Interview – Michael Gross

michael grossLife is full of unexpected surprises. That could never be more true for accomplished actor Michael Gross, who was invited to reprise his iconic role of Burt Gummer in the Tremors series back in 2014. With plans to put together the first full-length Tremors film in over a decade, Gross agreed to come back on board. On October 6, 2015, Tremors 5: Bloodlines was unleashed on an excited fanbase. Dubbed one of “50 Greatest TV Dads of All-Time” by TV Guide for his role as Steven Keaton in ’80s sitcom Family Ties, Gross is a humble man who takes none of his success for granted with a career that has spanned over four decades now. With consist roles in films and television through the years, Gross dusted off Burt Gummer and brought him back to the big screen in a big way. Recently we sat down with Gross for a closer look at his career in acting, his time on Family Ties, the resurrection of Tremors, and much more. – You have attained quite an impressive career in television and film from your time on Family Ties to the highly successful Tremors franchise. What has this journey been like for you through the years?

Michael Gross – Wow, a journey is a surprise and wonder because there’s never any guarantee that anyone is going to make a living doing what I’m doing. I was back in one of my very first venues as an actor last week, in a wonderful regional theater called the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky. I was back there oddly enough for a film festival and the twenty-fifth anniversary screening of Tremors.

Returning to my roots, it was my first job out of Acting school in 1973, was an amazing experience. I realized, who knew what was going to happen. I was a 26 year old, appearing in Louisville Kentucky, remained there for three years, and loved it as a member of this company. Who had guessed that anything would happen. I left Louisville after three years, because I thought if I didn’t leave it, I would never leave it. I was enjoying it so much. Somebody said to me, “You conquered the big world out there.” I said, “I didn’t conquer, I just survived.” Conquering is a little different thing, I don’t even know what that means. I said, “I was happy to survive.” The fact that I have been allowed to play a variety of different sorts of characters, it’s really the icing on the cake. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

CBS Television Distribution
CBS Television Distribution
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures – As just mentioned, you were an intricate part of Family Ties, which aired for seven seasons. Do you have fond memories of your time as Steven Keaton, and what do you think helped make the series so successful?

Michael Gross – I can say the same things about Family Ties and Tremors. One is, it was a great ensemble cast. What made it successful? A great ensemble cast. In both cases, in Tremors 1, and the subsequent sequels, I think have had a great bunch of people, all of them were more than capable, very talented, and well-cast.

What also made Family Ties and Tremors good was damn good writing, to start with. I don’t make this stuff up, I don’t stand there like the late, great Robin Williams and just pre-associate. I need good material, I need a good script. Family Ties had that, week after week, 175 episodes of pretty amazing stuff. Same way I feel about Tremors. I start with good material, it’s almost failsafe. It’s almost hard to go wrong with good enough material.

I will tell you another thing that made Family Ties really wonderful, that was the character of Alex P. Keaton; a character with whom the audience fell in love, and more importantly, the writers. The producers fell in love with that character and they wrote strongly to Michael’s strength and the strengths of that wonderful fictional character who was always at war with his heart and his mind.

I will say the same thing about Tremors. What has made it enduring? The character of Burt Gummer. Again, I was the beneficiary, the same thing Michael Fox had with Family Ties, the writer and producers fell in love with the character of Burt. They said, “Let’s keep writing to his strengths, this is a great guy we’ve created, he’s a comic masterpiece,” and he was. I owe it all to them. They made bones, I hung some flesh of the bones, but they made the bones. Again, good writing, good ensemble work, a fine group of actors and a very strong central character. I think all of the characters, particularly in Tremors 1, were marvelous, but for some reason Burt caught on. You just don’t know when that’s going to happen. In Family Ties, the producers thought they were going to write a sitcom about the parents, 60s parents with 80s kids. Instead they found themselves writing a story about 80s kids who happen to have 60s parents (laughs). The whole focus shifted, I don’t know why that happened, in Family Ties precisely. A bit of magic, lightning in a bottle if you will, or why it happened with Burt, but Michael Fox was the beneficiary of that, and I have been the beneficiary of the wonderful writing, the ensemble and the magic that is Burt Gummer.

