Twelve years ago, Michael J. Fox left ABC's Spin City in order to focus on his fight with Parkinson's disease. At the time, the actor stressed that he was not "retiring," but just looking to "relieve the strain of producing and performing a weekly network series."
Now it's back to the future for the sitcom king, who once again feels up to the task — and is returning to TV in a big way. NBC, where Fox became a superstar in the 1980s as young conservative icon Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, has given a rare 22-episode guarantee (before a lick of film is even shot) to a new sitcom based on Fox's life.
Fox will executive produce and play a family man who, yes, happens to have Parkinson's, a condition that the actor has lived with since the early 1990s (and went public with in 1998). The still-untitled show, which will debut in fall 2013, also comes from executive producers Will Gluck (Easy A) and Sam Laybourne (Cougar Town). "He's an actor. Actors need to act," Gluck says of Fox's motivation. "He needs to go do it again."
Indeed, Fox never did stop working. He continued to write books, produce TV projects (including Hench at Home, a 2003 ABC comedy pilot he wrote with Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz that starred Fox's wife, Tracy Pollan) and guest star on shows like Scrubs, Boston Legal and Rescue Me (which earned him an Emmy).
Then came Fox's well-received guest turns on Curb Your Enthusiasmand The Good Wife—both of which landed him Emmy nominations this year, for comedy and drama guest star. Fox will return to The Good Wife for two more episodes this season as Louis Canning, a rival attorney who uses his medical condition to get ahead. "The experience was as perfect a one as anyone can imagine," says executive producer Michelle King.
By last year, Fox was ready to return to episodic TV — and began kicking around ideas with producers, but nothing came of it. Fox then sat down this spring with Gluck, a TV veteran who has more recently been focused on movies, and Gluck recruited Laybourne to pitch in as well. "I [told Fox] that 'I read all of your books, and the most interesting thing about all of this is your wife and family,'" Gluck remembers. "'I had seen you grow up as a boy on Family Ties, and then you had your first job that we all saw on Spin City, and now the natural progression would be for you to have a family.'"
That idea of a family comedy quickly took hold, and Gluck makes no bones about the fact that the single-camera show, which will be set and filmed in New York, borrows heavily on Fox's life. Fox and Pollan are the parents to four kids: A 23-year-old son, 17-year-old twin daughters and a 10-year-old daughter. "As Mike jokes, he can steal [story ideas] from his kids, he's paid for them," Gluck says. "He owns their intellectual property." Might Pollan play a role on the show? "We haven't talked about it yet," says Gluck. "I hope she's part of the show, I love her. I grew up watching her as well."
The producers have mostly remained mum about the show beyond that, although insiders say it will be a true ensemble show — which takes some of the heat off Fox. There has been some discussion of entering the show's action through the eyes of the show's 16-year-old daughter, but insiders say she won't be driving the narrative. Viewers may also see Fox's character go back to work (again, similar to what Fox is about to do). Gluck won't hint at Fox's character's career, but quips that "he does not work in the mayors' office and he is not a young Republican."
Then there's the case of Fox's Parkinson's disease. The show won't shy away from it, but Fox's illness won't be the centerpiece either. One insider says the show will tackle the issue head-on within the first minute of the first episode, quickly defusing the situation. In real life, Fox is a pro at making people at ease with his condition. "Any uncomfortable feelings you might have, either feeling bad for him, which he's certainly aware of, he takes the air right out of that," one source says. "He goes right at it. He jokes about it. Parkinson's isn't to be ignored or embraced."
Adds Gluck: "You should really read Mike's books, they're phenomenal, he deals with it with humor and optimism. The more fun part is watching him deal with his 10-year-old going to camp for the first time and seeing his 20-year-old come home from college. That's real life. The Parkinson's is something he happens to have as well."
The show's producers looked to accommodate Fox, and were willing to adjust the episodic output. (There's precedent now: Kevin Bacon recently agreed to star in the new TV drama The Following with the stipulation that he only star in 15 episodes a year.) "My first question was, are you sure you want to do the grind of 22 episodes?" Gluck says. "We talked every step of the way, and he was always super gung-ho."
The weeklong shooting pace of a single-camera comedy, and the fact that he won't have to be in every scene, should help. Fox is said to have also struck a good balance with his medication, which has helped make the disease more manageable.
The Good Wife executive producer Robert King, who directed the show's season finale featuring Fox, marvels at how the actor has managed to adjust his acting skills to fit his Parkinson's symptoms. "He's adapted the comic rhythms to his condition so that in directing him, he knew how to reconfigure a sentence so that the joke would fall within his kind of ocean wave-like new vocal pattern. It gave him new comic timing, adapted to what his speech pattern is now."
By mid-August, Fox, Gluck, Laybourne and Sony Pictures Television were ready to pitch the show to the networks. Fox's Parkinson's was not much of an issue (although he did experience severe symptoms while visiting one network, but quickly made light of it) — and all four major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) bought the show immediately in the room.
That led to a fierce bidding war. The Fox network wound up being the least aggressive, while ABC touted the strength of its single-camera family comedy stalwart Modern Family (perhaps suggesting that it would serve as a very nice lead-in) and CBS crowed about its overall strength. But NBC, which remains in desperate need of a new signature hit (especially now that The Office is retiring), stepped up big time. "This was a moment for them to make a bold move," says one insider.
Usually it takes a week or two for a show to be shopped to networks, but the Fox comedy went from pitch to deal in two days. That's partly because NBC's whopping 22-episode order was too big to ignore — and too much for the other networks to match. Major episodic commitments were a bit more common in the 1990s, but the networks long ago stopped making such risky, pricy bets. But a show starring an icon like Fox doesn't come along every day. Gluck calls it "The Michael J. Fox Exception."
Returning to NBC provides a nice bookend for Fox, who was part of NBC's early 1980s ratings renaissance via Family Ties (in which he starred for 180 episodes). "To bring Michael J. Fox back to NBC is a supreme honor," says NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. "From the moment we met with Michael to hear his unique point of view about this new show, we were completely captivated and on board."
Greenblatt's desire to recruit Fox as a cornerstone of his turnaround strategy is reminiscent of what CBS boss Leslie Moonves did in 1996, when he gave Bill Cosby a series commitment as a way to start rebuilding his network.
NBC is understandably anxious to get the ball rolling on the show, but there are still timing issues at play. Another executive producer will likely join the show to share showrunning duties with Laybourne, and that person needs to be recruited before casting begins. Meanwhile, with Gluck expected to direct the show's first episode, his busy schedule (including a feature he's set to direct this winter) needs to be figured out. Ideally, NBC hopes to have at least a first episode to show to advertisers by next May's network TV upfronts. Says Gluck: "We're not going to let them down."