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The Untold Truth Of Growing Pains

Broadcast television in the mid-1980s and early 1990s was dominated by domestic sitcoms — family-friendly shows about the trials and triumphs of parents raising kids and those kids bristling against their parents' authority. And among the many series about two financially secure parents raising a bunch of precocious and rambunctious offspring was ABC's Growing Pains

Hitting the air in 1985 and a ratings champion for most of its seven-year run, the series depicted the relatable and warm adventures of the Seaver family. Dad Jason (Alan Thicke) was a psychiatrist with a practice inside the family's well-appointed New York home, and mom Maggie (Joanna Kerns) worked as a TV news reporter while trying to raise rascally Ben (Jeremy Miller), neurotic overachiever Carol (Tracey Gold), and smirking bad boy Mike (Kirk Cameron). Growing Pains was a massive hit and made stars out of its cast, particularly Thicke and Cameron, and it still provokes nostalgic feelings for its contributions to the canon of goofy sitcoms.

Of course, in a show this popular, there's always more to the story than what you see on the screen. So, get ready to share in the laughter and love with these backstage stories about the rise, fall, and production of Growing Pains.

Growing Pains was a Cosby Show clone that starred a failed talk show host

Debuting on ABC in 1985, Growing Pains was the latest in a long line of American sitcoms about dads trying their hardest to raise kids in a changing world. It starred Alan Thicke as Jason Seaver, and he was an unlikely and risky choice. He'd only acted onscreen a few times before Growing Pains, but in his native Canada, The Alan Thicke Show was so popular that the talk show host was recruited to reformat it as Thicke of the Night, a late-night program to face off against NBC's The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It was a major flop and quickly canceled, but Growing Pains producers thought the affable Thicke might thrive in a family sitcom format. The one other finalist for the role? It was none other than Bruce Willis.

ABC was willing to take a chance on Growing Pains because it was a response to NBC's success with The Cosby Show, a massive hit upon its premiere in 1984. Critics of the time compared the show, unfavorably, to its predecessor, as both series were about hands-on doctor dads in New York trying to manage their outspoken broods of kids. "It's inspired by his success," Thicke told the Los Angeles Times, referring to Bill Cosby. "But it's not any more derivative of The Cosby Show than it is of, say, Father Knows Best."

Jason and Maggie Seaver were hot for each other off-screen

One of the most appealing elements of Growing Pains was the palpable chemistry between Alan Thicke and Joanna Kerns, the actors who played parents Jason and Maggie Seaver. This sitcom resisted the often popular TV choice to feature a couple who teased and undermined one another, and instead, it depicted a marriage between two people who actually liked each other. Playing those characters in such a way came easy and naturally to Thicke and Kerns. When the show entered production in 1985, they were very into each other. 

"When Growing Pains started, she had just been canceled from a show and divorced. I had just been canceled and divorced. We certainly had that in common, and we liked each other right off the bat," Thicke told HuffPost Live in 2015. The TV couple even discussed expanding their relationship to being a romantic pair off-screen, but then they "thought it through" and resisted the urge. As Thicke explained, "We made the very intelligent decision that the show might last longer than a relationship would, so would it be smart to just be friends and have that little bit of chemistry and preserve that, instead of going the other direction, with is fraught with peril?" Evidently, the answer was "yes."

Lots of actors were fired from Growing Pains

Finding just the right actors to play the various members of the Seaver family on Growing Pains wasn't easy. The show's casting department struggled to match performer to character, and those crew members had to make some hard decisions ... sometimes after they'd already supposedly made up their minds. 

Tracey Gold, a seasoned child star with more than 20 credits to her name at the time, auditioned to play studious Carol Seaver, but she lost out to an actor named Elizabeth Ward, who played the part in the Growing Pains pilot. "And then probably about two months later, I heard that they were going to recast the part of Carol Seaver, and they called and asked if I would come back in and read for it," Gold told Larry King Live. Gold cut a family vacation short to head back to Los Angeles, auditioning alongside Kirk Cameron to test for chemistry. This time, she got the gig. 

Maura Tierney – a major TV figure in the '90s and beyond with big roles on NewsRadio, ER, and The Affair – secured a part on Growing Pains in the late 1980s, which would've been one of her first acting jobs had producers not dismissed her mid-production. "I was fired from Growing Pains," Tierney told The A.V. Club, explaining that producers let her go after two days of rehearsals, she thinks because of either a "bad attitude" or an inability to follow scene partner Kirk Cameron's cues.

