The catchphrase NBC is using on advertising posters for The Michael J. Fox Show is, "He's Still Got it." It's a meaning-laden phrase and everybody knows it.
Michael J. Fox isn't bothered. He likes it. And he certainly looks good – happy, relaxed confident. His right leg shakes as he sits and talks, but he's calm, keeps joking, oozing confidence. He needs it because he's returned to full-time work as an actor. The Michael J. Fox Show, a new sitcom (airing on Global in Canada), is guaranteed a full-season, 22-episode run by NBC.
The show uses Fox's own life and experience as the core material for the series. Fox plays Mike Henry, a popular local New York TV news anchor who left his job years before to deal with Parkinson's disease and decides to return to work. From this fiction anchored in hard reality, comedy does indeed ensue.
"There's nothing horrifying about it to me," he told assembled TV critics about his Parkinson's. "I don't think it's this 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."
The 52 year-old Edmonton-born, Burnaby, B.C.-raised Fox made his Parkinson's diagnosis public in 1999, at the height of his career. He was an Emmy winner for his work on Family Ties and Spin City and he'd starred in the international blockbuster movie Back to the Future and its two sequels. His acting roles have been sparse since then. Some voice-over work and occasional, but notable guest-star roles on TV. Fox has devoted himself to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research and, he says, "I just rested. I spent that time with my family [he and wife Tracy Pollan have four children] during their really formative years and enjoyed that, and I kind of messed with pills and new medications that help me more to deal with things I was struggling with earlier that I don't have as much now, because of medication to counter the side effects."
Some TV viewers might be shocked by the lightness of the humour about Parkinson's on the show, but Fox is philosophical about the disease now, sand he should know. "We all get our own bag of hammers. We all get our own Parkinson's. We all get our own thing,"
As for the gruelling work of making a TV show every weekday for months (he's also an executive producer of the show), he says he knows best what he can handle: "I'm getting more comfortable with this schedule every day, and every week, and really happy with how it feels to be back at work. You fall into the rhythm and if I'm working at a different pace, it's partly because I'm 52 years old now. I say to Tracy all the time, you know, that's not the Parkinson's. That's just being old."
It is impossible to dispute the value the goodwill that supports Fox with this new show and return to TV. The pilot episode, which is a little masterpiece of charming, wholesome hokum, is certain to get giant ratings, but how much of his life with Parkinson's can be mined for an ongoing weekly series? "Oh, it's about the family, this comedy," he says. "It's not just about me and what I deal with."
Later, doing more intimate interviews with small groups of critics, Fox expands on the nature of the comedy involved in the show. "For me, obviously, I have less physical choices and fewer facial choices to use in making things funny," he says. "But that's okay. It means you focus on something else. What I learned is that in order to pursue my career, I had to absorb the Parkinson's into what I do. What I do is humour. And humour is human, and a lot of things are just funny."
Regarding concerns that he might not be capable of the work, he says he wants to be clear about the situation. "'m in better shape now than when I announced I had Parkinson's. Over the years I tinkered with the medication and the physical regime. The changes allowed me to do the guest roles and eventually I knew I could do this, do a show every week. And I don't have total control over the show. I'm not even trying to do that. When I was on Spin City, I was very involved, always talking to the writers, getting that show together. With Parkinson's, you don't have control. You learn that."
It's put to him that thanks to his stardom and relentless work to improve research into Parkinson's, he's a much-loved American icon and, yet he's Canadian. He smiles, shrugs. "I'm an American too," he says. (He has dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship.) "And you know I'm Canadian because I watch every single game of the NHL playoffs." He does, however want to clear up one misconception. Several Internet sites list his first acting job as a role playing "Truck Logger" on CBC's The Beachcombers. This amuses him: "I never did The Beachcombers. I did a show called Leo and Me in Canada. Not The Beachcombers."
Meeting Fox you can't help but be slightly in awe of him. The hard work, the determination and the wit. Oh yes, the wit. It's what matters in the TV sitcom business. Early in the meeting with a large posse of TV critics he had questions coming at him from the left, from the right, from all angles. He was spinning in his chair. He rode with it. He let out an exaggerated sigh and said, "You know I have Parkinson's! I'll be seeing double of you sooner or later." There were roars of laughter.
Yes, he's still got it.