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This story first appeared in the March 21-28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Michael J. Fox took his seat at the Beverly Hills Hotel in March 2012, he already had made up his mind. The beloved actor, who was sidelined by Parkinson’s more than a decade earlier, was ready to return to series TV, and his lunch companion on that day, Will Gluck, would be his producer.
Their art-imitates-life pitch, about a father with Parkinson’s who decides to go back to work, drew offers from every broadcast network, but none as jaw-dropping as NBC’s: 22 episodes, guaranteed on the air. In the months that followed, the media hype surrounding The Michael J. Fox Show was accompanied by concerns: Was Fox up for the grueling schedule? Would viewers feel comfortable laughing at a TV icon with a degenerative disease?
“I don’t know if Mike knew he could do the whole thing, but he thought he probably could,” Gluck recalls of Fox, who has been Emmy-nominated for guest stints on such shows as The Good Wife, Rescue Me and Curb Your Enthusiasm since leaving Spin City in 2001. “This is a guy who doesn’t need to work,” says Gluck. “No matter what he does, he still has his legacy intact, and everything he’s doing with his foundation [for Parkinson’s] is more important than anything we’ll ever talk about.”
But come September, the bigger issues were a weak lead-in (Sean Saves the World) and strong competition (Two and a Half Men). By January, NBC entertainment chair Bob Greenblatt acknowledged the show’s ratings (less than a 1 in the 18-to-49 demographic) were “not anywhere near” where he’d like them. Three weeks later, the comedy was pulled. The remaining seven episodes, including a guest spot from Fox’s Back to the Future co-star Christopher Lloyd, await a spring airdate.
Here, the eternally optimistic Fox, 52, reflects on his yearlong journey.
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No one said to me, “Don’t do this.” People asked me gentle questions about my constitution and whether it’s something I was seeing the full picture of, but I was. I had an excellent time working on some other shows, particularly that extended arc on Good Wife. I knew that one of two things would happen: As I continued, I’d either get weaker or I’d get stronger. And I got stronger. My stamina increased. Things like learning lines, which was tougher than it had been, came back. This was about me getting on the horse again and realizing I knew how to ride.
My oldest kid was in college, my two 18-year-olds were about to go, and I have a 12-year-old at home. It just seemed like a good time if I was going to try a television series. It was a really successful pitch. Will and Sam [Laybourne] gave an overview, and I told stories that eventually showed up in the show, like the one in the pilot where Betsy [Brandt, Fox’s onscreen wife] grabs the eggs from me [as he tried to serve them slowly and shakily, saying: “Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are starving.”]. That stuff was all out of my life, and [with regard to my health] I put it simply to them: I’m an actor, this is what I do. The executives in those rooms got it. It became a matter of which network we’d choose.
I flew back to New York before we made the decision to go to NBC. That story about the eggs that made it in the show — it was mashed potatoes in real life. So when I got back to my house, a gigantic tray of mashed potatoes arrived from Bob Greenblatt. They were awesome, and I ate a lot of them. At that point, we were between another network [CBS] and NBC, and it really came down to the 22 episodes NBC was offering. You can look back on any decision and say, “Maybe we gave them too much” or “Maybe it [wasn’t enough time] to get the operation underway and to get all of the scripts together.” But I still think it was the right decision for us.
When we got our initial time slot [Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.], we got nervous. We thought, “Hopefully, they have a plan for bringing people here.” But we were up against CBS, [which had] that Big Bang Theory juggernaut, and there was no remedy for it. So you just plow ahead and continue to try to make the show better. Was I disappointed by the ratings? It probably has to do with what I deal with on a day-to-day basis, but I don’t process things that way. I don’t feel bad. I don’t feel angry. I don’t feel like I need to point fingers about time slots and things like that.
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When I first publicly acknowledged my diagnosis, people would look at me in the eye, trying to find some kind of fear, and what they would see is their own fear reflected back at them. The bottom line is what you have to deal with is people’s fear of being ill, fear of being generally compromised, fear of being outside of the circle of able-bodied people. I was given the opportunity to introduce some of the things that are frightening and say, “Here’s a guy who’s living with it and laughing with it and going on with his life.” And, in a sense, what we tried to do with the show — part of it was incidental and part of it was who I am — is make a family show about regular family stuff.
I never felt like we were laughing at the [disease]; I felt we were laughing at the reaction to it. I can’t sneak up on people, so I had to lead with it. I thought what would happen, which is what had happened in my life, is that people would just accept it and know that if I was laughing at it, then on some level it was OK for them to laugh. And it’s not laughing at it. These situations show up in my life, and I have a choice, on a daily basis, of processing it as an affront or processing it as a challenge. I don’t like to be [pitied]. I wish I could take credit for this quote but I can’t: “Pity is a benign form of abuse.”
I love this show and I love the people that I work with, and I’d love to continue on with it if that’s what happens. I have a feeling of accomplishment, of camaraderie and of affirmation. The hardest thing about doing something is getting started, and once you get started, it gets a life of its own, and you just ride it and see where it takes you. We just have to see where this takes us. But I don’t think this journey is finished. I think these episodes, if they’re put in a more advantageous spot on the schedule, can attract an audience and keep it.
Family Ties was nowhere until the third season.
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