- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
Native Chicagoan, Michael Gross, is a prolific stage, television and film actor, and is perhaps most known for two very different roles. Many audiences know and admire him for his work as the ex-Hippy Steven Keaton, father to Michael J. Fox’s Alex, and Justine Bateman’s Mallory, on the award winning sitcom, Family Ties (1982–1989). For many others, though, he is beloved for his portrayal of gun enthusiast and survivalist, Burt Gummer in the Tremors film series. Equally at home playing warm likeable characters as he is the ornery and tough-types, he revels at the diversity of roles.
Gross returns for the sixth time as Burt Gummer in the latest Tremors film, Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell, where he once again stands, well-armed, against the deadly graboid menace. He spoke to Home Theater Forum about playing the lovable Burt character and what makes him so appealing to audiences and fans of the Tremors series.
Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell is available on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD and On Demand on May 1, 2018 from Universal Home Entertainment.
HTF: This is your sixth outing as Burt Gummer. When Tremors premiered back in 1990, you couldn't possibly have imagined that you'd still be playing him all these years later. And that it was a character that would be so loved that he would show up in five sequels. What is it about the Burt Gummer character to you that you think makes him so interesting that we want to keep seeing him, again and again, fighting Graboids in all sorts of different places?
“I think he's a comic extreme of this sort of American archetype. And maybe a little like a comic Charles Bronson”
Michael Gross: Well, I think in some ways, he's uniquely American. I don't mean just guns. I mean that sort of fierce independence, not wanting to be under anybody's thumb, rebelling against authority, that old sort of thing. I think there's something quintessentially American about that. Now, you can argue whether that sort of Americanism is good or bad because sometimes for a society, it makes for a lot of individuals but it doesn't make for a cohesive society. But Burt is also a fiercely comic character. I call him a comic paranoid, a comic case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and those extremes make comedy in cases like this. So I think he's a comic extreme of this sort of American archetype. And maybe a little like a comic Charles Bronson. I don't know [laughter].
I know the first couple pieces were so well crafted that people kept coming back because the writing was so good. So it's a hard thing to live up to, frankly, because you feel that you do have a sort of responsibility with the fans to maintain a certain “Burt” authenticity with each of these films.
HTF: Well, that's an interesting take. And I wouldn't say that Burt's an anti-hero, certainly not in the traditional sense, but he is a hero of a very unique kind, because he seeks to do the right things, protect others, protect himself, and to be brave. And that's sort of a characteristic that we all hope for ourselves that we're willing to. So, at least from my English-born perspective, we’re able to forgive the fascination with weaponry and explosives and guns and that sort of isolationist nature about him. Because at the end of the day, he's a good guy trying to do the right thing even though we might not do it the same way ourselves.
Michael Gross: Well, that's certainly a good point. I find him entirely selfless. He wants to be left alone, and he wants to do his own thing, but he's not a selfish person. He's not, "Oh, no. I want what's mine, and the rest of you can go to hell." He's willing to put his life on the line for a cause. And quite frankly, it's the pure fun of it. I think he has the hunter instinct, and he also loathes these things so much that it's a pleasure for him to annihilate these things because they are a danger. So I do think he has a bit of a, "What would the world do without me?" sort of feeling [laughter] because he's standing against the utter chaos if these things were unleashed on an unsuspecting world. So he does think himself rather better prepared than anybody else to do the job. In that respect, he's a bit full of himself but he does the right thing. You're absolutely correct.
HTF: Do you find it easy to fall back into the character? And part of that question is about the quips, put-downs, sarcasm and the acerbic wit. That's got to be fun to play, but it seems like the character's sort of a rough and tumble action hero, too. Does that get harder to play as the years go by?
“In Tremors 5, I broke a couple of ribs and got a terrible scrape on a shin which seemed like it took forever to heal…[a]nd on this one, I actually broke a tooth on the scope of a gun thrust in my face.”
Michael Gross: [chuckles] I truly do have to keep in shape. I work at it still in terms of exercise and trying to take care of myself, and range of motion and eating well and all those sorts of things. But I was also blessed with a certain amount of - thank God - good genes. My parents lived to ripe old ages, and so I won't say it isn't difficult, but I have to pace myself. I have to get my sleep. I don't want anybody else around when I'm doing these films. My wife is never invited on the set to come with me. Maybe during the final couple of days of filming, that sort of thing, because at the end of the day, what I want to do is get a good shower, learn lines, eat a meal, and get to sleep. And there's just no carousing involved. I very much have to get my rest. And I always bang myself up. In Tremors 5, I broke a couple of ribs and got a terrible scrape on a shin which seemed like it took forever to heal. And on this one, I actually broke a tooth on the scope of a gun thrust in my face. You do the best you can to get it right, but there's always some little thing.
