Michael J. Fox helped establish NBC as the nation’s top broadcaster in the 1980s in the classic sitcom “Family Ties.” Now the ratings-troubled peacock network is hoping the beloved star can help them reclaim some ratings glory with “The Michael J. Fox Show,” his first series since leaving “Spin City” 13 years ago to focus on raising awareness for Parkinson’s disease.
In a panel conversation Saturday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, Fox opened up about his return to series television with a sitcom that hews remarkably close to his own life: In it he plays Mike Henry, a much-beloved New York City television anchor with Parkinson’s disease who at the urging of his family returns to work after years out of the spotlight.
“Names have been changed to protect the innocent,” Fox said when asked about the parallels with his own life, adding that his family is “cool with” being portrayed, however loosely, on television. Though Fox’s Parkinson’s is frequently mined for humor in the pilot -- he accidentally dials 911 because of his trembling hands -- Fox said it becomes less prevalent as the series progresses. Nor did he ask members of the Parkinson’s community for their approval of the project.
“I don’t vet creative instinct,” he said.
He also disagreed with one reporter’s suggestion that the illness could only be a source of gallows humor. “There’s nothing horrifying about it to me, it is my reality, it is my life,” he said. “There’s nothing on the surface horrible about someone with shaky hands. And there’s nothing horrible about someone saying I’m sick of these shaky hands.”
Fox proved his point later in the conversation when, after looking the wrong way to find a reporter in the audience, he jokingly blamed it on Parkinson’s. “I’ll synch up with you sooner or later,” he said, turning his head in the right direction.
Fox decided to make his character a local news anchor because they are figures who “have a unique place in people’s lives” and are instantly recognizable. Plus, making him “an actor would be boring and an athlete would be impossible,” Fox quipped.
In the series, Mike works for NBC’s New York affiliate, a detail that some reporters in the room seemed to view as excessively self-promotional. “A fictional television network didn’t give us 22 episodes,” executive producer Will Gluck said.
Asked how the idea for show came about, Gluck joked, “I really wanted to do a show about a guy with Parkinson’s and a couple of people passed.” In actuality, the possibility of returning to series television came up during conversations between the two men about Fox’s experience -- with his illness, but also with having “an insane family,” as the actor put it.
Filming a network television series is a demanding process for anyone, but so far, Fox maintains, his medical condition has been less of an issue than his age, 52.
Co-star Wendell Pierce, who plays Fox’s best friend and boss on the series, concurred, saying that he and Fox have conversations about the acting craft, not about his condition. “That and hockey,” he said. “He loves hockey.”
Fans of “Family Ties” will be happy to learn that “The Michael J. Fox” show will reunite Alex P. Keaton with his former flame Ellen -- a.k.a. Tracy Pollan, Fox’s real-life wife, who will make a guest appearance on the series.
Betsy Brandt, who just wrapped the final season of “Breaking Bad,” stars as Fox’s wife and joked she would have “shanked other actors” to get the part. She described her move from the highly acclaimed AMC series to “The Michael J. Fox Show” “pretty ... awesome.”
Co-creator and showrunner Sam Laybourne also elaborated about Anne Heche’s recently announced multi-episode arc, explaining that she will play an anchor who is the “nemesis” of Fox’s character.
Another notable guest star is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who will pop up in an episode as himself.