Interviews: Michael Gross, Meredith Baxter in a ‘Family Ties’ Reunion

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CHICAGO – Steven and Elyse Keaton were the super-parents of a certain generation. “Family Ties” was the 1980s TV show featuring Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter as the Keatons. As TV parents, they raised Alex (Michael J. Fox), Mallory (Justine Bateman) and Jennifer (Tina Yothers).

The quintessential 1980s sitcom propelled Fox to stardom, and provided Red vs. Blue State discourse before it was cool, as Alex Keaton was a Reaganite conservative and his parents were liberal ex-hippies from the 1960s. Well-written, funny and warm without being sticky, the show was anchored by Gross and Baxter’s chemistry as Steven and Elyse.

Gross and Baxter had their reunion at the Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show in September of 2010. The show is a biannual event that brings celebrities to Chicago to meet, sign autographs and interact with their admirers. Joe Arce of was also there to capture the Family Ties reunion in photography.

StarMichael Gross, Steven Keaton in “Family Ties”

Michael Gross is a Chicago native, born and raised in a city neighborhood. Working in theater in New York City after college, he eventually secured the role that would become his breakthrough, Steven Keaton in Family Ties. Gross has worked steadily since Ties went off the air in 1989, most notably as Burt Gummer in the original “Tremors” (1990), which led to three sequels and a short-lived TV show.

Michael Gross at the Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show, September 26th, 2010
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for You are a Chicago native, what is your favorite childhood memory of the city, and what circumstances made you leave?

Michael Gross: I grew up on the Northwest side, the first ten years of my life I grew up around California and Diversey Avenue, and then we moved to Cicero and Fullerton. I’m a proud graduate of Kelvyn Park High School, and the University of Illinois Chicago.

I’ve just always loved the city, I’ve always been an urban person. And I know this is going to sound queer, but I always loved the mass transit system. The city was mine, all mine, by the age of ten, because I had two younger sisters and my mother didn’t drive, so I used to go everywhere on the CTA. By the time I was ten, I knew the city like the back of my hand, because I could get everywhere on my own. To this day, I go back to the Art Institute to look at the great paintings that I’ve known since I was a kid. I love public transportation, mass transit and the train system. After you were done with Steven Keaton, super parent, did you intentionally seek out heavier or darker roles?

Gross: I did not intentionally seek them out, but a lot of them fortunately came my way. I was happy because it was an image change, but I had played heavy types before Steven Keaton and so people knew me as that, sort of bizarre twisted types, so it was ironic that Steven Keaton is what I’m remembered for.

The day after our Family Ties wrap party, I was on the set of ‘Tremors.’ I just kept saying ‘lucky me.’ There was life after Family Ties, and it was a different character. For all that I thank theater, because I got to play a variety of characters over the years. Your love of the Chicago Transit Authority, is that the roots of your hobby as a railroad enthusiast?

Gross: I’ve always been obsessed on anything that runs on tracks, true. My grandfather and his grandfather were railroaders, and even I for a time worked for the precursor to the Metra system [Chicago surburban rail] when I was going to college, I worked in engine service for them, in the summer of 1967.

I’ve been a model railroader all my life, I love transit. It’s crazy, but I feel it’s good for democracy to have people of different social/economic classes and different races all rub elbows with each other, as they do on mass transit. Were you as a college student involved in any of the unrest that occurred around the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968?

Gross: I was not. In the summer of 1968, I was committed to being an actor, and I was doing summer stock theater in Mt. Carroll, Illinois. I knew things were volatile because of Vietnam. I wasn’t as passionate or selfless about politics in those days. I was very committed to my craft. I always say to people, ‘while you were going to Woodstock, I was going to summer stock.’ [laughs] What surprised you about the success of Tremors? Did you have an inkling on the set that you had something?

Gross: I’ve never had those great instincts. [laughs] I’ve always just been happy to have the work, and I know once you do the work that it’s so much out of your hands. How things are cut and edited, how the film is marketed, I know it has so little to do on the performances on the screen. I don’t think about it that much, I just do the best job I can and know that it’s a crap shoot.

They didn’t market Tremors that well. Burt Gummer could have been a great breakout role for me on the big screen, but in most places it only ran for about a week. Universal didn’t know what to do with it, they marketed it as horror. Tremors is to sci-fi what the ‘Naked Gun’ is to a detective story. It was whole different genre. Tremors wasn’t really found until it came out on VHS. Are you glad Family Ties came along just before the era of multiple cable channels and less network power?

