Ken Olin Reflects on ‘thirtysomething’ at 30 and Similarities to ‘This Is Us’

It was 30 years ago (on September 29, 1987 at 10 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. CT, to be specific) that the ABC series “thirtysomething” made its debut, focusing on the lives of husband and wife Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) and Hope Murdoch Steadman (Mel Harris), as well as a number of individuals connected in various ways to the couple, setting a new bar for realism in the realm of prime-time drama.

Focusing on the personal and professional lives of its eight core characters, “thirtysomething” was on for four years, winning 13 Primetime Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes during its tenure on the Alphabet network. The title of the show even became a term for a micro-generation that eventually found its way into the dictionary in 1993, two years after the show had ended, proving its impact on the culture was long-lasting.

These days, Olin predominantly spends time on the other side of the camera: he’s one of the executive producers of NBC’s “This Is Us,” which – as the series begins its second season – is keeping him very busy indeed. Still, Olin made time to look back over his “thirtysomething” experience with Variety, including the differences and similarities between that pioneering family drama and his new one.

How did you initially find your way onto “thirtysomething?”

I had done “Hill Street Blues,” so I was known a little bit to the different networks, and then Bobby Roth, who was a pretty well-known director, wanted me to play the lead in this big ABC TV movie he was doing called “Tonight’s the Night.” The network ended up hiring Ed Marinaro as the lead and I played his brother instead, but it put me in the list of people that they were interested in for pilots. And at the time, our son Cliff was in pre-school with Marshall Herskovitz’s daughter, Lizzie, so they became friends, and my wife knew Susan Shilliday, who was Marshall’s wife at the time. That was right around when I was sent this pilot for “thirtysomething.”

Ed Zwick was very influenced by Woody Allen, and their original idea was that this little nebbishy Jewish guy marries this beautiful shiksa. I made a point of going with Marshall and taking our kids to Disneyland so that he could see that I was actually a pretty nebbishy Jewish guy. And then when the auditions came, we read, I just had a real feeling for the part, so it was a really good audition.

And you ended up on the show alongside your real-life wife, although your characters were married to other people.

My wife went in and read for the part of Nancy. After they hired us, Ed and Marshall said, “Oh, you know, they’re actually married in real life,” but at the time, no one knew whether the show was even going to go, so it really wasn’t much of a thing.

Did it result in a weird work dynamic later?

It was a very weird dynamic, because one of the things that was explored on the show was sexuality. Sexuality and intimacy was a big part of what Marshall and Ed were interested in writing about and exploring, and I’m very close to Tim Busfield [who played Elliot, the on-screen husband of Olin’s real-life wife, Patricia Wettig], and Patti and Tim loved working together and all that. But at first it was kind of weird. Neither of us had really dealt with that before. And at the time we were in our early thirties, and it was a very different time creatively and emotionally, so we would bring the show home with us. We lived that life. We had two little kids. And then at the same time it was, like, “Wow, this is weird to go to work, and there’s this pretend intimacy going on all the time.”

Did that get easier over time?

By the end of the second or third season, Patti had to come to the set at one point, Mel and I were doing a love scene in bed, and Patti just sat off camera by the bed so that every time they yelled “cut,” Patti could ask me something about this house we were looking at. So it became something we were used to, but at first it was odd. It’s weird being an actor. That’s why I’m not an actor anymore!

Even though it was 15 years on from “Bridget Loves Bernie,” was it still considered to be a pretty big thing that Michael and Hope had an interfaith marriage on “thirtysomething?”

Someone who was clearly a Jew – a practicing Jew – as a leading man, I think that was unique for the time. I don’t remember there ever being a leading man in a drama on a network show who would say prayers in Yiddish or Hebrew or whatever. It’s weird, because even though culturally my background is Jewish – both my parents are Jewish – I was raised with really no religion in my home. So it was odd because, yes, I identified as Jewish, but I was playing this character who really identified as Jewish. And I don’t speak Hebrew, I wasn’t bar mitvahed or anything like that, so that was kind of weird. But I liked it. I thought that was a cool thing to do, to bring that forward like that. And certainly we did explore that a little bit on the show, which was really cool.

Was there a particular moment when you realized that “thirtysomething” had successfully captured the zeitgeist?

We could sense it on the street, that kind of celebrity, because it hit that age so squarely and created such an energy around it. Also, there were only four networks, so that was a big deal. And then to have Rolling Stone and US Magazine and Entertainment Weekly and those kinds of things wanting us to be part of that, yeah, we became very aware of that. And for me, that was complicated.

How so?

I wasn’t that comfortable with celebrity. Other people were. But I think the demand now on the actors on “This Is Us” is extraordinary. There’s so many more outlets and so much more demand. We didn’t deal with paparazzi, for instance. Patti and I have been married a really long time, but there were a few people on the show who went through divorces and all sorts of dating thing. When we started “thirtysomething,” Peter Horton was married to Michelle Pfeiffer. They were separated, but you can imagine what kind of paparazzi thing we would be dealing with, or that Patti and I would be dealing with, since we had these two beautiful little children. I can’t even imagine what that’s like. We didn’t have any problem with that. None. It just wasn’t part of our life that way. It was a really different time.

How do you think it’s different now?

Now, when I talk to the actors on “This Is Us,” they’re all incredible people, and they work really hard, but not only do they work really hard as actors, but they work really hard to promote the show, to be available. When I would talk to them about what they did during their hiatus, I was, like, “What? You worked? You did all that?!” And for me, that was not a requisite part of being an actor 30 years ago. These guys are all like race horses. They don’t stop. And when I talk to them about it, that’s something that they not only understand, they come equipped to do that. That thing of having to feed all the various media outlets in order to sustain the awareness of this show, that’s something that, if you’re not good at it and not constitutionally built to do that, you’re going to really struggle as an actor.

When you look back at “thirtysomething,” are there particular favorite moments for you?

The things that I’m really proud of are the things I did as a director. I’m really proud of the couple of episodes I did about Nancy’s character and ovarian cancer. And, of course, the episode where Nancy lives and Gary dies. That was incredible that I got to direct that. I remember that I learned a lot as a director sitting with Ed and Marshall, talking about dailies of things I directed. The first year when we won the Emmy, that was incredible, because we were a small show, relatively speaking. And the first year, doing the show with Steven Hill, who played my father, which was the episode that we won the Emmy for, that was an incredible experience.

What about working with the rest of the cast?

We were all peers on “thirtysomething,” the seven of us. There was about a three or four year age span between us. That was all. There’s a sense that the show is even a little bit bigger than the sum of the parts. And that’s unique. There wasn’t, on “thirtysomething,” a sense that, “OK, I’m this number on the call sheet, so I’m a little bit bigger a part.”

Do you feel like “thirtysomething” paved the way for “This Is Us” or that there are similarities between the shows?

The biggest thing that reminds me of “thirtysomething” is the collective spirit of respect for the show, respect for each other, and just a great, great affection. And I just think that comes through, so the show itself, the entirety of the experience, is informed by that kind of love. And I think that’s really rare on a show. It’s not an act. There is always on the set a sense of real joy and real appreciation among all of us to be fortunate enough to be able to work on something like this. And that’s really reminiscent of how “thirtysomething” was. No matter how tired people got – and people definitely get tired, because it’s hard, or they get a little cranky or whatever – there’s never a sense that the individual is entitled to behavior that other individuals are not entitled to. There just isn’t. If there wasn’t that kind of collective spirit, I’m not sure that the show would succeed in the same way. It’s some sort of inexplicable chemistry that the medium picks up on.

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