Fred Fox [Interview]

 

Hello Folks! We have an absolutely incredible interview to share with you all today here at Trainwreck’d Society! Today’s interview subject is a man who has been a marvel in the world of television for over 40 years. He is an Emmy Award winning writer and producer has brought you some of the finest television of our time, and we are so very honored to have him grace our digital pages today. It’s Fred Fox, Everyone!

While I wouldn’t necessarily call it his “greatest success”, it does only seem fair to mention that Fred is the man responsible for the singular episode of television that coined a term that may have literally changed history. Fox wrote the renowned episode of Happy Days where Fonzi literally “jumps the shark”. We get into this a bit below, but more importantly Fred, amongst his plethora of other works, also happened to work on my favorite family oriented sitcom of all time, which would be the beloved Family Matters! We have spoken with some other fine folks who have worked on the program (producer Jim Geoghan, actress Cherie Johnson), but the insight into the show and the successful run it had is truly awe-inspiring and an absolute treat. When I was growing up, while I loved my own family, I always dreamt of being a Winslow and had the biggest childhood crush on Maxine (another shoutout to our friend Cherie Johnson), and wanted to be best friends with Waldo Geraldo Faldo. This show meant the world to me, and to hear from a man like Fred who was there for the entire run of the show is an absolute dream.

We discuss the idea of “jumping the shark” and working on Family Matters, and more, at length in the wonderful answers from Fred below. He is a generous, kind, and insightful man who we are so honored to have with us today. So Folks, please enjoy some words (and exclusive photos!) from the absolutely brilliant writer, producer, creator Fred Fox!

 

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What inspired you to get into the world of television? Was it a passion that you had since your youth? Or did you happen to find yourself in this world one day?

My father, Fred Fox, was a very funny man and a successful comedy writer. He wrote for Bob Hope, George Burns, Lucy, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis among many others. Growing up, I thought it was so cool he was a writer but for some reason the thought of following in his proverbial footsteps never occurred to me. 

I was in the business world for five years. My first job out of college was with Hertz Truck Rental. I started out behind the rental desk, after two weeks I had to drive a truck to drop it off for a rental, got lost, stopped at a gas station to get directions.  Suddenly there was a downpour of glass as the top of the truck wiped out the station overhang. Welcome to Hertz. Despite that, I ended up an executive but left after two years. In 1975 I took a comedy writing class at UCLA Extension.  A classmate was a very funny young man who was working for Dentsu Advertising, we hit it off and decided to write a spec script for All In The Family. After a couple of months we heard back from one of the producers saying it was funny but they were set for the season. The young man I wrote it with was Garry Shandling.

My big break was New Year’s Eve 1975 when I got call from Cindy Williams, my high school classmate. She said she was co-starring in a new show called Laverne and Shirley and wanted to know if I would be interested in being her “gopher” (an assistant) and apprentice writer. I said yes and she got me a meeting with Garry Marshall. When I walked into Garry’s office the first thing he said was “So, you’re Freddie Fox’s Son”. When Garry and his partner Jerry Belson came to Los Angeles to pursue a writing career, one of their first staff jobs was on The Joey Bishop Show.  Dad was also on staff. Garry said he enjoyed working with dad and how supportive he was. Garry said my first priority would be taking care of Cindy. If she needed any errands  done that would come first. When Cindy left for the day, I went to the writer’s room. I was thrilled when Garry gave me the job. Luck had smiled upon me. The writer’s room was the best on the job training I ever had. Months later I was assigned to write an episode where Ron Howard and Anson Williams were going to guest star. I had two weeks to write the episode. As fate would have it, my parents left for a two week trip the next day. If dad were here, I may have gone to him to answer many writing questions. When I turned my script in,  I was both excited and fearful to hear the feedback.  I was relieved when it was all positive and it was a wonderful feeling when the audience enjoyed it. A couple of weeks later Garry Marshall asked me to be on the staff of Happy Days and I was there for an amazing seven years.

What was your very first paid gig in entertainment that you can remember getting? And were there any sort of lessons learned from this experience that still affects your work today?