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures – It is quite amazing to think it has been twenty-five years since the original film, and as a result, four sequels have come about, including the most recent film Tremors 5: Bloodlines released October 6th. What did you think when they approached you about doing another Tremors?

Michael Gross – First of all, I couldn’t of been more surprised. It had been over 10 years, more like 12 or 13 since we have made a sequel. I just assumed that the Franchise was dead, a quartet of films seemed like the perfect place to end; a nice neat number. I just never assumed I would hear from them again. I thought it was wonderful, thought it was a great legacy that we left, thank you very much and on we go. So I get this call about a year and a half ago, nobody could have been more surprised than I.

Our executive producer at Universal Home Entertainment, Patty Jackson, has always been a fan of the franchise, and I think for thirteen years she has been trying to reboot it. I think she finally wore people down (laughs), who I think felt, “OK, we’ve done it, it’s over. There’s nothing left to mine here, no more veins to mine.” The series only ran for thirteen episodes. It was probably financially a failure, I don’t know what the numbers were, that’s why it was cancelled. We all thought it was over. I think Patty kept nibbling away at these people, and that the only way they could get her out of their office, was to do another Tremors. It’s to Patty I think we owe this debt of gratitude.

Still from Tremors 5: Bloodlines
Still from Tremors 5: Bloodlines – Well this new film is in fact the first full-length feature Tremors in over a decade. It certainly is entertaining with a good amount of humor intertwined within. What was it like for you to bring Burt Gummer back to life?

Michael Gross – I felt as if, in some ways, Burt has never left me in a certain sense; the memory of Burt and how he thinks has never quite left me. I have always been so fond of him; his comic paranoia, his obsessive compulsive disorder if you will (laughs). The man who is so exquisitely funny because he has no sense of humor; everything is so deadly serious. Comedy is about extremes in many cases, and this man is nothing but extreme.

The love and inner life of Burt has never entirely left me (laughs). I think the most challenging thing for me was realizing we were doing this one without the original creative group, that was S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, and Ron Underwood. Now Ron has never directed any of the sequels, he has only directed the original, but Brent Maddock and Steve Wilson had directed and/or written every other script. This was based on the script that was written a decade ago, it was re written by somebody else, another writer. There were a lot of discussions between this writer and myself, and Patty Jackson about how we wanted to make a Tremors for today, updated if you will, for people who may never have seen Tremors before. While we were updating, we wanted to make sure we were keeping a foot in the universe we have created 25 years ago. We could never lose sight of that, but we needed to have a different flavor for people who have never seen it before. Part of it was scary because, not only did we feel responsible for a new film, but we were also responsible for a legacy. – It worked well. It has a good story and flows well. In this new film you are given a new side kick in Jamie Kennedy’s character Travis Welker. What was it like working with Jamie?

Michael Gross – (laughs) It was a great deal of fun, and I think the chemistry shows through because Jamie and I have different ways of working. I come out of a theater background where I will get a script, and I will study the script, and I will work with the scripts for weeks in rehearsal, and then present it. Now, naturally, we don’t do that on the set of a film, but yet I’m a person who is very much based in the written work. Once those written words are perfect, I like going through different drafts. Burt has a very specific way of presenting himself; a specific language, a certain take on the world, which I have to think about sometimes because it’s not naturally my own. Jamie on the other hand, is somebody that works off the cuff, he’s used to stand up comedy, improvisation, and talking to audience members and picking up what was said before, before it was his turn to speak. He works in a lot looser way. In that respect, it was very well-suited for the character of Burt who wants things set out very neatly and nicely. The character of Travis is a little more like living life by the seat of his pants. I think the chemistry was marvelous in that way. We both have a common goal, slightly going different ways about it, and that chemistry shows beautifully on the screen because we are the odd couple (laughs).

