As popular Hollywood star Michael J. Fox prepares for his return to series television with the appropriately named “The Michael J. Fox Show,” he admits that the fact his character, popular New York TV broadcaster Mike Henry, also experiences Parkinson’s disease is deliberately “a little meta.”
“We're deliberately playing on that,” says Fox, whose breakneck output as a beloved superstar of both TV and film (most notably “Family Ties” from 1982-1989; “Spin City” from 1996-2000; and the “Back to the Future” trilogy from 1985-1990) was slowed when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Nevertheless, Fox continued to make a strong impression on the entertainment landscape with occasional recurring stints on series including “Scrubs,” “Boston Legal,” “Rescue Me,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Good Wife,” while simultaneously working tirelessly as an advocate for those with the disease.
And in his return to the sitcom universe his popular TV broadcaster character’s desires echo his own: he just wants to get out of the house and keep being productive.
“The struggle with Mike on the show, and the struggle that I had, was that you want to go work,” says Fox. “You don't want to be a novelty. And I think Mike Henry avoids it, and I've avoided it.”
Fox says he’s thrilled to be back in a family themed sitcom, this time as the patriarch, and he sees integrating his own physical challenges into the role as just another way to make Henry a relatable human being, especially one who can appreciate the humor in his life.
“I love comedy,” the 52-year-old actor admits. “I love finding moments that people can relate to that are universal. And what I love about a family comedy is the big stories are like, 'Who opened two milks?' I mean small stories. An orangutan doesn't have to come through the window. It can be something that's personal and means something to people, and the show has been that so far.”
“Whenever you're with Mike he's kind of managing everyone else, the way they react around him,” says the show’s executive producer, writer-director Will Gluck (“Easy A”). “In the pilot, we really wanted to get people to just say, ‘Hey, this is Mike, this is the family, this is the way the family feels about Mike, this is the way people on the street feel about Mike.’”
Parkinson’s will be a fact of Mike Henry’s life, but it won’t drive every comic storyline, Gluck adds. “It's just going to be a family show with Mike who has a unique perspective about being the father of three kids and wife, but also dealing with something. It's always going to be there, but it's not going to be the spotlight.”
Like his TV offspring who are thrilled to find their father spending more time back in the working world and less trying to manage their lives, Fox chuckles that in real life “my kids are really happy I'm back at work…It was the right time because my kids are getting older, and my two older daughters are going to college. My son is out of college and on his own, and so it was right that way. And I was just doing a lot of these shows and just feeling good. And I just had these moments where I said, 'Why am I not doing this? This is what I do – Why am I not doing this?' And I couldn't come up with a good reason.”
Fox broached the idea with his wife of 24 years (and former “Family Ties” co-star) Tracy Pollan. “She said ‘I think that's a great idea,' and that meant a lot because, if I did and it didn't work, then she's got the mess to clean up. So she believed in me, and so I just floated it out there that I would like to do it.”
Fox is looking forward to exploring the relationship between parents and their children who are coming of age. “Some things are taken from my life.," he says. "For example, my youngest daughter, when she went to camp a couple years ago, took us aside and said, 'Want to warn you: When I go to camp, and you get pictures on the Internet, I'm trying out a new smile. Don't think anything's wrong.' And we transposed that to the daughter breaking in a new run because she doesn't like the way she runs. So she comes in and rehearses a new running method for us. So it's just little snips and pieces of the experience of raising teenagers that we use.”
Actress Betsy Brandt says she couldn’t be happier to be segueing from the hard-edged world of “Breaking Bad” to lighter-hearted family sitcom with Fox as her TV husband. “I used to watch ‘Family Ties,’ and what a great cast!” she says. “And for him to stand out the way he did among that cast says a lot about him. He is so wildly brilliant, and if I can hold my own with him – I was just happy to meet him and read with him, but then once I read with him I was like ‘This is MY job.’”
Known for having an exceptionally keen sense of physical comic timing in his youth, Fox says he’s simply reworking it within the context of Parkinson’s, connecting with what feels right. “Mark Twain said, 'Comedy's like a frog – If you dissect it, you'll find out how it works, but it will die in the process,'” he says. “So I don't spend a lot of time analyzing it, but I read material and there's a rhythm that I read it in, and a rhythm that I proceeded in and calculate it and process it. And it comes out just the way it comes out."
Fox also has fun with Mike Henry’s encounters with an adoring public who want to deeply empathize with his openness about his personal challenges, something the actor says he feels deeply about himself. “It’s great,” he says, “and to be able to give someone encouragement or empathize or relate to something that they're going through, even if it's just in passing, is really a unique privilege.”