LOS ANGELES — It’s natural to feel sorry for Michael J. Fox. He was riding high in 2000 when he suddenly announced he had Parkinson’s disease and would have to relinquish his role as Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty on Spin City.
But look at what the actor has accomplished since that shocker.
His foundation, dedicated to Parkinson’s research, has raised more than $325 million. He’s been able to spend time raising his four children and has remained married to Tracy Pollan for 25 years. He’s also received seven Emmy nominations during his “break,” primarily for playing against his good-guy image on Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Good Wife and Rescue Me.
Now he’s headlining the most anticipated new sitcom of the fall season, The Michael J. Fox Show, which mirrors his real life and struggles.
Fox said a combination of new drugs has sufficiently countered the side effects so he can handle the grind of a weekly sitcom.
“This is what I was built and programmed to do,” said Fox, 52, who plays Mike Henry, a popular New York TV reporter who returns to the air after a five-year break to battle – you guessed it – Parkinson’s. “I do pace myself differently, but that’s from being old, not the Parkinson’s.”
NBC, the fourth-place network in total viewers, is so enthusiastic about Fox’s return to its Thursday night lineup that it ordered a full season of 22 episodes, an almost unheard-of commitment in this era of impatience among TV executives. But the network is also trying to downplay expectations by slipping the sitcom into a 9:30 p.m. time slot, between Sean Hayes’ new sitcom, Sean Saves the World, and the return of Parenthood.
“There’s universal love for him and huge awareness already, so it will be sampled in a big way,” said NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, who will launch the sitcom Sept. 26 with two new episodes (starting at 9). “Then the next week, everyone will be writing about the horrendous falloff (in viewership) because these shows do that after initial curiosity..”
The series has lined up some high-profile guest stars, including Matt Lauer, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Pollan. Anne Heche will take on a recurring role as Fox’s longtime nemesis. There’s also a top-notch supporting cast including Wendell Pierce (The Wire) as his longtime producer, and Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt as his wife.
Some viewers may be uncomfortable with the tone of early installments, in which Fox’s struggles with his disease are played for laughs.
Those who believe there’s nothing funny about his condition have to lighten up, Fox says.
“The reality of Parkinson’s is that sometimes it’s frustrating and sometimes it’s funny,” he said.