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Ties That Bind

Jane Hall is a Times staff writer

Michael J. Fox is chain-smoking cigarettes, which is a startling sight for those of us who have him fixed in our brains as straight-arrow teenager Alex P. Keaton from “Family Ties.”

He has reason to be nervous. Seven years after the end of the long-running Reagan-era sitcom that made him a star, the 35-year-old actor is returning to television in “Spin City,” an ABC comedy from “Family Ties” creator Gary David Goldberg. The stakes are high.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Sep. 22, 1996 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 22, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelled name--The name of one of Michael J. Fox’s daughters was misspelled last Sunday. Her name is Aquinnah.

ABC needs a new hit to improve its prime-time standings. DreamWorks, the producer of the show, needs a splashy success to prove that there’s more to the company than hype. And Fox has the heaviest burden of all: living up to some fans’ rosy memories of “Family Ties” while winning over a whole new generation of viewers.

“I’m very happy to be back working with Gary--it feels like coming home,” Fox says during a break in rehearsals at the pier-side studios where “Spin City” is being filmed. “The nervousness I feel, he said, lighting another cigarette, is about the expectations of TV viewers,” he says, describing his own actions.

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Fox has such a high “likability” quotient among viewers that he could probably read the Nielsen ratings and get an audience. But the actor, who is joining Bill Cosby and Ted Danson in coming back to TV this season, is hard on himself in describing a tough-minded audience that will judge for itself his new show.

“It’s great for the network to pay me more money because I’m well known,” Fox says. “But you can’t just say to viewers, ‘We’ve got so-and-so; therefore, you must watch.’ If I were in the audience, I wouldn’t care that the star of ‘Spin City’ was an actor who was a big TV star seven years ago. This show has got to be good.”

So far, the signs are promising. Many TV critics have called the “Spin City” pilot the best of the new season. On the strength of Fox’s popularity, ABC gave the show its premier time slot behind “Home Improvement” and committed to 22 episodes. It premieres Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.

In contrast to the intergenerational warmth of “Family Ties,” “Spin City” is an edgy romantic comedy. Fox plays a canny deputy mayor who is idealistic and opportunistic--and engaged in a workaholic romance with a City Hall reporter, played by Carla Gugino.

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“Spin City” reunites Fox with Goldberg, the man who made him famous by casting the then-20-year-old unknown in his autobiographical series about former hippie parents with a teenager who confounds them by embracing the Republican Party and spouting supply-side economics.

“I told Gary he’d better be ready this time for a 35-year-old father of three,” Fox says, laughing.

Fox and Goldberg could easily retire to their respective New England farms on their previous successes. But both men have had their share of show business disappointments in the years since “Family Ties.”

Goldberg created a couple of unsuccessful series--the critically lauded but low-rated “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1991 and last season’s critically panned and low-rated “Champs"--and produced and co-wrote the moderately successful 1995 film “Bye Bye, Love.” Fox has a mixed record in movies, winning praise in such hits as the “Back to the Future” trilogy and “The American President” but also appearing in such box-office duds as “Life With Mikey,” “For Love or Money” and this summer’s “The Frighteners.”

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“I didn’t have that much fun [doing movies] the last seven years,” Fox says. “With a theatrical film, you sit in a trailer for five hours, then do the part where you walk up to the door--not the part where you go in the door; that comes three weeks from now. You’re never sure where the movie fits into the studio’s plans--and when it comes out, you are either praised or you get the [expletive] kicked out of you.

” . . . Now that I’m back in TV, I realize that I’ve missed the immediacy of television--the script building over the week to performing before an audience.”

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“Spin City"--which was nothing more than an idea in mid-February--went into production just five weeks before the season premiere. The cast, producers and writers, most of them from California, quickly set up shop this summer in the new, huge Chelsea Piers studios in Manhattan. They are in New York because Fox wanted to work close to home.

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“Gary said it would be like boot camp at first--no wives, no girlfriends,” jokes 27-year-old Bill Lawrence, a former “Friends” writer who created “Spin City” with Goldberg.

The studios, which were raw space a few weeks earlier, now include a press-briefing room, mayoral offices and other sets that duplicate New York’s City Hall and its environs.

On a humid Wednesday in August, the writers are weary from having worked until 4 a.m. the night before to get this week’s comedy lines right. Still, the mood is upbeat and excited. “Spin City” has had no cast changes and no retooling since the pilot--unlike the Cosby show, which changed writers and supporting players, and Danson’s “Ink,” whose premiere is being delayed so that the show can be revised by “Murphy Brown” creator Diane English.

“People know that careers can be made on this show,” Lawrence says. “But Gary is a great, calm presence--whatever happens, he’s been there. Michael is just as nice and as charming as his TV image, which is great because stars can be a disappointment.”

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Goldberg also praises Fox’s comedic talent, declaring: “He’s like Michael Jordan--you don’t see the moves coming. Nobody says lines that I write the way Mike says them.”

Then the 52-year-old producer makes another, deeper observation of Fox’s appeal.

“Mike is very good at playing a character in conflict with himself,” Goldberg says. “On ‘Family Ties,’ he was greed with the face of an angel. Alex could lie and manipulate, but you knew that he wanted to belong to that family, and the audience rooted for him. We found the same thing [in audience research] with the pilot for ‘Spin City.’ Roughly half the people thought Mike’s character was altruistic, cared deeply about the city and had the mayor’s interest at heart. The other half thought he was self-serving, conniving and cared only about himself. And both sides loved him.”

