Like so many other American families in the 1980s, ours fell in love with Michael J. Fox the minute he took up the role of Alex P. Keaton on "Family Ties," one of those classic TV sitcoms that grew better with each season. If anyone was born to play a part, it was Fox; the role fit him like a second skin and he fleshed the character out without hitting a single wrong note. The whole cast was expert -- though Fox did shine -- and together they raised commercial entertainment to a level of near perfection that is its own brand of art.
What is most interesting to discover from Gary David Goldberg's memoir, Sit, Ubu, Sit, published by Harmony Books, is that Fox almost didn't get the job. Goldberg, the creator of "Family Ties" and a string of other TV winners, almost passed on Keaton after the struggling actor read for the role; if it hadn't been for Judith Weiner, the show's casting director, it might never have come about.
The minute Fox left the room, Weiner told Goldberg he was making a terrible mistake, and that he should call the young actor back immediately.
" 'He's not the guy, Judith.'
" 'Yes, he is. He's wonderful.'
" 'He's OK.'
" 'He's wonderful. And, he is absolutely the best actor for this part. There's no one else who's even close.'
" 'Look, Judith, I created the character of Alex Keaton, I think I might have some small idea of who should play him, and it's not Michael J. Fox. ... Can I see some other actors, please?' "
Goldberg then went on to audition about a thousand other actors for what would become an iconic '80s role. Luckily -- for Fox, Goldberg and all the rest of us -- Weiner kept prodding the writer/producer.
Finally, her persistence paid off.
"We set up another casting session, and Michael comes in a second time ... .
" 'Anything you want me to tell you about the character?' I offer.
" 'No. Just do it better, right.'
"He smiles sheepishly. ...
"Mike begins to read the scene, and it's immediately obvious, even to me, that he is Alex Keaton. Whatever thought process he went through, whatever adjustments he made, he's fabulous. He's funny, smart, charming, just the right amount of bravado, everything I could have dreamed of, in one very cute package. I thank him for his time, he leaves, I turn to Judith Weiner.
" 'This kid's great. Why didn't you tell me about him.' "
And, of course, the rest is history -- as well as the beginning of a great working relationship and a long-term friendship that was not without some significant bumps, all of them detailed in Sit, Ubu, Sit.
This kind of honesty, coupled with a breezy prose style, is what makes Goldberg's book so entertaining. And, even though the time sequence -- which runs from the '70s to the present, with flashbacks to Bensonhurst in the '50s -- is about as fractured as a modernist classic, the book can settle down and be explosively funny.
Talent, Timing and Luck
Let's get the matter of the title over with first. The book's second headline reads How I Went From Brooklyn to Hollywood With the Same Woman, the Same Dog, and a Lot Less Hair. Ubu is the dog, a beloved black Lab, with whom Goldberg and his wife were inseparable throughout their courtship, long relationship and eventual marriage. Ubu then became the mascot for Goldberg's production company, and as every episode of "Family Ties" came to a close, a voice, presumably Goldberg's, would say those immortal words, "Sit, Ubu, Sit," followed by a "woof!" and a "Good dog!"
How Goldberg made it, in his haphazard way, from Bensonhurst through Europe and on to the West Coast, where he literally stumbled into comedy writing -- at all times being accompanied by the same beautiful woman (pictures on the book's flyleaves attest to this) -- is a testament to the mystery of talent, the necessity of timing and the beauties of luck. Goldberg was a distinct child of the '60s who gave his poor, loving father many moments of doubt concerning his future. The eventual writer/producer bounced around a lot, always supported by his loving companion until, almost by chance, he dropped into a writing class at San Diego State and was told he had talent.
Goldberg's success was not only fairly instantaneous but it was extraordinarily lucrative. And that sudden infusion of cash -- for this wandering flower child and his lady love -- caused a number of problems that had to be ironed out and very nearly sank his spectacular relationship to that beautiful woman (the couple eventually had two fine looking daughters as well -- also verifiable on those flyleaves -- though they didn't marry till after they'd been together for 21 years; talk about flower children).
As Goldberg writes of his life in the final pages of the book, "It's been my great good fortune to always be in my proper time. In the '50s, growing up in Brooklyn, I was a sports-crazed, uncomplicated, narrow-minded kid in a world that seemed to value sports-crazed, uncomplicated narrowness.
"In the '60s, as the fabric of society was breaking open, I was right there at the heart of it in Greenwich Village. And then later on in Berkeley. And I didn't leave much on the table untested or untried. It would be easier to start with a list of things I didn't do.
"I also began, at that time, to expand my own ideas about friendship and tolerance. About what it is to be a man. To be a woman. To be a family.
"The '70s were about starting our own family. And we did.
"The '80s were about making money. And we made a lot.
"The '90s were about giving it back. And we've tried our hardest.
"And now we're waiting fort the '00s to reveal their purpose to us."
For those of us approaching our 60s right about now -- or already in them, as is the case with Goldberg -- this is a fairly typical story, well-told here.
Now about those explosively funny scenes. As you may have guessed already, Diana Goldberg is not Jewish (this was also a fairly common theme in the life story of numerous Jewish boys who came of age in the 1960s). So when, as a pre-graduation present for Diana, Goldberg's grandmother sent the couple plane tickets to visit the various family members who'd settled in Florida, Goldberg decided he had to get some things off his chest.
"As we're banking into the airport at West Palm Beach, as [Diana is] mere moments away from meeting my family for the first time, I look over at my beautiful life partner. Daughter of a rocket scientist, grew up in New Mexico, Colorado, California, convent-trained, about to receive her master's degree, going on to get her Ph.D. I put my hand on her knee.
" 'Nothing in your life has prepared you for what you are about to see.' "
I don't want to spoil any of what lies ahead for readers lucky enough to make their way to Sit, Ubu, Sit, but take it from me, anybody raised in a Jewish home will recognize the normal abnormalities that proliferate among Goldberg's relatives. These dozen or so raucous pages are alone worth the price of the book.