oral history

‘Everybody Wants to Live’: An Oral History of Party of Five’s First Season

Photo: Maya Robinson

It’s day two of our survey of the hugely influential 1994–95 network-television season, which found first-year shows Friends, ER, and My So-Called Life hobnobbing with returning future classics Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and The X-Files. Yesterday we counted down the season’s 100 best episodes and checked back in on the bananas fifth season of Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210; later today, we’ll be revisiting Melrose Place with the help of the show’s writers. Up next: The creators and cast of Party of Five talk about the first season of the influential but still underrated Fox drama, which debuted on September 12, 1994.

You’d be right in thinking of Party of Five and My So-Called Life as kindred spirits in the 1994–95 season. Both moved televised stories about and targeted at young adults away from the soap-opera genre and helped make the medium safer for the more realistic teenagers we’d meet later on Dawson’s Creek, Freaks and Geeks, Friday Night Lights, and Gilmore Girls. But while My So-Called Life was killed after just one season, Party of Five soldiered on for six years, fending off early network concerns about the number of viewers who were tuning in to watch the Salinger family orphans — Charlie, 24 (played by Matthew Fox); Bailey, 16 (Scott Wolf); Julia, 15 (Neve Campbell); Claudia, 11 (Lacey Chabert); and baby Owen — learn how to live on their own following the deaths of their parents. (The series earned the nickname Party of Five Share at the fledgling Fox Network, in reference to the show’s feeble ratings during in its first season.) The odds were not in Party of Five’s favor, but co-creators Amy Lippman and Chris Keyser, who’d cut their teeth writing for the beloved early-’90s NBC drama Sisters, would not be swayed from building a serious relationship drama that made Beverly Hills, 90210 seem even glitzier — a show about young people that felt authentic and real and made you reach for your Kleenex. Here, Party of Five’s two co-creators and cast members Scott Wolf, Neve Campbell, Lacey Chabert (sorry, no Charlie!), and Paula Devicq (who played baby Owen’s graduate-student nanny Kirsten Bennett) reflect on how they managed to get America to adopt a family of orphans.

Amy Lippman (Party of Five co-creator): Chris [Keyser] and I went in to Fox and pitched a couple of ideas, and they said, “No, no, no. We don’t like any of your ideas. But there is an idea we’re battling with. Is this interesting to you?”

Chris Keyser (Party of Five co-creator): The network wanted a companion piece to Beverly Hills, 90210, something that might be able to take over when it was done. [The idea was] “Don’t tell the babysitter that Mom and Dad are dead!”

Lippman: “Kids, living on their own! Having fun! No parents! Woo-hoo!” And we thought, This is a really depressing concept. We should mine how difficult that would be in reality. It wouldn’t be a lark. It would be about being thrust into the adult world prematurely. We pitched it back to them in the fall, did a script by Christmas, green-lighted a pilot in the late winter, shot in the spring, and it was [tapped for the fall schedule] by summer. The thing that was unusual was that their intention was something more carefree.

Keyser: We even had a conversation that the oldest sibling would be a girl, but the network said, “No. No one would accept that.” The big conversation was about, who are these kids? And what is the tone of the show? We banked on the idea that it stuck with you and upset you, something that you couldn’t get over that easily, which was a weird thing for Fox.

Lippman: We mixed up all the expectations about what role siblings would play. We made the youngest [daughter] the smartest. We made the [middle] boy the most maternal. We didn’t realize that when you take the oldest and make him irresponsible that you create a kind of sexy, broken character, which suited Matthew [Fox] very well. We were his first sexy and broken [role]! [Laughs.]

Keyser: We were sitting there, eating lunch, with these videotapes playing in the background. Matthew nearly passed us by, but someone said, “Hey! Take a look. Who’s this?” He had just auditioned for a soap and not gotten it, just that week. He was nearly not available.

Lippman: It was just luck that he actually had a lot of stuff going on, that he had a lot to draw on. He could be a very emotional guy, but we didn’t know [yet]. Susan Edelman cast the pilot. She was responsible for bringing all of those kids into the project. There were some people we brought in early on that they felt weren’t a Fox fit. [But] we didn’t want a blond family. We wanted a family of brunettes. The teenybopper factor was never important to us, but early on, it helped drive the show. One thing that was important to Fox was that we cast very beautiful actors. Beautiful orphans.

Neve Campbell (Julia Salinger): Brilliant! That’s slightly embarrassing. [Laughs.]

Scott Wolf (Bailey Salinger): We were crying an awful lot, so it probably softened the blow that we weren’t hideous. [Laughs.]

Lacey Chabert (Claudia Salinger): Neve looked like my [actual] older sister Wendy, who was around the same age.

Lippman: Neve, Lacey, and Scott could really have been a family. Matthew to a certain extent, too, although he was a little less round-faced. The casting more than anything else helped us find a second season.

