Something to Behold
Thirty years ago, ABC’s thirtysomething started spying on the lives of baby boomers, dividing audiences between delight and distress. Though it ended after four seasons, its influence endures.
ABC Photo Archives/ABC Via Getty Images
Baby boomers have long been accused of considering themselves special.
That may be due, in part, to the very special nature of the first primetime drama to dissect that generation: ABC’s thirtysomething.
At its premiere 30 years ago, the series hit a nerve. Loved by some, loathed by others, it laid bare the ambivalence about marriage and the passionate sexuality of a group of introspective friends living in Philadelphia. At the same time, it delved into the dilemmas of daily life for these seven men and women in their 30s struggling to cope with adult responsibilities.
Created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, thirtysomething stood out from the plot-driven cop and lawyer dramas so popular at the time.
Its episodes were based on nuance and psychological exploration rather than plot. And while emotional intimacy was key, thirtysomething also sought to represent the characters’ physical intimacy via sometimes-daring (for the era) sexual scenes. It also tackled tough issues with stories about cancer, sudden death and gay sex during the AIDS crisis.
Herskovitz and Zwick aimed to bring a feature-film sensibility to the show. That approach to writing, cinematography and directing was, for the most part, new to hour-long dramas. For their accomplishments, thirtysomething, and its cast and crew, were awarded 13 Emmys — including outstanding drama series in 1988 — and 29 other Emmy nominations during its four-season run, from September 1987 to May 1991.
To many, the series was appointment television. Tuesday-night viewing parties were not uncommon. But others disliked the show for spotlighting what they dismissed as materialistic, self-absorbed navel-gazing yuppies.
In the first season, especially, critics had it in for the show, calling it little more than a soap opera about whiny brats unappreciative of their good fortune. Some contended that the show ignored feminism and advances of the women’s movement while favoring, if not glorifying, homemaking.
Though thirtysomething boasted a large ensemble cast, it focused mainly on two married couples with children: Ken Olin played Michael Steadman, an ad man wracked with conflicts and self-doubt. Critics branded him “The King of Whine.” Mel Harris was his wife Hope, a journalist who had temporarily morphed into a stay-at-home mom.
Patricia Wettig and Timothy Busfield portrayed Nancy and Elliot Weston, suffering through an unstable marriage, divorce and reconciliation. Off camera, Olin and Wettig are husband and wife, married since 1982.
Balancing out the wedded characters were three singletons: Melanie Mayron was Melissa Steadman, Michael’s photographer cousin; Polly Draper played Ellyn Warren, who worked at City Hall; and Peter Horton was Gary Shepherd, Michael’s college buddy, now a womanizing professor.
Much of the serialized show focused on the relationship between Michael and Elliot, partners in an advertising business who later took jobs at a large agency headed by the ruthless Miles Drentell, played by David Clennon.
Seeking above all to depict a truthful dynamic among the characters via strong writing, acting and directing, the series expanded the boundaries of TV drama. Its influence can be seen even in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends, the latter dubbed “the funny thirtysomething.”
Partners Herskovitz and Zwick were in their 30s themselves when the show premiered, as were the main cast members and most of the writing and production crew.
The creators encouraged their actors to collaborate with core writers Joseph Dougherty, Richard Kramer, Ann Lewis Hamilton, Winnie Holzman, Susan Shilliday and Liberty Godshall. In fact, the writing staff industriously mined the actors’ lives for personal experiences, which often wound up in their scripts.
Zwick and Herskovitz also helped the cast and writers step up to direct some of the episodes, a significant move for Olin and Horton, who largely left acting for directing after the series wrapped.
The show ended, in part, because Herskovitz and Zwick decided to move ahead with other projects; ratings had also fallen. Emmy contributor Jane Wollman Rusoff recently interviewed the show’s creators, cast and crew about their memories of what made the groundbreaking drama tick — and click.
MARSHALL HERSKOVITZ (co-creator, executive producer, director, writer): We were the most reluctant brides to do a television show. We wanted to do movies. But we had a deal at MGM Television to try to sell a series. So we decided to come up with an idea that could never possibly sell, but if it did, we wouldn’t mind doing it.
I told Ed: “Our generation — baby boomers — isn’t really represented on television. Why don’t we do a show about the stories of people in their 30s that we know?” Ed was doubtful. But he, his [writer] wife Liberty [Godshall] and I immediately thought of half a dozen stories of people we knew. We put together a document expressing how we felt, created seven characters and went into ABC.
They loved it. But Ed and I were 100 percent certain the show would fail.
