In the 1980s, they were everybody's favorite TV parents. They're reuniting Oct. 9 to perform the play "Love Letters" at the University of California at Merced.
Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter, who played former hippies Steven and Elyse Keaton and parents to conservative Alex (Michael J. Fox) and three other children in the sitcom "Family Ties," are close friends in real life and performed "Love Letters" together once before about 20 years ago in Beverly Hills.
"It's a real audience pleaser," Gross said in a phone interview from his L.A. home. "It's got moments of great hilarity and moments of pathos and seriousness."
Written by A.R. Gurney and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, "Love Letters" centers on a bittersweet love story between Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepiece Ladd III. It's told solely through letters, with the performers sitting side by side on stage and reading 50 years' worth of correspondence. Many famous actors have performed the play all over the country. Barbara Eden ("I Dream of Jeannie") and Hal Linden ("Barney Miller") presented the show at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto in 2008.
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"When done well, it's a piece that never fails," Gross said. "It is so well written."
The UC Merced engagement came about because of Gross' longtime friendship with Dunya Ramikova, an arts faculty member specializing in costume design and a former classmate from Yale University.
Ramikova wanted to do something to raise the profile of UC Merced's arts program and invited Gross to do a performance as a fund-raiser for Arts UC Merced Presents, which is offering several programs throughout the year. Gross got Baxter to agree to perform with him, and the date was set.
Though it went off the air long ago, "Family Ties" still pops up in reruns on different channels and young people continue to be introduced to it. It seems quaint now because it depicts an intact American family -- something not seen as frequently on television these days. Gross believes people liked it because it showed family members who could stick together and love one another despite disagreements and different points of view.
The show was hugely popular in its day -- at one point, drawing 38 percent of American viewers, something unheard of in today's world of hundreds of channels.
"It was an event where people sat down and watched a show together across several time zones, so they all talked about it the next day," Gross said. "It was amazing to hear that feedback."
Gross said he didn't immediately know the show would be a hit -- it's always hard to tell what attracts the public.
"I'm surprised at any success in this business," he said. "It's such a crap shoot. You know you're doing something, you think it's decent, you think it's worthwhile. You're so close to the piece of work, you really do think you have the cure for cancer. You're surprised when someone is not as enthused as you are."
Gross said he and cast members still stay in touch to varying degrees. He, Baxter, Justine Bateman (daughter Mallory) and Tina Yothers (daughter Jennifer) got together two summers ago for a reunion. He hears from Fox occasionally, though the actor is less available these days because he is dealing with the challenges of Parkinson's disease. He is the closest to Baxter.
He said both are looking forward to working together and performing at UC Merced. He hopes the show will draw a big turnout.
"It's great support for Merced, for the arts community there, for the college there," Gross said.