What Was Michael J. Fox’s “Revenge” Against Brandon Tartikoff For Tartikoff’s Original Hesitance to Cast Fox in Family Ties?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Michael J. Fox had a clever “revenge” for Brandon Tartikoff’s early doubts about whether Fox would be popular enough to star in a regular TV series.

The original actor cast in the role of Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties was Matthew Broderick, but Broderick ended up backing out of the show. You can only imagine how much that irked show creator Gary David Goldberg. It was pretty clear, even then, that Broderick was going to be something special, so the idea of having him and then NOT having him was pretty rough, and Goldberg seemingly took his frustration out on the hundreds of young men who auditioned to take Broderick’s place.

Eventually, though, his writers and co-producer had him take a second look at one of the actors that had auditioned before they had cast Broderick in the first place, Michael J. Fox.

This time, Goldberg was converted.

However, he had to sell the idea to the network, particularly NBC Head of Entertainment Programming, Brandon Tartikoff. Before the pilot was even filmed, Tartikoff took issue with Fox’s height. He felt he was too short for the role of the son of Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney. However, he let Goldberg have his way for now.

Once the pilot was filmed, though, NBC loved the show itself, but Tartikoff, once again, tried to have Fox replaced. This time, his argument (in response to Goldberg’s argument that Fox was quite good) was “Maybe, but this is not the kind of face that you’ll ever see on a lunchbox.”

Eventually, though, Tartikoff relented and let Goldberg have his way.

And, of course, Family Ties was a big hit and Fox, in particular, became a star.

Tartikoff was friendly with Fox, and he told Fox about his earlier issues with his casting (Fox obviously had a general idea that Tartikoff did not want him on the show, but Tartikoff told him his specific objections).

Well, a couple of years passed, and Fox (now perhaps at the height of his popularity) starred in the major motion picture Back to the Future (once again replacing a notable 1980s’ teen actor, Eric Stoltz).

The movie was a gigantic smash hit, and, naturally enough, they made, you guessed it, lunch boxes for the film. So Fox had some fun with that fact…

As I mentioned, the pair had become friends, so they’d often meet up for lunch. At one of these lunches, following the success of Back to the Future, Fox presented Tartikoff with a custom-made lunch box. On the cover of the lunch box was a picture of Michael J. Fox’s smiling face. The box was inscribed:

“To Brandon: This is for you to put your crow in. Love and Kisses, Michael J. Fox.”

Tartikoff kept the box in his office for the rest of his career in television.

Great story, no?

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Michael J. Fox’s Lucky Man: A Memoir for the information!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

5 Responses to “What Was Michael J. Fox’s “Revenge” Against Brandon Tartikoff For Tartikoff’s Original Hesitance to Cast Fox in Family Ties?”

  1. Wasn’t Fox always the first choice for Back to the Future? I thought they only started filming with Stoltz because Fox was unavailable.

  2. Yes, Fox was the original choice. They studio forced them to use stoltz under the provision that if it didn’t work, they could start over. Which is what happened. According to several sources they had completed at least 60% of the movie before they started over. Listening to the guy who played Biff, he seemed to imply it was even more of the film that had been completed. I swear you can see Eric Stoltz blurry head in the back ground of the café scene in the 50s.

  3. Seems like I remember reading that Stoltz was playing the role too seriously, and sort of dug in his heels and refused to make it lighter.

  4. Great story, Brian. Some of Stoltz’s footage (a lot less than what I was led to believe) can be seen in the extras on the Blu-Ray of “BTTF”. Fox did both “Family Ties” and “BTTF” simultaneously, working on the TV show during the day,and the movie at night. He slept whenever he could find the time. I had heard years ago that Stoltz filmed up to 75% of “BTTF” before he was let go. IIRC, Fox came in during March, 1985; the movie was locked in for a 7/1/85 release date.

  5. Thomas Wilson, the Biff actor actually said that though the producers deny it, he swears when Marty punches him in one scene, it’s Stoltz’s fist.

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