There were bunches of red roses on the "Spin City" set Friday night here on Stage D of Manhattan's Chelsea Piers entertainment complex. A special 100th episode cake decorated with the faces of all the sitcom's stars had been ordered, and actress Heather Locklear said she'd never seen so many people huddled around the glowing monitors on the darkened studio floor, watching the action.
They had come to see the taping of "Goodbye," the season finale of ABC's hit sitcom and Michael J. Fox's final episode as Michael Flaherty, the savvy chief strategist to a fictional New York City mayor. Sixteen months after making public his longtime battle with Parkinson's disease, Fox was quitting the show he helped to create, going out with a script that everyone agreed was crafted to use Flaherty's exit to provide a glimpse into Fox's heart.
After five minutes on the set, this much was clear: If your nose wasn't running and your eyes weren't tearing, you didn't have a pulse.
"So, you walked right into the big weep-fest," Fox told DreamWorks SKG co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg with characteristic deadpan during a break. But a moment later, Fox, too, choked up. "You've made this a lot easier," Fox said as he bear-hugged Katzenberg, who had flown in from England, rerouting a business trip to witness Fox's departure from the DreamWorks-produced show.
As televised farewells go, this was an unusual one. The 38-year-old Fox, who TV viewers first embraced in 1982 when he played Republican poster boy Alex Keaton on NBC's "Family Ties," is leaving at the top of his game, putting his career on hold to spend more time with his family and to help raise awareness about his degenerative neurological disease. And unlike other TV finales, "Spin City" is still going strong: It will continue next year, with actor Charlie Sheen joining the cast and the entire production moving to Los Angeles.
"This is unique--a guy going out at the height of his power from a show that's not being canceled and has no contract dispute, a guy saying goodbye not only to his cast but to a part of his life," said Gary David Goldberg, co-creator of both "Spin City" and "Family Ties," who fought to shake off tears as he spoke. In his final episode, Goldberg said, there were things Fox "wanted to approach both as an artist and as a man. And he is a very special man."
The result will no doubt make for heart-wrenching television when it airs May 24. Instead of sticking to "Spin City's" usual formula of breakneck comedy, the writers strove to honor Fox's desire to let viewers in on his struggle with leaving the show behind.
For the cast and crew--and especially for Fox, who appears in 34 of the show's 35 scenes--it meant five days of taping that everyone agreed was tough going.
"Yeah, it's been an interesting week," said Fox, looking particularly boyish--though a little tired--in jeans and letterman jacket. At first, he said, he wanted the finale to hit emotional beats because "I didn't want to be flip with the way that other people felt about it." But the more the script began to mirror his own dilemma, he said, the more it felt right.
"I don't know--it was weird," he recalled. "At one point, I said maybe there should be a scene with Heather [who plays political campaign manager Caitlin Moore] where I say, 'What did I just do [leaving my job]?' So the writers wrote the scene, and when I read it, I said, 'It's like you were a fly on the wall of my house. I have this same conversation with my wife.' So there's a lot of my stuff finding its way in."
Director Andy Cadiff said the writers worked hard to create that sensation of experiencing the show on two levels at once. In the hourlong script (written by Sarah Dunn and series co-creator Bill Lawrence with help from the show's entire writing team), Cadiff said, "we wanted to have the plot work on its own, but we agreed that once it got to the part where Mike decided to leave, that you could see the double-entendre in everything he said. We started taking words like 'politics' out of sentences."
ABC requested that particular plot points not be revealed, but suffice it to say that when Flaherty tells his colleagues (played by Michael Boatman, Alan Ruck, Connie Britton, Victoria Dillard, Richard Kind and Alexander Chaplin) that working with them (for the mayor played by Barry Bostwick) has been his greatest accomplishment, everyone will hear Fox talking.
"There have been sniffles all week long," said Cadiff, recalling that the first time they rehearsed the scene that is the show's emotional clincher, "the crew was crying, the writers were crying, everybody in the cast was crying. It was really the first time it hit everybody what was happening--the weight of it.
"Even with the future of the show looking optimistic, I think everybody's feelings about Mike are so strong," Cadiff said, noting that Fox has agreed to return periodically for guest appearances in the coming seasons. "No one has lost sight of the fact that Michael is the reason everybody's here."
On several levels, "Goodbye" served as a mini-reunion. For example, Dunn, who co-wrote the episode, was a writer during "Spin City's" first year and took time off from writing a novel to pitch in. And the finale features a guest appearance by Michael Gross, who played Fox's father on "Family Ties."
"To have Michael Gross here--to see the two of them together--it's like they're trying to kill me," joked Goldberg.
Of course for Fox, who controls his symptoms of tremors and painful stiffness with synthetic dopamine, the toll of the grueling week was potentially physical as well as emotional--a fact that no one mentioned aloud, but of which everyone seemed very much aware. One pivotal scene, shot last Wednesday, took seven hours to get right.
"If you can imagine doing take after take--and the emotion stayed right on the edge every single time," said Cadiff. "It was something I had never seen before. When I said, 'Cut!' for the final time and we wrapped the scene, the crew applauded. It went on for five minutes."
Rosenthal, the head writer, said he was in awe of Fox's determination to do the show that would mean the most, despite how much more work that would require.
"It would have been very easy to go out just being funny, because he certainly has no problem doing that. But I think he wanted to give people a window into his heart," Rosenthal said, as the director yelled "Action!" and the live audience went quiet. "That's his unbelievable talent. That's why he's the star. God bless him."