Tremors Star Michael Gross on Shrieker Island and Whether He'd Do a Reboot

When the Tremors franchise started, Michael Gross -- then fresh off a run as one of TV's most [...]

When the Tremors franchise started, Michael Gross -- then fresh off a run as one of TV's most patient and understanding dads on Family Ties -- joined the film as Burt Gummer, an antisocial survivalist living in a bunker with his wife (Reba McIntire) and more weapons than any sane human could ever need. The character proved instrumental in helping the film's "real" stars -- Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, among others -- save their town from massive, subterranean monsters that resembled the sandworms from Dune or Beetlejuice. In the last thirty years, Gross has appeared in six additional Tremors movies as Burt, who has become the default face of the franchise.

In addition to a TV series, some video games, and a prequel film set in the Old West, Gross has played Burt in six feature films, most of which have gone direct-to-DVD or streaming. The latest is Tremors: Shrieker Island, in which Burt is summoned to save some scientists trapped on an island near where a big game hunter has imported some of the monsters Burt has become world-famous for fighting.

Gross joined to discuss the film, Burt's run for President, and his feelings about a potential reboot.

What was it like doing the "bootleg cut" that they released on Burt Gummer Day?

They asked me to do that. They said, "Would you participate?" And I said, "Hey, whatever you guys want to do to promote the film is fine with me, so go for it." But I thought it was a little silly myself. I thought we should have given them a little more than that. I was very cooperative at the time. I said, "Yeah, fine, whatever." I hope [fans] weren't too disappointed.

On October 9th, they just came out with a documentary. It was really nice. Kevin Bacon has a lot to say about it, the original creators and producer. It was really nice to see. And I hadn't even remembered I was a part of it. My sections were shot somewhere in Lone Pine, California, actually near where Tremors was originally shot. We were out there for a thirtieth anniversary weekend and they shot all of my stuff up alongside a fence post and a fence line, out in Lone Pine where we originally shot the film.

Burt is running for President. How'd that come to pass?

I want to take credit for this idea. I think it was my idea; when we were finishing filming in December, we were trying to think of extras, just silly things to do to promote the film.

And I think I remember saying, "Wait a minute, it's election year, isn't it?" And other people over the years have said, in response to this, "Burt, if you ran for President I'd vote for you." I said, "This is a natural, shouldn't we'd be doing this?"

So, we started writing these things and I wrote six of the eight we've completed. And then we got them down to no more than about two and a half minutes apiece, as some of them were much longer. Burt can rant. So, we sort of condensed them and it's been a lot of fun, and fans have loved it. "What do you mean I can get a submarine?" or that sort of nonsense.

I'm not attempting to be a spoiler for anybody's campaign, it's just good fun. I'm old enough to remember a time when there was a show called The Smothers Brothers Show and a comedian named Pat Paulsen ran for President and promoted it for months on The Smothers Brothers Show. That was at a time when Dukakis was running against George Bush. And so, it was really crazy and a lot of fun, and so we decided to just have a good time.

[Editor's note: Paulsen "officially" ran for President in 1968, but the gag caught on and his name continued to appear on some ballots for years, including during the 1988 election that pitted George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis and Bush's 1992 Republican primary election.]

It feels like the last three movies especially have done a lot of world-building, whether it's in-universe or in your viral spots where Burt is selling merch and things. Do think following the TV show, where you got so many hours of Tremors content, that you had to expand the world in the films to stand out?

I don't know what prompted them to come up with those things. For me, it was just a way to promote it. Naturally, they're always looking for extras on DVDs and things like that, so that was an idea, and we've got some of that. We've got some of that on the DVD and Blu-ray for Shrieker Island as well. So to me, it was just an active promotion. I never felt compelled to do any of this. They'd come up with the idea or I'd come up with an idea and say, "Yeah, it just sounds like fun. Let's do it."

Just guys running out somewhere, very simple crews. Like a guy with a camera, a guy with a boom, a few props, and let's do something stupid. That's a little how the Burt Gummer for President thing worked out, too. I was pulling pictures off the internet to show to people and making up little logos and stuff like this and sitting in one chair thinking up crazy things to do, if we were President. And so, it was very low budget and just like guerrilla theater, guerrilla filmmaking.

