No one ever can accuse Michael J. Fox of not dealing with his life head-on.
The five-time Emmy winner is following a succession of notable guest stints — on “Rescue Me” (for which he earned his most recent Emmy), “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Good Wife” — by getting back into the series game full time. Premiering Thursday, NBC’s “The Michael J. Fox Show” casts him as Mike Henry, a New York television reporter who shares Fox’s Parkinson’s disease and resumes his job after five years off.
Mike’s return to the work force is applauded by his wife (Betsy Brandt, “Breaking Bad”) and children, particularly the daughter (Juliette Goglia) who’s documenting the situation on video for a school project. As nice as he finds it to be cheered by his fans on the streets of Manhattan, Mike still runs into personal and professional challenges that include his ongoing rivalry with “Today” host Matt Lauer (who appears in the debut episode).
“I knew that it was not anything to take lightly, and I really thought about it a lot,” says “Family Ties” and “Spin City” alum Fox of tackling weekly work again. “It was a combination of my experience on ‘The Good Wife’ and just thinking that the risks involved for the network were counterbalanced by the fact that I was a familiar quantity and that maybe people out there were ready to watch something I would do.
“Networks take bets,” Fox adds. “That’s what they do, and if they want to take a bet on me, that’s great.” This bet also encompasses Fox being an executive producer of the show along with its creators, Will Gluck (who also worked with Goglia as the director of the movies “Easy A” and “Fired Up!”) and Sam Laybourne.
Though it surely is not a humorous subject, Parkinson’s is woven into the humor of “The Michael J. Fox Show” through the main character’s experiences. The opening half-hour flashes back to a “chair incident” on the WNBC-TV news set that factored into the fictional Mike’s time off, and it also shows his mishaps in making an accidental 911 call and trying to serve his family breakfast.
“It sets up that this is the reality,” Fox reasons, “but if you watch carefully, it doesn’t dominate. It just takes its place in the universe of these characters. We wanted to set it up and deal with it, then just gradually let it come up in organic ways throughout the rest of the run of the show.
“I’ve written books and done interviews, and people know this is my take on this ... and I believe it’s broader than just Parkinson’s. Any time we have an issue or a problem, we tend to let it dictate the terms and let others describe it for us, then we go to ourselves last. I go to myself first and ask, ‘How do I feel about this?’ Well, I still feel like I have a day ahead of me, with things to do and places to go.”
Fox notes that in adding in “interactions with people that I love and people that I don’t love, I need to navigate all of that. If (Parkinson’s) is not holding me back, or if there are ways to go around it, I’m obliged to do that and get on with my life.”
Still, “The Michael J. Fox Show” is not intended to be “preaching,” its title star explains.
“This isn’t prescriptive,” Fox says. “I’m not saying, ‘This is the way you should look at life,’ I’m saying it’s the way I look at life. Parkinson’s isn’t a member of this family; it’s just an unwanted houseguest. It only has to take up the space it takes up. Don’t give it any more.”
Fox’s new co-stars also include two-time Tony Award winner Katie Finneran (“Promises, Promises,” “Noises Off”) as his sister and Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”) as his boss. Real-life wife Tracy Pollan — whom Fox famously met on “Family Ties” when she played girlfriend Ellen to his Alex P. Keaton — guests in a second episode airing on the show’s premiere night, and Fox found it “really cool” to work with her while also acting with someone else portraying his spouse.
“Betsy has so got the spirit of Tracy in her performance,” Fox maintains. “She’s just got that stop-you-in-your-tracks-with-one-look thing that Tracy is so good at, and it was interesting to see Tracy watching Betsy. She plays a neighbor I get fixated on, and it was interesting to play potentially cheating on my TV wife with my real wife!”
In the same week “The Michael J. Fox Show” starts, Fox has his third Emmy bid for his recurring role on CBS’ “The Good Wife” as Louis Canning, the canny attorney who tries to foil frequent opponent Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) by using his physical disorder to win sympathy from judges and juries.
“I’m open” to returning to that series, Fox confirms, though his own show obviously is his first priority now. “I have an allowance to do it, if the schedule and the scripts permit. I enjoy that show so much; working with Julianna, it’s just an amazing experience. It deserves to get performers who care about what they do, because the writers care so much about what they do. It’s only fair.”