Meredith Baxter recalls that when she met Michael Gross 30 years ago at the first table read for the award-winning NBC sitcom Family Ties, she gave the lanky actor cast as her husband a good once-over.
“I am thinking my first words to him were, ‘You need a tan!,’ ” she says, laughing. “He is a New Yorker, and I am born and raised in Los Angeles.”
Three decades after that first encounter, they are playing husband and wife once again in the Hallmark Channel holiday film Naughty or Nice, which premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday on the cable network. The two play Carol and Walter Kringle, a pleasant couple who love the holidays so much they named their daughter Krissy (Hilarie Burton). After Krissy loses her job with an advertising firm, Mom gets her a job wrapping Christmas presents at the mall.
For fans, the roles will bring back fond memories of the Keatons, the couple played by Baxter and Gross in Family Ties. They portrayed former hippies Elyse and Steve Keaton, still expounding liberal values in the world of Reaganomics.
The series made a star out of Michael J. Fox, who played their conservative Republican son Alex. Justine Bateman played teenage daughter Mallory and Tina Yothers was youngest daughter Jennifer.
Gross was a self-described “theater snob” when he auditioned for the series. “I didn’t watch prime-time television,” he says. In fact, he had never seen Baxter in her other TV work, which included the popular series Bridget Loves Bernie and Family.
Baxter and Gross were the second most popular TV parents in the 1980s after Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad of NBC’s The Cosby Show. And the two families were united, so to speak, when Family Ties followed The Cosby Show on NBC’s popular Thursday night lineup from 1984 to ’87.
Though their series left the airwaves in 1989, the bonds Baxter and Gross formed remain. They have appeared on stage together.
“We have done Love Letters many times,’” says Baxter, who was born the same day — June 21, 1947 — as her TV husband. “About seven years ago, we did a staged reading of You Can’t Take It With You at the Pasadena Playhouse.”
Their families also socialize. “Michael and [his wife] Elza and my partner, Nancy, and I have been together on trips,” says Baxter, who, like Gross, is now a grandparent.
“I didn’t know it at the time but Meredith and I saw each other through some pretty prominent transitions in our lives,” says Gross. “The dissolution of her marriage with David Birney on her part and me entering marriage for the first time during those Family Ties years. We didn’t know how important we were providing eager ears to each other and becoming confidantes.”
Though each guest starred separately on Fox’s ABC comedy Spin City in the 1990s — Baxter actually played his mother on two episodes — Baxter and Gross hadn’t been together on the small screen until Naughty or Nice came along.
Director David Mackay grew up watching them on Family Ties.
“The minute I came on I said you have got to get them. The concept was to have both or neither of them. They both wanted to work together, so it all went swimmingly.”
Mackay not only enjoyed directing them but watching their relationship on set. “They have a great rapport and respect for each other,” he says. “They have fun together. In between takes and set-ups, they were hanging out and chatting it up.”
“I said to Meredith, I feel like the two of us are like Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys,” says Gross. “We are two old vaudevillians who know each other so well, we can just jump in.”