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Taking One More Spin

Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

The “special guest star” on the set for the sixth-season opener of “Spin City” was technically just another actor being written into the ABC political comedy. But he certainly wasn’t shy about offering a less than flattering assessment when series co-star Michael Boatman blew one of his lines during rehearsal last month at the Studio City sound stage where the show is filmed.

Boatman, who plays Carter Heywood, special assistant on minority affairs at New York City Hall, smiled with embarrassment when the “special guest star” insulted him loudly from offstage. Boatman apologized, started over, and promptly messed up the line again.

The offstage voice repeated the coarse insult.

Co-star Heather Locklear, “Spin City” creator Gary David Goldberg, fellow cast members and others on the set broke up laughing. Just the sound of that particular voice seemed to help defuse any tension on a stage filled with a sense of anticipation. This was not just any season opener of a network situation comedy, and it was not just any “special guest.”

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Moments later, Boatman got the line right, and his playful attacker--Michael J. Fox, the original star of “Spin City” who left the series last year due to his Parkinson’s disease--emerged, script in hand. He was accompanied by actress Olivia D’Abo, playing the girlfriend of Fox’s character, former Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty.

At first glance, it was a different, more casual Fox than “Spin City” fans are accustomed to seeing. His hair was noticeably longer, and he wore a Hawaiian shirt and jeans, worlds away from the sharp suits that made up Flaherty’s wardrobe.

However, a few lines into the scene, it was clear that Fox’s impeccable timing and handling of a joke had not diminished during his self-imposed hiatus. He sparred easily with co-stars Locklear, Boatman, Barry Bostwick, Richard Kind and Alan Ruck.

During the quick rehearsal, Fox showed no signs of the degenerative neurological disorder that prompted him to put his career on hold to spend more time with his family and help raise awareness about the disease.

But some on the set said he had looked unsteady several hours earlier when he had appeared on a morning news show to discuss stem cell research.

Fox had come from his New York home to film scenes for the first three episodes of “Spin City.” The first two are scheduled to air back-to-back Tuesday, with a third episode scheduled for the following week. (At press time, producers were trying to complete a few scenes for the third episode, after a delay due to the terrorist attack.)

The atmosphere at the rehearsal reflected the warmth between Fox and the “Spin City” cast and crew. And Goldberg said that seeing Fox back in action was like a blessing.

“It was very emotional, much more than either of us expected,” he said a few weeks later. “When [Fox] arrived, everyone was acting as if he was Joe DiMaggio. Watching Mike work is like watching Barry Bonds in batting practice.”

But there were painful reminders that Fox’s return is most likely to be a one-time event. Sheen said, “We saw the old Mike. He had brilliant timing and instinct. But my heart goes out to him. Michael Boatman described it as being like watching a stand-up comic trying to be funny while he’s engulfed in flames. It’s really quite possible he won’t be doing this too often.”

Added Goldberg, “We became aware of the reasons why he doesn’t do this anymore. It was not easy on him. And he really sees his position in the world differently now. As for him being on the show, this is it.”

Fox agreed that the appearance was not easy on him physically: “There’s a real balancing act, and it really takes tremendous patience to work with my schedule. Right now, it would really take special circumstances and situations that would make me do this again. I really enjoyed being with everyone, but I’m very happy with what I’m doing now. I don’t second-guess my decision.”

The appearance of Fox also puts “Spin City” in the position of referring to its past right after the season in which the show proved to have a promising future.

Some in the industry had wondered whether “Spin City” would rebound after Fox’s departure at the end of the 1999-2000 season. The show had been conceived as a vehicle for Fox, making his return to series television after his breakthrough stint on TV’s “Family Ties” and a mixed bag of movies that drew large crowds (the “Back to the Future” series) and small (“The Frighteners,” “Life With Mikey”).

Eyebrows were also raised when Hollywood “bad boy” Sheen was brought in. But the transition was smoother than anticipated, even with the production moving from New York to Los Angeles. Although ratings dropped about 11% from the previous season, “Spin City” held its own against NBC’s “The West Wing.” Goldberg said that the show has firmly established that it can survive without Fox.

This season, the show is facing a new challenge as it moves from Wednesdays to Tuesdays.

