The disease that sidelined one of TV’s most beloved actors is now part of the punch line.
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 quality 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, one that 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 an 8:30 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. “Then the next week, everyone will be writing about the horrendous falloff [in viewership] because these shows do that after initial curiosity. It could conceivably change at some point throughout the season, but we didn’t want to put him so much in the line of fire.”
The series has already 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,” “Tremé”) as his longtime producer, and “Breaking Bad’s” Betsy Brandt as his wife.
“Once I read with Mike, I would have shanked all the other actors to get this role,” said Brandt, who apparently hasn’t fully shaken off the side effects of her last show. “Fortunately, I didn’t have to.”
Some viewers may be uncomfortable with the tone of early installments, in which Fox’s struggles with his disease are played for laughs. In one scene, a shaking Henry accidentally dials 911, prompting a visit from the police. In another, his exasperated wife yanks a plate of scrambled eggs from Henry as he tries in vain to serve breakfast to his family.
“Can you not have a personal victory right now?” she says. “We are starving.”
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. “There’s nothing horrifying about it to me. There’s nothing horrible about someone in their life saying, ‘God, I’m really tired of this shaky hand thing’ and me saying, ‘Me, too.’ That’s our reality.”
Neal.Justin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @NealJustin