After Years of Baching It, Michael J. Fox's Tv Dad Engineers His Own Family Ties

updated 05/26/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Steven Keaton's idea of a meaningful evening is to gather the wife and kids, pop some popcorn and scan the family scrapbook. As Michael J. Fox's dad on Family Ties, he still wears corduroy jackets, sports a beard and makes a modest living working for a PBS station.

It would be easy to confuse Michael Gross, 38, with his nice-guy character. They both believe that less is more. "I don't like things," says Gross, pushing his hand through his thin, graying hair. Until recently, home for this bachelor was a furnished Hollywood apartment with rented furniture. And in auto erotic L.A., he drew stares by commuting to work on a bicycle, and darned his worn-out socks between takes.

Then something happened. On June 2, 1984 he wed TV casting director Elza Bergeron, 45, inheriting from her first marriage two teenagers, Katie, 18, and Theo, 16. They live in the hills above Flintridge, near L.A., in a four-bedroom house with a pool and ("Count 'em," says Gross, rolling his eyes) three cars. "It's been a cultural shock," says Michael. "There is a bumper sticker that reads, 'He who dies with the most toys wins.' My feeling is he who dies with the most loses, because you can't take 'em with you." Says Elza: "Michael is almost an ascetic. The most expensive item he owned when I met him was an answering machine." For both, says Michael, "marriage has been a big education."

When Bergeron helped cast Gross in Family Ties in 1982 she did so on the basis of a videotaped audition. It wasn't until the show was several weeks into the first season that they actually met at a cast gathering. Someone asked Gross how he came to California from New York, where he lived. "I said, 'By train.' " he recalls. (Trains are his obsession; he distributes "Save Amtrak" pamphlets in his community.) "Everyone stopped talking, their forks halfway to their mouths." It was then that Elza said the magic words. She told Gross that she had travelled by train across country several times. "We began exchanging information about trains," he says. Gross found his life hurtling down a new and dangerous track. "I had never come close to marriage before," he says, "but all those little thingamabobs inside me started making weird little sounds. I had to marry her."

Here's where things start getting strange, even for Hollywood. Of his own volition, Gross went to Forest Lawn to visit Elza's father's grave (he died in 1967). He said a prayer, asking Elza's father's spirit to give them a sign as to whether they should marry. "Several weeks later Elza confided she'd been having a strange sense of visitation from her father; a very positive closeness," Gross says. He took that as a yes vote. Gross then drove Elza back to the cemetery, where he popped the question. Pointing to the grave, he said: "This is the first man in your life. It's a pity he had to leave you. I would like to be the last man in your life."

Four months later, Michael, who is Catholic, and Elza, a born-again Christian, were married in a Congregational church near the Los Angeles railroad station. After the "I do's," the 150-member wedding party boarded a privately leased railroad car for a two-hour round trip to San Juan Capistrano. Gross then moved into the home Elza owned, a few miles from their present one. "I thought it would be a simple transition," Gross says, "until I discovered there was no place to hang my clothes." So he built a clothes rack in the garage. "On one of my trips to the garage on a rainy night I thought, This is crazy. You're an adult. You're making money. You can afford to have a closet of your own somewhere.' So we bought this house." Living with teens has taught Gross that "if you buy something special that you want to eat and you put it in the refrigerator to save for later, you must remember to put your name on it." As for being a strict disciplinarian, he says, "I like things shipshape. But I'm not like Captain von Trapp. I don't blow a whistle for the kids to come." Elza demurs. "Almost," she quips.

Adjusting is something Gross has had to do at work as well as at home. When Family Ties premiered, Steven and Elyse Keaton (Meredith Baxter Birney) were the central characters. Now most of the plots revolve around Back to the Future's Fox. "The character of Alex is the one with which the writers are most taken," says Gross, chagrin barely concealed. "It has been a kind of obsession with them."

Off-camera, Gross says he is not a father figure to Fox or his TV sisters, Justine Bateman and Tina Yothers. "I'm certainly closest to Meredith," he says. "We're in the same generation. We speak the same language. We even have the same birthdays." Birney has noticed the difference marriage has made on her TV husband. "He nags," she says. "I hear him on the phone talking to Elza and I say, I wouldn't want to hear that coming at me. But I have the nicest relationship with him, and I absolutely adore him."

Until Family Ties came along, Gross was a steadily employed stage actor (Bent, Geniuses) who got his training at Yale. Born and reared in Chicago, the son of a tool-designer father and telephone operator mother, Michael has two sisters; the younger, comedian Mary Gross, 33, was a regular on Saturday Night Live. Mary says Michael has always been a ham or a derivation thereof. "I remember one Halloween," she says, "when he was in the basement, preparing to go to a party as a liver sausage sandwich."

These days he'd probably go as a train. Gross is currently restoring a vintage baggage cart and a track-maintenance car in his garage. He's even transformed a section of his patio into a mock railroad depot. "One day," says Gross, waving his hand to the adjacent hillside, "I'm going to move the pool up there and find a train engine to perch here in the backyard." At that rate Gross just may wind up with the most toys after all.

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