Fox, in the meantime, has had his own agenda, personal and otherwise, since leaving the series. He established his foundation for Parkinson’s disease research and fund-raising. He started writing a book about his experiences and the effects of the illness. He and his wife, Tracy Pollan, are expecting their fourth child. Going back to Hollywood was the furthest thing from his mind.

“I would read scripts and watch it,” says Fox, who is still credited as an executive consultant. “Kept in touch with the cast. But the show had moved, Gary was out there, and it seemed like they had a great head of steam. There was a physical separation. And life goes on. I disassociated myself because it was just easier.”

But when approached by Goldberg about returning, he found the idea intriguing: “It sounded like fun.” And even though he has only been gone a season, he felt enough time had passed for his return to be relatively low-profile.

“It really would have been strange if I had gone back last season,” Fox said. “It would have been very awkward for Charlie. But now it’s established its own identity. And I could just watch someone else do the job and get my check in the mail,” he added with a chuckle. “It’s like visiting your kid in college. You don’t have to feed him or her.”

The cast was also intrigued by the prospect of Fox returning. “When the idea was presented to us, I met it immediately with warmth,” Sheen said. “I hate to say the show is mine. The show is ours, it’s a real ensemble piece. But I didn’t feel that Michael was trying to re-establish himself with us. He was actually there to honor us. And vice versa. Most of all, it offered the opportunity to work with a legend.”

The episode picks up from last season’s cliffhanger about the romantic tension between Deputy Mayor Charlie Owen (Sheen) and director of special projects Caitlin Moore (Locklear). When Charlie surprises Caitlin with an evening visit at her apartment, his plans quickly deflate when Flaherty unexpectedly shows up.

Ruck, Kind, Boatman and Bostwick all said they had missed Fox, and that working with him was almost like he never left. “There was a different kind of chemistry because we had Michael and Charlie on the same set,” Locklear said. “But it was very electric. And Michael was just right there.”

Fox felt a connection with the cast that had been missing when he starred on the show. “Before, I had to stay on the set, huddling with all the writers, looking at contracts, worrying about the ratings, working out the budgets. So I never got a chance to bond too much. Now I could have long conversations. While I was gone, Michael Boatman had another baby and I’ve got a baby on the way, so we could talk about that where we might not have had time before.”

Still, all was not smooth during the shooting, which took place during the week of Aug. 5. The shows were filmed without the studio audiences usually on hand for “Spin City.” Fox was only available for a few days. There was one day of rehearsal and two full days of filming. “It would have been a lot easier if there had been three days instead of two,” Goldberg said. “It was not easy on Mike. It was a vicious time turnaround."Complicating the shoot further was an announcement Aug. 10 by President Bush about allowing the federal government to fund medical research using stem cells from a limited number of human embryos. Fox was asked to go on one of the network morning shows to discuss the announcement and its effect on Parkinson’s disease research.

“The timing of that announcement was really unfortunate,” Goldberg said. “Mike had to get up really early, and he rightfully belonged on those shows. Then he had to go to work. It was a really taxing day for him.”

Some on the set were concerned after seeing Fox’s morning appearance. “The nature of the condition is how you time the medication,” Fox said. “People can see me on one day, and the earlier person will say, ‘Gee, you look terrible,’ and the person who sees me later says, ‘Hey, you look great.’ ... But I am responding well to the medication. I feel pretty good.”

Next for Fox is more work with his foundation and on his book.

“This book is a response to all the things people have asked me,” he said. “I was diagnosed in 1991, but I didn’t tell anyone except my family until 1998. I had the benefit of dealing with this with my family and close friends. There are people in the [larger] community going through the same things, so I want this book to humanize the process--[to understand] that this disease is the great equalizer.”

As far as acting again, Fox is cautious. “It’s just not fair to have things revolve around you,” he said, referring to the accommodations that would have to be made for his health. “There would have to be a good lining up of circumstances.” But his brief “Spin City” stint was a lesson for him. “I know now there are still those moments where I can say, ‘I feel pretty good doing this.’ I wondered, ‘Can I still time a joke? Can I deliver the material?’ I learned I can still communicate in this arena. Now I can go home.” *

“Spin City” is scheduled to premiere Tuesday at 9 p.m. The network has rated it TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).


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