“I like playing a character in politics,” says Fox, who shares Goldberg’s liberal views and played a George Stephanopoulos-like advisor in last year’s “The American President.” “The Carvilles and the Matalins are great showmen. . . . People in politics are articulate, energetic--and sometimes,” Fox adds, laughing, “they have loose morals.”

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Goldberg and Fox, who had kept in touch through the years, were brought together for TV again by DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg. Fox already had thought about doing another series. He had been approached last fall about teaming with Disney and producer Matt Williams (“Roseanne,” “Home Improvement”). Having spent seven months on location in New Zealand with the movie “The Frighteners,” Fox was receptive. But the script he received, in which he was to play a writer and former hockey player, “was not what I’d expected,” he says.

At dinner one night last February, Katzenberg told Goldberg that the Disney deal had fallen through.

“I thought it would be great to work with Mike again,” Goldberg says, “and Jeffrey said Mike had said he really wanted to work with me. In retrospect, I bet Jeffrey embellished each of our comments to the other--but what he told us was what each of us was feeling.”

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Goldberg and Lawrence--who had worked together on “Champs,” the short-lived series that DreamWorks produced for ABC last season--came up with the concept for “Spin City” and soon were on a private jet to New York to run the idea by Fox. Getting his approval, they repaired to Goldberg’s farm in Vermont to begin writing and soon were sending him their work.

“I was laughing as the pages came over the fax,” Fox recalls.

The evolution of TV comedy was one factor in Fox’s decision to do a new sitcom.

“Comedies are much more sophisticated and smarter” than in the days of “Family Ties,” Fox says. “I’ve been blown away by some of the stuff I’ve seen on ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends.’ ”

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Another major factor was the regular hours: “I want to spend time at home with my family,” he says, “and the regular hours on TV are great if you have small kids.”

Fox has been married since 1988 to Tracy Pollan, who played his first serious girlfriend on “Family Ties.” The couple have a 7-year-old son, Sam, and 18-month-old twin daughters, Aquillah and Schuyler.

Viewers who remember only Fox’s squeaky-clean “Family Ties” image may be surprised by the humor of “Spin City,” which, when it isn’t political, is often racy. Fox and Gugino frequently are in a romantic tangle in the sheets, although the show is also about how much trouble the equally driven, equally smart characters have finding time to be together.

“The network is a little nervous about some of the humor,” Goldberg confides, “and we may get some letters from people who don’t want Michael to be different. But we didn’t want to do ‘Family Ties’ again. This is a romantic comedy.”

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In the episode being produced this week, Fox’s character has trouble performing in bed after being selected “The Sexiest Man in New York” by a magazine.

Network representatives are worried about a line in the script about Fox’s character trying to solve his problem by imagining having sex with his girlfriend in front of Catholic schoolgirls. But they decide to let it stand, and the episode ends with Fox and Gugino dancing out of a banquet to restore Mike’s self-image by making love (off-screen) in the bathroom.

“I don’t think we’re being salacious,” Fox says of the scene. “This is an honest, funny relationship.”

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It’s hard to explain what Fox does that works so well on television. Sometimes it’s a sideways glance, sometimes a bit of physical business that makes the scene funnier than it is on paper. As he rehearses the dancing scene on Thursday, he waltzes Gugino around the banquet tables, leaning her so far into the rubber-chicken dinners that the sequence is graceful and funny.

“TV is second nature to Michael,” says the 25-year-old Gugino, whose experience has been limited to small roles in theatrical films. “He’s been very generous in working together.”

Still, Goldberg initially was concerned about Gugino being able to hold her own. “Mike is so good at TV that he would blow a co-star off the lot if she weren’t strong as well.” His advice: “I told Carla to think of this as ‘The Carla Gugino Show.’ ”

In addition to being the star, Fox also has the title of executive producer with Goldberg. “I help work on relations with the network and affiliates,” says Fox, who is unfailingly polite. “Gary’s an old Berkeley guy--he doesn’t like to get too close to ‘The Man.’ ”

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Fox also works with the writers on his character and even found the musicians who wrote the theme song for the show. “Michael’s interested and involved in every aspect of the show,” says “Spin City” producer Walter Barnett.

The real grind of the show, of course, will be coming up with sophisticated comedy week after week.

“This is much harder physically than I expected,” Goldberg says. “On ‘Family Ties,’ we had six separate scenes and a tag--and the sixth scene was always Alex apologizing. On ‘Spin City,’ an episode can have 20 short, overlapping scenes on nine sets. The levels you can get to as a writer are exciting--but it isn’t always easy to get there.”

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Whatever the challenges, Fox’s name clearly gives the producers an advantage over the many other new series this season. Even before the show is on the air, a crowd of tourists and young fans turns out for the Friday taping, having seen a phone number in a newspaper story and trekked to the Hudson River site.

The audience applauds and cheers when Fox is introduced. They laugh at the “Sexiest Man” episode, and people say they’re pleased to have him on TV again.

It will take millions more to make “Spin City” a hit. But for now, Fox is happy to be back in front of a live audience: “Thursday nights on a sitcom are like mining salt. But Friday nights, man, they’re great.”

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“Spin City” airs Tuesdays at :30 p.m. on KABC Channel 7.


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