Letting Michael Steadman be Jewish gave broader range to 'thirtysomething'

"thirtysomething" had its flaws. But it was also landmark television in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most important one was how it honestly and confidently let a leading character -- Michael Steadman -- be Jewish.

That may not seem like much at first glance, but it is huge in a medium that has a long and less-than-distinguished history of either turning characters written as Jews into WASPs or limiting them to schticky sidekick status behind WASP stars.


Go back three decades to what media critic David Marc labeled the "WASPing of Rob Petrie." Carl Reiner, who had been a writer and star on Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows," created a sitcom in 1960 called "Head of the Family." It was about a TV comedy writer, like Reiner, who was living in New Rochelle, N.Y., like Reiner. It was so autobiographical, in fact, it had Reiner playing the lead character, Rob Petrie.

The pilot aired on CBS that summer, but there was no interest in a regular series. Then, Reiner was told he could get the series made if it were "re-cast." Marc, in his book "Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture," describes that process as "re-casting Rob Petrie from a Bronx-born Jew to a heartland gentile" with the then-unknown Dick Van Dyke replacing the established Reiner in the lead.


In 1970, according to one of the creators of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," they were told by CBS that Mary could not be divorced because there are three things viewers didn't want to see in TV series: people who are divorced, men with mustaches and Jews.

Yeah, there was Rhoda Morgenstern, but she was there as kvetching foil to Mary's WASP wonderfulness, a persona she carried even into her own series.

There's a lot more of that kind of history -- all the way back to "The Goldbergs" sitcom (1949 to '54). But what Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick did with Michael Steadman starts to redeem the medium.

The most talked about "thirtysomething" episodes may have been Nancy's cancer or Gary's death, but some of the most memorable were those involving Michael's attempts to honor his personal heritage yet cope with a popular culture that urges and celebrates assimilation. Episodes about the collision of Michael's and Hope's feelings about Christmas several seasons ago and a recent one about the circumcision of their son will play as well years from now as they did on first run.

"thirtysomething" was an ensemble drama, but the center of the universe was the Steadman household. The whole "thirtysomething" gang will be missed, but Michael, the steady man, is a character whose existence changed TV for the better.