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TV Preview: Squirrel Hill family lovingly dishes dirt on co-creator of NBC comedy

Wednesday, January 10, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Tonight on "Ed," the parents of Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh) visit their son in his hometown of Stuckeyville. And at least one real-life couple will be paying close attention.

Natalie Beckerman is pleased with her bowling while husband, Alan, and son, Jamie, watch at Forward Lanes in Squirrel Hill. Jon Beckerman, co-creator of "Ed" and son of Natalie and Alan, bowled at the Forward Lanes as a youth. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Alan and Natalie Beckerman of Squirrel Hill share their first names with Ed's parents (played by Philip Bosco and Jane Summerhays). But it's no coincidence. They're the parents of Jon Beckerman, who created "Ed" with Rob Burnett.

In a phone interview last month, Beckerman, 31, said despite shared names, the characters on "Ed" are nothing like his real-life parents.

"What's funny to me is how different they are from my parents," Beckerman said. "They have the appearance of fairly normal, typical parents, but they do some very surprising things in the episode. They're kind of a nightmare, which I would never say about my own parents."

Nor they about Jon.

In an interview last month at Forward Lanes in Squirrel Hill -- where else would you meet the family of a guy who writes a show about a lawyer who practices law in a bowling alley? -- Alan, Natalie and Jon's brother, Jamie, spoke with pride and familial candor about Jon.

Sitting in white plastic chairs around a table beneath a beach umbrella as the sounds of falling pins filled the bowling alley, Jamie remembered himself and Jon having birthday parties at Forward Lanes. But that probably didn't inspire Beckerman when he and Burnett dreamed up the premise for "Ed."

"He was a very bad bowler," Jamie recalled.

"He was a terrible athlete," Natalie said. "I just remember once he was playing baseball and he was in the outfield and [Jon and a teammate] got into talking and the coach yelled, 'Beckerman, play ball!' "

Although he did play on the badminton team at Shady Side Academy (Beckerman graduated in 1987), athletics won't play a prominent role as we construct a pseudo-"E! True Hollywood Story."

"He was always very creative," Alan Beckerman said of his oldest son. "I thought he would go into science or math, but at the end of his first year of college [at Harvard], he came home all happy and said he selected his major."

It wasn't what Alan, general manager of Menasha Corp.'s package products division on the North Side, expected to hear: Jon had decided to major in philosophy.

"I said, 'Jon, what do you do with your life when you get a degree in philosophy?' He said, 'Don't worry, Dad.' And I figured he was right, so I never really worried about it," Alan said. "It's not always easy to do."

Jon wrote and did illustrations for the Harvard Lampoon, eventually becoming its president. Six months after graduation, he landed a job writing for NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman" and then moved with the show to CBS, where he rose to become "Late Show" head writer.

While working for Letterman, Jon appeared on camera a few times, including an appearance as the most depressed member of the studio audience who received counseling from Bill Murray and the Rev. Al Sharpton.


When: 8 tonight on NBC.

Starring: Tom Cavanagh, Julie Bowen.

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Jamie, now 29 and a second-year resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, was drafted into duty for Letterman for a skit that required a guy to run across the Boston University football field naked.

"This was the first time I saw him naked in about 28 years, so we slowed down the VCR," Natalie said.

"I'm glad it was good for you, too," Jamie replied. "The funny thing is, afterwards I got a call from a friend who lives in Montana who I hadn't talked to in five years, and they said, 'Were you on TV naked last night?' "

Jon's work with "Late Night" and 'Late Show" led him and Burnett to create "Ed," which is produced by Letterman's production company. So far Alan and Natalie have filmed one short scene for "Ed," walking out of Dr. Jerome's office.

"The director told me to look like I had just come from the proctologist," Alan said.

Jamie is still hoping for a gig as Ed's brother, and Jon said the role may be available.

"We still have the latitude to decide whether we want Ed to have siblings," Jon said. "It has not been specifically mentioned, so it hasn't been ruled out. I think my brother could pull it off if he wasn't so busy saving actual human lives. I'm sure we'll get him on TV at some point."

The most telling signs Jon would someday be involved with a creative venture like writing for television can be found in his childhood. Jamie recalled the brothers doing magic shows and mime acts as children. They also recorded commercial parodies on a tape recorder and performed shows for their parents.

"A typical picture in our house would be you'd walk by my room and I'd be jumping up and down on the bed, and [in Jon's room], Jon would be lying face down on his bed with his head dangling over the end with his face in a book," Jamie said. "[Doing shows] was a way of pulling him into hanging out with me."

Natalie said when the boys put on shows, Jamie was the primary performer with Jon behind the scenes.

"Jon would be looking at the audience, who unfortunately happened to be my husband and myself because these shows were pretty bad, and if we'd nod off or take a peek at a newspaper, Jon would say, 'Hold it! Mom, you looked at the newspaper. Dad, you're sleeping, we have to start all over.' He was always very sensitive to your impressions of things."

Another sign that Jon would be a writer: He carried pencils and scraps of paper in his pockets.

"He'd write down all his ideas, and I'd invariably wash them in the washing machine," Natalie said. "So we always knew he'd be a writer."

As you can tell, laughter was common in the Beckerman home.

"He'd make fun of us all the time," Natalie said, "but in a real happy way."

"I was always the victim of his cartoons," Alan added. "And they were actually quite funny."

Some of Jon's childhood idiosyncrasies made their way into "Ed." In the pilot, bowling alley employee Shirley (Rachel Cronin) tells Ed she has "a kitty named Kenny."

"It's kind of weird; he had an obsession with cats when he was really little," Jamie said. "He loved cats. He ate Kit Kat candy and he had a couple of cats and they were all named Kitty. In families, everyone has nicknames, and we called Jon 'Kitty' for a year. The first thing he did after college in New York was buy a cat named Kitty."

On "Ed," the object of the main character's devotion is blond beauty Carol Vessey, played by actress Julie Bowen. Coincidentally, Jamie attended medical school with Bowen's younger sister. And coincidence or not, Jon's current girlfriend is a tall blonde, according to family members.

"Jon's always dated pretty blond girls," his father said.

"He never did in high school," his brother added helpfully.

Jon's parents think their son and Ed share other qualities.

"Jon is extremely kind," Natalie said. "He's a good person and not hurtful."

"Ed is basically a gentle character, and Jon is a gentle guy," Alan said. "I don't think he would be comfortable with a character who is harsh."

Jamie has been compared to Ed, too.

"Two different people at work, before they knew Jon was writing the show, came up to me independently and said, 'Have you seen a commercial for this new show? This character is exactly like you,'" Jamie said. "I translate that as Jon and I having senses of humor that are similar, and that's embodied in the character."

The Beckermans have started to receive recognition of their own, thanks to Jon's work on "Ed." For Natalie, Jon's success translated into a slightly off-beat sort of clout.

"Last week I went to the dentist to get my teeth cleaned, and inside this small office I heard a lot of noise, two women yelling at each other," Natalie said. "Finally, the door opens and both young dental hygienists come out and one says, 'Natalie, we've been fighting over who's going to clean Jon Beckerman's mother's teeth."

If that isn't strange enough an image ready-made for an episode of "Ed," nothing is.

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