Depending on the time of year, you can find him in the bleachers at La Cañada High School volleyball matches or on set in a South African desert.
In between, you might happen to see Michael Gross ordering his decaf cappuccino from Constellation Coffee on Foothill Boulevard, or possibly at a local Planning Commission meeting regarding a development in his neighborhood. In his round glasses and absent facial hair, you may have to double-take to recognize him as the actor behind Steven Keaton from the sitcom “Family Ties” and Burt Gummer from the cult-favorite “Tremors” franchise.
“I was one of America’s favorite fathers,” the La Cañada Flintridge resident observed, reflecting on his career as an actor while waiting for his cappuccino to cool off. “I was sort of this benign, sort of left-wing, liberal guy. He wore his heart on his sleeve.”
That he spent seven seasons in that role made it all the more confusing to Gross when he was contacted about being cast in “Tremors.” Gummer, who was a supporting character to Kevin Bacon’s Val McKee and Fred Ward’s Earl Basset, was a gun enthusiast and survivalist who lived in his fortified desert compound with his wife, Heather (played by Reba McEntire). They and the handful of other residents in their tiny desert town (the fictional Perfection, Nevada) become the target prey of monstrous prehistoric worm-like creatures — named “graboids” — who hunt by tunneling underground.
“I looked at the script and thought, ‘This has to be a mistake,’” Gross explained, laughing at the memory. “This was just goofy fun, and I thought, ‘Why not?’”
After the first film’s theatrical release in 1990, the franchise spawned a sequel with Gross returning as a supporting character before Burt Gummer became the central character in third, fourth and fifth direct-to-DVD releases (a sequel, prequel and another sequel, respectively). A short-lived TV series ran on the SyFy channel with Gross as the lead and the sixth film, subtitled “A Cold Day in Hell,” is due for release on DVD and Blu-ray on May 1.
Although the first film didn’t exactly shatter box office records, its home release and the subsequent direct-release films helped establish the cult following that continues nearly three decades later.
“I was like ‘Whoa,’” Gross said. “They’re amazingly popular. It’s like peoples’ guilty pleasure.
“They didn’t know what to do,” Gross added, explaining how Universal originally marketed the first film. “They advertised it as a straight horror movie. I said this is offhand and crazy. It’s just part western, part monster and part comedy. It really found its feet in the aftermarket videos. It kind of snuck onto the radar and it’s been that way ever since.”
Gummer proved to be a fan favorite, serving as much of the comedic relief in the first film. (When Gummer pulls out some cannon fuse and Ward asks, “What the hell d’you use it for?” Gross deadpans: “My cannon.”) At a recent one-night showing of the first film at the Regency Theater in Granada Hills, the audience burst into applause at the conclusion of the well-known basement standoff between Burt and Heather Gummer and a graboid.
In the second film, the character finds himself in search of better times after his wife left him — “Well, she’s still visiting her sister. You know, she actually blames our problems on the collapse of the Soviet Union!” Gummer explains. From that point on, Gummer settles into his newfound raison d’être as the world’s leading expert on handling outbreaks of the predatory creatures. (Humorously, he also must ensure the residents of Perfection co-exist with the remaining graboids nearby because they are deemed endangered.)
The fourth film flashes back to the 1800s, when the town is a booming mining hub and Gross plays Burt Gummer’s great-grandfather. Burt discovers in the fifth film he fathered a son (played by Jamie Kennedy) and they form a father-son duo that will continue in the upcoming sequel.
Outside of the films, Gross has embraced his association with the franchise, often sharing Tremors-related posts on his Facebook page (facebook.com/ActorMichaelGross) and appearing in “The Daily Gummer” videos on the official Tremors page (facebook.com/TremorsMovie).
“Comedy is about exaggeration, and no one is quite as exaggerated as Burt is with his paranoia and with his OCD,” Gross said. “His character is just such fun.
“If I do a role, I’m usually satisfied, but Burt is just so damn fun,” he added. “There’s always a new way to challenge him.”
LIFE IS GOOD IN LCF
Gross’ acting career does not give him a rigid schedule and he is selective about the roles he auditions for. He has in the past couple of decades been a serial guest star on television series for handfuls of episodes at a time.
“Had I wanted steady work, I would have done something else for a living,” he said. “I never expected to do steady work. I like freelancing. I very much enjoy the variety that it brings and the older that I get, it’s much harder for me to commit to something long-term.”
That suits him just fine. Gross said he likes to spend his days with family and has taken a particular interest in his granddaughter Allison’s extracurricular activities, which include community outreach and playing on the LCHS volleyball team.
“Last year, they went to the quarterfinals,” he said, beaming. “I went to every single home game and I will be there again this year. I want to be free to do some of those things.”
He also recently helped his granddaughter with a furniture project for the Door of Hope director’s office and has injected himself into the public eye before the City Council and Planning Commission. The Oakmont Senior Living facility being proposed in his neighborhood is, by his estimation, too large to fit in the area and too dangerously close to high-traffic Foothill Boulevard. He and other residents have formed the group Together La Cañada to advocate for a resident-friendly approach to the city’s development.
“He definitely is civic-minded and he enjoys the small town,” Katie Budde, Gross’ stepdaughter and Allison’s mother, said in a phone interview. “He enjoys knowing his neighbors and his real relationships he has here, outside of Hollywood.”
