My Life and Times


Tom Irwin starred in this unique yet short-lived half-hour drama series as an elderly man in the year 2035 looking back on his life. Created by Ron Koslow, it debuted in April 1991 on ABC as the first weekly series from ABC Productions, the network’s in-house production unit. That didn’t stop ABC from pulling the series due to low ratings after just two episodes had aired. Four additional episodes were burned off, leaving one unaired.

ABC’s 1990-1991 Development Slate

In the early months of 1990, with the end of the 1989-1990 television season in sight, network executives at ABC, CBS and NBC were hard at work developing their first fall schedules of the new decade. They faced increasing competition from the upstart Fox Broadcasting Company, a rise in the use of VCRs and a loss of viewers to cable worsened by the recent 1988 writers’ strike.

Just as it had for the 1988-1989, ABC was ranked second in the Nielsen ratings for the ongoing 1989-1990 season, behind NBC. In mid-March 1990, it announced its development roster for the 1990-1991 season, which featured 13 sitcoms, 15 hour-long dramas, two half-hour dramas and several projects aimed at providing America’s Funniest Home Videos a suitable companion [1].

The sitcoms included Baby Talk, Dad’s a Dog, Going Places, Ladies Man and The Belles of Bleeker Street. The hour-long dramas included Cop Rock, Hammer, Slammer and Slade, Human Target, Plymouth, Tag Team and True Believer. The two half-hour dramas were The Danger Team and My Life and Times.

ABC Productions, the network’s new in-house production unit headed by former ABC Entertainment president Brandon Stoddard, had four projects in contention for the 1990-1991 season. There was a sitcom (An Adult Comedy), an hour-long drama (K-9), a half-hour drama (My Life and Times) and a reality series (The Great American Scavenger Hunt). According to Broadcasting, My Life and Times was considered “one of the most talked about projects” in development at the network [2].

Asked about his network’s in-house development and My Life and Times specifically, ABC Entertainment president Robert Iger said in an April 23rd interview with Broadcasting that the series hadn’t been picked up yet and that no decisions had been made about the pilots from ABC Productions [3].

A Network Willing To Take Chances

Several of ABC’s potential new series for Fall 1990 had unusual concepts: Cop Rock was a musical police drama; Dad’s a Dog was about a divorced voice actor who portrayed a dog in a sitcom; Plymouth was about a small town forced to live on the Moon due to a chemical spill; The Danger Team featured a trio of claymation characters who work with a young detective; and My Life and Times was about an old man in 2035 reflecting on his eventful life.

Iger, who replaced Stoddard as president of ABC Entertainment in March 1989, was willing to take risks and give producers the chance to develop unlikely projects. He had all but single-handedly convinced top ABC executives to pick up Twin Peaks, which premiered on April 8th, 1990 to critical acclaim and high ratings. “Even if ‘Twin Peaks’ caves in,” wrote Dennis Kneale in The Wall Street Times, “it has already won ABC new cache in Hollywood as the hands-off network, eager for ideas that are daring and different. And it has emboldened Mr. Iger and his team to raise the bar for how strange a show can get” [4].

Of the various bizarre possibilities it was considering, only Cop Rock would ultimately find a place on ABC’s 1990-1991 schedule when it was announced in May 1990 [5]. The network’s other new shows for the fall were America’s Funniest People, Married People, Gabriel’s Fire and Going Places. Held until mid-season were seven additional new shows, including My Life and Times and Under Cover.

Cop Rock failed to attract viewers and was off the air by December 1990 after just 11 episodes. Twin Peaks, after a successful yet brief spring run, was renewed for the 1990-1991 season but soon faltered and declining ratings led the network to place it on hiatus in February 1991, with the remaining episodes aired between March and June.

In mid-January 1991, Broadcasting predicted that My Life and Times would likely be the first ABC Productions project to hit the air [6]. On March 18th, Broadcasting reported that the series would premiere on Wednesday, April 24th, taking over the time slot held by earlier mid-season replacement Anything But Love [7]. ABC Productions had received a seven-episode order for the series.

The Long Life of Ben Miller

Set in the year 2035, My Life and Times starred Tom Irwin as 85-year-old Ben Miller, who lived in a retirement community where he looked back on his life and shared his experiences with friends and family. Framing sequences were set in 2035 while the bulk of the episodes featured flashbacks to the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s.

