Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter have been seeing quite a lot of each other lately.
The Family Ties stars, who spent seven seasons playing liberal Ohio parents Steven and Elyse Keaton on the NBC sitcom, got together on The Oprah Winfrey Show in March when Baxter was promoting her revealing new autobiography, Untied. The following month, they took part in a reunion with costars Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman and Tina Yothers at the TV Land Awards. Now, the duo is working together again creatively in a pair of episodes of The Hub’s animated comedy Dan Vs., playing — surprise, surprise — husband and wife. The first episode, “Elise’s Parents,” airs May 14 and the second, “The Family Camping Trip,” is set to air June 4.
I spoke to the pair just a few days after the TV Land Awards to hear about working together again, this time as cartoons, and how they’ve made peace with their signature roles.
You’ve had offers to work together in the past. What made Dan Vs. attractive for you?
Michael Gross: I think it had as much to do as anything that there were three of us reunited. The head of Film Roman [which produces Dan Vs.], Jay Fukuto, worked with us at Paramount Studios [where Family Ties filmed]. And it was our friend Jay who called both Meredith and myself … which made it even more fun. This is Jay’s idea, and Meredith and I jumped at it.
Is voice-over relatively new to both of you?
Meredith Baxter: I’d done very little. I’ve auditioned frequently, I don’t get hired often. But this is the one that’s been the most fun.
Gross: I actually had only maybe slightly more. I did one of the Batman series [Note: It was Batman Beyond] a number of years ago. But my favorite current story is that I did a voice for Disney a couple of years ago and told everybody about it, and did it and recorded it and they paid me and it was all wonderful. It was something called A Day With Wilbur Robinson [later retitled Meet the Robinsons] … and I didn’t hear anything about it, I didn’t see any of the promos, nobody asked me to come to a screening, and I found out that they had replaced my voice with someone else. So they had all loved it and said, “Oh my God, yes, you’re the one!” They paid me, I did a recording session, everybody raved, and somebody back there must have just said, “Well, anybody but him!” And they went out and got anybody. I was really embarrassed because I told somebody, “Oh, yeah, I’m doing this Disney thing. Go see me in this.” They said, “We didn’t see your name anywhere. Or hear your voice.” Yeah, that’s my career.
Happens to the best of ’em, I guess.
Gross: Yeah, exactly.
Baxter: How’d it happen to you then? (Laughs)
You’re both obviously very familiar with each other’s acting styles in front of the camera, but what was it like playing off each other with just your voices?
Meredith Baxter: I found it very strange, frankly. Maybe you’re more used to this than I am, Michael, but just standing up in front of a mic had none of the same feel because [with] voice-over you’re so over the top. … You’re louder, you’re angrier, you’re happier … the voice has to sell everything. You can’t rely on the body, so there’s a lot more animation in the voice as well. Consequently you can’t convey something in a look or a shrug or a smirk. None of my old tricks worked.
Michael Gross: She’s so good at smirking. She’s one of the best smirkers I know. (Laughs) I don’t enjoy it as much because you don’t have the visual to help you along. Having said that, I find myself looking at her. She’s just at the next microphone, which is fun. So far for the episodes we’ve done they’ve had us in the same room together at the same time, which is great. … Meredith is actually a physical comedienne and actress as well as the vocal, so in some ways I miss her silliness visually and physically, but I think we’re finding our groove and we’re having a good time.
Have there been many in-jokes about Family Ties in the episodes you’ve done?
Gross: No, and I hope there won’t be. I don’t know why, I never really cared for that much. I always end up groaning. The people who do know about the reference, you don’t have to do that. The people who don’t know about it just say, “Well, what does that mean?” I never quite get it.
Baxter: I don’t usually care for that either, for just those reasons. But when I went and did Spin City with Michael Fox and guested playing his mother, on Family Ties once in awhile he’d call me “Mumsy,” and he did the same thing on Spin City, and I was wondering if he did any of that with you, Michael.
Gross: Yeah, the introduction to me on Spin City was fun. [Michael J. Fox’s character] was on the phone with somebody before I walked in the office and said something like — I was a replacement therapist for him, his regular therapist had taken time off — he was getting on the phone and saying to somebody, “What are the chances that somebody is going to walk in that door and I’m going to feel comfortable and familiar with them?” Of course, then I walked in the door. That was a great setup.
Tell me a little about your characters in Dan Vs.
Baxter: I have to comment on Michael’s character’s appearance. You know what Michael Gross looks like, he’s tall and lanky and very lean. This guy, Don, is big and burly and has a mustache and big shoulders and tiny waist and barrel chest, and I went ‘Whoa!’ when I saw it. They sent us a clip. Did you see it, Michael?
Gross: I did.
Baxter: Well, if I listened, I could hear your voice. But looking at this character and hearing your voice, I didn’t hear you at all.
Gross: I thought it was a rather nice mustache. It’s a good look for me.
