Interview with Michael Gross

Michael Gross is known most for his role as Steve Keaton in “Family Ties” and Burt Gummer in the “Tremors” series. He was most recently featured in the TV series “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job” and currently finished filming the upcoming “Pizza Man”. Movie Mikes had the chance to talk to Michael and to discuss his role on “Family Ties” and his amazing career.

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Michael Gencarelli: You starred in the television series “Family Ties” from 1982-89. Did you enjoy playing the role of Steven Keaton?
Michael Gross: Actually, Mike, I’m not telling tales out of school because the producers know this…sometimes it was a love/hate relationship because, although I very much enjoyed the character, there were times before we all, and I’m including the writers and producers, found that character. Let me remind you that “Family Ties” was originally supposed to be a show about the parents and quickly became a show about the kids, most particularly Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox. So the producers themselves had different ideas about the character going into it and had no idea that the show was going to take the turns that it did. So it really took them another couple of seasons before they found what they wanted for Steven. There was one other thing that was on my mind throughout and that is that I had come from a theater background. I was more accustomed to playing several characters in one year than one character for seven years. And because of that I felt like a farmer being subsidized NOT to grow wheat. They were paying me a lot of money, it was a high profile show…it was a wonderful show. But there were times that I wanted more challenges then Steven. Fortunately those were the days when they were still doing a lot of made for television movies…we were very fortunate in those days not to be surrounded by so many reality shows…so there was a lot of work for writers and actors and directors to do. The “average guy” was not getting on the screen. But even though I was working apart from “Family Ties,” I wanted more variety. So in the love/hate part, that was the hate part, even though hate is probably too strong a word. Overwhelmingly I knew I was a very fortunate man, but I must say even then I took some things for granted. Since I was basically a child of the theater and hadn’t done a lot of television before…I hadn’t even watched a lot of television before because every night I was on a stage somewhere. I didn’t watch a lot of television and I didn’t know how to program my VCR…this was before the days of TiVo (laughs). I didn’t have shows that I watched regularly and I didn’t know the general quality of television so I might have been a little bit of a snob, if you will, about television. So I took part of what we did for granted. I thought all television shows were that well written and that all casts got along very well and all shows ran as well. I was invincible because I didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until I started looking around several years into the run. I saw open warfare on some sets between actors and producers or directors on shows of not very exceptional quality. And that is when I began to appreciate “Family Ties” all the more. I mean it’s like anything…if your girl walks out on you, you start thinking about the good times you had that you took for granted. So when “Family Ties” came to an end, with each passing year I look back on it and think, “my goodness, wasn’t I fortunate to have done that…to have had that opportunity.”

Mike Gencarelli: So did everyone get along on the set?
Michael Gross: Everyone got along very well. Short answer, we all did very well. As a matter of fact Meredith (Baxter) and I are still very good friends. We’re actually due for a reunion. Last summer, Meredith and I put together a little reunion with four of the cast members. Meredith, myself, Justine Bateman and Tina Yothers all live in the Los Angeles area. Justine and Tina each have two young children and have been married for years. Michael lives on the east coast. We tried to get him to come to the dinner but he was otherwise engaged. So the short answer is that Meredith and I and Justine and Tina and all our partners got together and had ourselves a wonderful evening. And we’re still very good friends. Meredith is probably the one I talk to the most. We’re very close in age and in life history. We probably have more in common.

Mike Gencarelli: OK, let’s switch gears to a favorite of mine. Have you enjoyed playing Burt Gummer in the “Tremors” movies?
Michael Gross: Oh boy! Burt has been very good to me. Burt was good to me from day one because I had been basically a theater and television baby for the most part. I had only done one feature film before that (the Lily Tomlin/Bette Midler comedy “Big Business”) because it took a pretty big commitment to do “Family Ties” and it wasn’t easy to get out and do other things. I didn’t know him at the time but Fred Ward was also in the movie as well and he went on to play one of the major characters in the first “Tremors” movie. I had barely crossed paths with him when we made “Big Business” in 1988 but the next year he and I worked together on “Tremors” along with Kevin Bacon. I was so fortunate…that role was a blessing because it was such a different character. For seven years people had been watching me do primarily one character and they come to know you as that character. And here was a director (Ron Underwood) and casting director who were willing to take a chance on me playing someone very different then the person they’d seen the past seven years on television. And that is a thrill for any actor. When somebody trusts you that much and takes a leap of faith in this way. “Because we think you’re a good actor we think you can do this.” To this day I don’t recall my audition for “Tremors” but the director claims to this day that I completely lost it as Burt…that at one point I was jumping on his desk defending my compound. I’ve told him that I swear I don’t remember that…the whole audition was a blur to me. Ron said he told the casting people, “this guy IS Burt.” They put their trust in me and thank God for that. Because to me it answered a very basic question: after “Family Ties” would I find work?” Because there’s that curse on people that have had successful series that never work again…or work only on series that fail…the “Seinfeld” curse they used to call it. So that question was answered for me right away. In fact, the day after the “Family Ties” wrap party I was on the set of “Tremors” playing Burt. I was very fortunate. I auditioned for it just as “Family Ties” was winding down and they gave me the role. I told them I just had to complete a few more episodes and they said “great, we’re not working until July.” “Family Ties” was winding down in late April. I decided to cut off my “Family Ties” beard the night after we wrapped. I shaved the beard, kept the mustache and became Burt. And Burt has been wonderful. Burt is, for me, what Alex P. Keaton was for Michael J. Fox. The writers fell in love with the character and when the writers fall in love with a character it’s heaven for the actor. They start writing for you…they start writing towards your strengths. There was nothing funnier to the writers on “Family Ties” then to have a teenager who walked around with an attache’ case and had a poster of Bill Buckley on his wall. And on “Tremors” the writers fell in love in the same way with Burt. They decided they had to feature the character more in the subsequent sequels. And once again, that was good fortune.

