In his own words, the TV icon opens up about why he's turning his real life into a family sitcom, The Michael J. Fox Show.
I started to think about doing my own show as a result of my guest-starring roles on Boston Legal, Rescue Me and The Good Wife. I was feeling good that viewers accepted my characters and could distinguish them from me, for whatever brief amount of time. And then it just clicked with me that acting is what I do. It's what I like to do. So I'd better have a really good reason for not doing it.
My kids [Sam, 24; twins Aquinnah and Schulyer, 18; and Esme, 11] are growing up, so that made the decision easier. I'm really grateful and lucky to have spent the bulk of my time with them when they were young. Now that tug of wanting to be at home isn't there in the same way as it used to be when I could be really hands-on helpful.
I put it out there that I might be interested in coming back to TV full-time. Will Gluck [the director of Friends With Benefits] was a fan of my books and wanted to talk with me about doing something similar for television. We met, I liked him a lot, and then I saw his films and realized he had a good voice for me. He understood what I was trying to say. He also understood that I didn't want to play myself, but an alter ego close enough that we could use some of my experiences with raising a family and having Parkinson's. He just got it.
We decided to make my character, Mike Henry, a local TV anchor in New York City because we wanted to play with celebrity a bit. Mike can walk down the street and people know who he is and say hello. That's an important part of the story I want to tell — the empathy that people have for me. They feel like they know me. They feel a connection through their own experiences and what they've gone through with their families. That familiarity translates well to a local news guy.
When we pitched the idea to the networks, every one of them bought it there in the room. Then NBC gave us 22 episodes right out of the gate. People ask, "Isn't that a lot of pressure?" No. We wanted that vote of confidence and the time to really develop the show. Everything we've done up to this point makes me feel like we made a good decision.
I never had fears about doing the show because of my health. I don't deal in fear. I was a little scared when I was first diagnosed with Parkinson's, but I worked my way through it. I just learned to accept and embrace the fact that I can't draw an accurate blueprint of what each day is going to bring.
The show's humor comes from hours and hours of conversations I've had with our writers. I wouldn't call the jokes "Parkinson's jokes." They're snippets of my experiences. I don't think we're making fun of Parkinson's or people with Parkinson's. I'm not even making fun of myself. It's just a reality of my life, and I look at it all through the lens of humor, because I looked at all the other alternatives, and they suck! But if I can laugh at it, and laugh with it, it makes all the difference.
But The Michael J. Fox Show isn't a series of "very special episodes." We won't bring up Parkinson's that much. The show is meant to be funny first. The part of my identity that I hope people tune in for is the part that made them laugh for 25 years. I hope that's the element that brings them back, not some kind of pityfest. I don't think that's going to happen, though. People know who I am. They know I deal with my disease with humor, and they know me, hopefully, to be funny. I think it'll sync up.
Doing the show has been like coming home. We're eight episodes in now, and it's getting easier. I'm getting less fatigued. I worked a full day today, and I'm feeling great. I just do whatever is in the script and see what happens. If I just say, "I'll run up these stairs now," then I'll run up the stairs.
I try to stay fit so I can keep up my energy. I eat what my wife, Tracy [Pollan], tells me to eat, and I go for walks every day with my dog, Gus. He's a 110-pound Great Dane mix I got when my son went away to college. I was drowning in a sea of estrogen and needed another male presence in the house. He keeps me in shape.
Because I never know how my meds are going to react on any given day, I need a little bit of elasticity with the shooting schedule. We have it set up so that if I need a half hour or so break, I can take it when I need to. But I haven't had to use it yet. It exists, but to me it's just "Fake it till you make it." Just do it.
We really got lucky with the show's casting. The kids [Conor Romero, Juliette Goglia and Jack Gore] are all fantastic, and Betsy Brandt, who plays my wife, is amazing. When she came in to read, she just blew it out of the water. I walk around all the time singing, "It's The Betsy Brandt Show." The writers really captured Tracy's spirit with Betsy's character, and she embodies it so well. She's really fun, and we enjoy each other's company. After doing Breaking Bad, she says that this is like coming into the light out of the darkness. Wendell Pierce, who plays my producer, is also hilarious. He was even funny on The Wire.
Our guest stars have been wonderful, too. In one episode, Tracy plays a sexy neighbor who is quite tempting. That was an easy get. Matt Lauer and [governor of New Jersey] Chris Christie both did episodes, and Anne Heche has a recurring role as my nemesis, an anchor who comes to the station. She and Mike have a history; she screwed him on a job in Florida years earlier. Let me tell you, Anne really goes for it! And the crew is great. We're using 30 Rock's stages, and most of the crew came directly from that show. My dressing room was Alec Baldwin's. It's a seamless transition.
The way I look at this show, it's not necessarily an arm of my activism or my work with the Michael J. Fox Foundation. This is my job, what I do. Parkinson's is a circumstance of my life. How I treat that is a personal choice. I certainly know that the show means something in the Parkinson's community, and people are anticipating it. But I'm not doing The Michael J. Fox Show on behalf of them in the way that I do my foundation. This is on behalf of me.
People seem to be really rooting for this show. I run into so many people who are really excited about it and seem genuinely pleased that we're doing it. I feel good about the work that we've done. I'm confident people are going to like it. I hope it does well, because it's everything I hoped it would be. And more. — As told to Ileane Rudolph
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