‘Family Ties’ Michael Gross on Michael J. Fox’s Rise to Fame and the Real Reason the Show Ended (Exclusive)

Michael Gross is opening up his time on Family Ties. ET’s Kevin Frazier spoke to the 74-year-old actor as part of Entertainment Tonight’s Iconic TV Dads week, and the sitcom’s patriarch recalled watching Michael J. Fox’s rise to fame during the show’s seven-season run from 1982 to 1989.

“I remember walking into the mail room and finding just these gobs of mail from pre-teens going, ‘This is our guy.’ That was before Back to the Future,” Gross said of Fox’s 1985 film. “You just said, ‘Oh, this is a phenomenon… This is exciting. [He’s a] young, lovely, funny, handsome, non-threatening guy that girls are gonna fall in love with.’ And they did.”

Even amid all of the actor’s success, though, Fox’s TV dad, who starred as Steven Keaton in the series, said the younger man never changed who he was.

“To watch that transformation was incredible, not the least of which because Michael himself was not transformed. Michael knew he was important, he knew that he had struck gold, but nothing changed,” Gross said of Fox, who starred as Alex P. Keaton on the show. “… We were all aware that this was a big deal, but Michael was the same humble, wonderful guy.”

“He knew from the outset that Family Ties had made all of this possible. He didn’t immediately pull the play and say, ‘I’m out of here,'” he continued. “… Michael never forgot where he came from. He knew he owed something to Family Ties, so there was no pulling of rank, there was no that, ‘I’m a big shot and the rest of you aren’t.’ He was as good as gold and as easy to work with as ever.”

Gross also praised his other onscreen child, Justine Bateman, saying that her role of Mallory Keaton, was the “biggest stretch” among the cast.

“She was anything but dumb, anything but stupid, and she played this kind of airheaded person,” Gross explained. “Justine, extremely bright, extremely creative, a real head on her shoulders, and to me, she had the furthest stretch in terms of the cast of who she was portraying versus who she was in real life.”

Gross said that he keeps up with Fox and Bateman “to a degree,” largely through social media, though he’s still very close to Meredith Baxter, who played his wife, Elyse Keaton, on the series.

“Meredith and I were both 35 when we met… We’ve known each other for 40 years and we’re still friends,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we’re we’ll be doing a play together in July… We love working together. We adore each other.”

Family Ties
Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

As for the lasting success of the series, Gross admitted that it’s something he never thought would happen.

“You live in fear that you’re going to be canceled after the first 13, or the pilot won’t even get picked up… and then it got picked up for 13, and then you live in fear that it won’t be picked up for the back 13, and then it did. And then you think, ‘OK, it’ll be canceled after a year.’ And then it wasn’t,” he said. “And then seven years later, we had done about 175 episodes.”

According to Gross, the series’ run only ended because of the ages of the children, which he called “a built-in time bomb.”

“At the end of the sixth season, the producers came to us and said, ‘We’re only doing one more season.’ [We asked,] ‘Why? We’re a hit.’ [They said,] ‘Well, because it’s getting tougher and tougher for us to make stories. We’re running out of stories. We got Alex P. Keaton, we’ve taken him through high school, college, graduate school. He wants to conquer the world. He’s still living at home with mommy and daddy! It makes no sense,'” Gross recalled. “So, we ended after seven years.”

Throughout the incredible experience, Gross said, he didn’t “appreciate it when it was happening.”

“You’re doing a job and you’re having a good time. I was amazed, though, at the number of people who did respond to say, ‘I wish I had a father like you. I wish I had a family like you,'” he said. “… Some tough crap goes on in American homes and I used to think, ‘Wow they need us.’ I came to understand that we became iconic because they needed us. They needed us to show the way. To this day… I will have dads come up to me and say, ‘I learned to be a father watching Steven Keaton.”

Despite fan interactions like those, Gross told ET he doesn’t know if he’s “earned” the title of being an iconic TV dad.

“I think the writing earned it, to be honest with you. All I did was deliver some pretty amazing lines,” he said. “… I’m happy to know I’ve been iconic in any way, shape or form. I attribute that to some incredible writing and a great ensemble cast… It was something that appealed to the entire family.”

Tune in to Wednesday’s episode of Entertainment Tonight for more of ET’s interview with Gross. Watch the video below for another interview from ET’s Iconic TV Dads week.

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