I was nearing the end of what I believed to have been one of my most profound parental lectures. A true teaching moment between myself and my then 11 year old daughter Shana. One she would remember forever. Perhaps passing on its wisdom one day to her own children. That time when her dad successfully linked together two of the seminal thoughts at the core of his personal philosophy: “It’s not the size of the man in the fight. But, the size of the fight in the man.” Elegantly linked with the equally profound, “When the going gets tough the tough get going.” I was about to explain how “you learn more about citizenship on the one yard line than in all the civics classes that you’ll every take” when Shana raised her hand and tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn.
“You know, dad, not everything in life can be reduced to a sports-metaphor.”
I thought about that for a moment. And, then replied: “Yes, it can.”
Perhaps this deeply held belief is an attempt to justify the thousands of hours I put in, in dank lonely gymnasiums – a hundred dribbles with the right hand, a hundred dribbles with the left. No going home until you sank ten foul shots in a row, some nights it seeming like I’d have to sleep there. Or, an attempt to justify the painful wind sprints at the end of baseball practice. 100 yards, then ninety, then eighty ‘til everyone in sight was throwing up including people on the sidewalk who just happened to be walking by.
But, as March Madness overtakes my life once again. And, I thank God for my assistant Heather, who remembered to order the full package of mega-madness games for me on Direct TV. As I watch little Belmont take mighty Duke down to the final second. And, Davidson slay Georgetown. I am reminded anew of the wisdom of my sermon. And the straight line that connects a successful sports team to a successful television show.
I’ve played on good teams where we would be down 4 with 30 seconds to play and in the huddle everybody would be thinking, “I wonder who’s going to step up today and save us?” And, somebody would.
I’ve also been on bad teams where we’d be up 11 with 3 minutes to go and we’d all be secretly thinking, “I wonder how we’re going to find a way to screw this up?” And, we would always find a way.
A good team, like a good show, comes into being when the separate individuals working together create, in essence, another separate higher entity – the team – the show – which is better than any of those individuals can ever be on their own.
“Family Ties” was a very successful situation comedy. And, in almost every respect it functioned on a day to day basis like a well-run, well conditioned basketball team.
The show was performed live each week in front of a studio audience on Friday night. That was our big game. Everything we did during the week at rehearsal, our practice, was designed to get the cast, our team, in a position to perform successfully during that big game on Friday night.
We began our work week Monday morning at 9am with the table read of that week’s script. If you were late we started without you. When you arrived we didn’t make you run laps but you had to wait for a natural break in the script, a time-out, before you could be inserted into the line-up. A subtle reminder that no one was above the team.
Our rehearsals were closed to studio and network people. Closed to managers and agents. Only the people on the team allowed. That included not only the actors, writers and directors obviously, but, also our crew. Camera operators, dolly grips, craft service. Our family was large. The set was crowded. But, team members only.
We lived and died as a team. At our opening night parties at Chasen’s everyone on the cast and crew list and their families was invited. No above-the-line below-the-line split. Everyone’s children were welcome. Pets if we could sneak them in. It takes a lot of people to make a winning team. Everybody’s contribution is important.
My role in all this corresponded, almost directly, to that of coach and general manager. I hired and fired. I approved salaries and staff positions. And, I was on the court every day at practice trying to find the keys to success. To find the way I could put everyone in a position to get the best performance out of them on Friday night.
I never played well for coaches who yelled and screamed and diminished their players. And, I’ve never seen anyone play better because they were scared. I did best under coaches who were even tempered. Well prepared. Good teachers who were also willing to listen. And, learn from their players
After each run-thru we would all sit around the kitchen table. Cast and crew. Writers and directors. And, the first question I would always ask the actors was - “What isn’t working for you?” “Where do you feel uncomfortable?” “How can we help?”
I would then explain what we as writers were trying to do – our game plan. Point out where I thought that we had failed. And, where I thought we could still succeed with our original plan if we perhaps just made this or that adjustment. But every actor on our stage knew they would never be asked to say a line they didn’t want to say. On the other hand they knew they could never say to me, “I won’t say that line.”
In front of the audience on Friday night, after a successful scene, I would run out and hug the person who had done the set-up, not necessarily the person who had landed the big joke. The idea being that a laugh on our stage belonged to all of us. That we all had on the same team jacket that said Family Ties. That sometimes you don’t get that laugh all by yourself. Not without a beautiful bounce pass of a set-up from a fellow actor.
Most successful coaches I knew adapted to their players individual styles. And, I tried to emulate that. Mike Fox got ready for the game on Friday night in a much different way than Michael Gross, for instance. Mike Fox liked to dance around what he was going to do in the actual game. Pick his spots on the floor but hold something back. Going at three quarters speed in rehearsal but always focused. (His three quarters being most actors’ personal best.) Not do too much pre-planning. Leave room for the brilliant improvisation of the moment. Mike Fox knew when he was going to dunk. But, not whether it would be a windmill or just a one hand jam.
Michael Gross was more methodical, if no less effective. Two dribbles, stop, turn, off the backboard. Swish. Same way every time. Deadly.
Particular and wonderful chemistries developed on the floor. Meredith and Michael Gross had extraordinary respect and trust in each other out there. The small smile of appreciation on Michael Fox’s face when he received a large soft volleyball of a floating set-up from Justine Bateman, always made me smile. And, Tina Yothers, not to be denied, mastering the back door. Holding her own and then some with this gifted ensemble.
The trust just bred more trust. On and off the court. Crew members became more confident offering up their opinions about everything from scripts to costumes. The actors knew how much we loved them. How much we wanted to win on Friday night. And, we never went off to do a re-write without complete appreciation of how much faith they had in us.
I remember once being on a Wednesday of a show to be shot in 48 hours and the script, still not making very much sense. And, still not being very funny. After our kitchen table talk I saw Mike Fox very relaxed making dinner plans thumbing through Variety. “This script sucks,” I told him. “You don’t seem worried.” He looked up at me and shrugged, “It’s only Wednesday.” In the morning we had a new script. A good one. Mike looked at me, “What’d I tell ya’?”
We played 180 games together over seven years. They weren’t all gems. But, like any good team we always gave it everything we had. And, we learned from our mistakes. And, we got better. And, we also won a lot more than we lost. A lot more.
Awards and accolades flowed for every one of us. Emmys for acting, writing, for our camera crew. Salary increases. Security. Financial and career-wise. We would always be those “guys” who were on that winning team. And, that good feeling and good will has stayed with us.
When my book came out in February everyone in the cast came to New York to be with me for a wonderful reunion on The Today Show. It was the first time we’d all been together in almost 20 years and it was heartfelt and very emotional. Watching Michael Fox show pictures of his 4 kids to Tina Yothers showing pictures of her 2 kids to Michael and Justine showing pictures of her 2 kids to Tina and Michael is one of the enduring moments of my life. As we were hugging our goodbyes Mike Fox laughed at me and smiled. “Check your Amazon numbers in the morning.” I did. My book had gone up about 1000 places. My team came through again.
At the end of the seven years “Family Ties” voluntarily went off the air. And, we went off as the #1 show on TV that week. We cut down the nets on stage 24 and moved on with the rest of our lives. Always to carry with us the blessing of what we had gone through together. What we had achieved. As a team. And, we went out with a “W,” which was only right.