EDWARD ZWICK (co-creator, executive producer, director, writer): ABC wasn’t doing particularly well at that moment, and dramas were the purview of franchises about policemen, firemen, lawyers and detectives. So our show was a radical idea. I think the network did it because they didn’t know what else to do, and a lot of other things weren’t working.
TIMOTHY BUSFIELD (played Elliot Weston, also directed): Ed and Marshall didn’t care whether the show got made. With each episode, they were almost looking to get fired.
SCOTT WINANT (supervising producer, producer, director): We showed the pilot at Preview House in front of an audience who turned dials to indicate what they liked or didn’t like. We couldn’t have tested worse. As we got in the elevator to leave with Brandon Stoddard, the president of ABC Entertainment, Marshall, Ed and I were devastated. But Brandon said, “I don’t care. I like the show. I’m putting it on.”
ZWICK: We were intent on breaking the metronomic patterns of how television shows were constructed.
HERSKOVITZ: Film was our frame of reference, not just cinematic techniques in camera and lighting, but also how films are written and directed. The idea that the main characters weren’t heroic was unheard of on television in those days.
KEN OLIN (played Michael Steadman, directed): Psychoanalysis was clearly a central component. Sexuality was very much at the core — its exploration and impact on relationships. The show was about the period where you transition from youth into adulthood and what that takes.
JOSEPH DOUGHERTY (writer, director): I thought that basically what we were doing was drama that people laughed at. The show was divided into: how do you deal with your family and friends, and how do you deal with your work and remain a human being on both sides of the equation? It was the Ed-and-Marshall-earn-as-you-learn film school.
WINANT: It was a serialized type of show, but each episode had a thematic core and was written by a single writer with a singular vision.
PETER HORTON (played Gary Shepherd, directed): Ed and Marshall came out of the gate blazing. They decided they were going to push the envelope left and right with stuff that had never been done on television. We did Hitchcock- and Rashomon -inspired episodes early on. The approach was that for every episode, they would hire directors who would bring their own look and feel.
HERSKOVITZ: With the Rashomon episode, which was the second one we did in the first season, the network was concerned. They said it was very dark, literally and figuratively, and that it was relentlessly sad. They asked me: “Is there anything you want to do about that?” I said: “I don’t think there is.” “Okay,” they said. And that was the end of that.
HERSKOVITZ: Our characters were old hippies, old radicals, who had protested the war in Vietnam. Their policies clearly were very liberal. A lot of people said the show was about a bunch of yuppies. But we took great pains to [demonstrate] that these characters didn’t have a lot of money.
MEL HARRIS (played Hope Steadman, directed): I auditioned in L.A., and they spent the next month looking at everyone in skirts between L.A., New York and Chicago. I threw my audition material in the trash can on my way out. Then I got a call back.
HERSKOVITZ: When Ken [Olin] came in, he read beautifully — but he was just too handsome to play Michael. So we kept looking at other people. Finally we said, “We’re being idiots. I guess we’re going to have to have a leading man who’s really handsome.”
PATRICIA WETTIG (played Nancy Weston): Ed and Marshall told me that in the first year, Nancy’s husband would be having an affair and that the Westons would separate. They said, “This is as low as your character can go in terms of self-esteem, but we’ll redeem her.” My mom would call me: “Everybody on television is more confident than you. Get your hair done better!”
HORTON: I really wanted to direct and stop acting. So I turned down the role of Gary three times. Ultimately, Ed and Marshall said, “The show is never going to go. But if it does, we’ll kill you off after four years.” We made that agreement.
Gary was described in the script as a Peter Pan–ish professor who had trouble stepping into adulthood. The first day we had a relaxation acting exercise in a warehouse. We lay down on the floor and then sat up in character. Ed and Marshall came around asking questions. Ed asked, “So, Gary, how many of your students have you slept with?” I went, “None.” He said, “Oh, Lord, we have work to do!”
MELANIE MAYRON (played Melissa Steadman, directed): My character was a single freelance photographer who represented all the people who hadn’t sold out to build a career. She was a survivor who followed her passion.
PATRICIA KALEMBER (played Susannah Hart, Gary’s girlfriend): When I was hired, I was pregnant with my second child, so I spent the first season covering it up. Then, when my character got pregnant, I had to wear a pregnancy suit! Patty Heaton played my obstetrician when I gave birth.
PATRICIA HEATON (played Dr. Silverman): For the audition, I bought some fake glasses so I would look like a doctor. I had to ask how to pronounce “Pitocin.” My own gynecologist was very matter-of-fact, so that’s the way I played it — very straightforward and kind of cold.
DAVID CLENNON (played Miles Drentell): Miles was intimidating. He brought a little danger into the lives of the main characters. He rattled everybody’s cage, particularly Michael’s and Elliot’s. But Miles had more power when people were talking about him than if he were in every episode as the boogeyman.
