As a child, Gross began publishing homemade fan magazines and movies with friends. He majored in fine art at Pratt and eventually made his way to illustration, and after working as a senior designer for the 1968 Olympics, Gross took over as art director of National Lampoon magazine, where his work first appeared in the “Nostalgia” issue. As National Lampoon co-founder Henry Beard told Splitsider in 2012, “[National Lampoon] was very clumsy in the beginning. Until [art director] Michael Gross came in around the sixth or seventh issue, it was not working. Michael called up our publisher even before he was hired, and he said, ‘you know, this is a funny magazine, but it looks like crap. I’m an art director. Hire me. I’ll fix it.’ He saved us, really.”
Gross is perhaps best remembered at National Lampoon for the 1973 “Death” issue, whose cover featured the words “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog” emblazoned over an image of a dog with a gun to its head. “This very talented comedian named Ed Bluestone came to the office in 1972 with the line,” Beard told Splitsider in 2012. “The next day Michael found a dog who would turn its eyes away from a pistol with a little prodding. I saw this picture and simply couldn’t believe it. And it was like with a wave of his left hand. Magic.”
Gross left the Lampoon in 1974, and went on to become the personal designer for John Lennon and a consultant to the Muppets. His first foray into film was as an associate producer on the 1981 Ivan Reitman-produced animated film Heavy Metal, which combined sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and sophomoric humor and featured SCTV and National Lampoon alums John Candy, Harold Ramis, and Joe Flaherty in voiceover roles. “Heavy Metal was a publication of National Lampoon and National Lampoon had already done Animal House, the partner, Len Mogul was the other publisher of 21st Century Publishing. He wanted his own movie,” Gross told The Comics Journal in March of 2015. “And I was there in the office one night and I said, ‘I know a lot about animation.’ I lied,” he said, typical of his ”fake it ’til you make it” artistic philosophy.
After some uncredited film work—including designing the family truckster and Marty Moose seen in National Lampoon’s Vacation— Gross went on to work with Reitman again, designing the ubiquitous “no ghosts” logo for 1984’s Ghostbusters. The iconic logo “grew out of something that was almost purely accidental,” Gross told The Observer. According to the article, Columbia Pictures was still in the process of acquiring the “Ghostbusters” name during filming, so “in a moment of artistic genius, Mr. Gross told them to only use the logo.”
After that, Gross continued his relationship with Reitman and Ghostbusters, contributing to its sequel as well as the animated series. The Ghostbusters logo came in first when the Pratt Institute surveyed people for their thoughts on the 125 most admired icons created by its alumni, beating out the Chrysler Building and If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. Gross left Hollywood in 1995 and went back to painting, always retaining his wry sense of humor. The artist said of the small beach house where he retired, “That’s where I paint, I photograph, and I do things like this. I don’t work very hard.”
Gross is survived by his son, daughter, and three grandchildren.