As the star of Family Ties for its 1982 to 1989 run, Michael Gross became a member of a rare club: one of TV’s favorite dads. And fans will be happy to know that he’s still close with his on-screen wife and one of TV’s favorite moms, Meredith Baxter.
“We’re both 71 now and met when we were [around] 35, so we’ve known each other half our lives,” Michael exclusively marveled to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “We’ve maintained a good relationship and never lost touch.” Now audiences can witness their chemistry in person as they star in the A. R. Gurney play Love Letters, currently touring select cities around the country.
Michael is also back on TV this holiday season playing a loving father in the Lifetime movie Christmas Pen Pals. We caught up with the actor on the set of his new film to find out what his most famous role taught him about being a real stepdad, granddad, and husband, and what his future holds. Scroll down to read our exclusive Q&A with Michael!
It’s great to see you’re still enjoying family ties: You’re filming Christmas Pen Pals now?
When the offer came, I thought, “Does the world need another Christmas movie?” I have to give a resounding yes! I’m not generally attracted to playing nice fathers, because I played one for seven years, but I like that this is a man struggling to find his way.
You’re also writing notes to Meredith Baxter in Love Letters…
I feel like we’re two veteran vaudevillians who can anticipate the next line out of each other’s mouth.
Is there a secret to chemistry?
Sometimes it’s magical, but more often it’s being with someone, listening to them, sharing thoughts. I think chemistry depends on time, and we have that in spades.
Do you keep in touch with other Family Ties cast members?
Michael J. Fox lives in New York and I’m in Southern California, but I try to have breakfast or lunch with him when I’m there. Our two young girls, Justine Bateman and Tina Yothers, are both parents now and as busy as soccer moms can be. We’re still friends and chit-chat here and there but don’t see each other often, because they’re committed to their growing families.
Any talk of bringing Family Ties back?
I don’t think so — we’ve never spoken about it. On Michael’s 50th birthday, I wrote to him that he was 15 years older than [I was] when I played his dad! So I think we’ve all moved on. And our great guru, creator Gary David Goldberg, passed away five years ago. I loved Family Ties when I did it, but I have a recurring nightmare about a revival. That’s how much I am against doing it! In the nightmare, it’s never as well written, the magic isn’t there and it feels wrong. It’s like trying to do a do-over of your childhood.
Did you want to be an actor as a kid?
I went to college thinking I might go into medicine or the sciences. But one day I walked into a free matinee of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was enthralled. I thought it was magic. The man who directed it became my acting teacher, a dear friend and the best man at my wedding!
After nearly a decade of theater, you won a 1982 Obie for your off-Broadway show No End of Blame. Was it tough to adjust to much bigger fame on a hit TV show?
Yes and no. I grew up in Chicago, but every summer I’d live with my grandparents in a relatively small Iowa town. Everyone knew them, and people I didn’t know would stop me and say, “Oh, you’re Michael.” The world is just a slightly bigger version of that. When Family Ties was huge, people were almost always kind and just wanted to tell you that you’d touched their lives in some way.
That must’ve been gratifying.
One of the most fantastic letters I’ve ever gotten was from an anonymous person who’d seen me play a variety of roles at a theater. It said that I’d given them hope and prevented them from taking their own life. That was incredible. And I think Family Ties was popular because America needed a family like that, where there were different points of view yet it held together. That seems instructive of our political world today: how people can differ and still have bonds of love.
You’ve been married to your wife, Elza Bergeron, since 1984. How do you keep the magic alive?
Magic is the result of hard work, listening, trying to understand someone’s point of view. It’s showing up. That was a hard lesson to learn. I thought relationships, if they were meant to be, were always magical.
What’s bonded you and Elza for so long?
I married someone who is very different from me. I tend to have a dark side — I was raised in a family where sometimes the glass was half empty, so I married someone who has a drawer of rose-colored glasses and always sees the possibility in things, who I needed to sort of complete myself. I’ve begun to feel that soulmates are, if not your polar opposite, people who have a lot to teach you.
What was it like becoming a stepdad to Elza’s two kids, Theodore, 49, and Katharine, 50?
I came into their lives during Family Ties, when they were teens. They were great kids, but in some ways it was difficult from my point of view. I was 37 and totally unprepared: I’d never been married, never been a father, never even owned a car. I think [my character] Steven Keaton was a good mentor for me, because I would get bent out of shape from all these little things. I had to let go of them in the way he’d let certain things roll off his back.
How did Theodore and Katharine adjust?
I think there were times where they were wondering: Why can’t you be as nice as that guy on television? We’ve forged a wonderful relationship over the years and we’re very close. We’ve all learned a lot from it. My daughter and her two children live in the same community as my wife and I do, so we see a lot of each other. It’s a very close family.
How is being a grandfather different?
Somebody once told me grandparenting is God’s reward for not murdering your children! In some ways, it’s a chance for redemption. I was a very busy young father, and more ambitious. I missed my daughter’s high school and college graduations because I was doing theater matinees. Unless you’re at death’s door, you do not abandon the cast of the play you’re in. I was determined not to miss things as a grandparent, so I get to as many sports events and school assemblies as I can.
Anything left on your to-do list?
I just did a Disney feature film with Shirley MacLaine, Noelle. She and I play elderly elves in Santa’s North Pole. And I inherited every letter my father wrote my mother during World War II and have yet to go through them. There might be a book in that. There are a lot of undone things to do instead of building more railroad models. And I truthfully enjoyed what I do!
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