Remembering Gary David Goldberg ’66

Sam Weisman, Gary David Goldberg and actor Michael J. Fox in the late 1980s.
Courtesy Ubu Productions
Sam Weisman, Gary David Goldberg and actor Michael J. Fox in the late 1980s.

Less talk — more baskets!”

The voice — assertive, ironic and encouraging, all at the same time — rang out across the sunbaked outdoor basketball court in Beverly Hills, Calif., one Saturday morning, 1991. A bunch of Hollywood types huffed and puffed, up and down, looking for the easy shot, occasionally playing defense, more frequently trying to be funny.

I was a regular member of this ragtag group — comedy writers, directors, producers, crew people and the occasional star actor. This was Gary’s Game.

Each week, the players were invited via personal phone calls (totally old-school) made by my friend and mentor, Gary David Goldberg ’66. His was the voice resonating on the court and, for most of us, the voice in our heads as we toiled in the fields of television (I had directed many episodes of his show “Family Ties” and was a part of his production company). We all looked for his approval, because his belief in our talent was the reason we were succeeding in a tough business.

The voice echoed again: “All day!” In basketball lingo, that is an exclamation following a great shot, affirming that the shot can be repeated and made, anytime. It was followed by “the laugh” — a staccato, baritone eruption. Omnipresent, “the laugh” was heard on soundstages, in editing suites, in the writers’ room during late-night rewrite sessions, as well as on the basketball court. The laugh meant that all was well, that things were working. Stories were being told, jokes were landing, and the ball was going through the hoop — actually and metaphorically.

Playing ball, whether it was on the lot at Paramount Studios on the Ubu Memorial Court (named after Gary’s late Labrador retriever), or in these carefully cast weekend games, was an extension of Gary’s creative life. No jerks were allowed, and, as on the streets of 1950s Flatbush, where Gary grew up, whining and complaining were forbidden. Play the game right. Look for the open man. If you have a good shot, take it. And above all, have fun.

Gary’s approach to making television brought the ethos of the Eastern European shtetl to Hollywood. There was always laughter, food, music and playful arguing — just no Cossacks or pogroms. After the incredible success of “Family Ties” and the end of its seven-year run, Gary was intent on keeping his creative community intact. Ever instinctive, he knew the time was right to take a big chance.

That morning, between games, he confided, “I’ve been thinking of doing a show about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn. Want to do it together? I don’t know if anyone will watch it, but I want it to be great.”

Of course I agreed, and the rest of the development process was a blur. Gary wrote the pilot script in three days, and CBS ordered the series the day they read it. “Brooklyn Bridge” debuted in fall 1991 to critical acclaim, receiving many awards, including the 1992 Golden Globe for Best Comedy.

Despite our struggle to find an audience, Gary could not have been happier with the show. Its spirit and authenticity honored his family and the memories of Brooklyn that he so cherished. I was privileged to direct the pilot and a majority of the episodes, as well as serve with him as executive producer. Gary was generous in praising my work, and he always let me know how much the show meant to him — then, and for years afterward.

“Brooklyn Bridge” remains the high point of my career. Gary gave me the ball, and, because of his confidence in me, I knew what to do with it. I will forever hear his voice in my head, and will never forget “the laugh.” Above all, I will always remember him on the basketball court: taking the good shot, playing the game right, having fun.

Sam Weisman, MFA’73, directs and produces movies and TV shows.