'Thirtysomething': Confidential

The real-life angst and ecstasy behind TV's most serious series

Mel Harris and Ken Olin as Hope and Michael Steadman in 'Thirtysomething.' Credit: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

The Steadman house has no roof. That could explain a great deal. Rooflessness has a way of inspiring a certain, um, anxiety in people. As it happens, this particular roofless house is the exposed nerve center of thirtysomething, perhaps the most equally acclaimed and despised television series ever created. It is a drafty old barn in which every possible feeling of generational ambivalence and inadequacy comes home to roost. All oaken wainscoting and chipped paint, this ersatz turn-of-the-century relic has been hammered together inside a sound stage on the CBS-MTM lot in Studio City, California. If these walls could talk, they would probably stammer, maunder, hedge and occasionally make cunning allusions to Beowulf and Bewitched, not unlike the prime-time characters who dwell within them.

This is the home of Michael Steadman, encumbered adman, husband and father, in whose world none of life's twitches and tics go unexamined. "Why do I feel so terrible?" he said two years ago in the first episode of thirtysomething, adding, "I know we're lucky." And then: "God, I hate people who talk like this." His is not a solitary universe of pain and self-consciousness; a gang of regulars constantly drops by to compare bruised psyches and see what's in the fridge. ("My life is so … empty and — say, what's this brown stuff?") Nothing much happens here. Teensy moments and little dramas inform their lives. In the neuro-sphere of thirtysomething, no minutia is too minute to explore. Even for the actors, writers and producers, the routine of everyday existence is where the action is.

* * *

Thirtysomething t-shirt legend: "Reality Is An Acquired Taste."

* * *

Ken Olin is fretting. He's directing a scene, and like Michael Steadman, whom he portrays, he is beleaguered by jittery self-doubt. (This may be because he has never directed before.) At the moment, he is orchestrating a kitchen-klatch Kabuki whose participants include three of the four principal women players. They are Mel Harris, who plays Hope Steadman, Michael's winsome wife and the mother of toddler Janey; Polly Draper, who plays Ellyn Warren, Hope's best friend; and Patricia Wettig (the real Mrs. Ken Olin), who plays Nancy Weston, the estranged wife of Michael's former business partner, Elliot. In this scene, the women are discussing their fathers.

"This is gonna be great, you guys," Olin tells the actresses before each take, usually adding, "only faster this time. Faster, faster, faster." During one take, while Polly Draper executes the requisite move of peeking into the refrigerator, Olin says, "Polly, make your body look a little more normal." She frowns at this, as is a woman's wont. "Okay," he says again and again, "can we take twenty seconds off this, please?" Feminine grumbling can be heard after the seventh try.

"All I need is all three of you mad at me," Olin says, worried.

"If we get mad at you," says Mel Harris, "your ship is sunk, buddy."

* * *

Olin vérité, discoursing on the cultural phenomenon that is his job:

"I guess this is true of most … Um, when you do a series or something and the issues… It's funny…. I mean… the issues, sort of… I don't know…. Like, what are you interested in knowing about? Are there things that you really want to know about? I mean, like, what's Mel Harris really like? What do Patti and I do when we're home? Do people really care?"

* * *

What Olin and Wettig do when they're not at home: They find each other. Spouses have worked together on television before, but usually as spouses. Olin, previously Lieutenant Garibaldi on Hill Street Blues, and Wettig, a minor St. Elsewhere alum, are in fact married on thirtysomething, only to other people. Although they perform few scenes together, one is invariably nearby whenever the other works. If the camera is not rolling, they gravitate toward each other. They wander into dark corners together, or else step outside, always with their heads very close together. They talk with quiet intensity, listening to the other's concerns, sharing connubial advice and technical observations. At such times, they like being left alone.

* * *

"Socialpath," Mel Harris keeps saying. In the kitchen scene, Hope is supposed to utter the term sociopath. It is not going well. "Write words high-school graduates know, would ya?" Harris moans to Richard Kramer, the show's executive story consultant, who stands beyond camera range. Then she says, "Hey, you need a bitch on the set." A spiky former model, Harris has made her first real splash playing Hope, the placid mother confessor to her quavering peer group. Later, in her trailer, she dissects fiction and reality: "I'm very different than Hope," she says. "We do have similar features: We're both five foot eight, brunette, and have sort of green-brown eyes. But she's nicer, sweeter, more easygoing. I make people toe the line a little bit more. I expect more. Hope gives the benefit of the doubt longer than I do in life."

