Justine Bateman Talks Backstage Antics on ‘Family Ties’

Justine Bateman was Emmy-nominated twice for best supporting actress for her role as Mallory Keaton on NBC’s “Family Ties,” which ran from 1982-1989. She has appeared on several series including “Desperate Housewives,” and is currently a senior at UCLA getting a BA in Digital Media Management and Computer Science. She talked about how her character was shaped.

(Dumbing down Mallory) actually came out of working with Mike (Fox), because initially she was not written like that. She was just kind of a normal sister. And they would write these digs that Alex had on Mallory — just regular brother-sister digs — and the number of reactions you can play to that; you can be annoyed, you can roll your eyes, and then I’d get to a point where I’d just pretend it was a compliment. And the writers saw that and went, ‘Oh, s–t, if she thinks that’s funny, that’s so great.’ So we just started going in that direction.

If you look at the pilot and then the first two or three episodes, Mallory is just … normal. In fact, they have a line in the pilot where Alex brings a girl home to have dinner with the family and she says, ‘I really love helping people, and I really love cheerleading.’ And I say, “Oh, kind of like an Albert Schweitzer with pom poms.” What Mallory became, of course … She would never have a line like that.

Mike and I, we just had really good timing together. When you’re working with an audience, you have to have good timing with the other actor, but you also have to have good timing as far as reading the audience. If you come in too soon with your line or too late just by half a second, you deflate the joke. On nights when the audience is there, it’s so much easier than on nights when they’re not, and you feel that challenge.

(The cast) hung out all the time. Backstage, behind all the slats for the scenes, we would draw things. Mike and I would stamp out our cigarettes on that wall before we would go onstage. I remember one time in particular, Mike called his assistant and told her to go to Toys R Us and buy as many water guns as she could get, and we had this full-on water-gun fight. I felt bad that the prop master wound up mopping up the water, but that was a blast. I think at one point, Mike even got up on the catwalk above the support stage and was shooting down on people. We had fun all the time. Michael (Gross) and Meredith (Baxter) were the worst on the giggle fits. They would wrestle on the couch and stuff.

(Creator) Gary David Goldberg created a fantastic environment, from the quality of the scripts to the quality of the people.

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