traditional). 

John Ingle (below left) is the justice of the peace who nearly marries Mallory and Nick in season five. Alex rushes in to break up the wedding but interrupts another young couple by accident; they decide to listen to him anyway. Ingle delivers his best lines with gusto: "This is a first for me: two marriages wiped out with one objection. A nuptial double play." He shakes Alex's hand and says, "Congratulations." His screen career began relatively late, in the early '80s, but he worked prolifically until his death in 2012. 

Peter Schrum plays the real deal Santa Claus in season six; (Alex has a job playing Santa at the mall). Like Ingle, he began acting later in life and continued almost until his death in 2003.


Richard Kuss (left) plays a man whose wife has had a heart attack, and he's one of the people who befriends the Keatons when Steven suffers a heart attack himself and undergoes surgery in season seven. He had been acting since the 1950s.

Finally, season seven's "Get Me to the Living Room on Time," features Andy befriending a couple at a retirement home during a class visit. The couple (played by Douglas Seale and Marie Denn, below right) decide to marry in the Keatons' living room. In addition to screen work, Seale acted on the stage and did voice work; one of his last roles was to voice the Sultan in the movie Aladdin. Denn had appeared on The Brady Brunch, The Rockford Files, and other TV shows and movies. The wedding episode is full of great old actors, including Joshua Shelley (below left) as a jokey resident at the retirement home. After a career that began in the late 1940s, this was one of his last roles; he died the next year, in 1990.