Sharing the laughter and love with that Growing Pains theme song

For the majority of its seven-season run, Growing Pains started most episodes with a loud blast of adult contemporary music. It was cheesy but catchy, guitar-driven but super soft all at once. The sitcom's very '80s theme song was officially titled "As Long As We Got Each Other," and it was performed by '60s and '70s country-pop hitmaker B.J. Thomas, best known for chart-toppers "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" and "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song."

Growing Pains frequently switched out different versions of the song. The first season featured Thomas singing alone, then a version with Jennifer Warnes ("Up Where We Belong," "The Time of My Life") played for several years, interrupted for a while with a take by Thomas and pop legend Dusty Springfield. But "As Long As We Got Each Other" has another celebrity connection. While Growing Pains star Alan Thicke had a successful side hustle as a TV theme song composer, he didn't write this one. John Bettis and Steve Dorff did, the latter of whom is the father of '90s acting sensation Stephen Dorff.

Tracey Gold missed several episodes because of health issues

Growing Pains, for all its sitcom corniness, offered some very realistic elements of family life, like how Mike Seaver teased sister Carol about her weight. According to E! True Hollywood Story (via the Orlando Sentinel), those "gags" were possibly a little too realistic because Gold couldn't help but internalize some of those cruel jokes. During her time on Growing Pains, she secretly suffered from the eating disorder anorexia, characterized by body dysmorphia and willful self-starvation. Her weight dropped from 133 pounds to a dangerously low 79. Her TV mom, Joanna Kerns, noticed, and sprung into action, asking the show's producers to have Gold hospitalized. "I just saw her wasting away, and she was getting foggy, and she couldn't remember lines, and I just was afraid that it was much further than any of us imagined," Kerns said.

While seeking treatment, Gold missed six Growing Pains episodes Growing Pains episodes in 1992, returning to shoot the final scene of the series finale where the Seavers eat pizza together. For someone coping with an eating disorder, that proved hard. "I couldn't eat pizza," Gold said on Oprah: Where Are They Now (via HuffPost). She was so overwhelmed that she said she had to "very badly fake-eat" the pizza. "I mean, where did my acting skills go in that last scene? Horrible! I forgot how to hold a piece of pizza. It was ridiculous."

Kirk Cameron found religion and lost a costar

Growing Pains was a family show, and the first actor listed in the credits was Alan Thicke, but the star of the series was really Kirk Cameron. He was one of the most popular teen idols of the 1980s, and he was the reason many of Growing Pains younger viewers watched, giving him plenty of pull with both producers and ABC. According to E! True Hollywood Story (via the Orlando Sentinel), Cameron was left feeling empty by sitcom fame and fortune, and he found purpose when he fully committed to his Christian faith. However, castmates felt him pull away and become more distant, and then he tried to alter the course of the show. 

Cameron asked writers to make the irresponsible and flirtatious Mike more mature and demure, and when scripts didn't meet his guidelines of what he found to be morally acceptable, he'd ask for script changes. Cameron endured pushback and went over writers' and producers' heads, telling ABC executives that Growing Pains producers were little more than pornographers. According to Us Weekly, Cameron grew incensed when he discovered that Julie McCullough — who played Mike's fiancée, Julie Costello — had once appeared nude in Playboy. According to McCullough, that got her fired (and the fictional wedding called off), while Cameron stated that the Julie role was always meant to be a finite, short-term thing.

Growing Pains was Robin Thicke's big break

Currently a panelist on Fox's hit musical competition series The Masked Singer, Robin Thicke made a name for himself as a huge R&B and pop star in the 2000s, scoring big hits like "Lost Without U" and "Blurred Lines." Plus, he caused scandals when he twerked with Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards and when he later tried to reconnect with his estranged wife via a confessional concept album.

Thicke's long and bizarre journey to fame began in earnest on Growing Pains. His father was the show's star, the late Alan Thicke, who used his clout to get him onto the popular sitcom. The younger Thicke played "Boy at Party" and "Boy in Classroom" — glorified extras — in two late '80s episodes of Growing Pains before graduating to the bit role of "Ralph" in 1989. In the 1991 episode "Ben's Rap Group," Seaver sibling Ben attempts to launch and manage the Fresh Kids, a boy band and hip-hop group. And front and center for the Fresh Kids, showing up in their low-budget music video filmed in a junkyard, is none other than Robin Thicke.