Irwin portrayed the old Ben in 2035 as well as younger versions in the flashbacks. Megan Mullally co-starred as Susan Valentine, one of the aides at the retirement community, and Helen Hunt played Rebecca Miller, Ben’s wife, in flashbacks.

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Within the fictional timeline of the series, Ben had been born in 1950. He met Rebecca in college but the two drifted apart, only to later reconnect and marry in April 1985. They had their first child, Daniel, in October 1989 on the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake. The two later had a daughter, Melanie.

Rebecca died in 1999, a year after the family survived the economic collapse of 1998. Ben later remarried but his second wife either died or the two had separated by 2035. He had at least two grandchildren, Robert and Michael, who were Daniel’s sons.

Although portions of the episodes were set in 2035, there were only occasional looks at what the future might be like. Ben and others wore individual health monitors, for example. There was an advanced monorail system in place. One episode set in 1999 involved a bullet train capable of traveling at 250 miles per hour.

A 2035 newspaper glimpsed in the pilot episode featured the headline “President Kennedy Has Twins.”

A Novel Approach to Television

My Life and Times was created and executive produced by Ron Koslow, whose previous series Beauty and the Beast aired for three seasons on CBS from 1987 to 1990. According to Koslow, he had originally thought up My Life and Times long before Beauty and the Beast but didn’t have a chance to develop it until the latter series had ended [8].

Koslow told Susan King of The Los Angeles Times “the idea of a new vantage point from which to look at our life and times was something that appealed to me. It seemed to hold a lot of possibilities” [9]. The half-hour length of the series was of particular interest to him. “After working in the hour form for three seasons,” he explained, “you realize that in many hour shows, even good hour shows, there’s only a half-hour of great stuff. The rest is moving people in and out of cars. I wanted to try and find a way to cut to that good stuff, the meaty half hour” [10].

Still, Koslow didn’t feel the show was really that unusual, telling USA Today that the concept was “the oldest form of storytelling – an old man sitting by a fire, telling stories of the days of yore” [11].

A complete back story for Ben Miller was written, more than what would unfold in the initial seven-episode order [12]. The character’s life was fully developed, allowing for future tales should the series succeed.

Koslow praised Tom Irwin’s portrayal of the Ben, telling Scott Williams of the Associated Press:

He’s an enormous asset in a very arduous role. Unlike most series roles, which are fixed when you think about it, this character is constantly changing with each episode. And because we’re constantly jumping back and forth in time, this character has to be able to hold his story.

He has to know and hold his future, his present and his past — and that has to inform his acting. Psychically, that is a tremendous exercise. Now, today, I can’t imagine anyone else in that role.

It allowed me to get to the good stuff — what writers like to write about — and to crystallize the ideas in the storytelling. [13]

Joy Horowitz of The New York Times suggested that creatively risky My Life and Times was an attempt by ABC to produce and own a half-hour series that would be more likely to succeed in syndication than an hour-long show [14]. Koslow agreed that “coming in-house, perhaps, allowed them [ABC] to take a risk they wouldn’t have taken had it come from the outside” and argued it only got on the air because Brandon Stoddard was supportive of the show [15].

Stoddard, while bullish on the future of in-house production companies, felt there “simplicity and directness” to a half-hour series, regardless of how it impacted future syndication revenue [16]. He told The Los Angeles Times “when we first talked about this show, conceptually, we both thought the half-hour would be a better form. Ron was nervous. He had never written a half-hour before. I am excited about it. There is no waste in time. Every line has to count” [17].

One of Koslow’s inspirations for My Life and Times was Michael Apted’s 1984 documentary 28 Up, one in a series of British documentaries chronicling the lives of a group of British children every seven years since 1964 [18]. “What’s remarkable about that work,” he explained to The New York Times, “is time is a major character in all the stories” [19].

