Michael Gross joins raunchy 'Call Me Fitz' for multi-episode story arc
TORONTO - Wholesome TV dad Michael Gross is cutting ties with his beloved '80s image in a multi-episode guest spot for the raunchy Canuck comedy "Call Me Fitz."
The former "Family Ties" star joins the cast this fall as a mysterious business rival to foul-mouthed used car salesman Fitz Fitzgerald, played by Jason Priestley, and the Fitzgerald clan patriarch Ken, played by Peter MacNeill.
The amiable actor admits the fishy new-age salesman he plays — inspired in part by the serene charisma of the late Steve Jobs — is a far cry from the good-natured Steven Keaton he became famous for in the '80s.
"They decided this faux-guru-like man would be fun for me to do and so they made the offer and I read it and they sent some DVDs of the show and I thought, 'My God, what is this?'" Gross chuckles in a recent phone call while travelling just outside Los Angeles.
"It was so fascinating and different."
The degenerate Fitzgerald clan is as morally bereft as ever in Season 4, which this time revolves around the arrival of Fitz's baby.
Forced to care for the child, Fitz ends up moving in with his boozy mom Elaine while Larry decides it's time to investigate the family's twisted history of dysfunction.
Gross turns up several episodes in as the bizarre entrepreneur Pat Childs, a man Gross admits some people might consider "kind of smarmy" but who is not without some appeal.
"I'm an advocate of this man, I would call the entire Fitz family smarmy, you know. (Pat is) a bit of a con man but I think in some ways his ends are somewhat decent, but the means he uses may be a little questionable," he says, reluctant to reveal too much about the character.
"There's interesting things that happen in subsequent episodes but he truly believes he belongs there and has something to contribute to these people."
Although the black comedy is known for revelling in rude and crude language, Gross notes his character manages to ooze smarm without such lewd talk.
Gross says he spent about six weeks in Halifax for the shoot, using his time off from the set to do "touristy things" that included exploring the coast and a visit to the Halifax Citadel to watch the daily gun blast. He found a comfy hangout in a bookstore cafe and frequented a local hobby shop to indulge his model railroad passion.
Throughout, Gross says he found it easy to mill about freely, noting that people generally don't recognize him as much as one might think.
"It's so out of context to see me walking down a Halifax street that they may say, 'Gee, that guy's face is familiar but (from) where I don't know.... Does he work in my bank?'" he says.
"Even in the United States, they'll look at me and say, 'Wait, we've met right?' Or, 'You work here?' or, 'Do you live in Kookamunga, Calif., and did I see you on the street there?'"
Still, Gross notes he hasn't exactly dropped out of the limelight. Recent acting credits include various TV movies, guest spots on shows including "How I Met Your Mother," "Drop Dead Diva" and "Family Guy" and a stint on "The Young and the Restless."
"People will frequently say to me, 'Oh, have you stopped working? You're not acting anymore?' (And I say), 'Well, I actually do but there are 500 channels and if you're watching one of those 500 and I'm on one of the other 499 you're going to miss me.'"
Gross says he's thrilled to see his former TV son with a new prime time comedy, "The Michael J. Fox Show."
"He's talented, it's his favourite milieu and he wants to do something and by God he should do something," Gross says. "I think it's a great example to anybody who has, for example, a chronic disease to say: Don't let it stop you."
Gross says the "Family Ties" cast is still friendly and gets together for the occasional reunion that he organizes. He and Meredith Baxter, who played his TV wife Elyse Keaton, even co-celebrated their 66th birthdays together at his house in June.
"We're all friends and care a great deal about one another," he says, noting the several life changes that have taken place since the sitcom went off the air in 1989. "Justine Bateman has two children, Tina Yothers has two children, I now have two grandchildren."
Gross says he enjoys travelling with this wife and admits their leisurely excursions sometimes trump booking acting jobs.
"I'm thrilled to be working but I'm not suicidal when I'm not. I've come to an age where I love my family and my grandchildren and my dog and I have hobbies and I just have a full life."
A new season of "Call Me Fitz" returns Monday on Movie Central in Western Canada and the Movie Network in Eastern Canada.