Michael J. Fox’s return to press tour, with his first series (the NBC sitcom “The Michael J. Fox Show”) since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, was everything you would have hoped for from one of TV’s most beloved stars: smart, candid, self-deprecating and slyly funny.
The series is, as Fox admitted, fairly meta, as he plays a respected former star (in this case, a popular local TV reporter in New York) returning to work now that his kids are growing up and his physical symptoms are more under control due to new medication. In an early scene, his wife (played by “Breaking Bad” alum Betsy Brandt) complains that he’s taking too long to serve eggs because his hands are shaking, which is something that Fox’s real-life wife Tracy Pollan did to him the morning he first met with producer Will Gluck to talk about the show.
Fox said he’s not worried about offending anyone in the Parkinson’s community, because “This is a reflection of my experience… The way I look at the reality of Parkinsons is sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes it’s funny. I need to look at it that way… Beyond that, we all get our bag of hammers. We all get our Parkinson’s. We all get our own thing. We’ll look at that through the filter of that experience, and say I want to laugh at that, too. If someone wants to be outraged, they can be outraged. I don’t think it’s that outrageous.”
On the show, Fox’s kids are happy he’s going back to work so he’ll stay out of their hair, and Fox acknowledged that while his own kids are proud that he can do a full-time job again, “There’s a level of scrutiny on them that won’t exist if I’m occupied doing something else.”
Among Fox’s greatest strengths as a comedian has been his impeccable sense of timing, and it was still in place despite his condition. At one point, Fox got caught looking in the wrong direction when a question was asked, and without skipping a beat, he blamed it on a Parkinson’s twitch. (After the session, when I asked him how, if at all, the Parkinson’s affects his timing, he said it really hadn’t: “I read material, and there’s a rhythm that I read it in and process it, and it just comes out like that.”)
The pilot has a lot of Parkinson’s jokes – more, Fox said, than the series would going forward – though no one said it was specifically designed to prepare people for the idea that it’s still okay to laugh at Fox.
“I don’t think anybody looked at in those terms,” Fox said. “we sat down early on, and I said, ‘Here’s the kind of stuff I deal with on a daily basis.’ That’s my wife. She would do that: ‘Let’s eat.’ There really wasn’t any kind of pie charts.”
He also tried to ascribe some of the changes in work between now and “Family Ties” (or now and “Spin City”) had more to do with age (Fox is now 52) than his condition, and the people he’s working with.
“We’ve done six episodes now,” he said. “I knew one of two things would happen: I was either going to atrophy as we went through the year, or I was going to rebuild the muscles. And I’ve rebuilt the muscles.”
He wouldn’t try to consider a movie during the hiatus – when a reporter asked about trying to do a “Back to the Future” sequel aimed for 2015 (the year the second film took place in), he joked, “I would have to play Doc Brown” – because doing that during his breaks on “Family Ties” (especially the summer he filmed both “Light of Day” and “The Secret of My Success”) is “how I got into this mess.”
Mostly, though, there was just a lot of banter between Fox and his co-stars and producers. Brandt said, “Once I read with Mike, I would have shanked all the other actors to get this role. I would have! I did not!”
Wendell Pierce, who plays Fox’s old friend and boss at the TV station, said, “Mike is an actor. When we’re together, we’re talking about acting, what works, what doesn’t work. The conversation is never about some condition that he has. It’s the work environment we have. That’s what we talk about the most.”
(“And hockey; he loves hockey!” Pierce added, with the tone of a man who does not necessarily share this love, but tolerates it in a co-star he likes.)
Fox enjoyed the time he went into semi-retirement, only doing occasional guest spots on shows like “Rescue Me” and “The Good Wife,” because he got to watch his own kids grow up.
“The guest shots were great,” he said. “It really brought me to a place of, ‘This is what I do. This is what I was built and programmed to do. And so I wanted to do it. It’s what I wanted to do and what I’ve enjoyed throughout my life.’ So why can’t I?”
Or, as he put it later, “I’m a cautionary tale that doesn’t have a bad ending.”