Image from an episode of My Life and Times: actor Tom Irwin as elderly Ben Miller in 2035.
Tom Irwin as Ben Miller in 2035

Koslow and Apted had worked together on a 1984 film called Firstborn (written by Koslow, directed by Apted) and was sent scripts for the pilot and first episode. Apted told Los Angeles Times “I read this and said, ‘Oh, boy, this is something.’ I always kind of trumpeted the belief that it would be better if movie people worked in TV. It would make their work better and make TV better. Here was a chance to put my money where my mouth really was” [20]. Apted directed the pilot and first episode, both of which were written by Koslow.

Having the series debut in the spring was a good thing, according to Stoddard. “I think it’s a time when ABC has been very successful with putting on different kinds of shows,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “‘The Wonder Years’ and ‘Twin Peaks’ came on during the second season. You can bring on something special like ‘My Life and Times’ and get some attention paid to the show” [21].

Koslow wasn’t so sure. “It’s frightening to think that something as arbitrary as a time slot is your destiny. But TV has been such a great creative experience for me. The process has been so rewarding. In many ways, TV is about the work and the work gets done. I am very grateful” [22].

Near Universal Critical Acclaim

Television critics were for the most part supportive of My Life and Times. One early review from Canada’s Toronto Star in February 1991 noted the series “crams a lot of adventure and romanticized history into its 30-minute segments, and it’s quite mesmerizing as the hero darts back and forth through the canyons of the collective mind” [23].

Tom Shales of The Washington Post felt the half-hour length worked well for the series, suggesting it “may spearhead a new trend in television: the sit-dram.” He noted that the show was sometimes corny, sometimes sappy but nevertheless argued “there’s something refreshing and endearing about ‘Life and Times,’ something genuine and unguarded. It’s passionate and earnest, and hauntingly effective” [24].

Like many critics, USA Today‘s Matt Roush compared My Life and Times to The Wonder Years, only “the nostalgia is for the present and the voice-over narration is never as nagging.” He also compared it to Quantum Leap, only “less contrived.” Roush called the series “admirably humane and beautifully produced” while also “just a teeny bit full of itself” and urged viewers to find time to watch it [25].

Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal praised the series as “highly appealing” with “a script many cuts above the usual.” She appreciated how it depicted its elderly protagonist, writing “the conception (and the way it is carried off) is no small accomplishment, especially in view of prime time’s usually terrified treatment of the aged.” She also pointed out that the premiere had “moments of high silliness” [26].

The sap and sentimentality was almost too much for John J. O’Connor of The New York Times, who started his review with the following:

Ron Koslow is back in weekly television and romance is not just in the air; it’s under the floorboards and coming out of the heating ducts and oozing from the dialogue. When it comes to old-fashioned and unabashed romance, replete with appropriate music and poetry quotations, Mr. Koslow is clearly incurable. […] Depending on your internal romance barometer, get ready to swoon or scream. [27

He ended the review by pointing out “ratings aren’t known to be terribly romantic” [28]. Like O’Connor, Rick Marin of The Washington Times was critical of Koslow’s romanticism. He wrote:

“My Life and Times” […] is “thirtysomething” seen through the rearview mirror of a seventysomething.

Fresh concept. Unfortunately it belongs to executive producer Ron Koslow, the incurable romantic who Harlequinized “Beauty and the Beast” and wrote much bad pseudopoetry for that show’s hairy-but-sensitive manimal.

Hence the “Beastysomething” quality of “My Life and Times.” The show’s best moments are the understated ones; the worst come when it yearns to be profound. [28]

Marin called the plot of the pilot episode “one of those life-threatening, value-re-evaluating watershed moments,” while conceding that later episodes would be “more modestly plotted” than the pilot, aiming for “small epiphanies rather than big ones” [29].

Howard Rosenberg of The Los Angeles Times was also less than impressed with the series, arguing it was full of possibilities that simply weren’t realized in any of the episodes available for preview. Instead, the series “reeks of righteousness, heavy sentiment and predictable endings.” He concluded that My Life and Times was “an interesting idea, yet one whose initial thickness even an earthquake can’t shake up” [30].

A Quick Cancellation

My Life and Times premiered on Wednesday, April 24th, 1991 — the first night of the important May sweeps period. It aired from 9:30-10PM after Doogie Howser, M.D. and was followed at 10PM by Gabriel’s Fire. It competed with the second half of Jake and the Fat Man on CBS and the second half-hour of “The 26th Annual Country Music Awards” on NBC.

