There’s something empowering in watching men triumph over monsters, which explains the popularity of Universal Studios’ endless sequels to Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man throughout World War II. The cult classic Tremors, featuring a small desert community under attack by giant killer earthworms that pop up from under the ground, could provide the same escapist entertainment today. Practical handymen Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) outsmart the Graboids through refreshing use of common sense, banding the small Nevada town of Perfection together (‘This valley is just one long smorgasbord, and we have got to get out!’)
Tremors has fun with S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock’s oft-quotable dialogue, but the most memorable scene involves two survivalists (country singer Reba McIntire and Family Ties‘ namby-pamby ex-hippie dad Michael Gross, both cast surprisingly against type) defending their basement against a giant worm, exhausting their entire wall of state-of-the-art rifles and ammunition in a hilarious shootout that must last a good three-to-five minutes. That’ll teach the bastards!
Michael Gross again played the resilient Burt Gummer for Tremors 2: Aftershocks (sadly, sans Reba) and is one of the key ensemble players during Tremors 3: Back to Perfection. As the title implies, it’s a homecoming where many actors from the original film reprise their roles as the eclectic, funny band of neighbors. Once more unto the (desert) breach they go, facing off against the mutated creatures.
filmcritic.com recently had the opportunity to chat with Gross about his latest assault on ‘those little wormies.’ Tremors 3 arrives straight-to-video on October 2, 2001.
filmcritic.com: I just saw Tremors 3: Back to Perfection last night.
Michael Gross: I haven’t seen it yet! How would you compare it to parts one [Tremors] and two [Tremors 2: Aftershocks]?
I haven’t seen Tremors 2. I really dug the first one.
My own personal opinion is that this is better than Tremors 2. [That movie has] some interesting stuff, but is more of a straight action-adventure. Tremors 3, like the original, has a little more heart to it.
You return to the town of Perfection.
It’s our roots!
Seems like you have a real affection for these characters.
Yes. I loved having my character’s relationship with [nice guy Perfection resident] Miguel (Tony Genaro) again, and little Mindy (Ariana Richards), the girl with the pogo stick [from Tremors, age 10] who’s now 21, 22!
Was it odd seeing some of those actors [including Robert Jayne, 17 in Tremors] all grown up? I assume you haven’t seen them in years.
I haven’t, and it was a thrill. Tremors was 11 years ago, and in some ways it felt as if no time at all had passed. Actors are, by nature, gypsies. Some of the toughest things about our business are the departures, but some of the nicest are the reunions. You get together with somebody you haven’t seen for a long, long time and talk about the old days or the fun you had on this or that project. That’s very much how it felt here. It was fun to catch up. When we have a DVD version of this, I plan to have the cast and some of the crew over at the house to have a screening and a potluck because I like them all.
Both of the original Tremors screenwriters have had a hand in directing the sequels, right? S.S. Wilson directed Part 2 and then Brent Maddock directed Part 3?
Exactly, and they are both marvelously capable for first-time directors, among other things. They know the material so well. It’s nice to have a director there who you can turn to and say, ‘Can we tweak this line a little bit?’ Being the director and writer, they have final authority, but it’s great to have the power right there behind the camera and there are so few egos involved here. It’s like one great big family. These guys come to me every couple of years when they wanna crank out another one. They say, ‘Whaddaya think we should do? What do you have to tell us about Burt?’ They just trust me with the character.
One thing I must say is that although Burt’s name (or my name, I should say) is above the title this time out, I said, ‘You mustn’t make me the centerpiece of this thing.’ Burt only works insofar as he is surrounded by nice, normal human beings. Like Fonzie in Happy Days, surrounded by the Cunningham family. He’s the comic contrast.
Burt is something of a survivalist. Do you think he’s overcompensating for something?
To be honest, I think it’s abject fear. He’s a fearful paranoid. The beauty of their writing is if you take anything like that so far, it becomes comical. Anybody who takes life that seriously is, by nature, funny. One of the things I love about Burt is the irony that he has no sense of humor. That is pure comic potential right there. In all three movies, I have difficulty remembering a time when Burt laughed.
He smiles a few times.
Yeah, when he’s right about something! It’s a sarcastic smile.
What were your feelings about on-set safety, handling all those big guns?
I have a great respect for weapons. I’m not afraid of them. In fact, like anyone, I get a pure testosterone rush from them, which is why I think they’re so dangerous. That opening sequence kills me. Burt sits between those antiaircraft guns blasting away [at the Graboids]. It was deafening, my teeth were grinding, flames shot out five or six feet from the barrel. I collected some of the shell casings and they’re about six to eight inches long.
I’m actually a gun control person. Someone said to me once, ‘Would you want that right taken away?’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, yes! Take it away from me in a minute! The only reason I own a gun is because I assume everyone else in the United States does as well.’
