Love Letters From Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter of Family TiesThere are few television parents as beloved as Steven and Elyse Keaton from Family Ties. Their heart-warming episodes brought family entertainment to our homes in the ‘80s thanks to the immense talents of Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter, who filled those roles with perfection.
The five-time Emmy Award-winning show ran from the fall of 1982 to the spring of 1989, focusing on the Keaton’s and their four children with distinct personalities, including Michael J. Fox as their ambitious young Republican son butting heads with their formerly hippie parents.
Yet, nearly three decades later, their scores of fans have followed each of their stellar careers. Now, they are teaming up for a one-week run of A R. Gurney’s critically-acclaimed Love Letters, at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
Playing from Wednesday, April 4 through Sunday, April 8, Love Letters is an especially meaningful show for Baxter and Gross, who have remained close friends and colleagues since working together on Family Ties nearly 30 years ago.
Aside from Family Ties, Michael Gross has been a staple on TV with recurring roles on The Drew Cary Show, ER, How I Met Your Mother, Suits, and Grace and Frankie. He was a series regular on The Young and the Restless.
In movies, Gross was survivalist Burt Gummer in the feature film Tremors, its five sequels, on the Syfy Channel series.
He has appeared with Ali McGraw in director Sidney Lumet’s Just Tell Me What You Want, played opposite Lily Tomlin in Big Business, with actor Lucas Haas in the award-winning Alan and Naomi, and with Wynona Ryder in Stay Cool.
Gross recently appeared in the award winning short film, Our Father. His current projects include a recurring role on Showtime’s The Affair, and a guest-starring role on NBC’s new show AP Bio.
Baxter and Gross have also performed Love Letters at various venues on and off for years, and are eager to spend time together on and off the stage in Bucks County for a memorable reunion.
In Love Letters, when Andrew (Michael Gross) accepts an invitation to Melissa’s (Meredith Baxter) birthday party, and Melissa writes a thank-you note, a romantic friendship and correspondence is born that will last more than 50 years!
Though their relationship constantly changes, these pen pals remain each other’s most trusted confidantes. A touching romance through old-fashioned pen and paper, Love Letters is a disarmingly funny and unforgettably emotional portrait about the powerful connection of love.What are you looking forward to in coming to the Bucks County Playhouse for Love Letters?
Michael Gross: I think we always have a good time, and of course, the point is that the audience has as good a time as we do, or better.
How long have you been performing this with Meredith Baxter?
MG: The first time we did it was in the late 1980s, in Beverly Hills. For more than a year, the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills hosted a different set of celebrities every week, and boy that was a treat, to see some of the best actors in motion pictures and television doing this together. So, Meredith and I first did it there. I remember I saw a lovely production with Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands. It’s just different, depending on what the chemistry is between the couples, and even between the same couples on different nights. That’s the beauty of live theater.
Absolutely, that’s why live performances lend themselves to so much emotion.
MG: So, we’ve done the show intermittently since I would guess about 1987 or 1988. There will be years that go by that we don’t do it, but the last time we did the show was in August at the Totem Pole Playhouse in Pennsylvania. So, here we are coming to Bucks County, so it will be twice in Pennsylvania within six months, which is kind of interesting.
I loved Family Ties. All of you felt like family.
MG: Thank you. It’s a wonderful show.
Did you know how good it was?
MG: No. I think being so close to it, you don’t really appreciate it. You’re just doing your work. You’re jumping over those hurdles every week but I didn’t stop often to take the long view. I knew it was a good show. I knew the cast was excellent. I knew the writing was good. But I had not been a big watcher of television up until that time, so I wasn’t aware of how much of a mark it was making. I did not know it was heads above a lot of the other material that was out there. At the time, I guess I kind of took it for granted. It was the first series I had ever done. I come from New York, and have largely been a stage actor, so from time to time, most evenings for years, and years before that I was on a stage somewhere not really watching television.What was your initial reaction to Meredith?
MG: She was an unknown quantity to me. Her work in the shows Family and Bridget Loves Bernie was unknown to me. Those were before the days you could just call something up, download it, and take a look at somebody’s old work. She was lovely. She was seasoned. She was a great mentor in a certain way because I learned to do that kind of weekly work by watching her, and by watching the way she did things. She was the person with many miles on her odometer as far as the best sort of television work was concerned. So, she was very helpful to me.
