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 Hubās animated comedy Dan Vs., playing ā surprise, surprise ā husband and wife. The first episode, āEliseās Parents,ā airs May 14 and the second, āThe Family Camping Trip,ā 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 theyāve made peace with their signature roles.
Youāve 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 ā¦ which made it even more fun. This is Jayās idea, and Meredith and I jumped at it.
Is voice-over relatively new to both of you?
Meredith Baxter: Iād done very little. Iāve auditioned frequently, I donāt get hired often. But this is the one thatās 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 didnāt hear anything about it, I didnāt 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, youāre 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, Iām doing this Disney thing. Go see me in this.” They said, “We didnāt see your name anywhere. Or hear your voice.” Yeah, thatās my career.
Happens to the best of āem, I guess.
Gross: Yeah, exactly.
Baxter: Howād it happen to you then? (Laughs)
Youāre both obviously very familiar with each otherās 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 youāre more used to this than I am, Michael, but just standing up in front of a mic had none of the same
Michael Gross: Sheās so good at smirking. Sheās one of the best smirkers I know. (Laughs) I donāt enjoy it as much because you donāt have the visual to help you along. Having said that, I find myself looking at her. Sheās just at the next microphone, which is fun. So far for the episodes weāve done theyāve had us in the same room together at the same time, which is great. ā¦ 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 weāre finding our groove and weāre having a good time.
Have there been many in-jokes about Family Ties in the episodes youāve done?
Gross: No, and I hope there wonāt be. I donāt know why, I never really cared for that much. I always end up groaning. The people who do know about the reference, you donāt have to do that. The people who donāt know about it just say, āWell, what does that mean?ā I never quite get it.
Baxter: I donāt 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 heād call me āMumsy,ā 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. Foxās character] was on the phone with somebody before I walked in the office and said something like ā I was a replacement therapist for him, his regular therapist had taken time off ā he was getting on the phone and saying to somebody, āWhat are the chances that somebody is going to walk in that door and Iām going to feel comfortable and familiar with them?ā 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 Michaelās characterās appearance. You know what Michael Gross looks like, heās 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 āWhoa!ā 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 didnāt hear you at all.
Gross: I thought it was a rather nice mustache. Itās a good look for me.
Does his personality match his physique?
Gross: Heās a little rough around the edges. Heās 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 daughterās current boyfriend, and hostility is just fun. It has a lot of potential, particularly in animation. Outright hostility, whether itās Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd or me and my daughterās suitor.
How about you, Meredith? What about your character?
Baxter: Thereās some things that have been hinted at that havenāt really been fleshed out yet. My daughter, whom I insist on calling āJunior,ā 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 donāt know what this is about, we donāt know why there seems to be surreptitious phone calls and sheāll disappear periodically with no real explanation, and that will come out later. I have been told, but Iām sorry, Stacey, I canāt tell you.
Gross: If we told you, weād have to kill you.
You’re playing parents of a character named Elise, so is it weird being in each otherās presence and calling another character by that name?
Baxter: I see āEliseā on the page, and I want to read it. You know, it is what it is. Weāll get used to it, and as long as the audience can figure it out, itās no big deal. Iāll 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 weāve 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 itās 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. … Iāve gotten a good sense of what it is thus far in that Dan is always, as the name might imply, having problems with something. Heās a guy whose life is not very easy. Itās a fascinating idea, it seems to me, to have this person with built-in conflict ā thatās the stuff of which drama is made. Him versus something every week. That is fun, and has a lot of dramatic possibility.
Baxter: Heās in a perpetual state of seeking revenge on something.
Do your characters come across Dan much?
Baxter: Heās always there. Heās always present. Heās very much a part of Chris and Eliseās life, our daughter and her boyfriend. Heās just always looming in and the catalyst for most of the difficulties anyoneās going through.
Gross: Heās Chrisās best friend, and so heās very much a part of our extended family, letās say. We have times when weāre working together and times when weāre at odds, depending on the situation. That seems to be how itās shaken down up until now. Itās just got a tremendous amount of possibilities and Iām delighted that theyāve 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 canāt wait to come and do them. I just know I do.
Family Ties seems to be getting a lot of attention lately, with Meredithās 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, āOh, I loved you on Family Ties.ā I was like, āWell, yeah, thanks, but Iāve been doing this.ā And now 22 years later, people come up to me and still say, āI love Family Ties. Oh my God, I wish you were my mother!ā āI wanted Michael Gross to be my father.ā āI wanted to be Alex P. Keaton.ā Thatās the kind of stuff Iām hearing, and I realized we donāt get to pick the things that people remember. ā¦ 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 canāt predict. Thereās 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 theyāre trying in some cases to show it to their own children, is very gratifying. Iām 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 Iām 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 donāt necessarily feel like we have to work together again. Not that we wouldnāt enjoy it, but itās just not at the top of our lists. … After all these years itās 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, āLet us know when youāre going to be out our way,ā so we can have some sort of impromptu gathering of the Keaton clan. We look forward to it and it doesnāt happen enough, frankly.
Photos: (Dan Vs.) Courtesy of The Hub; (Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross) Credit: Lisa Rose