Tom Shales reported on April 26th that the debut averaged a 10.6/17 Nielsen rating, well below the 15.2/25 rating for Doogie Howser, M.D. [31].

It ranked third in its time slot, far behind the 15.7/25 for the 9:30-10PM portion of the awards special on NBC and just behind the 10.7/17 for the second half-hour of Jake and the Fat Man. It was not, however, the lowest-rated program on ABC for the evening. That honor went to Gabriel’s Fire, which drew an 8.6/15 rating. For the week, the premiere of My Life and Times ranked 45th out of 90 programs on the air. Doogie Howser, M.D. ranked 15th while Gabriel’s Fire was 61st [32].

The following week, My Life and Times performed even worse, averaging an 8.5/14 rating and ranking 66th for the week out of 90 programs. This time, it was a very poor third in its time slot, behind both Dear John on NBC (11.9/20 rating) and the second half of Jake and the Fat Man on CBS (11.0/18 rating) [33].

On May 3rd, only two days after the second episode aired, ABC pulled the series from its schedule, replacing it with Anything But Love (ironically the very series it had replaced). The network stated the remaining five episodes would be broadcast at a later date [34]. A few days later, on May 9th, ABC announced it would burn off four of those episodes over the course of two weeks, airing two episodes back-to-back from 9-10PM on Thursday, May 23rd and Thursday, May 30th [35].

Image from an episode of My Life and Times: actor Tom Irwin as young Ben Miller in 1985.
Tom Irwin as Ben Miller in 1985

Brandon Stoddard was understandably upset at the way ABC treated the series. “You have to wonder,” he asked The Los Angeles Times, “how advisable it is to take off something that is good when maybe you don’t have anything as good to replace it. It certainly does not fill one with optimism.” ABC was of course under no obligation to stick by My Life and Times just because it was produced by ABC Productions [36].

Still, it was difficult for Stoddard to see the series pulled after just two low-rated episodes while another new ABC series, Dinosaurs, drew a huge audience when it debuted two days after My Life and Times. “I have some fear and anxiety about the future of quality drama, which needs time to be nurtured,” he said. The quick cancellation of My Life and Times left him “gun-shy” and “wary of going into the same battle again. If others are feeling the same way, that will be very sad for network television” [37].

ABC announced its 1991-1992 schedule on May 21st and not surprisingly My Life and Times was nowhere to be seen. Anything But Love, which performed better than My Life and Times, was renewed, as was low-rated Gabriel’s Fire (revamped as Pros and Cons) [38].

The two episodes burnt off on May 23rd drew a 5.4/10 rating and a 5.2/9 rating, respectively, ranking 69th and 71st for the week (out of 83 programs). A repeat of Anything But Love broadcast the previous day averaged an 8.9/15 rating [39].

Facing weaker competition on NBC the following week, the two episodes aired on May 30th performed slightly better, averaging a 6.5/12 and a 6.1/11 rating and ranking 66th and 69th for the week (out of 91 programs) [40].

ABC showed six of the seven produced episodes, leaving one unaired.

The Episodes

Each episode of My Life and Times was framed by conversations between Ben and friends or family members in 2035 with the bulk of the action taking place in the form of a flashback or flashbacks. Someone he knew came to him with a problem, or was obviously troubled about something, and Ben would share his own life experience in an attempt to provide guidance or help. He provided additional narration during the flashbacks.

Tom Irwin was the only member of the cast to appear in every episode. Helen Hunt appeared in five of the six aired episodes as Rebecca Miller while Megan Mullally was in three as Susan Valentine.

Tim Stack played the adult Daniel in 2035 in three episodes while Regina Leeds played adult Melanie in one episode. In flashbacks, Daniel and Melanie appeared as children in two episodes, played by Sean Baca and Emily Ann Lloyd. Grandson Robert was played by Matt McGrath in three episodes, while Christopher Pettiet played grandson Michael in one episode. Whether any of these characters appeared in the unaired episode is unknown.