What about the chemistry of the two of you as parents Steven and Elyse Keaton?
MG: In terms of chemistry, I’m not sure how it happens, but sometimes it’s just magic. Other times, it’s just valuing and listening to other people’s work. I sometimes feel chemistry in this line of work, as well as in long-term relationships like marriage, is sometimes a result of inspiration and chemistry. But a lot of times it just boils down to hard work, discipline, working well together, learning to appreciate and value each other, listening to the other person, and appreciating their strengths. Basically, it’s all about making room for what the other person brings to the table.
Please tell me more.
MG: I’m kind of old-fashioned that way; sort of like the writer who believes in showing up every day at the typewriter, or the lap-top, to write something. You don’t know when inspiration or chemistry is going to strike. You just have to show up in a disciplined way and do the work. For Family Ties, the writing helped a great deal because the writing was so good. But we had seven years to work together and so, there’s a certain intimacy there that’s pretty wonderful that I like refreshing from time to time by re-visiting it with Love Letters. We keep it fresh that way.
Why do you think you stayed friends for such a long time?
MG: We went through an awful lot together during the length of the show. I think that actors are basically gypsies. I say to people, ‘had I wanted steady work I would have done something else for a living.’ Recently. I was chatting with Sam Waterston when I did a guest spot on the show Grace and Frankie.
That is a well-written and fun show.
MG: Sam is great to work with. I did a couple of episodes in the first season of that show as a sort of wedding planner/caterer, and I went back recently. Sam said, ‘we’re so nomadic.’ We were talking about the fact that you work together for two or three months, and it’s rather intense, and you feel so close, and then you don’t really see them again. You both go to the next job and are in far-flung places. But Meredith and I had seven years to be together, and fortunately we genuinely liked each other. We saw each other through marriages and divorces, births of children; basically good times and bad. So, it was one of the hidden treasures, of long-term work. We generally liked each other and we’ve made an effort to keep close.
That is important to you – right?
MG: Yes. I don’t like losing people entirely when things are over. I get in touch with Mike Fox, as well, but that’s a little more difficult because we live 3,000 miles away – he in New York and me in California. I try and have breakfast or lunch with him, just some sort of meal, when I get back to the East Coast just to touch base with him. A few months ago, I did a film with one of our former writers from Family Ties, Marc Lawrence, who’s probably best known for the movie Miss Congeniality with Sandra Bullock, which he wrote and directed. He’s a wonderful, sensitive director and he did Noelle, a Disney Holiday film I was part of in which Anna Kendrick played the title character of Noelle. Bill Hader and Shirley McLaine are in it as well. Shirley and I play elder elves.
You must have been a very tall elf.
MG: Yeah, so I’m an elf, all 6’3” of me, in this particular thing. But that will be a Disney Holiday film, and it may not be released in the holiday in 2019.
What do you think is the appeal to audiences who are seeing Love Letters for first time?
MG: I think everybody will be surprised because it’s amazing to me, to a degree, that people are surprised by the depth of this piece. It really is like a novel in stage form because as you know, if you’ve seen it, it takes these people from second grade well until their adult years and covers the correspondence of their lives. To me, it’s a great sweep of history in a very short amount of time. I think people are always impressed by how fascinating letter writing can be for people who express themselves on the page and how riveting it can be to have people merely reading letters to each other because the writing is so extraordinarily good.What about for those who are seeing it again?
MG: For people who have seen it before, it’s always interesting because if they’re seeing it with a different couple, it’s a very different piece. For me, even doing it with Meredith time and again, it may be years between times I do it, and it’s like picking up a great old book, I see something new with it as I pick it up at different times in my life. I remember reading The Great Gatsby or something of Hemingway in high school and maybe then in college, which is one experience and then re-reading it as a young, newly married man.
Different times in your life makes for a different perspective.
MG: Exactly. The first time Meredith and I did this together, we were 40 years of age. Now, I’m 70. It’s a whole different perspective that we have on life, and the experience we bring to the piece that is fun for us. I think people are going to find something new with every new couple they see performing this.
In addition to Grace and Frankie, what other work have you done, lately?
MG: I love jumping around. I’m also on The Affair from Showtime this year. I play Maura Tierney’s psychiatrist in several episodes. I jump around a lot because I love the variety. I’m not sure what I’d do with a full-time job at my age. I like my time off as well as I like my time on, so freelancing is very suitable for me at this age. It feels right; the great variety I get from that sort of thing.