My first job was in 1974 on an ABC daytime show, The Girl In My Life, where a woman in the audience would be surprised and then honored for making a difference in someone’s life. I worked in the audience department, calling groups to come to the show.  I got Garry Shandling a job helping us get audiences but he left after two months to pursue a career in comedy. A wise decision. Girl In My Life was created by Tom Naud who went on to invent Introvision, the front-projection process.  Tom was represented by Mike Ovitz who was with William Morris at the time. Mike and I went to grammar school, junior high and high school together. Sally Field and Cindy Williams also went to Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley with us.

That first job taught me the valuable lesson of teamwork, it takes over a hundred people to produce an episode and each and every position is of the upmost importance in making the best episodes possible. And  equally important is to also have fun doing so.

 

 

Throughout the 90’s you worked on a series that is hand’s down, my favorite family sitcom of all time. I’m talking about the absolutely incredible series Family Matters, which featured past guest and dear friend Cherie Johnson, as well as once being home to our other friends Jim Geoghan and Stephen Langford. With that being said, I am curious to know what your thoughts were on working on this series? Was it as much of a pleasure to work on as it was for me to grow up wishing I was a Winslow every week?

So happy you enjoyed it. First of all, it was a family reunion. The show was created by Bill Bickley and Michael Warren, developed by Bob Boyett and Tom Miller and executive produced or produced by Dave Duclon, Gary Menteer and me. We all worked together on either “Happy Days” or “Laverne and Shirley” and the addition of Jim, Steve, Cherie and the other  talented actors and writers added to the show’s success and fun.  When the character of Steve Urkel  went from a single episode appearance to an iconic television figure, it, at first, caused some tension among the actors but  it settled down when he helped the series run for nine seasons.  Working on the show was a blast and friendships were formed that continued today.

In your personal opinion, what do you believe it was that set Family Matters apart from the plethora of other family based sitcoms that were available in the 90’s alone. I know why I loved it so much, but in your obviously professional opinion, what made the show special to you?

I feel what made Family Matters the successful show that the audience loved is what made it special to me. It was a show that stressed the importance of family values, had a lot of heart and was a series that appealed to all ages, from young children to grandparents.  It was a show that they could watch together and family that the viewers wanted to be a part of. As the characters faced their problems, many some we all deal with, the audience always rooted for them to succeed.

 

 

You were one of the minds behind one of the single most infamous television episodes of all time. Which would Episode 3, in Season 5 of Happy Days entitled “Hollywood: Part 3”. This episode literally created its own catchphrase. What puzzles me is that there is a negative connotation implied to the phrase “jumping the shark”, yet Happy Days went on to be on the air and loved for years after. So when how did this get tagged onto this one episode? Was it really that bizarre of a thing to have happen on television at the time?

I don’t think it it was that bizarre. The table read of “Hollywood lll”, attended by the writers, producers, cast and the Paramount and ABC executives went very well. There were a lot of laughs. Afterwards, there were no objections, no one shouted out “Fonzie jumps a shark, are you out of your mind?”

I have a friend who loved the episode and thought “Jumping The Shark” was a positive expression. The episode was a big hit in the ratings, Number 3 for the week and attracted 30 million viewers but…

In 1987, Jon Hein was a sophomore at the University of Michigan. He, along with four of his friends, were watching Nick at Nite and they started talking about classic tv shows when someone asked what was the precise moment that you knew when it was all downhill for your favorite show… Love Boat, Vicki? Flintstones The Great Kazoo? Happy Days…Sean, one of Jon’s roommates replied that was an easy question, it was when Fonzie jumped the shark.  There was silence in the room. ”No explanation necessary. “The phrase said it all”. He was referring to “Hollywood lll”, the third part of a three-part opener for the 1978 Season. The main story was a talent scout’s car breaks down. When he walks into Arnolds  and sees Fonzie’s magic with the ladies, he wants him to come to Hollywood for a screen test. Fonzie does and the Cunninghams and the rest of the gang made the journey.

The “B” story had Fonzie run into a cocky beach boy, known as “The California Kid”.  They engage in a water skiing race that ends up in a tie. They decide whoever ski’s over a shark in the local waters on will win. The Kid chickens out, but Fonzie feels he must still jump over the ferocious fish to win. Wearing shorts and his leather jacket, he succeeds.  Jon Hein started his website, www.jumptheshark.com on December 24,1997 with 200 television shows where viewers could suggest when their favorite shows started to decline. A few months later The Los Angeles Times published an article about an episode of South Park  and wondered if the show had jumped the shark, the phrase hit a nerve and the site was a hit, boasting millions of votes on over a thousand programs. In 2002 Jon’s “Jump The Shark” book was published that now included when those from the world of celebrities, sports, music and politics were all going downhill.