I took firearm safety courses years ago, and we had a very good safety person with us this time. I also find myself teaching other actors how to handle guns, how to hand a weapon to someone else, how to accept a weapon from someone else. Also, I would check things three times and if I have any doubt about anything, it doesn’t happen, and everybody respects that.
As far as guns are concerned, I’ve said this before regarding the Tremors series, but one of the things I love is amidst all the armaments Burt has, he never turn the guns on another human being. I’m very proud of that. That’s part of our philosophy. In a sense, one of the series’ great appeals is it’s a return to the innocence of the horror film of the 1950s, when it was men against the monsters. It was not men against other men. We’re not killing each other here. We’re killing the creatures.
A friend told me, ‘You can’t help but love those little wormies.’ Whaddaya think?
[laughs] There’s something that binds us together when we’re fighting a species other than our own. In that respect, we see men pulling together and not pulling apart.
Then there are the tongue-in-cheek aspects of the series, the sense of humor. There’s a delicate balancing act between the hilarity of characters (like Burt) and the horror of their situation. There is an actual threat.
What makes this sequel unique? Do you think it answers any questions lingering from Tremors and Tremors 2?
One of the things this has in common with the first one that I like a lot is that you actually have a community under threat again. In part 2, there was less of that when [returning lead actor] Fred Ward and I are brought in
to eradicate this area of Mexico where the Graboids had invaded an oil field. Going back to the village of Perfection was important and this was something we’d talk about with the writers. When the community is threatened, it’s an entirely different thing. There are women and children involved. There’s a cross-section of people. That’s an important theme. So I think, to its credit, part 3 has far more in keeping with the original Tremors.
One of the appeals is the way the monsters keep mutating. It’s not just Godzilla coming back again. Every time you think you have the creatures figured out, they mutate. In part 3, they actually have this weird body chemistry where they’re able to propel themselves by their own fire. So we had Graboids, Shriekers, and now we have these things referred to as Ass Blasters! [laughs]
Do you get more people coming up to you who say they loved you in Tremors or Family Ties?
There are a few other television movies people remember me for. I play this real bastard in a television movie called In the Line of Duty: The F.B.I. Murders with David Soul. We’re a couple of killers down in Florida. People come up to me almost every week because that movie had such impact. But I’d say it’s pretty much divided equally between Family Ties and the fans of other things, including Tremors.
There are some really obsessive Tremors nutcases out there, and I mean that in the fondest possible way. They’re so funny! They’ll come up to me and repeat lines and situations for me. They love it. It’s fascinating, and it’s great to know that something you did for six weeks last year brings people pleasure time and time again.
Do you think any of your crazy roles had anything to do with doing something different from the dad in Family Ties?
Oh yes! It’s fun to keep people off balance. If I had played Burt for seven years, I would have said, ‘Oh please, give me a leading man. Please let me get the girl. Can’t I just be normal?’ It’s partially to manipulate my image, but partly to have some fun. I love seafood, but I don’t want it at every meal. From time to time, I want a pork chop. That’s the same way I feel as an actor. From my own sense of play, I want to experiment.
It was ironic that literally the day after we wrapped Family Ties in 1989, I was on the set of Tremors. It was a wonderful gift because it immediately answered the question, ‘Would there be life after Family Ties?’ Not only would there be life, but it would be a radically different life. I have always loved interesting and bizarre characters both on the stage and screen. I wound up playing strange characters onstage for years. Thank God there were enough people in the industry who knew that. I mean, my Broadway debut was as a female impersonator in a play about homosexuals in Nazi Germany.
Exactly. That started in the fall of 1979. On a swing, in a dress and wig, as a female impersonator — and that was my Broadway debut! To me, outlandish stuff is a hoot. Burt was partly my response to seven years of Steven Keaton on Family Ties and partly me doing what I had done for years before. To this day, I’m sorry I wasn’t in the original movie, The Producers. That midnight movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, would be right up my alley, too!
I’ve never seen a single episode of Family Ties. If you had to describe it to me, a culturally deprived child from the ’80s, what words would you use?
It was very much a product of the ’80s. The Michael J. Fox character is a paradigm for the Reagan years and the conservatism of that decade. One of the things I thought in terms of the family was it showed how diverse it can be and still hold together. The parents are a counterculture product of the 60s, and the father doesn’t have what Alex would call a real job (because he worked for public television). The son has a poster of William Buckley on the wall. I think there’s a lesson for America in a place where we’re so frocked by partisanship in so many ways. For or against guns, for or against abortion, this, that, and the other thing, that we can’t love each other in the midst of our diversity, I think that’s important for us and one of the great things about Family Ties.
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