* * *

Three actresses at the coffee wagon between camera setups, chatting about supermarket tabloids:

Patti Wettig: I heard ABC was actually mad last year because none of us ever made those papers. Well, not mad, but they said, "This is tough; your show doesn't make the National Enquirer."

Mel Harris: [Sighs] Our lives are so normal.

Wettig: But Ken and I made it twice this year, so ABC should be happy.

Polly Draper: What did they say about you?

Wettig: A lot of trash. Jealousy stuff.

Draper: The funniest would be if they got a picture and pasted another girl's face on your body.

Wettig: [Laughs] "Caught With Another Woman!" My grandmother would be happy, 'cause she reads the Enquirer. She tells me that one day I might even be popular enough to do a game show.

* * *

Specifically, thirtywhat? According to the producers, the characters are no less than thirty-three, no more than thirty-five. The actors' ages: Timothy Busfield is thirty-one; Polly Draper, thirty-two; Mel Harris, thirty-two; Peter Horton, thirty-five; Ken Olin, thirty-four; Patti Wettig, thirty-three.

* * *

Michael Steadman's per annum salary:

Mel Harris: I'd say seventy.

Ken Olin: Sixty seems about right.

* * *

What the Steadmans do with disposable income:

Their stereo system is at least a dozen years old, clunky, dusty; Quadroflex turntable and Fisher deck; no compact-disc player. Michael drives a rusted-out Volvo 1800S. He bought it approximately fifteen years ago, probably while attending Penn. On camera, it sort of looks like a Porsche, an illusion that confounds the producers. Indulgences (tucked in the freezer): Wolfgang Puck frozen pizzas and chocolate desserts.

* * *

The thirtysomething equivalent of a national-defense secret: the bankruptcy of the Michael and Elliot Company, the little ad agency that couldn't.

Last November, two months before the bankruptcy episode was to be broadcast, a reporter sat in the office of executive producer Marshall Herskovitz, trying to elicit information about the episode. "You can't print this until after it's aired," Herskovitz said. "You have to give me your word. It's not an earth-shattering thing, but it's important to us. I just want people to go into the episode not expecting it, because it's a different emotional experience when you're ready for something. That's why, when Michael's father got cancer last year, we refused to promote the show. I wanted people to be surprised the same way Michael was when he found out."

Ed Zwick, the show's other executive producer, who has been away this season directing the Civil War film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, echoed his partner's concern. "This can't get out," he told the reporter on the phone. "If it does, well — I know where you live."

* * *

Marshall and Ed. Michael and Elliot. Duh.

Herskovitz and Zwick are both thirty-seven. They met while they were students at the American Film Institute. Both worked on the series Family (as did Richard Kramer, who's now a key member of the thirtysomething brain trust). They won four Emmys for the 1983 NBC movie Special Bulletin, a contemporary War of the Worlds panic yarn involving terrorists and plutonium. Later, Zwick directed the film About Last Night…, starring Rob Lowe. Thirtysomething's first season earned them the Outstanding Dramatic Series Emmy. In his acceptance speech, Zwick said, "If they were giving an award for the most annoying show on television, we'd probably win that, too." Both, appropriately enough, have therapists in the family (Herskovitz's mother, Zwick's sister); both exhibit acute self-analytical tendencies.

They say they created Michael in their own image. Neither owns up to Elliot. Never mind that Elliot, like them, has a beard. Elliot is their id.

* * *

Elliot Weston watches Geraldo, Not Donahue. Tim Busfield is trying to make this point to Herskovitz. Busfield, who plays Elliot, is himself a Geraldo man. "It's true," he says. "I love Geraldo. Nine o'clock every morning I get to scream at the TV."

The script for the episode titled "Michael Writes a Story" begins with a scene in which Elliot insists that the best part of being jobless is watching a particular daytime talk show. In an early version of the script, Elliot endorsed Geraldo: "Today he's doing nude transvestites." But in the pink pages that have just been distributed for the cast to read aloud at a conference table, Geraldo has been replaced by Donahue. Busfield, adamant about the change, playfully hectors Herskovitz as the other actors file into the room.