You said you liked to freelance because you liked your free time. How do you spend your free time?
MG: I’m a hobbyist. I’m an avid model rail-fan. I belong to a number of groups and clubs that do that. I love building and detailing miniatures, specifically in this case trains. I suppose if I had grown up in Boston, I would be doing ship models or something, but I grew up in Chicago, the railroad capital of the world. I had grandparents and great-grandparents who worked for the railroad, so I’ve been a hobbyist for a long time.
How else do you spend your days off?
MG: I’m also a very active grandparent. I have two grandchildren in high school, both of them play varsity sports. I have a grandson who plays soccer and a granddaughter who plays varsity volleyball, which I think is one of the greatest spectator sports in the world. I try to get to every one of their home games.
I am sure they appreciate it.
MG: They live in the same town as I do in Southern California, which is marvelous, so I get to those games and I just brag about my varsity grandchildren more than I do about myself because they’re pretty amazing to watch. I’m one of their best cheerleaders.
I hear you love to travel.
MG: Correct. My wife and I sore being able to travel. We love traveling with friends. We’ve been to just about every continent and there are places we’re still exploring. My wife’s bags are always packed. I’m not above telling people I’m just off-duty because I’ve got to go traveling. Time is too precious not to.
Is there any stage work in your future?
MG: I constantly think about it, but I haven’t done it lately. As time goes on, I begin to appreciate more and more long dinners with friends, and that includes long dinners on Friday and Saturday nights. I missed my daughter’s high school and college graduations because they usually take place on Saturdays and I was always working on Saturday nights. So, with the grandchildren, I sort of had a second try to get to all those events and Saturday games and things like that that I missed with my own child.
It sounds like you love you love your flexibility at this point in your life.
MG: I’m in a different place in my life right now. I want to do that and my hobbies, and travel with my friends. I love to work but I’m also very happy when I’m off-duty. I only pick things that appeal to me strongly. When I go away for longer periods of time, let’s say for a film, I always try to get my wife to go with me for part of that time, to travel with me. Yeah, priorities changed, I found that at age 70, things are very different. I’m not as ambitious as I used to be.Have you shared episodes of Family Ties with your grandchildren? How do you view it with all this time gone by?
MG: They’ve seen some episodes of Family Ties. They have some of the DVDs. So, they’re of course amused to see me so young. They’re also fans of Tremors, this sci-fi series I’ve been doing for 25 years. It was an original film in 1990 with me, Kevin Bacon, Reba McEntire, and some others. We just did the sixth installment, which will be released on May 1. In that show, I’m a crazed sort of right-wing survivalist who’s a monster killer. They get a kick out of that, too. To them I’m just Poppy — that’s their nickname for their grandfather.
What career advice do you have for someone pursuing a TV career today? I know it’s different than it was.
MG: First of all before you sell the house and the family farm to head to New York or Los Angeles, try to get your feet wet in your own community. Obviously, that may be impossible for somebody who lives in the middle of nowhere. But if you are in a small city or large town, find other like-minded people who are into the arts. I would encourage you to find them and get your feet wet there first.
So look for a mentor?
MG: Yes. Find a good mentor. I’ve always been helped by people who knew more than I did. I’ve worked with teachers, and other people who may have never realized their own dreams, but they’re very talented and maybe they can realize them through you or someone else.
You like to say you cannot do this alone.
MG: Correct. I’ve done nothing alone. I’ve always been helped and had people in my life who have said, ‘Michael, here’s what you should try. Here’s what you should do.’ Fortunately, I had the good sense to listen to them because I came from a blue-collar Chicago family. I never went to the theater as a child. I was in one high school play. I found college to be a great smorgasbord where I was exposed to things that I have never seen or done before.
What else do you advise others based on your years of experience?
MG: There are no guarantees that anybody’s going to make it, but I believe in hard work, discipline and finding great mentors. A lot of people are lazy and the people who are really artistic and wonderful who will help the student who’s the squeaky wheel. People who are true artists will love to teach you to paint, will love to help you with your violin or your acting, or whatever it is you’re doing. They will be there for you early mornings when you’re trying to learn how to figure skate. They’re dedicated and if you show that you want it badly, they’ll be there to help. So, look for those people. I have been lucky to have had many of them in my life.For tickets and information from the Bucks County Playhouse: Click Here.