I always thought Family Ties was a fun show. I admired the many talents of its star, Michael J. Fox, who played the program's central character, wiz-kid, Alex P. Keaton. During the sitcom's genesis, Fox was not envisioned as its focal point. The series was intended as a star vehicle for Meredith Baxter-Birney, who played Fox's mother, Elyse, and who had previously starred with her husband David Birney in Bridget Loves Bernie (the controversial CBS series from 1973 about a Catholic woman who marries a Jewish man and which, unfortunately, was canceled after a few episodes).
When Fox auditioned for Ties, then-NBC entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff, who passed away in the early 1990s, labeled the actor as "too cocky," and originally cast another young thespian in the role. Tartikoff was later encouraged to run with Fox and, once Ties hit its stride, Baxter-Birney's talents were heavily outweighed.
The Keaton family, with Fox and Baxter-Birney in place, along with Justine Bateman (as Mallory, Alex's sister), Tina Yothers (Jennifer, the youngest sibling), and Michael Gross (Steve, the father), was now in for a visit from beyond the fourth wall.
Here's how it all went down:
In October of 1983, I was standing in line for a Ties ticket, outside Paramount Studios on the trendy Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, CA. I made the cut for a seat inside (which doesn't always happen), and was excited about the initial prospect of watching an episode of a TV sitcom being filmed, or in this case, taped.
For years before, I had listened to the familiar on-air announcements:
"All in the Family was videotaped before a live audience."
"Laverne and Shirley was filmed before a live audience."
"Happy Days was filmed before a live audience" (at least in the show's later years after it destroyed its initial focus and the quaint appeal of the Cunningham family - and started to concentrate on the obnoxious involvement of Fonzie, played by the Emmy-winning and awesome Henry Winkler, who I later encounter at NBC's rear-lobby).
I was prepped, perched, and psyched to view in person the Ties episode, which I soon learned involved Mallory's first day of college, and the intellectual Alex offering her moral support. The segment was a fine outing, as both Bateman and Fox were in top form. Justine Bateman, I might add (and I just did) is sister to Jason Bateman, who was then battling for screen time with pre-tween Ricky Schroder on NBC's Silver Spoons (and who today is also known as one of the stars of the now-canceled cult favorite Arrested Development - which aired on FOX - the network, not Fox, the Ties star).
But it's the interplay between Fox (the Ties star and not the network) and Bateman (the sister, and not the brother) in between takes, that proved more entertaining. Both actors were impressed enough with their talents to offer one another several pats on the back - literally. What's more, Fox, in between hugs, traveled several times off-stage to either study lines or visit the men's room with a severe case of... well, I'll leave that up to your imagination.
Yet it was outside the studio, in the parking lot - following the Ties taping - when the pace really increased. Well, my pace anyway - because that's when I started walking to my car, and first took serious notice of the surrounding Pages assigned to assist the audience. When I was in line beforehand, I guess I didn't give too much thought to the Guest Relations Representatives. I was merely excited just to be in the Ties line and, as I said, to have made the cut to see any show, let alone such a great series like Ties (which would go on to become one of the small screen's biggest sitcom classics).
Once outside, following the afterglow of viewing a TV sitcom in person, my mind was somewhat settled. I was able to focus on other things - like applying for a position as an NBC Page. "Now that would be a great job to have," I thought.
Little did I know that in moments I would meet someone very influential who would seal such a destiny, pave the way for my dream to come true - or at least, take the time out of his very busy life to talk to me. That's right - once I made it back to the parking lot at Paramount Studios, I met Family Ties creator and producer Gary David Goldberg, and actually had a conversation with him. "You have a great show there, Mr. Goldberg," I said (as if he needed to hear that personal review from me).
"Well, thank you," he replied in kind.
"This has to mean something," I began to think to myself. "Why would this big-time TV guy actually respond to one of my oh-so-cool-and-casual comments if it didn't somehow mean something? Did it mean that I was destined to be a party to this crazy magic called Hollywood? Oh, give me a sign, God! Give me a sign!"
As I was more or less in the process of becoming mentally unstable, a nametag on some random Page-dude walking by would have to suffice (as a sign). "Excuse me," I said to this young man, who stopped to humor me. "Mr…uhm…Smith" is it?
"That's right," he replied. "But you can call me Horris."
"Oh, okay…uhm…Horris," I said. "Well, I would like to do what you're doing. But how would I go about….uhm…doing that?"
"It doesn't pay anything," Horris continued with mild exasperation, as though he heard the question a million times (which he probably did). "The hours suck, and the work isn't filled with all the glamour that you'd might expect."
"I'm sure it won't be easy," I responded, "but as you can see, I'm very, very willing to give it a shot."
Horris took a moment to assess the eager sanctioned one before him and then, with a measure of caution, inquired, "Okay…Do you have a piece of paper?"
"Good. Call Eba Hawkins at NBC. She's the Director of Guest Relations..."
"You mean, Pages?"
"Yes…Pages. Her secretary's name is Karen Powers. She's a real nice person. Tell her you spoke with me, and that you would like to set up a general interview to become a page."
"Eba Hawkins. Karen Powers. General interview. Got it. I mean I didn't get it yet," I giggled like a fool. "I mean, got it as in I understand."
Horris didn't really care if I understood anything because, by this time, he just wanted me to shut up. Unfortunately, for him, I babbled on. "Thanks a lot, Mr. Smith. I mean, Horris. I appreciate it. I really, really do."
"Yeah - well, okay," Horris said, as he walked away with a feeling that he may have just made a complete mistake in the offering of exclusive inside information.
No matter. I screamed "Yes!" and proceeded to do one of those silly air jumps that people do after a positive accomplishment. My foot was in the door. Yet, unbeknownst to me, there were hundreds of other doors out there, accompanied by at least as many feet. So did I instead just insert my foot into my mouth?
I found out the answer two weeks later following a telephone call to Ms. Powers, and a subsequent interview with Ms. Hawkins. Hawkins was cordial but intimidating. She was tall, had big hair, a raspy voice, and reminded me of a latter-day Lucille Ball. Despite it all, the meeting went well, and Eba seemed to like me. Though that was my perception, she didn't make said observations abundantly or urgently clear.
I waited another few weeks for a response but heard nothing. Easter was around the corner, so I took off to Phoenix to visit relatives that weekend. Upon my return to Los Angeles on Monday morning, and just as I walked in my apartment door, the phone rang.
"Herbie J Pilato, please."
"This is he."
"Herbie J - this is NBC. How would you like to start your job as a Page on Monday?"
"I'll be there," I replied, echoing the network's aforementioned then-popular slogan.
And thus began my career as an NBC Page in, as iconic Tonight Show host Johnny Carson used to say, "beautiful downtown Burbank" , California.