"C'mon, Marshall!" he says. Herskovitz winces - the notion of a Geraldo reference on his show is clearly distasteful to him - and urges the cast members to begin the read-through. "Let's try to be serious," he says. "I'm sorry, you're right," Busfield says, without conviction. "This is a very serious show."

When the episode airs, he says Geraldo.

* * *

The read-through happens a day or two before an episode begins filming, over lunch, in a conference room in the production offices. Steam trays hiss atop the table. Today's fare includes Spanish rice, enchiladas, tomato bread, taco salad. The actors eat and recite their lines perfunctorily, breezily. The producers listen. The actors make an effort to overlap the dialogue (a series trademark). They stumble occasionally: Peter Horton on Gitanes, Olin on chemise and paprikash (can we blame them?). Wettig is confused by a scene in which Nancy and Michael exchange a passionate kiss. "Is that a fantasy sequence?" she asks. (It is — another series trademark.) A reference to Edward Hopper baffles Busfield. "Who's Edward Hopper?" he asks. "Works on the crew," says Olin. "Timmy," says Richard Kramer, patiently, "he painted Nighthawks. Very familiar. You'd know it if you saw it." "He works on the crew!" Busfield says, laughing good-naturedly. The actors return to the set; the producers go rewrite.

* * *

The impertinence of being Elliot: Tim Busfield was slapped across the face at a grocery store by a woman who felt Elliot should not have walked out on his wife. "She had a ring on her hand," he says, still incredulous. "It hurt."

* * *

"Elliot is much more of a jerk than I am," says Busfield, who is actually a warm, ebullient guy, with television and movie credits that include parts in Trapper John, M.D., Revenge of the Nerds and Field of Dreams. "He's a well-meaning fuckup. I really think I play the best character on TV. He's the show's tragic figure, but he's also the comic relief. I mean, there's nobody more tragic than the fool who thinks he is not a fool. I get embarrassed by Elliot. I look at the scripts, and I can't believe the things I'm supposed to say. Like when he said to Nancy, 'Don't you ever shave your legs anymore?' God, I would never say that to my wife. But I love playing those kinds of awkward moments where people at home have to get up and walk away from the TV, ya know, just flee from the room. It's so much fun."

* * *

Between takes, Wettig sings. No matter how grim the scenes in progress may be, she croons buoyantly. "Jeremiah was a bullfrog!" she will sing. She does the locomotion. She hears the bells on Christmas Day. Before an edgy scene in which Hope tells Nancy about Elliot's marital infidelities, Wettig and Harris duet on "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

* * *

The four women characters, back from a camping trip, enter the Steadman living room, where Michael and Elliot frolic with the Weston children. Meticulous choreography ensues (fluidly performed in just over a minute, with improvised small talk); Michael kisses Hope. Nancy lunges for the kids. Ellyn plops on the sofa, followed by Melissa (Michael's photographer cousin, played by Melanie Mayron). Then Melissa, changing her mind, bolts for the kitchen. Michael and Hope land on the sofa; Ellyn slides over. Hope, on her feet again, dashes upstairs to check on Janey. Michael hauls little Brittany Weston onto the sofa. Melissa returns, falls backward, upside-down, onto the sofa, offering potato chips. Ellyn accepts, first removing her chewing gum. Elliot chases son Ethan past the sofa. Scene ends.

"Well, here we are again - everyone sprawled on a couch together," Patti Wettig says afterward, with abundant sarcasm. "It's just one of those thirtysomething lands of days."

* * *

Meditations on the characters' clubby insularity and how they manage (or can stand) to cluster so often:

Polly Draper: To some people, we look like a high-school clique that never outgrew high school. Let's face it, you rarely gather so consistently with a group of friends.

Melanie Mayron: Except on this show. But that's part of the appeal. People long for this. Everybody nowadays lives so far away from their parents and families, so you wind up creating these new lands of families.

Richard Kramer: It's like a fantasy of community. Certainly, with everybody I know, you call before you come over. Not here.

Marshall Herskovitz: My brother said to me, "Are your friends like that? Do they just drop over all the time?" I said, "No!" I have to admit there is a problem getting these people together week after week and always attending to the formalities of real life.

Kramer: If we'd based the show in New York instead of Philadelphia, they would be fighting each other off.

