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:
(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).
(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.