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Michael J. Fox: Back Where He Belongs

Michael J. Fox is back in primetime, doing it his way.

Bruce Fretts
  • Michael J. Fox

    Jeremy Goldberg

His new sitcom doesn’t sidestep his Parkinson’s, but doesn’t dwell on it either.  And he’s pleased with the circle he’s completing – playing uproarious young Alex P. Keaton of Family Ties to a thirtysomething on Spin City and now a fiftysomething family guy.

If you had told Michael J. Fox when he left Spin City in 2000 after announcing he was battling Parkinson’s disease that he’d come back to star in a self-titled sitcom, he would’ve said you were crazy. Turns out you would have been crazy like a Fox. The Michael J. Fox Show debuts September 26 on NBC — with back-to-back episodes, no less.

“Parkinson’s is a terrible thing to try to hide, and it just got to be too much,” the fifty-two-year-old actor-producer says of his decision to leave his ABC hit thirteen years ago. “For the sake of the show and my family and my own health, it seemed like the right thing to do.”

“He was seriously struggling with his own body,” recalls Spin City costar Connie Britton. “We would have delays for up to an hour and a half with a live audience waiting for us — and for Michael’s meds to kick in. It was really tough for him.”

Fox still battles the disease every day. On this steamy August morning at his comfy office around the corner from his Upper West Side apartment, he sits down for a chat, aware that his meds have yet to take effect. “This is as bad as it gets right now,” he says, his limbs visibly shaking (humidity worsens the symptoms). “I made the choice to go ahead with this interview, but if I were shooting a scene, I wouldn’t be this symptomatic and I’d have much more control.”

What changed his mind about going back to work fulltime? “When I was diagnosed with this in 1991, they told me I had ten years left to work,” he says. “What I was able to do in the ten years past that prognosis was The Good Wife, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rescue Me, Boston Legal and Scrubs,” roles that earned him another five Primetime Emmy nominations on top of the nine he’d previously received (he was also nominated for the 2009 nonfiction special Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist). He’s won the Emmy five times — three for his breakout role as conserva-teen Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties and one each for Spin City and FX’s Rescue Me.

“The guest shots I did were a proving ground,” Fox explains. “I was putting my toe in the water, thinking, ‘When do I drown, and when does that shark come?’ And the shark never came. So I said, ‘Well, screw this! I have the chance to do a show. Why am I not doing what I do?’”

The roles also allowed him to experiment with poking fun at his condition. “When Larry David called me about Curb, I thought, ‘I’ve been doing these jokes with my family for years!’ I was trying to gauge people’s reactions to see how acceptable it would be.” So, in Curb, he played a version of himself, who uses his disease as an excuse for rudeness. Similarly, his Good Wife character, Chicago attorney Louis Canning, manipulates judges and juries by playing up his Parkinson’s.

The Good Wife definitely helped him realize he had another series in him,” says star Julianna Margulies. “We talked about it all the time — he’d always joke with me when he’d see how exhausted I was after a fourteen-hour day of shooting. He was like, ‘You’ve got it all wrong. You’ve got to do a sitcom. Not these long hours.’”

Still, Fox is working longish hours on The Michael J. Fox Show. He’s an executive producer (along with Alex Reid and creators Sam Laybourne and Will Gluck) of the Sony Pictures Television series, which is shot at Silvercup Studios in Queens on stages used formerly by NBC’s 30 Rock. (“That’s good karma,” Fox says. “I’ve got Alec Baldwin’s old dressing room, so I feel intensely political when I’m in there.”)

The series is shot on film by a single camera, not multiple cameras in front of a live audience, as Family Ties and Spin City were. “There are times when timing and facial expression and vocal inflection are affected, but not all that much,” he says of his condition and its impact on his performance. “I miss the audience a little bit, but this way, I can get the best version of each line.”

More importantly, the new series allows Fox to address his real-life situation head on — his character, New York City TV reporter Mike Henry, is going back to work after a long period at home following his Parkinson’s diagnosis. “On rare occasions,” he relates, “people say, ‘How can you laugh about this?’ Well, what’s the other option? Crying about it, which doesn’t make sense to me. If you laugh at something, you take the sting out of it — you take the power out of it.

“I’m not making fun of Parkinson’s — or even myself,” he continues. “I’m just saying, these are the realities of my world, and this is how I choose to look at it: through humor. The joke is on everybody but me. That’s counterintuitive to what you’d think when you’re visited by something like this. You’d think,  ‘Oh, I’m the butt of this cruel joke.’ But, really, I’m the perpetrator.”

After the premise is established in the pilot, Parkinson’s fades into the background. “It plays a much smaller part than you’d think in the show — and in his real life,” says Betsy Brandt (most recently of Breaking Bad), who plays Mike’s wife, Annie. “You’d be aware he has it, even if you didn’t know. But you’re not uncomfortable around him because he’s not uncomfortable.”

And if some viewers are uncomfortable witnessing his symptoms, Fox has a message for them: “They’re watching the wrong show!” he says. “What would be unwatchable about it? That it’s so offensive to look at? Well, then, screw you — you’ve got a big nose!”

Besides, Fox believes most viewers will identify with his character’s challenges on some level. “We’re all victims of something — we all have our own bag of hammers. We hope the audience will find some relatability with whatever their bag of hammers is. It’s like the old religious parable about God getting a group of people in a circle and having them put their worst problems in the middle. They get to choose one, and they all pick their own to take back.”