* * *

Life imitates art, part one: Polly Draper (she of the lustrous, raspy voice) and Melanie Mayron (she of the strawberry flambé hair) play thirtysomething's lovelorn single career women. Coincidentally, both have recently forsaken New York and acquired new houses in L.A., around the corner from each other near Laurel Canyon.

Polly Draper: She hasn't moved in yet, but when she does — we were saying today — we'll actually have that thirtysomething type of existence. We can drop in all the time.

Melanie Mayron: I want to have a life just like Melissa's [laughs ruefully].

Draper: We even bought the same chair! Not on purpose. It's irritating.

Mayron: It's true: Everybody on this show has the same taste. I've been to Mel's house and Patti's house and your place and mine. We're all into the same kinds of techy-antiquey-country stuff. [Pauses.] Which is really embarrassing and pathetic.

* * *

Life imitates art, part two: During the writers' strike last year, Richard Kramer began keeping a journal documenting the evolution of thirtysomething. (The journal could be published as a harrowing primer for prospective TV auteurs.) Here is a passage in which he describes a trip taken by cast and producers to New York for a Donahue appearance:

Together in New York … we do what we've never had time to do all year: We hang out. We go to see Mel's boyfriend in a play, then all go out to dinner. It gets later and later and nobody has to do a rewrite or plan shots or learn lines for the morning. The other people in the restaurant are too hip to ask for autographs, so they simply stare at us instead. Everyone gets loaded. Mel bursts into tears and no one knows why. Tim Busfield puts his arm around me and asks "Can I have a Dad who gets cancer next season, too?" I am seated between one cast member's pretty blond girlfriend and another cast members pretty blond girlfriend; the one on my left leans over to the one on my right and, downing her eighth glass of champagne, says, "Let's face it. You know what we are? We're muff. Big, blonde muff…." It's late now; we all share cabs back to the hotel….

* * *

The Jay Leno joke:

"First, I see the wife, and she's whining, 'What about my needs?' Then they cut to the husband, and he's whining, 'What about my needs?' And I'm sitting here saying, 'What about my needs? I want to be entertained. Can't you blow up a car or something?'"

The rebuttals: "Listen," says Ed Zwick, "I have those needs, too. That's why I decided to direct a Civil War movie where we get out there and have guys shoot each other."

"We would never have a car chase," says Richard Kramer, "but we might be able to have a show about the characters' feelings about a car chase…. The show we really want to do is about Hope being rushed to the hospital because she loses touch with her feelings."

"Oh, you wanted a little action?" Wettig says. "You came to the wrong set! I'm sorry, we don't cut to car chases. We just talk. Talk and sex. And dinner! What is thirtysomething? We eat, we talk, we make love, and we talk about eating and making love, and we talk."

Peter Horton is talking about sex on thirtysomething. "We begin having sex or else we finish," he says. "We don't do anything in between." Recently divorced from actress Michelle Pfeiffer (with whom he appeared in Amazon Women on the Moon), Horton portrays Gary Shepherd, a shaggy Swarthmore epic-poetry professor. (Gary is Michael's oldest friend and an errant swain of inappropriate women.) One of thirtysomething's most accomplished directors, Horton is holding forth on the set with a small gaggle of male technicians.

"Okay," he says. "What's the sexiest scene in film? Your personal favorite. All time." He points to each crew member in the circle. Someone mentions a moment involving Kim Novak in Picnic, the others are stymied.

"For me," Horton says, "it has to be the opening scene in Betty Blue, where they're having sex, and you actually feel that the sex is really, really great sex." His eyes begin to glaze over, as though he were replaying the scene for himself. "It was, like, palpable," he says, grinning puckishly.

* * *

Season Two, Episode One: Michael is on top of Hope in the marital bed. There is sublinen writhing. He is knocking at the door, as it were. She needs to go get the diaphragm. But no: "I'll pull out right before," he says. She thinks not. But he can't stop: one thrust. "Michael!" She shoves him off and gets up. But it has happened: perhaps the most graphic, albeit interrupted, penetration in prime-time history.

"All I did was sort of move on top of her," Olin says, a tad sheepishly. "But saying, 'I'll pull out,' made it that much more graphic. I mean, how often do you actually hear somebody on TV refer to his penis? I mean, if you say, 'I'll pull out,' it means that Michael has a penis. Something has to be pulled out. And there are no sex organs on TV."