Keyser: Neve was the last one cast. Scott was the first one cast.

Lippman: Scott, I didn’t know how old he was! At one point, I made him give me his driver’s license. I think he told us he was younger, but he had a fiancé. Have you seen Scott Wolf recently? He’s like a [Dorian Gray] portrait somewhere in a closet. But he was really great. He was the initial breakout character for us.

Wolf: I was thrilled to get a callback. On the way in I parked my car, and Amy Lippman was parking her car at the same time. I had a moment of, Oh, this is awkward. Do I talk to her? I figured I’d follow her lead since I didn’t know the protocol. [I thought,] Is it like the bride and groom, where we’re not supposed to see each other before? But I asked her, “How is everything going?” She said, “Pretty well, but I’m flying up to Vancouver to scout locations, and I’m a bit of a nervous wreck because I’m a bad flyer. How are you, as a flyer?” I said, “I’ve actually flown since I was a tiny kid.” And she said, “Ah! You’ll have to sit next to me on the plane.” I immediately got frozen in time with this comment because it sounded like, You’re going to be around.

Chabert: I actually started playing violin about a year before I auditioned, but I wasn’t as good as Claudia. I would spend so much time learning how to fake-play these pieces.

Lippman: It didn’t hurt that Lacey played violin. I played violin when I was a little girl, and I think one of our early thoughts of the series, there were sort of iconic scenes in our mind, and one of them was a little girl that was willing to hock an instrument of hers to help support her family. We thought it would be charming and poignant. We went with Lacey very early on. Her eyes were really smart and had a sparkle. We went, “There she is!”

Keyser: There’s a scene in the pilot where Charlie comes and tells them he lost the money, and Claudia sobs, “Why aren’t Mom and Dad here?” And Lacey had to cry over and over again, so we asked her how she did that, and she said, “I was pretending I was condemned to die for a crime I did not commit.” What, are you kidding? You’re 10!

Chabert: Did I say that? I’m such a dork! Oh my gosh! [Laughs.] But that sounds like something I would probably say! I don’t remember saying that, but wow. That’s a little dramatic, Lacey! Lighten up. [Laughs.] People would always say, “Think about a dead dog! Think about a grandparent!” And that never worked for me.

Lippman: Julia was very hard to cast. We brought in one girl and an executive said, “Wow, she’s really perfect … for The Diary of Anne Frank!” Neve came in, and she seemed like a girl who had made a decision to be independent in a way, and that was intriguing to us. She didn’t come in with her mother. She came in on her own.

Campbell: It was my second audition in Los Angeles, and I had come out to L.A. [from Canada] to be a professional dancer. So when I got the show, I thought, Okay, I’ll do the pilot so I can get my green card, and then I can stay in the States, and then I can dance here. [Laughs.] I didn’t get my green card, I had a visa. And the show went for six years, which was not what I was expecting! And I didn’t get to really dance on the show. [Laughs.] That would have been pushing it, I think.

Keyser: Paula Devicq was cast to open the door and look beautiful. [Fox executive] Sandy Grushow called in the middle of shooting the pilot and said, “I want you to rewrite the pilot so we can have more of her.” We said to him, “Pick up the show and you can see more of her.”

Paula Devicq (Kirsten Bennett): Fox said they wanted more of Kirsten, so they had me come back, and they kept bringing me back.

Wolf: At the time, Fox was known for attractive people doing salacious things, that kind of vibe. And here came this weepy family drama.

Lippman: I have a husband whose father died when he was 12, and I picked lots of stories from his life that we used in the show. People who experience those kinds of traumas and loss early on, you can’t help but be defined by how that changes your expectations about the way the world works. He wasn’t the inspiration. But Bailey tells a story very early on in the first season, this story about his father, and that was my husband’s story. It was nice. Those are the things that are kind of delicious.

Devicq: This was the only show Fox had of that genre.

Lippman: When Fox saw an early cut of the pilot, they were concerned the family circumstances were too grim, so one of the things that happened in the pilot, if you were to look at it again, you would see that we had to [rerecord in post-production] the amount of money they said they had. It was the sum of money that Fox felt [wouldn’t cause people to] freak out about the circumstances of this family. We used to say, “But they have this gorgeous house in Pacific Heights! They’re going to be okay.” But it was very important that we countered this family trying to reconstitute itself after a tragedy with some sense of security. Ultimately, I don’t think it mattered at all, I don’t think they were concerned with Will this family survive? versus What is their life like when they don’t have people telling them what to do?