HORTON: The star of the show wasn’t any of the cast members. It was the writing.
WINNIE HOLZMAN (writer): We didn’t have a writers’ room. Each writer would sit with Ed and Marshall and talk about an idea the two of them felt would be good for that writer.
RICHARD KRAMER (writer, producer, director): One of the things that was scary was that I was working under two people, Ed and Marshall, who were my close friends. Now they were my bosses. I struggled with that a little at the beginning, but then it got to be fine.
ANN LEWIS HAMILTON (writer, director): We worked very closely with the actors. Ed and Marshall didn’t care where we wrote the episodes — you could write them at home, in the office, in your car, in a different country, on the moon — as long as the scripts came in when they were due.
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
KRAMER: The biggest challenge was to accept the permission Ed and Marshall gave us to see our own lives as valid sources of drama.
BUSFIELD: Ed and Marshall asked me, “What were your mom and dad like?” I said, “She was an alcoholic, and my dad wasn’t there a lot.” So, the next episode [was written], and I’m running upstairs going, “You can’t make my mom an alcoholic! My [real] mom is still alive! I’m not telling you guys anything ever again!”
HOLZMAN: Almost everything I thought about was going into those scripts — child-rearing, girlfriends, ex-boyfriends — because I was in my 30s, too, and the connection was so porous. There was no other way to approach writing that show.
HAMILTON: I wrote about my marriage and the birth of my son. In a way, it was like therapy. When I had a miscarriage, Ed, Marshall and I talked about the value of writing through bad stuff. In season two, I wrote the episode in which Hope has a miscarriage. At the end, she and Michael have a big fight. My husband watched the show: “Whoa! That’s the fight we had!” I said, “Yep.”
BUSFIELD: The actors’ mantra on the show was, “Let’s make sure we don’t get caught acting. We have to keep it real.” Ed and Marshall would say, “There’s one moment in a scene that’s more important than all the others — aim for it.”
HERSKOVITZ: In the first season, I decided it would be a good idea for me to play the therapist that Elliot and Nancy go to see. I hadn’t acted since my second year in college. My first scene entailed opening the door and greeting them. I was so nervous that I swung the door open, went six feet past my mark and was unable to say my lines.
HOLZMAN: The show had a lightning-rod quality. When I told [acquaintances] that I wrote for it, they were either thrilled or would corner me and say, “I hate that show and I hate those people.” There was a lot of passion unleashed. It was disturbing to them that it was just certain people’s points of view.
WETTIG: In a bookstore once, the person in front of me turned and said, “I hate your show! You assume you know what people are really thinking.” I said, “Then don’t watch it. Change the channel. Why are you yelling at me ? It’s not my fault!”
BUSFIELD: The first year, the show was reviled at the Television Critics Association press tours. They said, “How can you call yourself a primetime drama? You’re just a soap opera.” They beat on us hard. In year two, the show swung the other way into being this massive hit. We became like a rock band.
OLIN: Some called the show “Skinny White People from Hell.” One criticism was that the characters paid so much attention to superficial things and spent all their time whining. They described the show as “a fine whine.”
HERSKOVITZ: Susan Faludi’s book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, suggested that the show glorified homemakers and scorned single feminists. It was painful for us because we felt it was inaccurate.
HOLZMAN: The show was [largely] about the ambivalence people feel toward their marriages. This was a feminist show to work on. We were all encouraged to take charge and step up.
ZWICK: When we realized that the show was trading on issues of life and death, we knew we had to kill one of the characters.
WETTIG: In the second year, [my character] Nancy was feeling great about herself and dating. As an actress, I was bored out of my mind. I said: “I hope you give me something more interesting to tackle next year!” During hiatus, Marshall said, “What do you think about cancer?” I said, “Great!” because that was good [for an actress] to work on.
HERSKOVITZ: After we started the cancer episodes, the letters we got said, “Please don’t kill Nancy.” It became a cloud in the office: is she going to live, or is she going to die? We asked Peter, “How do you feel about dying?”
He said, “Are you that unhappy with my work?” We said, “We think a character should die, and yours could be the one — that way you’ll be free to do other things.” He had started to direct on the show. He came back to us: “You’re right. It would be good for me to move on.”
MAYRON: When Gary died [in a car crash], it was like a bomb dropped. We were stunned. We didn’t know it was going to happen till the table read.
HORTON: There was one scene in the episode in which my character is killed, when Michael had to identify my body. They shot that in an actual morgue. I’m in dead man makeup in a body bag in a morgue drawer. They zipped me up and shut the drawer. I was thinking, “Oh, my God! Is this a preview of what my own death is going to be like?”
