Michael J. Fox Explains How His New TV Comedy Mirrors His Real Life

His Parkinson's is in full view

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.

So when you balance the two sensibilities, you basically get Uncle Ned from Family Ties?
Sort of, although you’re not going to see me guzzling vanilla extract [laughs]. But yeah, this is a conscious return to that sort of earlier dynamic. I’m really happy with it. … There’s an ease to it and a familiar, uh, family wit that I think a lot of people can relate to. And the cast has already bonded in such a way that there’s a familiarity there as well. In just a short amount of time, we’ve all developed these incredible working relationships, and so on the set it already seems like a lot of time has passed between us.

The TV landscape has changed so radically since you first came up with NBC. Does the fact that people consume content in such radically decentralized ways change the way you approach making TV now?
It doesn’t change anything in the basic sense of working with the script and shooting the show and my wanting to serve the interest of being funny and creating a character. That basic stuff is all the same. … I guess you’re a little more careful with the powder in the makeup room because every aspect of your visage is plain to see, but as far as the actual workaday stuff, none of that has really changed.
How we promote the show is different and the ratings are different. I mean, at any given time I can find three shows about antiques in barns. It’s an anything-you-want, anytime-you-want-it universe, and so maybe the conventional networks can no longer have the impact that they used to have. But there are still some network shows like Modern Family that sort of speak to the zeitgeist and have mass appeal. So you go in hoping that you can find an audience and give them something they can relate to and they’ll keep coming back—and I think we can do that.
I think there’s an appetite for this kind of show, and we’re going to meet it. I’m pleased with how it’s all coming together … and I think that while some of the subject matter is very specific to my condition, there’s a relatability to it. I mean, one way or the other everyone’s got a bag of hammers they have to carry around with them, so …

What was behind the decision to make a single-camera comedy? Was it just a nod to the genre or an acknowledgment of the inherent physical demands of making TV?
Single-camera is easier for me from a pure man-hours perspective because with a four-camera show, there are rehearsals and changes in the scripts … and basically you have to be present and accounted for during every second of the shoot. Whereas for this, there can be whole chunks of time when I’m just chilling.

OK, this is a question that has kept me up at night for the last 30 years. How did becoming a werewolf help Scott Howard [in the film Teen Wolf] become a better basketball player? I mean, other than Air Bud, dogs really suck at basketball.
[Laughs] I think it had less to do with any technical considerations and everything to do with his sheer rage. He displayed this [Dennis] Rodman-esque insanity … and I think it was intimidating to guard him.

Speaking of another one of your iconic roles, a few years back Marty McFly [Fox’s character in the Back to the Future franchise] and Nike raised quite a bit of money for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Yeah, Nike did a thing where they auctioned off 1,500 pairs of the sneakers I wore in Back to the Future II. They raised $4.7 million and that was matched by a donor … so altogether, we raised more than $9 million for the fight to cure Parkinson’s.