Does his personality match his physique?
Gross: He’s a little rough around the edges. He’s a lot of fun for me, and history repeats itself in that when Meredith and I did Family Ties together there was a young man, an environmental artist, named Nick, played by Scott Valentine, for whom my character had barely concealed contempt. This is a wonderful situation here for me, because this character I play also does not care for my daughter’s current boyfriend, and hostility is just fun. It has a lot of potential, particularly in animation. Outright hostility, whether it’s Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd or me and my daughter’s suitor.
How about you, Meredith? What about your character?
Baxter: There’s some things that have been hinted at that haven’t really been fleshed out yet. My daughter, whom I insist on calling “Junior,” I think just to piss her off. The idea is that both the daughter and the mother possess uncanny knowledge and abilities, and she keeps a lot of secrets from Don. We don’t know what this is about, we don’t know why there seems to be surreptitious phone calls and she’ll disappear periodically with no real explanation, and that will come out later. I have been told, but I’m sorry, Stacey, I can’t tell you.
Gross: If we told you, we’d have to kill you.
You’re playing parents of a character named Elise, so is it weird being in each other’s presence and calling another character by that name?
Baxter: I see “Elise” on the page, and I want to read it. You know, it is what it is. We’ll get used to it, and as long as the audience can figure it out, it’s no big deal. I’ll call her whatever I have to call her.
Gross: Meredith and I have had the pleasure of working together in some other situations, chiefly Love Letters, the A.R. Gurney play, which we’ve done several times together, as recently as I think the last time was October 2010. So we enjoy each other and we know each other well in terms of performers so it’s kind of a waste of time and energy not to do things together, because we have so much shorthand with each other, which is great.
I know Dan Vs. is a new show, but have either of you had the chance to watch any episodes and see what the show is like?
Gross: I have not. … I’ve gotten a good sense of what it is thus far in that Dan is always, as the name might imply, having problems with something. He’s a guy whose life is not very easy. It’s a fascinating idea, it seems to me, to have this person with built-in conflict — that’s the stuff of which drama is made. Him versus something every week. That is fun, and has a lot of dramatic possibility.
Baxter: He’s in a perpetual state of seeking revenge on something.
Do your characters come across Dan much?
Baxter: He’s always there. He’s always present. He’s very much a part of Chris and Elise’s life, our daughter and her boyfriend. He’s just always looming in and the catalyst for most of the difficulties anyone’s going through.
Gross: He’s Chris’s best friend, and so he’s very much a part of our extended family, let’s say. We have times when we’re working together and times when we’re at odds, depending on the situation. That seems to be how it’s shaken down up until now. It’s just got a tremendous amount of possibilities and I’m delighted that they’ve renewed this so we can learn a little more about our characters as we move through this narrative.
Baxter: Yes, because I have a lot of funny things to do, and I just can’t wait to come and do them. I just know I do.
Family Ties seems to be getting a lot of attention lately, with Meredith’s book, the TV Land Awards, and reruns airing on The Hub. Has it been gratifying to revisit it?
Baxter: It certainly has been for me. I will admit that there was a time when Family Ties had gone off the air and I was off doing other things and people were like, “Oh, I loved you on Family Ties.” I was like, “Well, yeah, thanks, but I’ve been doing this.” And now 22 years later, people come up to me and still say, “I love Family Ties. Oh my God, I wish you were my mother!” “I wanted Michael Gross to be my father.” “I wanted to be Alex P. Keaton.” That’s the kind of stuff I’m hearing, and I realized we don’t get to pick the things that people remember. … I have to just settle back and be grateful and bask in the incredible memories that we all have, and the great stories.
Gross: The fact that it has staying power is something you can’t predict. There’s so much out there in the media right now, hundreds of channels, and the fact that people come back to [Family Ties] and enjoy it, and they’re trying in some cases to show it to their own children, is very gratifying. I’m thrilled. Now, do I want to be known for other things? Yes, absolutely. Can I ever escape that? No. Do I want to escape it? Probably not. It was a wonderful show. It was something to be proud of and I’m glad we were a part of it.
It’s nice to see that the cast members still get along. It seems that sometimes when you have a long-running, successful show, the outside pressure from everyone for you to reunite can maybe drive a wedge between people.
Gross: We reunite on our own time, because we enjoy each other, but don’t necessarily feel like we have to work together again. Not that we wouldn’t enjoy it, but it’s just not at the top of our lists. … After all these years it’s still a pleasure to see each other. Mostly these days we talk about what our kids are doing, and what are lives are like. Grandchildren, in some cases. The Family Ties go on in a sense. I saw Michael and said, “Let us know when you’re going to be out our way,” so we can have some sort of impromptu gathering of the Keaton clan. We look forward to it and it doesn’t happen enough, frankly.
Photos: (Dan Vs.) Courtesy of The Hub; (Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross) Credit: Lisa Rose