Keyser: We used to talk about the fact that Melrose Place would have people in a courtyard in a swimming pool, and you would cut to Lacey playing the violin. It was just not a good lead-in. And the network was very focused on the drop-off in the first two or three minutes. I remember a lot of meetings where they went through the ratings minute by minute. Our second episode, we went up against the premiere of ER. So two or three episodes in, our ratings were so bad, it wasn’t even really a question of what is the series on opposite us. We were just last.

Lippman: We came so close to being canceled so many times that I would get up in the morning and I would call in for the numbers, and I would think, “That can’t possibly be … Are they incomplete?” I couldn’t believe that people would not hang around to watch our show.

Wolf: There was always this sense [that] we might get cancelled at any second. We used to come to the set and kind of trepidatiously flick the light switch. Does it work? Do we still have power? We aired on Monday nights at first, so Tuesday was like, “Lights? Okay, we’re still at it.”

Keyser: After the second episode, Sandy Grushow called and said, “I know the ratings aren’t that great, but as long as I’m president of the network, the show is staying on the air.” And then he was fired, like, the next day.

Lippman: Almost every year there was a different president of the network, from Lucie Salhany to Sandy Grushow to John Matoian to Peter Roth to Doug Herzog to Gale Berman. Usually, if there’s a changing of the guard, it’s likely your work is viewed as a product of a different administration. But they all said, “We believe in the show, and people will come to it if we just keep it on.” I worked on a show called Lone Star, also for Fox, and it was canceled after a single episode. Same network, 15 years later. Either you brought eyeballs to it or you were off the air.

Keyser: There was a point in the middle of the season because John Matoian said he wanted something to catch on fire, for a “Hot Mondays” promo. We wrote an episode about a fire that happened at Salinger’s. We would take those marketing instructions and kind of subvert them a little bit, so they fit the tone of the show. They gave us some direction in the first season about wanting the kids to go to parties, and in episodes two and three, Neve’s character is kind of on the outside of a group, and she’s standing on the outside of a party and then never goes inside.

Lippman: We used to joke that you could cut from the last scene of our lead-in, which was people in bikinis at a pool party, and cut to our show, which was at a high-school bonfire in San Francisco, where people were wearing parkas! It was not a sexy show in any way.

Keyser: Five or six episodes into season one, they called us to say, “You’re not on the [schedule] board anymore, just so you know.” So although it was taken off the schedule, that was around the time when John Matoian decided to move us from Monday to Wednesday to give us one last push. We were lucky. It was either move or be canceled. 90210, even though we weren’t doing precisely the same thing — we lived in the same universe.

Lippman: My So-Called Life, it’s so crazy it was canceled. Generally, you feel competitive with shows that fall in your same genre, but we all watched that. We would come in and talk about it the next day. It was weird to be influenced by something that was going on simultaneously, but we all really respected that show.

Keyser: It became slightly competitive because of TV Guide [calling us] “The Best Show You’re Not Watching.” It’s not like we campaigned or anything. We were just happy to be on the cover! It led to our pickup for the second season.

Lippman: Joe Earley, who is now the COO [of Fox TV Group] was doing the publicity spots. They really knew how to sell, and it wasn’t dishonest selling.

Wolf: There was some product-placement stuff. You always sort of feel like you’re half in a commercial when there’s a particular soda everywhere you turn [laughs], but that’s just part of the business. I don’t want to disparage them. They’re a wonderful soda. [Laughs.]

Devicq: I remember we shot some promos promoting the Charlie-Kirsten romance, and it wasn’t like it was sexy-hot. They would have me and Matthew sitting in a chair together, like me sitting in his lap. To me, it was like promoting a love story. And I didn’t know how long it was going to last. Matthew and I had instant chemistry, but the first time I found out that Charlie and Kirsten were going to kiss, that we were going to have a romantic relationship, was when I read the script. I remember when we shot that first kiss, and Matt was like, “Can we just do one more take?” And I didn’t mind! [Laughs.] It was fun.

Campbell: I remember having to go do autograph signings in malls, but nobody really knew who we were yet! [Laughs.] They’d walk us through the mall to a table where there was like 20 people waiting there! It was just slightly devastating. [Laughs.]

Chabert: The first time I got recognized, I was in the mall with my mom. And someone was like, “You’re that girl in the tent on that show!”

Wolf: On one of our first trips to New York, they had 2,000 16-year-old girls at Webster Hall. They’re about to introduce Matthew and me, and both of us were kind of holding our breath, like, is this going to be a collective “Who?” And it was the opposite of that. It was like a Beatlemania experience. It literally shocked the two of us. It was pretty intense, like, We want to rip your sweater off!

Keyser: Neve early on didn’t understand why all the attention was on Scott and Matthew. We said, “The audience is going to respond to the hot guys right now. Your time will come.” And it did, in a pretty big way. She took off in some ways before anyone else.

Lippman: The 90210 kids got the sexy spreads where they were all in white halter tops. But they were always pretty respectful at our photo shoots. We’re just relieved none of them ever dated each other.