That’s perfect for Burt, for him to work and to get the most comedy out of this character, you have to have him working with someone that’s vastly different than he is. For example, in the first film, why he and Kevin Bacon ultimately came to blow was the fact that he and the Kevin Bacon character, Val, had very different ways looking at the world. Val was a screw up. Val was a guy that never planned ahead, Val was a guy that took life as it went. As Earl (Fred Ward) kept telling him, “You need a plan, you need to make a plan.” Burt is all about planning, to the Nth degree, and Val is like, “Well whatever happens, happens.” That’s why Burt and the Kevin Bacon character, Val, ultimately have conflict. There’s no place like Val in Burt’s world; a man that doesn’t plan, a man that isn’t prepared for any contingency, doesn’t have six months worth of food and fuel in his house. In the same way, I think the character of Jamie Kennedy works very well for Burt because they are so different. Nothing stirs Burt’s pot like a guy like a Valentine in the first movie or Travis in this film.

Still from Tremors 5: Bloodlines
Still from Tremors 5: Bloodlines – That definitely adds fuel to the fire and makes it that much more fun, as well as balances out the humor excellently. I thought the chemistry between you and Jamie was excellent. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. covers music and Horror films. If you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorite Horror films?

Michael Gross – Let me give you a few off of the top of my head. First I’ll give you some titles without explaining any of them. You mentioned Psycho (1960), right there on top of the list. The Omen (1976), many years ago with Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, two superb actors and I think a wonderful piece. The Exorcist (1973); I’m going to go back to all of the Universal films that I have loved and adored from the 30s. I’m talking Dracula (1931); Bela Lugosi, Frankenstein (1931), The Wolfman (1941), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935); many of the films that Universal did with Carl Laemmle Productions.

I’m going to mention another that is still near and dear to my heart, a movie entitled Them! (1954) by Warner Brothers, and this is an exquisite Horror film with the most beautiful, mechanical giant ants, very well done for its time. It’s something you should see if you like that genre, and with a superb cast: Jim Arness, before he did Gunsmoke, the wonderful actor Edmund Gwen, who played a scientist in Them!, perhaps best known for his playing the man who thought he was Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street  (1947) with Natalie Wood, that famous Christmas film. Edmund Gwen, a wonderful actor, Jim Arness, same thing. A great cast, a very philosophical take on how these monsters came to be.

I’m always attracted to good material. I am not a Horror fan per se, I don’t necessarily seek out Horror or Monster films. I don’t have to see a monster film when it first comes out. The first one with Sigourney Weaver, Alien (1979), that scared the crap out of me; I absolutely adored it. You know, certain films that transport me to a different place and keeps me guessing, and that was one of them. I love that piece. I also wanted to see it because I went to school with Sigourney, so I knew her well. What a wonderful break that was for her, and it was a piece that was perfectly tailored for her. Having said that, I don’t have a specific genre that I really love, however, I love the old-fashioned Westerns. You hardly see them anymore, I was first out of the gate to see No Country For Old Men (2007), when the Coen brothers did that a number of years ago. I love things set out in the West, which is probably one of the reasons I love Tremors so much. Among that genre, I have some great, special favorites, The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which is Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin, which is an incredible film. Oh, a beautiful film, the Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), which I recommend to anyone; a wonderful piece. The Searchers (1956), great old things like that.

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox – It sounds like you have a great appreciation for film in general which is wonderful to hear.

Michael Gross – The things to which I’m most attracted are not Horror films per se, it things like the old Western, and I love Film Noir. Not necessary the French, but the American Film Noir in the 40s and 50s where women were Dames and guys were Mugs, and sort of dark, detective things, and Black and White, with beautiful creative lighting, almost expressionistic lighting. Rather than going to a Horror festival, I would go to a Film Noir festival. Those are my favorite genres. People asked me recently, I think it is a little premature, would I like to do a Tremors 6. Well the answer is, I’d love to do Burt Gummer. I would do Burt Gummer in a project that is well-written and surrounded by a wonderful cast of characters. I don’t want to just do Burt, I want to do Burt with a well-written script. I want to do Burt with a great ensemble and a good director. I don’t want to keep him alive for any reason other than the story, the script, and the ensemble is compelling enough for me to want to do it. I don’t need to do Burt, but I will always fly to Burt if the story is compelling and he’s challenged.