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In the series premiere (“April 9, 2035,” aired April 24th) Ben was visited by his grandson Robert, who told him he hadn’t been accepted at Princeton. Ben decided to tell him about the day his first child was born. It was October 17th, 1989. He was driving to the hospital with his boss when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. The car was crushed and his boss died shortly thereafter. By the time Ben made it to the hospital his son had already been born. The experience convinced Ben to give up his job writing ads and try again to be a novelist. Back in 2035, he told Michael “sometimes you have to let go of your plans. Sometimes life has better plans. Sometimes you have to let life pick you up and carry you away.”

At the very end of the premiere, Ben met a new resident at the retirement community, a woman he recognized as Jessie (played by Harriet Medin). The second episode (“Jessie,” aired May 1st) picked up right where the first left off. He told Jessie about the day they met. It was July 5th, 1978. It was love at first sight for Ben, but the younger Jessie (played by Claudia Christian) vanished after their weekend together.

He saw her again three years later, but she ignored him and later pretended she didn’t know him. Then, in 1985, shortly after Ben married Rebecca, she returned once more, and revealed her real name (Brooke) and why she had disappeared. Back in 2035, Ben told the elderly Jessie he had dreamed about finding her again after Rebecca died. She felt the same way.

The third episode (“Our Wedding,” aired May 23rd) saw Ben share the story of his wedding and how Rebecca’s parents had tried to turn it into a huge, lavish event and nearly caused them to call the whole thing off. But they reconciled and were married outside the chapel, as “Lean On Me” played in the background.

Image from an episode of My Life and Times: actress Helen Hunt as Rebecca Miller.
Helen Hunt as Rebecca Miller

In the fourth episode (“Millennium,” aired May 23rd), Ben and Jessie were joined by Ben’s family to help ring in 2036. But grandson Robert was depressed about a girl so Ben told him about New Year’s Eve 1999, the dawn of the new millennium. Rebecca had passed away from cancer and Ben was having trouble handling his children, Danny and Melanie.

The three boarded a bullet train bound for Illinois, where a family reunion was waiting, and Ben met a woman named Lily Matheson (played by Lisa Zane). The two had a nice talk. The next day Danny, upset after an argument with Ben, got off the train at the wrong station and ran away. Lily helped Ben search for his son and, after finding him, the four celebrated the new year together. Lily and Ben fell in love and were later married. The moral of the story, Ben told Robert, was that love will find him when he least expects it.

Ben’s adult son came to him in the fifth episode (“Fare on Park Avenue,” aired May 30th) worried that he was going to lose his business after making a bad investment. Ben revealed that in 1987 he invested nearly all the money he and Rebecca had saved on the advice of an old friend working on Wall Street. The stock market crashed shortly thereafter and he lost everything. But his friend lost even more and committed suicide. Looking back, Ben regretted not doing more to help his friend but was thankful that Rebecca kept him from going over the edge as well.

In the sixth and final aired episode (“The Collapse of ’98,” aired May 30th), Ben was visited by both his grandchildren. Robert would be leaving for college soon and Michael wasn’t nearly as interested in spending time with his grandfather. Ben told the two about the economic collapse of 1998, when the family lost everything. Ben had to quit writing and got a job working in the shipping and receiving department at an international conglomerate, where the family lived in company housing.

Although lucky to have work, Ben soon learned that a bitter co-worker was funneling equipment and supplies to the black market. He could either get in on the action and stay silent or raise the alarm and risk reprisal. Ultimately, Ben couldn’t live with himself if he kept his mouth shut and confronted the co-worker. They were both fired. Ben was able to find another job, the family survived, and most importantly Ben kept his conscience clean.

The seventh episode produced but never aired was titled “Mercury” and saw Ben working as a reporter in New York City, chasing a serial killer.

Final Notes

ABC never repeated My Life and Times. It has never been released commercially.

The seventh episode produced has never been aired in the United States.

Composer Don Davis recieved a nomination in the Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition for a Series (Dramatic Underscore) category at the 43rd Primetime Emmy Awards (for “The Collapse of ’98”). He lost to John Debney and The Young Riders, also an ABC series.