The Michael J. Fox Show brings the star back to the scene of his earliest triumph: NBC’s Thursday-night lineup, where Family Ties flourished in the mid-’80s. “In a lot of ways, it feels like the same place,” he says, “since they were in the same situation then as they are now. It feels good to be back at NBC. I’m a little wary of any proclamations about saving the network, but I like having the opportunity to make a difference in finding an audience for them.”

Audiences quickly embraced Fox after Family Ties’s 1982 debut, putting the twenty-one-year-old actor in an awkward situation. “He had been hired as an unknown to play the third lead [after Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross, as his liberal parents],” recalls Michael Weithorn, who wrote many of Fox’s strongest episodes. “By the end of the first season, he was emerging as a star and the primary reason the show was succeeding. This was certainly a prescription for somebody to turn into a real asshole. It’s a testimony to Michael’s parents, his upbringing and the values he had that he handled it very gracefully. It was part of who he was from the get-go.”

Born in Edmonton, Canada, Fox moved to Vancouver with his family when he was ten after his father retired from the Canadian Army Signal Corps. He expressed an interest in acting and soon was booking guest shots on Lou Grant, Family and Trapper John, M.D., before landing a lead in a Canadian sitcom, Leo and Me.

“One time in the writers’ room on Family Ties, somebody came in with a tape of Leo and Me, which we’d never seen,” Weithorn remembers. “So we watched it. Michael was this tiny kid — he had long hair and weighed about eighty pounds — and he was this incredible ball of fire.”

Still, not everyone saw Fox’s potential from the start. Gary David Goldberg, co-creator–executive producer of Family Ties, initially rejected him. When his first choice (Matthew Broderick) fell through, Goldberg ended up fighting for Fox against NBC’s legendary entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff, who famously proclaimed he couldn’t picture Fox on a lunchbox. (The actor later sent his boss a lunchbox with his face on it and a note inside: To Brandon. This is for you to put your crow in. Love and kisses, Michael J. Fox).

“Gary was a brilliant guy,” Fox raves of his mentor, who died in June at age sixty-eight. “He was just a big teddy bear. I miss him a lot.” “It was like working with a father and son,” Britton says of their bond. “Gary just loved the hell out of Michael, and Michael admired the hell out of Gary.” Their family ties sometimes frayed, however. “It was a dysfunctional family,” Britton says. “There were disagreements and different ways of thinking about things that would manifest in father-son ways, too.”

Spin City was a different time,” Weithorn observes. “Michael was no longer this new, young discovery. He was an adult and a producer on the show, and it took Gary a while to see Michael in that new role. The growing pains were a little difficult for the two of them.”

Through professional and personal difficulties, Fox has always relied on his real-life family, wife Tracy Pollan (who played one of his girlfriends on Family Ties and guest-stars in an early episode of The Michael J. Fox Show as a sexy upstairs neighbor) and their four children. That familial warmth shines through on the new show, where the Henry clan includes three kids.

“We shy away from sentiment,” Fox says, “but we talk about family and how you put up with each other’s shit no matter what. We don’t say, ‘Oh, he’s got a burden, and we have to love him through it.’ It’s that we love him anyway, and this comes with the package. I don’t love my family because they put up with my Parkinson’s. It’s because they’re a great set of humans.”

Fox’s friends feel the same way about him. “He’s someone you want around, and he honestly makes everything better,” Margulies says. “I’m jealous of all the actors and crew members who’ll get to work with him every day.” Good news: Fox had it written into his NBC contract that he can continue to guest-star on CBS’s The Good Wife and says, “I’d be happy to do it.” Margulies marvels: “The second they say we can have him, I guarantee you we’ll all be jumping for joy.”

Britton, who played an accountant to Fox’s deputy mayor in Spin City, knows what she means. “Michael was so generous and fun and inclusive,” she says. “It was incredible to watch him work and see his natural knack for comedy. Every day I was in awe. And the fact that he’s doing a sitcom right now, with his physical condition, is just mind-boggling. He is such an inspiration for humanity and the power of the human spirit.”

Not that Fox considers himself any kind of saint. Says his former Rescue Me colleague, Denis Leary: “He has a complete lack of self-pity, and I respect what he’s done with the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research,” which has raised nearly $350 million toward finding a cure. “That’s easy to admire, but behind the scenes, watching the way he handles himself as a dad is amazing.”

Now viewers will get to see Fox as a dad every week on NBC — and he’s pleased with the full circle he’s completing. “Having played the young-adult son on Family Ties, and then going to Spin City and playing a guy in his thirties trying to make it in a big city, and now playing a guy in his fifties with a family — it’s been really cool,” he says. “This is the kind of show that’s like walking into a hug — you feel good afterwards. You don’t feel like you have to take a shower.”

Clearly, he’s having the primetime of his life. “Aside from being crazy talented, he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” Brandt says. “So if anybody can juggle all these things and handle it, he can. He said to me the other day, ‘It shouldn’t be this easy to make a TV show.’”

The question is: how long can he do it?

“I’d like to go six years,” Fox says confidently. “That would be great.”

Go ahead — call him crazy. Crazy like, you know, a Fox.

Bruce Fretts is articles editor of TV Guide Magazine.