When we spoke for Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell, I remember being struck by how much thought you put into a character like Burt who can seem very silly. As an actor, did you feel a little bittersweet about not having Travis in this film, just from the character development point of view?

Yes, yes. Now I can't presume to speak for Jamie [Kennedy]. My understanding was they asked him and he said no. And so that's why they went with somebody else. So I had nothing to do with that decision. I just heard the stories. I missed him for that reason. You begin a relationship with the character, and you want to continue it.

That having said, Jon Heder was wonderful. He's a great comic actor and the nicest guy, and extremely easy to work, with full of ideas and so that was great. So, no regrets about working with him. Continuing that relationship would have been fun, yes, absolutely.

As you build a relationship with this son, we had two, it would've been nice to have three, but that was the hand I was dealt. And so, I think we made the best of it, and that Jon was a great choice for that character. His crazy enthusiasm was just a lot of fun.

What we've tried to do with Burt in five, six, and seven is present him, frankly, with more emotional challenges. In five, what are you going to do with a son who appears out of nowhere and says, "Hi Dad. I'm all yours." It's like, "Excuse me?" Burt, who wants nothing to do with any other human being. And in six, to infect him with this graboid venom, and bringing the real danger of death to him possibly. And in this one, bringing a woman who challenges is very way of life -- who says, "Why would you possibly make the choices you're making?" We thought that was fun. From the beginning of seven, I wanted a woman there.

Everybody talked for years about how they wanted Heather back. They wanted Reba. She wasn't coming back. She wasn't interested. I wound up as the default center of these films because everybody else dropped away. It wasn't like I thought, "Oh, I've got to be in charge." No, everybody else left! I truly am a survivalist, in more ways than one. Michael Gross kept staying because he couldn't resist playing Burt. And everybody else is like, "Nah, I've had enough. I'll see ya. I'm out of here."

I've loved coming back to it time and time again. My greatest wish would've been, I wish Kevin, Fred Ward, Reba could have come back. That being said, everybody in every one of these has been wonderful. And particularly in [Shrieker Island], I said, "It's time for him to deal with a woman."

We've never done that. We're not necessarily saying he winds up with somebody, but somebody works on him in a way that is uncomfortable for him.

I always liked taking Burt out of his comfort zone, because he finds himself in his paranoid, obsessive, wanting to burrow into a very safe place and stay there, where no one can touch him. Really, it's the monsters inside of him that are always more interesting to me than the monsters outside. His fear of the world at large, including other people and what they might demand of him, or ask of him. He doesn't speak that language. He doesn't want to speak that language.

One of the most difficult parts of this film was, when this woman comes in and starts challenging him, for him not to give up any inch for as long as possible. Burt never goes, "Hey, you're right. That's wonderful. I want to be with you. You're cool."

I said, "Every inch has to be fought for. Otherwise, it becomes sentimentality." Burt is like trying to pry a bone away from a dog. Burt doesn't give up anything easily, because it's too dangerous. So that's what we tried to deal with it in Shrieker Island.

Of course, Universal has tried to reboot Tremors a few times already. If they come to you and say, "Hey, do you want to go back to being the cranky side character in a feature film reboot?" Would you do that? Or do you think at this point it'd be better to walk away than to start again?

Oh, no. I've always thought of myself as the cranky side character. I have merely become the center of attention because everybody else has fallen away. I'm not only Burt, the survivor, I'm Michael Gross, the survivor. Kevin didn't want to do a second film. Fred Ward didn't want to do a third film. Reba didn't want to do any of them. So I was like, "Well, am I the last man standing?" It was that sort of thing. And whenever they brought up the idea of Burt, I would say, "Of course, Burt is just comic gold. I can't not play Burt no matter who else is there." So they kept surrounding me with other people.

I always thought Burt worked best amidst normal human beings. My comparison is always Fonzie, you know, from Happy Days, this character in the midst of the very normal Cunningham family. Richie and his sister and a nice mom and dad, and then there's this guy that walks in like this, "Hey, Whoa!"

And that's how I think of as Burt. He works best when he's surrounded by normal people. And so, I always said, if Kevin Bacon or Fred or Reba or anybody [wanted to return], I'd be there in a minute. Just because one, I love Burt, but I always thought of him as this guy kind of on the fringes, and I just came to the fore because everybody else walked away.