Works Cited:
1 “Advertisers get grand tour of network development.” Broadcasting. 19 Mar. 1990: 30-31.
2 “Networks downscale in-house production.” Broadcasting. 9 Apr. 1990: 52.
3 “ABC’s Robert Iger: Patiently aggressive.” Broadcasting. 23 Apr. 1990: 50-51.
4 Kneale, Dennis. “Risk Taker: Which TV Executive Would Be So Bizarre As to Air ‘Twin Peaks’?” Wall Street Journal. 26 Apr. 1990: A1.
5 Kneale, Dennis. “ABC, NBC Reveal Prime-Time Lineups For Fall Season; Extensive Cuts Made.” Wall Street Journal. 22 May 1990: B10.
6 “New Deals for ABC Productions.” Broadcasting. 14 Jan. 1991: 55.
7 “In Brief.” Broadcasting. 18 Mar. 1991: 80.
8 King, Susan. “On View 2035: A TV Oddity.” Los Angeles Times. 21 Apr. 1991: 8.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Roush, Matt. “In the new ‘Life and Times,’ these are the good old days.” USA Today. 23 Apr. 1991: 3D.
12 Ibid.
13 Williams, Scott. “ABC revives half-hour drama form.” Associated Press. Kentucky New Era [Hopkinsville, KY]. 24 Apr. 1991: 6C.
14 Horowitz, Joy. “New Network Series Points to Creative Gambles.” New York Times. 22 Apr. 1991: C.13.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 King, Susan. “On View 2035: A TV Oddity.”
18 Horowitz, Joy. “New Network Series Points to Creative Gambles.”
19 Ibid.
20 King, Susan. “On View 2035: A TV Oddity.”
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid.
23 Quill, Byn Greg. “Mid-season sparks.” Toronto Star. 16 Feb. 1991: S4.
24 Shales, Tom. “Back to the Present; ABC’s Warm, Appealing ‘My Life and Times’.” Washington Post. 24 Apr. 1991: C1.
25 Roush, Matt. “‘Life’ is a grandly told tale.” USA Today. 24 Apr. 1991: 3D.
26 Rabinowitz, Dorothy. “TV: A Baby Mixup, an Old Man’s Reflections on His Life.” Wall Street Journal. 25 Apr. 1991: A13.
27 O’Connor, John J. “Looking Back to Now From Far Ahead.” New York Times. 24 Apr. 1991. C.18.
28 Ibid.
29 Marin, Rick. “‘My Life’ reaches, but can’t grasp real insight.” Washington Times. 24 Apr. 1991: E1.
30 Rosenberg, Howard. “Even the Jokes Are Old in ABC’s `Dinosaurs’.” Los Angeles Times. 26 Apr. 1991: 19.
31 Carmody, John. “The TV Column.” Washington Post. 26 Apr. 1991: b04.
32 “Ratings Roundup.” Broadcasting. 6 May 1991: 32.
33 “Ratings Roundup.” Broadcasting. 13 May 1991: 42.
34 Carmody, John. “The TV Column.” Washington Post. 6 May 1991: b06.
35 Carmody, John. “The TV Column.” Washington Post. 9 May 1991: d08.
36 Du Brow, Rick. “‘Hey, Will You Look at My Pilot?’.” Los Angeles Times. 12 May 1991: 8.
37 Ibid.
38 Goldman, Kevin. “Fox to Introduce New Shows Year-Round in Break from TV Season of Networks.” Wall Street Journal. 22 May 1991: B6.
39 “Ratings Roundup.” Broadcasting. 3 Jun. 1991: 38.
40 “Ratings Roundup.” Broadcasting. 10 Jun. 1991: 69.

Originally Published December 31st, 2013
Last Updated April 23rd, 2017



4 Comments

  • Did Ben Miller have a unique life story to be telling? Would something like this be more successful today on cable?

    • Robert says:

      A number of critics noted that Ben Miller was a writer, the implication being that Ron Koslow thought highly of writers (being one himself) and therefore felt the life of a writer was of particular interest.

      Were a cable channel attempt to revive the premise today, I wonder if it would be too politically charged one way or the other in its vision of the future and take on the present.

  • Sue says:

    thank you for a detailed reminder of one of my favorite television series of all times brief though it was…

  • Jon says:

    I remember watching the premiere episode, as well as the episode about the market crash. The timing of this show always stuck with me as well because a friend with last name of Miller had a son named Ben the previous month, so his newborn son had the same name as the main character of this show.

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