HERSKOVITZ: We had an episode [“Strangers”] with two gay men in bed. We wanted to show them kissing, but the network said we couldn’t. A bunch of sponsors pulled out. After the show aired, we got a lot of letters. It made me very sad. They said: “I feel so betrayed that you would put such filth on your show.”
DAVID MARSHALL GRANT (played Russell Weller): I had a certain amount of trepidation doing “Strangers,” because at the time I was a closeted gay actor. It certainly was a risky thing to do. But I’d played gay parts before. I was on the gay list.
Peter Frechette [Peter Montefiore] — I suggested he play my character’s boyfriend — he and I had worked together before. I very much remember the rules of engagement when I arrived on set that morning. In the scene, we couldn’t touch or snuggle. We could be under the covers seemingly naked, because our shirts were off, but we had to stay on opposite sides of the bed. There needed to be space between us.
CLENNON: The show’s most daring move was to produce the episode “A Stop at Willoughby” [an homage to a Twilight Zone episode]. It made the point that military propaganda and advertising are two sides of the same coin. That had to have made the show’s advertisers uncomfortable.
I have very ambivalent feelings about the episode in which my character assaulted Melissa. It was out of character for him to do that. He uses his physical strength to try to control her as he makes advances. She resists, and he gets up. I don’t think I played the scene well because my heart wasn’t in it, and I liked Melanie so much.
HERSKOVITZ: With the pilot, we got a call from Standards & Practices saying, “We have a problem with SBE.” I said, “What’s that?” They said, “Side breast exposure.” I burst out laughing: “You’re joking.” The person said, “No, you can’t have SBE.” So, a tiny sliver of the side of Mel Harris’s breast had to be cut out before they would air the show.
WETTIG: They would say silly things, like if you were showing underwear, you had to wear socks or a shirt so it didn’t look racy.
WINANT: Although the network was very supportive, we always got pushback, mostly because they didn’t understand what Ed and Marshall were trying to do. But Ed and Marshall didn’t really care, and that gave them tremendous power.
In one episode, Gary was on the way to Michael and Hope’s house with his girlfriend, who was teasing him: “I bet you think you can make me come.” That line was unacceptable to the network. But we all felt it should stay in, and we left it in. The night the show aired, we saw part of the scene had been cut. Marshall and Ed were very angry.
HOLZMAN: I wrote that line. You could use “come” only as in, “Come into my living room.” You couldn’t say “orgasm” either. I was so frustrated. The game became trying to go over S&P’s heads: you would put in a number of things that they were going to object to, and sneak in the one thing you really cared about.
BUSFIELD: “Strangers” had a scene of Elliot masturbating in the shower. When the network saw the script, they said, “You can’t have two guys kissing, and you have to lose the masturbation scene, too.” Ed and Marshall were just using the latter as leverage. They never shot it. But the network also said that we couldn’t show two men kissing.
DOUGHERTY: In the second season, Michael and Elliot had a big fight. I wrote that Elliot calls Michael a son of a bitch. But the network wouldn’t let him say son of a bitch. So poor Tim had to say bastard, which isn’t the same thing at all.
MAYRON: We laughed a lot. It was always like a party. They would have trouble quieting us down to focus on the scene. When there were dinner scenes in a living room and the seven of us were together, waiting for them to light the set, we’d always want to catch up on one another’s lives. When they were ready to shoot, the director would say, “Come on now!”
HARRIS: We were a huge family in the sense of cousins at a reunion.
KALEMBER: My kids would come on set and eat donuts.
DOUGHERTY: There was a tremendous amount of noise and concern from the studio and network about ending the show at only 85 episodes. They put on a great deal of pressure to keep it going at least till it hit 100. But Ed and Marshall didn’t seem to be interested in that.
HERSKOVITZ: We asked the network to end the show. We also felt we’d said everything we needed to about those characters. We thought that if we did another season, we’d be repeating ourselves. We felt it was time to go.
HORTON: There was a lot of talk about ending the show, not because it wasn’t successful but because we were all young and foolish and restless. But it was a sad moment when it did end.
WETTIG: After four years, it was like, “Okay, let’s go and do another great job.” But we found that great jobs like that don’t come along that often.
HARRIS: To this day, I remember exactly how the Steadman house was laid out. I’m very often at the studio where the show was shot, and I can remember where my parking space was. I remember the crew. I spent four years there full-time, nonstop. It was wonderful, a very special experience in my life.
For more on thirtysomething, check out thirtysomething at thirty: an oral history by Scott Ryan, a new book from Bear Manor Media. Click here.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017