 

 

I wrote  the episode “Hollywood lll”.  In 2011, Lee Margulies my friend and veteran at the Los Angeles Times asked me to write an article about the “jump the stark’  phenomenon and the phrase that was now in the Oxford English Dictionary. In the article, I maintained that Happy Days did not jump the shark that night. “If this was really the beginning of a downward spiral, why did the show stay on the air for six more seasons and shoot an additional 164 episodes (including some of our best). And why did we rank among the Top 25 in five of those six seasons?”.

That’s why when I first heard the phrase and what it meant I was incredulous. I thought about the thousands of television shows that have been on the air since the medium began and an episode where Fonzie jumps over a shark was the one that was singled out? It made no sense. Should I be embarrassed for writing that episode? Was I now the modern day Hester Prynne, should I walk around with a scarlet “W” on the front of my shirt. Initially I may have felt scorned, but after awhile I felt a certain joy of being part of the iconic expression.

Years after I had a meeting with a Disney executive to pitch some projects. She noticed on my resume that I was on Happy Days for seven seasons and asked me if I knew who wrote the jump the shark episode. When I replied that I was the one, her eyes lit up. She was so excited that we talked about it until it was time for her next meeting. I never had a chance to pitch anything.

It is still mind-boggling that after forty-one years, the phrase is still used. In May 2019, an article by Jonathan Turley appeared in “The Hill” newspaper.. “Have The Democrats Jumped The Shark on Impeachment?”

 

 

When you look back on your career that has spanned 40+ years in the world of television, what would you say you is your finest accomplishment? Not necessarily one singular project per say, although it very well could be. But, what do you look back on with the most pride?

That is an impossible question to answer as I was so  fortunate to be a part of so many hit shows, wonderful projects and had the pleasure of working with a plethora of talented and fun people. I realized how lucky I was to work on classic shows like Laverne and Shirley,  Happy Days and Family Matters. In a business where television shows are often canceled after thirteen or less episodes, to write and produce on staffs for twenty-two straight years was incredible.  

One of many highlights was being on the Happy Days softball team that played to raise money for cancer research and the Special Olympics. We also went on USO tours to Germany and Okinawa to thank the troops for their service and played Marines and Army’s softball best and incredulous to them, we won the games.

Another was winning an International Emmy for My Secret Identity, presented by Audrey Hepburn, for a comedy/action show Brian Levant and I created. 

 

 

What else does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

Thank for asking. Two of my favorite passion projects that have yet to come to fruition are Merry Go Round and Mooga’s Destiny. 

Merry Go Round is a musical I co-wrote the book with music and lyrics by Richard and Robert Sherman . They wrote more film musical song scores than any other songwriting teams in history (Academy Award for Mary Poppins). Years ago Richard and Robert just wanted to write some songs with no intention of becoming a musical. Andy Belling, a director friend of theirs felt that the songs would indeed make a good musical. A writer was hired but the Sherman brothers and Andy weren’t happy with the script and the project died. Years later, Jack Stein, a producer,  got the rights and asked me to do a rewrite. Fortunately, the Sherman Brothers, Jack and Andy were happy with  it. We worked with Richard as Robert was living in London. He was a pleasure to work with, he is smart, funny and passionate.

Mooga’s Destiny is a children’s book I wrote with Ray Bradbury. In the mid 60’s while attending University of California Santa Barbara I read an acceptance speech in Life magazine Mr. Bradbury gave after receiving an award from NASA. The article stayed with me for years and I thought it would make a good children’s book. I wrote to his agent and a month later the phone rang and I was thrilled to hear Mr.  Bradbury’s voice. He agreed the theme of his speech would make a very good book.  Mr. Bradbury, like Richard Sherman, was fun to work with, a brilliant and passionate man. Mr. Bradbury passed away before the book was published.  I would like to get it published in 2020 to honor his 100th birthday.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

It was answering this last question and looking back over my career and knowing how lucky I was.  It is a very difficult business to get into and to be able to work with so many bright individuals was special. There are a great amount of talented people who never get the opportunity to shine.

 

 

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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