You will notice something different about this film, this was new to me, it wasn’t just doing Burt again, you will notice in the first three films, he really doesn’t change very much, he is who is is. He’s challenged by monsters, by other people, he basically says I’m right, your wrong, and nothing that he ever really faces changes that world view. Burt says, see I was right all the time. In this film, without giving any details, he’s a solitary man, he’s a man that isolated himself, who is forced into company with another human being, his sidekick at this point, who reveals something to take the film to a different place, which forces him to confront something emotionally that he’s not prepared to do. Burt is good with technology, facts, he’s not good with feelings. The character of Jamie Kennedy, forces him to confront his feelings in a certain way, and I love putting any character in a place of discomfort. There’s nothing like a challenge to bring truth to life.

If we did another one of these, and we’ve left the door open for a sequel, clearly, and if people like it, and the bean counters at Universal, there will be a sixth. If that were the case, I would like to see this relationship explored, because there’s nothing that makes Burt squirm more than having to deal with emotions, feelings, and other people. It’s like trying to pull teeth without an anesthetic, he doesn’t want to go there. I’d like to make this man squirm. In squirming, there’s a great deal of comedy (laughs). In a sense, there wasn’t a reason to do Burt again, but this added a thing. This new thing made it interesting to me. Burt is a man who plans, who lives a somewhat ritualistic life, when you take him out of his comfort zone, there’s nothing funnier. For a man who lost his spouse many years ago, after Heather walked away from him, he basically said, “That’s it, I’m swearing off of the human race,” and to have to deal with somebody in close proximity, there’s nothing more frightening to him. Probably more frightening than any monster he had to face. This is the real monster, we all have monsters within ourselves, (laughs) right? I want to make that as real as possible. Yes, he’ll still be chasing monsters, but Burt will be pushed to new and uncomfortable places, which will make for truth and make comedy.

FAMILY TIES -- "The Wrecker's Ball" Episode 13 -- Pictured: (l-r) Michael Gross as Steven Keaton, Meredith Baxter as Elyse Keaton -- Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
FAMILY TIES — “The Wrecker’s Ball” Episode 13 — Pictured: (l-r) Michael Gross as Steven Keaton, Meredith Baxter as Elyse Keaton — Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank – Absolutely, very true. You have certainly show versatility as an actor from the lovingly dad of Family Ties to the gun-loving enthusiast Burt Gummer of Tremors. You are actually ranked 12th overall by TV Guide of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All-Time,” that is quite an honor.

Michael Gross – Again, the same way I feel about Burt. I’m not a creator; well if you use the term loosely, yes I am a creator, I’m an interpreter of good writing. I brought my own take to Steven Keaton as I have to Burt, but I have a great respect for writers, for what they do, the people who make this shit up. I interpret it, I hang some skin on the skeleton that they have given me. I think it’s a real tribute to the writers of Family Ties, who were brilliant. I don’t know if I appreciated it at the time in some ways because I came out of the theater, hadn’t watched a lot of television, and didn’t know what good television was at the time.

Also, it was a golden age and our competition was very good. The next sound stage from us in Paramount studios, they were producing Taxi, Laverne and Shirley was a couple of doors down, Joanie Loves Chachi, Happy Days was still playing, Cheers was a couple doors down. We were in great company. I think in a funny way, doing any job you kind of take it for granted, you look back at it now and say, “Hey, that was the last of the golden age of sitcoms, who knew.” I consider it a great legacy and I give most of the credit to the writers and the ensemble. You’re only as good as the people whom you work, which is why I was happy to be part of Tremors 5 too, because there’s some amazing talent out there, just tough ass sons of bitches and beautiful women, it’s tough. That darling young lady, the one who plays the young girl, daughter of Pearl Thusi. I think this is good because it has great people, I surrounded myself. You should surround yourself with great scripts and great talent and they can carry you along, even if you screw up (laughs). I’m very happy for that.

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

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