Growing Pains made history in China

After Mao Zedong rose to power and his government's specific brand of Communist rule took hold, China largely isolated itself from the Western world. Not until the 1980s did the state-controlled Chinese media allow television shows produced in the United States to air within its borders. And one of the very first American shows approved by Chinese network Shanghai Television was none other than Growing Pains

Debuting in 1991, it represented the first glimpse of day-to-day American domestic life (or at least the sitcom version of upper-middle-class American life) for millions of viewers in China. It also left an indelible impression on younger viewers, who noticed a stark contrast between Jason and Maggie Seaver's parenting style and that of their own fathers and mothers. "Like most of the children in my generation in China, I'm a single child. Both parents worked, and there was not much communication other than about my performance at school," Weng Chen wrote on NextShark. "I couldn't have fathomed the family relationship being like that, equal, harmonious, compassionate, and affectionate." 

When Growing Pains dad Alan Thicke died in 2016, remembrances became a phenomenon on Chinese social media, with countless posters recalling their warm and fuzzy nostalgia over who they considered the ideal parent.

The show didn't gain much from Leonardo DiCaprio

By 1991, Growing Pains was entering its seventh season and running on fumes. Central teen characters Mike and Carol Seaver had grown into young adulthood, thereby rendering the show's childrearing premise increasingly obsolete. Viewers were abandoning the series, too. Once ABC's most-watched show, Growing Pains finished the 1990-91 season just barely in the top 30 of the ratings. So, producers attempted to save the show by bringing in a new teenager. At the start of season seven, the Seavers unofficially adopted a wayward and abandoned kid named Luke Brower, portrayed by an up-and-coming young actor named Leonardo DiCaprio.

The presence of the future Titanic sensation and Academy Award winner didn't delight one important Growing Pains figure. Jeremy Miller, who portrayed Ben Seaver, was right around the same age as DiCaprio, and he was ready for the teen idol spotlight that costar Kirk Cameron had basked in for so long. "It bothered me a little bit that the network felt necessary to bring him in rather than focusing on my character, who had now grown up and could now take over for Mike as the rapscallion," Miller said on Oprah: Where Are They Now (via HuffPost).

However, the soft reboot didn't work. Ratings continued to drop, and DiCaprio left Growing Pains before the end of the season, which would turn out to be the series' last.

Whatever happened to the Seavers?

Growing Pains didn't enjoy a high-profile, much-discussed big finale episode the way series like Game of Thrones or Friends did. In 1992, it sputtered to an end after seven seasons, finishing as the 75th most-watched show on broadcast TV, a far cry from its time as a top five show. 

Nevertheless, as the years went by, ABC figured that all those viewers who tuned out before the end of Growing Pains wanted to know how the Seaver family story ended, and in the 21st century, the network commissioned two made-for-television reunion movies. Airing in 2000, The Growing Pains Movie showed Mike Seaver growing up to be an advertising executive with four children, Carol becoming a corporate attorney, Ben cleaning pools, and Maggie running for elected office. In 2004's Growing Pains: Return of the Seavers, Jason and Maggie consider selling the family home on Long Island but decide not to, on account of all the great memories.

The next and final Growing Pains reunion came in a meta, self-deprecating way, as an episode of Unusually Thicke, Alan Thicke's Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque comedy that aired from 2014-15 on Pop. In "A Growing Pain in the Butt," Thicke participates in a strange Growing Pains reboot filmed without the knowledge of his old castmates (who appear as themselves).

Growing Pains' connection to WandaVision

Almost every major sitcom of the 1980s generated a spinoff. It was simply how the television business worked at the time. Take a new character on an episode of the original show and send them along on their own adventure. For example, The Cosby Show spawned A Different World, and Growing Pains led to Just the Ten of Us.

Just the Ten of Us revolved around the minor character of Mike Seaver's high school gym teacher, Coach Lubbock (Bill Kirchenbauer), who'd appeared in scarcely half a dozen episodes before he lost his job and moved to Northern California — with his wife and eight children — to become the coach at an all-boys parochial school. However, the show's writers quickly downplayed its adult characters and focused on the teens, particularly the four oldest Lubbock daughters. Nevertheless, the series wasn't a hit, and it lasted 48 episodes before getting canceled by ABC in 1990. 

Matt Shakman, a child actor whose career peaked and also ended with Just the Ten of Us, played mischievous Lubbock tween Graham Lubbock Jr., "J.R." for short. He went on to be a prolific television director, and in 2021, he helmed every episode of the ambitious and high-profile Marvel Cinematic Universe series WandaVision. Each installment of WandaVision embraces and mocks the tropes of a different era of sitcom, and episode five sent up Growing Pains and, by extension, Shakman's Just the Ten of Us.