Politics, parenting and Planned Parenthood: 'Family Ties' cast members reflect on iconic show 40 years later

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The year was 1982. E.T. was phoning home, Olivia Newton-John was getting "Physical," and Sony was introducing the world to the very first CD player. Meanwhile, on Sept. 22, Family Ties was introducing America to the Keaton family.

In case you missed the '80s (or were too busy at the arcade getting the high score on Galaga), Family Ties was about a suburban Ohio family, comprising free-spirited parents Steven and Elyse, played by Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter, whose progressive views often clashed with their materialistic, conservative kids growing up in the Reagan-era '80s.

To celebrate the 40-year anniversary of the classic NBC sitcom, Yahoo Entertainment reunited Gross and Baxter to reminisce about their seven seasons as an on-screen couple — and it doesn't seem like their chemistry has faded over the years.

Gross and Baxter were born on the same day, but that didn't stop him from taking a shot at her age. "She is so old," Gross joked as they wrapped their heads around the 40 years that have passed since the show started. When it was pointed out to him that that would make him "so old" too, Gross quipped, "This is the face that time forgot."

Maybe it was their shared birthday, but the two actors claimed they felt chemistry right away. "My first words to him were, 'You need a tan,'" Baxter remembered. Gross had been living in New York at the time, and had not yet been kissed by the Southern California sun.

Tina Yothers, Justine Bateman, Michael Gross, Meredith Baxter, Michael J. Fox - The original cast of

The chemistry wasn't just between Baxter and Gross, it embraced the entire fictional Keaton clan. In the beginning, there were three kids. Michael J. Fox played the oldest child, Alex P. Keaton, whose conservative views constantly clashed with the liberal views of his parents; Mallory, played by Justine Bateman, was primarily focused on fashion and boys; while Tina Yothers played the adorable little Jennifer.

Much of the tension in the early seasons was between Fox's character as a young Republican and his hippie parents. The political nature of the show is not something Baxter thinks would work in today's hostile political climate. "I don't see how you could have it," Baxter said, "because the divide given the positions of the people, of the family at the time, if you just take that to their natural corners, I don't think there would be anything to come together on, you know, because it's so, the political landscape is so ugly today."

Gross had a more optimistic view: "On the other hand, you could argue that it might be a healing experience to see somebody who can settle some of their differences in that way." Gross continued, "What I think was important about the show is we did deal with politics, but was a kinder, gentler politics. The Reagan years were different than these years now. People were not mortal enemies if they disagreed with each other. And I think that was one of the nicest things about the show is that … we could disagree with our children and not send them up to bed without supper."

Alex P. Keaton at the dinner table with his parents, Steven and Elyse.
Alex P. Keaton at the dinner table with his parents, Steven and Elyse. (Photo: Paramount TV)

Although, Steven and Elyse probably wouldn't have sent the Keaton kids to bed without supper anyway, because as they put it, they were very lenient on-screen parents. Asked how their parenting styles in real life differed from the Keatons, Baxter replied, "Well, Steven and Elyse had very good writers … I didn't. I had to write my own material and it didn't always pass mustard, but, you know, it worked OK. I think Elise was far more lenient than I would be."

Gross felt the same way, and apparently so did his real-life kids. "I was certainly more lenient on screen," Gross said. "I mean, there was one occasion, at least one occasion where my own children said, 'Why can't you be as nice as that father on television?"

The show wrapped in 1989, with Alex moving to New York to pursue a job at a big-time Wall Street investment firm. The finale was well-received, and the cast, writers and producers were so happy with it that the idea of a reunion show was never even considered. "The feeling from the producers and the cast alike, in some ways, was we're ending on such a good note. We're at a high point. It's like, you couldn't go back home again," Gross explained.

I used to think Family Ties was a rather stupidly generic title until the more I thought about it, we have so many differences, and yet there are these ties that keep holding us together in spite of our differences.Michael Gross

Since there is never going to be a reunion, we had to know what Baxter and Gross imagine their characters would be up to these days. "Dribbling down my chin," he joked. "I can see Steven possibly volunteering somewhere. Presuming he's in good health and has the energy. I could see him trying to give something back to the community." Meanwhile, Baxter said she'd like to think Elyse would be working for Planned Parenthood.

As the years have gone by, Family Ties has perhaps become best known as the show that launched Michael J. Fox's career. But the show sought to be a comedic reflection of families across America and ultimately how differences could be overcome with love and compassion — a welcome, if quaint, message four decades later where politics can drive a wedge between families and friends around the country.

Gross's view of the show has changed with the times. "I used to think Family Ties was a rather stupidly generic title until the more I thought about it, we have so many differences, and yet there are these ties that keep holding us together in spite of our differences. And so I grew to like the title."

In the words of Elyse's dad, as he stands outside the jail cell holding Steven and Elyse following their arrest at a protest, "I might not agree with everything you have to say, but what kind of an American would I be if I didn't support your right to say it?"

Every season of Family Ties is streaming now on Paramount+.

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