(CNN) — For sheer inspirational value, it will be hard to top one of this fall’s new TV series, “The Michael J. Fox Show.”
The beloved actor, now 52, is returning to prime-time television tonight in his first starring role since 2000, when he abandoned “Spin City” at the height of its popularity to deal with his worsening Parkinson’s disease.
The physical challenges posed by his medical condition haven’t kept Fox from taking on a number of recurring and guest-starring roles on TV in recent years, most notably on “Rescue Me,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Good Wife.” But to play the lead in a weekly series requires an effort on another order of magnitude, as Fox readily admits.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s been satisfying,” he said Sunday at the Emmys, where he paid tribute to the late Gary David Goldberg, the producer behind “Spin City” and the show that launched Fox to fame, “Family Ties.”
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement, and currently, there is no cure. Those who suffer from the disease may have difficulty speaking and may experience cognitive issues.
Fox acknowledged that embarking on a new series was something of a risk.
“It’s been a learning experience to see what I can do (physically) now and what is difficult for me to do now,” he said. “I didn’t give myself credit for being capable of doing (a regular series). And it’s been great.”
On the NBC sitcom, Fox plays Michael Henry, a prominent New York news personality who put his career on pause after he developed Parkinson’s. When Henry decides to go back to work, his family is surprisingly relieved to have him out of the house. It’s part family comedy, part workplace comedy, in a sense combining the key elements of both “Family Ties” (and its homey Keaton family setting) and “Spin City,” which mostly took place in the office of a fictional New York mayor.
His character’s condition is a primary source of humor in “The Michael J. Fox Show,” at least in the pilot episode. In one scene, Henry’s problem with muscular control causes him to dial 911 by mistake. He explains to the 911 operator, “My meds haven’t kicked in yet.” (In a subsequent scene, cops respond to the 911 call. After determining there is no emergency, one of the officers recognizes Henry and says, “Since we’re both here, could I get you to sign an autograph? My uncle’s got Alzheimer’s.” Henry responds, “I’ve actually got Parkinson’s.” The cop says, “Either way.”)
Fox insists, however, that his sitcom will not amount to a series of Parkinson’s jokes.
“It’s in the first couple of episodes, but we taper off as we go along,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “But it’s what the character lives with, based on stuff from stories I told the writers. … It can potentially take three minutes to get a spoon of eggs from here to there. There is no particular meaning to that, it’s just fact. And when you deal with that fact, it’s funny.”
Dealing with Parkinson’s, of course, hasn’t always been a barrel of laughs for Fox, who was diagnosed in 1991 at the age of 30 (he didn’t publicly reveal his condition until 1999). In fact, in a new interview with Howard Stern, the actor admitted he began drinking heavily after struggling to cope with the disease.
“I used to drink to party,” he said on Stern’s radio show. “But now I was drinking alone … every day.” He said therapy helped get him out of the depths of despair and to a realization that he could live with the disease. “It all started to get really clear to me,” he said.
That clarity involved resuming his acting career, albeit on a more modest scale, and becoming involved in fundraising for Parkinson’s research. He also became a champion of stem cell research, injecting himself into the contentious politics of the issue, which earned him rebukes from some conservatives (including Rush Limbaugh, who once accused the actor of exaggerating his Parkinson’s symptoms to curry sympathy).
With his new sitcom, Fox has gone back to the future — to the medium that made him a household name in the 1980s. His co-star Wendell Pierce, who plays Fox’s boss on the show, said Parkinson’s has not dulled the actor’s comedic gifts.
“I see him as a great athlete,” he said. “Sometimes I see him just rein in the physicality of a symptom or whatever but at the same time focus on the scene. … He hasn’t lost anything. He hasn’t forgotten how to do it.”
Pierce said no special accommodations have been made to Fox due to his illness.
“He goes through a normal day (on set),” he said. “As with any series, you have long days. You’ve got to be prepared for them; you’ve got to rest up; you’ve got to do your homework. He does all of that, which makes it even more extraordinary, because he has to take care as to how he budgets his energy, his time, to do the work.”
Fox says that if anything, Parkinson’s has actually made him a better actor. In the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine, he said he learned not to rely on the kind of physicality that had been his calling card.
“When that was taken away, I found that there was other stuff that I could use,” he said. “That hesitation, that Parkinsonian affect, is an opportunity to just pause in a moment and collect as a character and respond to what’s happening and just gave me this kind of gravitas.”
That gravitas will be on display for the full 2013-14 season. NBC made the highly unusual commitment to order 22 episodes up-front, the price it apparently had to pay to prevail in a network bidding war for the show.
Pierce said Fox has earned it. “He was deserving of a full season order, because he has demonstrated that he has the star power to deliver,” he said.
Fox and his co-stars have shot several episodes, with many more ahead. As for how it’s going, the actor said it’s so far, so good.
“It’s been great,” he said. “The cast is great, and the writers are great. It’s been a good experience.”
Does he see what he’s accomplishing as inspirational? Fox won’t come right out and say it, but he hinted as much to Rolling Stone. He told the magazine that in the back of his mind, he’s aware some people might be inspired to see a person with Parkinson’s return to full-time work.
“Another side of it that I don’t deal with every day but is certainly present, is that on some level, it might be empowering for people.”