M. Gencarelli: Did you anticipate the character going on this long?
M. Gross: I know, it’s been 20 years. I think the story ended at “Tremors 4.” There are rumors on IMDB (Internet Movie Database) even now of a “Tremors 5” with the title “The Thunder from Down Under” but I haven’t heard a thing. In fact the producers of the films, the men who put their special stamp on the films, they have heard nothing about it. So it sounds to me like someone is having fun making things up. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. The rights aren’t owned by me, they aren’t owned by the original producers, they’re owned by Universal. Everybody seems to be doing remakes these days so some day, five or seven years from now, you may see somebody else playing Burt Gummer. I, of course, can’t possibly imagine that sort of thing! (laughs) But it could happen.

M. Gencarelli: I recently caught you on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job” You came on…I’m still laughing today. My parents are still laughing. My wife is still laughing. How did you get that gig?
M. Gross: They just happened to call me. They called me and they sent me this short script. And I have to be honest, I had never heard of the show but I’ve been told that several people have appeared on it…John C. Reilly has been on the show. My manager told me that. So I read the script and I thought, “man, is this weird.” I didn’t get it. So I sent it to my 40 year old son and I told him “you watch a lot more television then I.” Especially these shows on the web and on cable that are so far out. I told him I was going to send him a script. I want you to read it and tell me what you think of it. He called me within five minutes and said “do it!” I told him he hadn’t even had time to read it and he said “I don’t have to read it. It’s Tim and Eric. I watch the show all the time. My friends watch it all the time. Paul Rudd (who went to school with Mr. Gross’ son) watches it all the time. You’ve got to watch it.” Then, after I watched it he told me, “You’ve got to do it.” So I called my agent and I told him “I still don’t get it but I’ll do the show as a favor to my son.” (laughs loudly) As a matter of fact, I told Tim and Eric the same thing. I told them “you’re not going to believe this…I looked at the script and totally didn’t get it. But I’m doing the show because my son told me to do it.” And they thought that was a riot. They said, “that’s great…whatever got you here.” When I read the script I didn’t understand it…it sounded so goofy. But when it aired my wife, among other people, just howled. She said it was the goofiest, silliest thing she had ever seen. So it passed the wife test too. And the upshot is is that my son told me that they’ve been trying to get Paul Rudd to do the show and they couldn’t get him on. I was happy how it turned out and I did a favor for my son so it worked out well for me.

M. Gencarelli: You’ve pretty much split your career between television and film. Do you have a preference as to the work?
M. Gross: As a medium? No. What I look for is the script…a good piece of writing. And that can be on stage, on the small screen or the big screen. I would like to do more features for this reason, and this reason alone: it give you more credibility. I think the best work is done on television these days…things like the different HBO series…those recurring series are pretty darn good. Some of the stuff they did on “ER” (Mr. Gross had a recurring role as Noah Wylie’s father)…some of the things they did on “The West Wing”….I would have died to have been on “The West Wing.” I find a lot of things on television far more interesting than a blockbuster film. But, doing blockbuster films ups your paycheck and gives you more credibility. But all things being equal, I look for good writing. Wherever that good writing leads me, that’s where I tend to wander.

M. Gencarelli: I recently interviewed David H. Lawrence and he mentioned he was doing a movie called “Pizza Man,” a film you’re also starring in. Can you tell me a little about the film?
M. Gross: This is a perfect little piece. David plays a detective in the film. I don’t think we’re in any of the same scenes together. Shelly Long’s in it. And Frankie Muniz and Corbin Bernsen (another MovieMike interviewee). It’s a good cast. And it’s a nice example…I don’t know what’s going to happen with this film. Will it be a big success? Will it go straight to DVD? I don’t know but I was attracted by the writing. I was so attracted by the writing that I did a character who does not survive the length of the movie. At some point he’s killed in the course of the film. I mean, it’s not a cameo, he has a beginning, middle and end, but he doesn’t track through the whole film. But I liked the writing so much that I thought “I don’t have to be in the whole film.” I’d rather be on fewer pages and in fewer scenes then be in a long film where I’m just bored to death. He’s a nice character, a professor at a college who befriends Frankie Muniz. He’s kind of a father figure to Frankie’s character. And again, I said to the producers, you know I’ve played my share of nice fathers and I’m usually not interested in doing that but this is a testament to the writing that I did this. Because often I’m asked to play a guy that’s a father or father figure and I’m like “ho hum” because I’ve been there and I’ve done that. And the characters are not often well written. But this part was very well written. It’s a guy who has a strong personal story and is just a strong character in general. There’s nothing sentimental about it and I’m glad I did it. They just wrapped the film a few days ago and I wrapped a few days before that. It hasn’t been but a week since I finished.

M. Gencarelli: So what do you have planned for the future?
M. Gross: There’s nothing else I have planned for the moment. I’m up for a couple of things. There’s a movie I did called “Stay Cool” that was done by the Polish brothers (Mark and Michael). I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. It’s an interesting piece. Winona Ryder is in it…Hillary Duff. Chevy Chase. Frances Conroy. Right now they’re looking for distribution. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. Last I heard they were going to see if they could find a distributor. I’m not sure if I like my work in that or not. There are some things where I look at myself and go “what were you thinking?” That’s true. And this is one of those movies where … you know you look at some things you do and go “Yeah” and you look at other things you do and think “this was a weird choice.” So that’s one of the things where I haven’t decided what I feel about my performance yet.

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