I try to protect myself. I try to wear loose clothing [that] can conceal padding, shin guards, knee guards, elbow pads, things like that. I'm not exactly outfitted like a football player, but in extreme action scenes where I have to take falls or crawl through rocks and things like that, I always go to the wardrobe person and say, "I want loose-fitting clothing so we don't see the padding underneath." In case I need it. I don't wear it in every scene, of course, but in action scenes where there's a danger of falling and stuff like that. And gloves for that same reason. Oh, there's nothing as bad as scraping up your hands on gravel if you take a fall somewhere. So I try to wear gloves as Burt.
HTF: And you're not doing it just one time. Sometimes you're doing it multiple times over again to get the right shot.
Michael Gross: Absolutely. And so if I have the rare day off, I try to just relax, swim, maybe meditate, just pull myself down and sort of recover myself. I don't do a lot of craziness on the days off. Travel, sightsee, I just go to zero somewhere where I can recover my strength.
HTF: Tremors was the first film I ever got to see an advanced press screening. It was back in 1990, in the south of England. I was 15 at the time. A very good friend of mine was writing for a local newspaper, The Echo, and we loved it. Every year, I take part in a movie marathon in October where the challenge is to watch at least one scary movie a day. And back in 2015, I made a point to watch the five at that time Tremors movies. I remarked in my write-ups that it was your presence in those films that made all the difference. Not just for continuity of character, but because you and your character is such a blast. You're such a fan favorite. Are you aware of just how important you are to the franchise? I don't say that to blow smoke, but could you ever see Tremors continuing without you?
Michael Gross: Well, yeah, I don't know. I haven't thought that far in advance. What I've learned in this business is that everyone's replaceable. I do know that. Directors, actors. Kevin Spacey was fired from a film and in comes another actor to take over for him. None of us are irreplaceable. I've become strongly identified with it, but I could see a day. If they think there's enough money in it, by golly, they'll do it. Now, how well will it be received? I can't answer but that. But if they think there's box office there, they'll do it. Son of Burt, that kind of a thing.
HTF: Talk about working with the almost entirely new cast in A Cold Day in Hell, and of course working with Jamie Kennedy again.
“I think that chemistry between Jamie and I, even our different ways of working, works quite well for this piece because he just drives Burt crazy.”
Michael Gross: Well, Jamie's a lot of fun. I love the character. I love the introduction of the character since he is one of those hang loose sorts of characters and Burt is so rigid. And it parallels our own lives in a certain way. I like to sort of do things by the numbers, and Jamie is looser. And it's not that I'm not at home with improv. I am, but I like the words just right for Burt. Burt has a kind of precision about him, and I don't know that I can always get that in improvisation. So I like to think about it and craft him in a certain way, whereas Jamie is more, "Oh, let's just try this. Let's try that." And I have that facility, but I'm worried about going wrong with Burt if I just fly without thinking about it because Burt has a unique voice, and I always want to be able to capture that voice.
I think that chemistry between Jamie and I, even our different ways of working, works quite well for this piece because he just drives Burt crazy. Burt, who has to know the answer before the question is asked, and Travis who's just kind of like, "Well, let's do this by the seat of our pants." Burt is over prepared and I think Travis is underprepared, and that makes for a great conflict. And the other people were just lovely. We always have the benefit of working with some really dear people who they find locally. This one, like the last one, was made in South Africa, and we just had a great time. Some very talented people all over the world, and I'm thrilled to find these people and this depth of talent wherever I go. And thank God for some of the social media because some of us keep in touch that way now.
HTF: You're constantly working. You're appearing in film and television, making guest appearances, and you've had, in particular, some very memorable guest appearances in shows that I've enjoyed like Boston Legal and Law and Order: Criminal Intent where you’re nice, endearing quality was used to subvert expectations and create something very unsettling. And that's got to be fun playing against expectation.
Michael Gross: It's a lot of fun.
HTF: And you seem equally at home in comedy and drama and multiple genres. You can be warm and friendly as you were as the father on Family Ties, or you can pull off the ornery soul incredibly well, too. That mix of platforms and genres and types of characters, is that what keeps this work exciting for you?
“I don't think I'd enjoy doing Burt the series because I don't want to do Burt every day. I don't want to do 24 episodes of Burt a year, but I love revisiting him from time to time as part of the great mix that acting could be.”
Michael Gross: Absolutely. As I get older, I'm not as interested in working as often as I used to if something doesn't ring my bell if you will. For example, in two weeks, I'm playing a very gay man in Grace and Frankie on Netflix with Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and I love the variety. I like to play the outrageous. I like to play people in conflict with themselves. And I don't want to play the same game over and over and over again. So I don't think I'd enjoy doing Burt the series because I don't want to do Burt every day. I don't want to do 24 episodes of Burt a year, but I love revisiting him from time to time as part of the great mix that acting could be. I feel I have the joys of a repertory company actor without the having to be on stage every night.
HTF: Oh, that's terrific
Michael Gross: So that's fun for me. I started in theater and actually did a lot of Repertory Theater, but now I don't have to do eight performances a week at night. I can do it during the day and still get the variety I need.
HTF: Well, Michael, thank you very much for talking with me today. It's been a pleasure
Michael Gross: Neil, it's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much for your excellent questions, and I look forward to speaking to you in the future again sometime.