* * *

Steadman night-table reading: A dinosaur coloring book, Noel Coward's diaries, More Joy of Sex.

* * *

Before any scene requiring him to kiss Mel Harris, no matter how casually, Olin takes a spritz of Binaca. He says, "It's what keeps them together."

* * *

Olin and Busfield once went to Houston to play celebrity baseball in the Astrodome. This was pre-thirtysomething, during Olin's brief Falcon Crest tenure (he played a priest) and Busfield's Trapper John days (he played Trapper John's son, an intern). Busfield had just separated from his first wife and was feeling frisky. "We were talking about fucking the whole time," he says. "You know, about my marriage, about young girls, all kinds of predictable raunchiness. Sort of like Michael and Elliot. And he was blushing a lot. I'd ask him, 'Come on, tell me, tell me, what's it like? What about this?' I knew he was madly in love with Patti, and I wanted to know how you make sex work in a marriage. And then a year and a half later, I'm in bed with his wife, doing love scenes! And he's thinking, 'Jesus, Busfield is a little sleazy. … Whoa! I don't know if I like this.'

"I mean, I really respect Kenny, and I know it's hard for him to deal with this. So I try not to have a big Johnny Butch when I'm working with her. But every now and then … I mean, she's a beautiful woman, she's soft, she smells good - I try not to get excited. I want him to know that."

* * *

Typical Busfield-Olin off-camera exchange, apropos of anything:

Busfield: Whatever you say, man. You're the star of the show.

Olin: No, I'm the conscience of the show.

* * *

Olinsomething: He is as elliptical as most of his sentences. Words lumber out of his mouth. But almost always the right words. Like Michael, Olin has an English-lit degree from Penn. He operates under partial cloud cover; he is chronically wary and droll. Richard Kramer tries to unravel the enigma: "Kenny lives on a level of pure irony. It took me a long time to get him. He's a real challenge. His delivery is so deadpan that once I started hearing what he was saying, I was astonished by it. I mean, his vision of life is much darker than ours, the writers'. He's passionately dedicated to keeping the character of Michael real. He doesn't want to be Robert Young. He doesn't care if viewers love him or not. He is happiest when Michael makes mistakes, when he makes life miserable for others. This is the underside of the guy with the cardigan.

"In many ways, his is the most interesting character on the show, the most mysterious. He reveals himself in dribs and drabs, and only under pressure. He is not a conventional TV leading man. There is something a little upsetting about him. You watch him, and you can't figure him out. He is really the Atlas, the lodestone of the show, and he has not been given enough credit for it. Thirtysomething rests on Ken Olin's shoulders. They're all gonna kill me for saying that, but it's true."

* * *

Secrets to a successful television marriage:

Olin: Real parents take the kid away at the end of a scene.

Harris: And we each get to go to different homes at night.

* * *

"I've taken a lot of heat," Olin says, while hunkering on the steps outside the sound stage. "I guess Michael is the most obvious target, the essence of what it is about the show that people don't like. Here's what I think it is: Probably the most unique thing about the show, in terms of television as we know it, was creating a young husband-father figure who happened to be neurotic. He is the character created in the most traditional vein, and yet he's unconventional in that he complains about his circumstances. He has weaknesses not physical so much as emotional ones. He's really plagued by self-doubt at times and can be painfully self-aware. He is not always heroic. His personality and psychology are responsible for a lot of the problems he encounters. As opposed to most leading men on television: If a TV cop fails to prevent a crime, it's usually because overwhelming circumstances have conspired against him — not because he's afraid of failure, not because he's concerned about his responsibilities to his wife and child versus what his personal needs might be. But if you take that guy apart — a guy who drives around in Ferraris, wears Armani suits, never shaves and kills people for a living — I mean that guy has a set of neuroses, too. Michael Steadman is no more neurotic than that guy. The thing is, we just choose to explore those neuroses."

* * *

Where there's hope: This may or may not be a portent of sunnier days for Michael Steadman. Prominently positioned on a bookshelf in his den - amid works by Updike, Turgenev, Joyce, Colette and Anne Tyler - is a well-thumbed copy of Art Linkletter's Confessions of a Happy Man