Gross: Absolutely, and we had no idea at the time. When we stepped on the Paramount lot in 1982 to do that show, their was still ‘Happy Days,’ ‘Laverne & Shirley’ and ‘Joanie Loves Chachi.’ On the next stage was ‘Taxi,’ and I was friends with Marilu Henner and Christopher Loyd. Little did we know that it was the end of the great days of sitcoms. Cheers began it’s first season the same time we did, and I was delighted to be a part of it. Finally, tell us something about Meredith Baxter that the rest of the world doesn’t know.

Gross: She’s actually fairly shy and reticent, almost reclusive in her own way. She’s a very private person, and it took me seven years to break through that privacy. I’m fortunate to be close to her. I think people are actually surprised to hear that actors have or want their privacy. She’s a great person and I’m delighted to still be friends.

Family Ties: Michael Gross, Meredith Baxter and Marc “Skippy” Price at the Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show, Chicago, September 26th, 2010
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

StarMeredith Baxter, Elyse on “Family Ties”

Meredith Baxter was born in South Pasadena, California (on the same day, June 21st, 1947, as her TV partner Michael Gross) and her mother was a actress in TV and movies. Baxter got her big break in the sitcom “Bridget Loves Bernie” (1972), a controversial program at the time, as she played a Catholic girl who marries a Jewish cab driver. She eventually married her co-star in that show, David Birney, and was known as Meredith Baxter-Birney until their divorce in 1989.

She has worked steadily since playing Elyse Keaton on Family Ties, and is an advocate for breast cancer issues after being diagnosed with the disease in 1999. Recently, she made news after revealing herself as a lesbian, after the National Enquirer threatened to out her.

Meredith Baxter, Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show, September 26th, 2010
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for What was most fun about being a California Girl during the Swinging 1960s?

Meredith Baxter: I don’t know, I was always a California girl, I was born and raised there. I was a very unhappy child, that was my path and I had a lot to learn about that. Consequently, I spent a lot of the time sort of…drugged. Your first TV series, ‘Bridget Loves Bernie,’ wasn’t canceled because it wasn’t popular, it was canceled because CBS got a lot of ‘hate mail’ about the coupling of the pair based on their different religions. Has our tolerance level gotten better today, or do you still experience the type of attitude that canceled your sitcom?

Baxter: I don’t have a global perspective on that, and I can’t speak to exactly why the show went off the air. I know there was a lot of pressure and concern about making assimilation look ‘too easy.’ That there were not more issues that were problematic. We never dealt with the downside, only the upside, so there was that feeling. I’d like to think we’re more open now.

I mean look at ‘Glee,’ is that not cool, how very inclusive that show is. Intermarriage? Who cares. It’s not an big deal issue on television, I think it’s more an issue in people’s lives. I think as long as we’re respectful and don’t minimalize it, talk about what the real issues are instead of pretending as if they don’t matter, then I think we’ll have more interesting shows. You’ve had many roles in life – actress, wife, mother, survivor, out-and-proud, sitcom star – what role best describes you now and why?

Baxter: All of them. I have no idea. I don’t know how to answer that, how do you look at yourself? I’m like a tile in the mosaic, I have no perspective on the whole mosaic. I’m just part of it. You recently made an announcement about your personal life, were you trying to make a statement as to this is how I am?

Baxter: I had no goal in making a statement. The tabloids were going to make it their story. They were going to take something that had a grain of truth to it, and make an elaborate, skanky story to it that has no real honesty to it. I didn’t want that to happen. I was compelled to save myself and make it public. Which then of course makes people say, ‘who gives a sh*t.’

It brought all this attention that I didn’t want, and I wasn’t courting it. I’m just living my life, like anybody else would. People were saying that it was a desperate plea to get attention, that was not the case. Did you know you were living a double life when you were in your marriages with men? Was it something that was nagging at you that eventually had to come to the surface?

Baxter: No, no concept like that at all. When you live a life as unexamined as mine, I could have been a frog and I wouldn’t have known. Finally, can you tell us something about Michael Gross that the rest of the world doesn’t know?

Baxter: He has a nasty sense of humor. He is wonderfully funny, he has made me laugh so much over the years. I have a well of tears for how much I care about this guy. He’s a good, noble and honorable man. He was a gift for the seven years on the show.

The Hollywood Celebrities & Memorabilia Show is back in Chicago, March 26th and 27th, 2011.
Click here for details. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2010 Patrick McDonald,

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