Playing a struggling newscaster, the actor brings Parkinson's awareness to the small screen.
It is one of the more courageous comebacks in the history of American showbusiness. For more than 20 years, Michael J Fox has been battling Parkinson’s disease. Last week he brought that fight to national broadcast TV with a new sitcom, The Michael J. Fox Show, in which – perhaps unsurprisingly – he plays a Parkinson’s-afflicted TV star (a newscaster) struggling to rebuild his career. While reviews have been mixed, there’s no reservation about the Back to the Future actor’s determination to continue acting.
Now 52, Fox has had Parkinson’s since 1991. Thirteen years ago he left his starring role in Spin City because he felt the symptoms of his disease were starting to interfere with his performance. He turned his attention to raising money for Parkinson’s research and raising a family, only taking limited parts in shows such as Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.
At the time of his diagnosis, doctors said he had no more than a decade left in his acting career. Now they say he’s a medical anomaly – rather than becoming less responsive to drugs that can help regulate tremors and tics, he is still highly responsive. He recently told reporters he’s grown to live with and adapt to the disease.
“There’s nothing horrifying about it to me,” he said. “I don’t think it’s gothic nastiness. There’s nothing horrible on the surface about someone with a shaky hand. The way I look at it, sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes it’s funny. I need to look at it that way.”
While there’s nothing mawkish about Fox’s attitude to his condition – “I think it’s really audacious to do a show about a guy living with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s and not making a big deal of it,” he says – there’s some question over whether audiences too can adapt.
His disease is an integral part of the plot and key component of the comedy. When he struggles to serve scrambled eggs to his family, his wife impatiently grabs the spoon. “Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are starving!”
Fox told reporters that he didn’t always feel so breezy about his diagnosis. That came a year after he awoke in the presidential suite of a hotel in Gainesville, Florida, after a night of drinking with Woody Harrelson. He noticed something strange: his little finger was twitching and would not stop. “It just felt helpless,” he recently admitted. “It just felt unfair in a way. My first reaction to it was to start drinking heavily.”
But there’s a larger question of whether The Michael J. Fox Show can hope to achieve the kind of success that Fox was accustomed to in the 1980s when he found television fame in Family Ties.
Partly that’s circumstantial. The big four US TV networks are watching as cable stations and internet-based services encroach on and undermine their business model.
Fox’s sitcom is broadcast by NBC, which has struggled for a hit since Friends was cancelled a decade ago and languishes in ratings behind even the Spanish-language station Univision.
While critics have welcomed Fox back, they’ve warned that the supporting show and its plotlines are weak. The show is “studiously un-bad to the point of blandness”, wrote the TV critic of Time, although the same critic says the show and the situation of Fox’s character have promise. But it’s not clear, say critics, that a large audience for broad appeal, family sitcom can even exist any more. Three times more viewers watch the cable reality show Duck Dynasty about camouflage-wearing, duck-hunting rednecks, than NBC’s current evening comedy, Parks & Recreation.
While that has put pressure on the sitcom to succeed, Fox says his disease has actually made him more attentive to his craft. He hadn’t tried to draw directly on his disease until he appeared in Curb Your Enthusiasm. His condition forced him to improvise. “I used to be really nervous and sit in my dressing room and fret about a scene,” he told Rolling Stone. “Now it’s just like, ‘OK, what’s happening?’ And if something happens, I react to it, and if nothing happens, I don’t react.”
Returning to work, he told the magazine, was far easier than he expected. He said: “A show is much easier to regulate than life. There are no surprises, really. You know what you have to do in a given day, and you rest and medicate accordingly. I’m shocked at how much easier this is than I thought it would be.”
But whether The Michael J. Fox Show succeeds or fails (NBC has committed to 22 episodes), Fox doesn’t want sentiment about his condition to dominate the programme – no soft music, no slow-motion. “It’s just a guy who is a dad with three kids living in New York and trying to get back to his old craft; and I think it’s good. I’m really excited about it.”
• This article was amended on 30 September 2013. An earlier version misspelled Larry David’s name as Larry Davis.
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