Like most sentient Americans, NBC is a huge Michael J. Fox fan, and the network demonstrated as much last summer when it outmaneuvered its broadcast competition by way of a risky and unprecedented leap of faith. If the actor would agree to bring his new comedy series to NBC, the network suits would rubber-stamp a binding order of 22 episodes, sight unseen.
In trumping its rivals, NBC not only boasts the best odds for a breakout hit in the 2013-14 season, but it also brings back one of the single most beloved TV stars of the last 30 years. (Seriously, in terms of universal appeal, the man is up there with Tom “Drunk Uncle Ned” Hanks and Bugs Bunny.)
Last week, Adweek caught up with the star of The Michael J. Fox Show, a warm but spiky single-camera comedy that cribs liberally from the 51-year-old’s own life. Fox stars as a celebrated local TV newsman in New York (at WNBC/Channel 4, naturally) who decides to return to work five years after being sidelined by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. As was the case with his turns in Curb Your Enthusiasm and Rescue Me, the actor’s illness is written into the narrative, the physical manifestations fodder for genuinely funny jokes.
If nothing else, the new show is a declaration of sorts from a man who has been in the public eye since the 1980s. Michael J. Fox doesn’t need or want your pity—he’s simply looking to create and embody a character who elicits the same response he always has. So don’t be afraid to laugh.
It’s been 30-plus years since Family Ties premiered on NBC, and suddenly you’ve been called back into service as the face of the network’s revamped Thursday night lineup. What can you tell us about the new show?
In a way, the show is a throwback. It’s a traditional family comedy … I mean, it’s not aimed at ’tweens or anything, but it’s the kind of show you can sit down and watch with your kids and there’s no [Alex P. Keaton-esque groan of disapproval]. There are family themes and family dynamics, which is something that I’m familiar and comfortable with, in both my personal life and the sort of things I’ve done on network television.
And a lot of the subject matter is going to reflect your own life.
The stories we’re going to tell in the show are roughly based on stories that I’ve told in my books. I met with [executive producers] Sam [Laybourne] and Will [Gluck] and we started talking about raising kids and being in New York. And as we started talking about this common experience we had, the whole idea started crystallizing to the point where we felt we could get our heads around it.
We cast children that are roughly the same age of my own kids, so a lot of the experiences and interactions are the same. Although they’re not so much alike that my real kids are going to think that every time one of the kids on the show does something goofy it’s a reflection on them.
Your character decides to return to a full-time job in television after some time on the sidelines. What made you both want to jump back into the fray?
I play a newsman named Mike Henry, and he’s like me in the sense that he gets recognized when he’s out and around. When I walk around New York, my wife calls me the mayor. People come up and say hi, and honestly there’s a comfort and a joy in that. Because you’re part of people’s experiences, and New Yorkers aren’t shy about sharing that with you.
So my character left the news business a few years earlier when he was first diagnosed because he really didn’t know what to expect. He devotes all his energies to family, and because they weren’t used to having him around 24/7, he drove them crazy. When the opportunity to go back to his old job presents itself, they’re like, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”
Whereas for me, I’d been playing [recurring] roles on Rescue Me and The Good Wife and I know that this is something I can do right now. And so, here we are.
And in those roles [the unctuous and manipulative attorney Louis Canning on The Good Wife and the rage-fueled, pill-popping nightmare that was Rescue Me’s Dwight], you’ve played some real pieces of work. Is Mike Henry also one of your less cuddly creations?
It’s a family show, but it’s not Ozzie and Harriet.It’s got a sharp sensibility to it … but at the same time, we’re not Louis CK either. I love him and cherish his show, but we’re clearly not trying to do anything like that.