Chabert: [Laughs.] When I was 12, I wanted to marry Scott. Didn’t every 12-year-old want to marry Scott Wolf? [Laughs.] It’s not my fault! I think my adolescent heart was a little confused. I was 12!

Wolf: [Laughs.] That is so awesome. She turned it into big-brother energy very well.

Keyser: Simultaneous to getting moved to Wednesday nights, we pitched the network the Thanksgiving episode, which probably embodied everything that they were afraid of. But it was the episode that we had in our heads from the very first moment.

Lippman: We won the Humanitas Prize for that episode. It made us realize what we had in our actors because they each had monologues that were very, very taxing, particularly Matthew, who confronts the driver at the end of it. Every year, there was one big episode that we were sort of gunning toward, that kept the audience coming back.

Keyser: Matthew was amazing in that episode. He only had one take, because they had camera problems — but he was perfect.

Lippman: That’s like Claudia trying to pawn the violin, playing tag in the graveyard, and the baby walking — we thought about those moments long before we got to them. Even the last moment of the show, when they found a height chart in the closet and Claudia says to Charlie, “You’re taller than Dad.” By the way, we had a stunt baby, because the twins that we used for Owen were already up and walking. So we found a stunt baby, and we put double-sided tape on his feet, on his shoes. And he took one step, sat down, peeled the tape off his shoes, and ran off across the room! [Laughs.]

Chabert: Obviously it’s hard to tell a baby how to walk to a mark! Babies and animals have minds of their own.

Campbell: Remember the dog, Thurber? He was supposed to lick Lacey’s face, and the dog wouldn’t do it, so they covered her face in peanut oil to try to coax it to kiss her! Poor Lacey!

Chabert: They put everything on my face! Peanut butter! Bacon! Cream cheese! And he just never wanted to do it. It was kind of gross. But they were always very sensitive around me because it was like, Claudia got her first bra! Claudia got her first period! Claudia got her first kiss! It was particularly embarrassing having everyone watch me kiss a boy when I had never kissed a boy before in real life! And it feels a little weird to say [laughs], but Claudia got her period before me, too! And then they had to film this entire scene where Scott takes me to buy feminine products —  embarrassing. But it was real, about both grief and growing pains.

Keyser: We were only picked up for 13 episodes in season two. We weren’t even guaranteed a full second season until we won the Golden Globe [in January 1996]. Then we got the back order.

Chabert: For some reason I was wearing a tuxedo with Doc Martens, because I was a tomboy when I was younger, and here we are in this room with Brad Pitt, and then they call our name! It was just so shocking! The next thing I know, I think I jumped on my chair, I jumped on Matthew, or on Scott, and then we’re onstage accepting this award!

Devicq: I remember talk going around in the second season that they needed it to be more sexy, to sex it up. They had me in baggy sweaters at first, and then, slowly, they started to dress me better.

Lippman: We wrote an episode in season two where Julia had an abortion. Then we got a call from John Matoian, “I need to see you.” We walked in, and he burst into tears, “I’m so sorry. It’s what would happen. It would win awards. We cannot put it on our air.” So we had to make an adjustment to the story, that she miscarried, and that was distressing to us because we thought there was real value in showing what a character in that family under those circumstances would do. That was the only time that we really had to rethink something we believed in because of the suits.

Campbell: There were certain things that were a very big deal back then. Even when Julia had a kiss with a girl, that was a really big deal as well. There were certain things the network was brave enough to do, and certain things that they weren’t yet.

Keyser: After a while, this was a show whose principal audience was not just teenagers. The audience got older as the show went on. It settled into a show watched by people in their 20s and their 30s, because of the subject matter and the tone, which worked perfectly fine for them in the long run.

Lippman: It’s probably good that it ended when it did. The premise of the show couldn’t hold forever.

Keyser: They asked the cast who was willing to come back for a few episodes, and two of them were willing and two of them were not. But the network just decided that wasn’t enough.

Lippman: I think the last episode, we distributed to the press with Kleenexes. Shrink-wrapped Kleenexes with the cassette copy.

Keyser: I used to say “Tears would not be inappropriate here” ceaselessly on set.

Campbell: Our parting gift was a silver Kleenex box, which had that engraved in it. It was an on-set joke.

Devicq: I keep mine by my bedside.

Chabert: I keep mine in a box of memorabilia. And I still have my violin chair, the kickstand, and the mirror that was in Julia’s bedroom.

Keyser: I have the piano from the set in my living room. I have an attic full of what could be a Party of Five museum. I have so much stuff, you could come over and I could give you pounds of it!

Chabert: When you spend that much time with people, you either love them or hate them, and we truly loved each other.

Party of Five Season 1 Oral History