Gross characterized his focus on home life as a second chance of sorts.
“I missed my own daughter’s high school and college graduations because I was doing Saturday matinees in the theater,” Gross said. “I’ve become more of a day person. Theater is, by its nature, a night thing. Realizing that I missed some things as a parent, I think grandparenting is a chance to get that right.”
Katie Budde said that quote is something she’s heard from him before and that he’s really taken the approach to heart.
“I was right around her age when he stepped into my life, so with her growing up, it was sort of his first time being around younger kids,” she said. “They have a good, close relationship. He cracks her up. He always gets her talking. She isn’t just a sullen teenager around him.”
Budde said she usually finds out about her stepfather’s latest role whenever friends mention seeing him on an episode of something, although the whole family recently screened “A Cold Day in Hell” together.
“That was a whole bunch of fun, to see him in the audience and watch him on-screen,” she said. “He’s not that character in real life, but he’s had a hell of a lot of fun playing him.”
Budde added that she and her husband made the deliberate decision to remain local when they got married.
“His parents are here and my parents are here and both of us grew up with our grandparents on the East Coast, so we made the choice to give our children the wonderful opportunities to spend with their grandparents,” she said.
Gross seems thankful for that decision.
“What I’ll remember on my deathbed — a great volleyball game of my granddaughter’s or a dinner with my wife — is far better than any applause I got from an audience,” he added. “Not that that hasn’t given me a great deal of pleasure, but my priorities have changed.”
OPENS THE DOOR
A Chicago native, Gross said he didn’t grow up or even start college with acting in mind.
When he was in high school in 1965, he and a group of other boys auditioned for a production of “Oklahoma!” at a nearby all-girls school. (“I did one high school play, and it was about the girls,” he wryly admitted. “We were at the school that afternoon.”) He earned the role of Will Parker.
“I was in choir in high school,” he explained. “Music was always a part of my life. Music was always dear to my heart and that’s kind of how I slipped into this business.”
Gross enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago and initially studied for a pre-medicine degree. However, he said he quickly realized that medicine wasn’t a good fit for him, and he “wandered” into anthropology next. Soon after, he ran into one of his former “Oklahoma!” co-stars on campus, who said she was going to an audition on campus for “The Crucible.” Gross went to watch.
“I said, ‘I’m not even an actor and I can do better than that. These guys are terrible,’” he recalled. “I sat there in judgment because I did that one high school play.”
Gross earned his bachelor’s degree in drama and then earned a master of fine arts degree from Yale. After a handful of mostly TV movies, he landed his lead role in “Family Ties” alongside Meredith Baxter. The two periodically reunite for stage performances of “Love Letters,” and most recently revisited the play in the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania this month, doing eight shows over a five-day period.
“It was wonderful,” Baxter said during a phone interview. “I don’t remember how many times we had performed this together. Sometimes it’s a one- or two-performance fundraiser or it’s a short run somewhere, but it’s been many, many times over many years. It’s like finding an old pair of pants.”
Baxter said she and Gross have kept up a jovial disagreement about the first time they met for “Family Ties.”
“He thought we met when we did the opening sequences for the title that we shot out at the Arboretum [in Arcadia],” she said. “I think we’d already done the pilot. I just remember meeting him and saying something like ‘You need a tan.’ I loved him immediately. He was just my dearest friend for the whole time we shot that show.”
Baxter and Gross happen to share the exact same birthdate, which they co-celebrated once in London while filming the made-for-TV “Family Ties Vacation.” As their friendship continued after “Family Ties” ended, Baxter said she watched Gross become the upstanding family man he is today.
“He made a real impact on all of his kids,” she said. “He’s a lovely man. He’s such a warm, generous and tender guy. He listens. He’s a show-up guy. What better character can you have in your life than someone who’s always in your corner?”
FOR THE FANS
Gross said he hopes to achieve another reunion in his career. At the time of this interview, Gross said he was on the eve of meeting with Universal to discuss a seventh Tremors movie — before the sixth has been released — and he said he already had a plan in mind for Gummer. (Bacon and Ward were more recently announced in an eight-episode TV series for the franchise, but SyFy declined to pick up the pilot; Gross wasn’t linked to the show.)
“I think it’s time for Burt to find love,” Gross said. “I like to put him in uncomfortable places. [‘Tremors’] 5 was about him having a family. To have the anarchy of having another family member in his life is a real challenge. I think I’d like to see Burt confronted with the first crush he’s had in years.”
Would that crush involve bringing McEntire back?
“It’d be great to get her back for one thing,” Gross said. “It’d be a great coup.”
Hardcore “Tremors” fans will already have taken note of a coup of sorts in the sixth film. Gummer has, for no apparent reason, sported an Atlanta Hawks baseball cap in each of the movies and in the series. Gross revealed this happened because he felt, when he was first working with the costume designer for “Tremors,” that Gummer would be a basketball fan of a southern team and that resulted in a truckload of hats courtesy of the Hawks.
Promotional images and the trailer for the sixth film have him wearing a Chicago Cubs cap, instead, which is Gross’ tribute to his long accursed Cubs winning the 2016 World Series after a 107-year championship drought.
“After five movies, he’s just wearing a Cubs hat without explanation,” Gross said. “Burt’s always hunkered down in the cellar. The Cubs were always in the cellar. It was natural.”