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TCA: Michael J. Fox on Living with Disability, Public Expectations

'This is what I was built and programmed for' star sez of his return to sitcom work

There was no doubt that questions about managing Parkinson’s disease would be the focus of NBC’s TCA panel for “The Michael J. Fox Show.”

After all the subject is a big thread in the show itself, in which Fox plays a local New York news anchor for NBC who returns to work after a five-year break following his diagnosis with Parkinson’s.

In fielding politely worded questions about whether he had the stamina to handle the rigors of a network sitcom, Fox was eloquent and unflappable in giving journos a glimpse into living with a disability.

As much as he has to manage the physical aspects of his neurological disorder, it also takes energy to manage other people’s perceptions of his condition.

“I about perception, and one of the things you deal with is people’s projections and what they think it is. They’re not seeing the experience you’re having,” he said.

Fox didn’t say it in so many words but it was clear he does not need or want pity, especially from viewers. Part of what he’s trying to get across is that Parkinson’s is not a reason to hide from the public eye.

“There’s nothing horrifying about it. I don’t think it’s Gothic nastiness. There’s nothing on the surface horrible about someone who has shaky hands,” he said.

The show, created by Will Gluck, deals head-on with how Fox manages all these outside pressures, including those from his family of teenagers and wife, played by Betsy Brandt (pictured above).

“There’s nothing horrible about saying (in a comedy) ‘We’re really tired of this shaky hand thing.’ and me saying ‘me too,’ ” he said.

If anyone can find the balance between allowing viewers to laugh with him and not at him because of his physical challenges, it’s Fox — who has a generation of goodwill with auds for his run as Alex P. Keaton in NBC’s 1980s staple “Family Ties.”

Gluck emphasized that the show is rooted in classic family comedy dynamics, with the Parkinson’s being a big element but not the only focus of comedy. Fox’s return to toplining a sitcom created such a bidding frenzy among the nets that NBC gave the Sony Pictures TV project a 22-episode on-air commitment last fall.

“We were startlingly uncalculated about the show,” Gluck said. “Whenever you’re with Mike you see him managing everyone else and how they react to him,” and that extra burden is explored in the show.

“There was not a lot of strategy behind it,” Fox added of the development process. “The humor was based on the kind of stuff I deal with on a daily basis. There really wasn’t any pie charts or graphs.”

Fox’s guest star work in CBS’ “The Good Wife” and other shows in recent years gave him the confidence to take on a regular series role again.  “It really brought me to a place of (thinking) ‘This is what I was built and programmed for, and I just thought, ‘Why can’t I’?”

Wendell Pierce, who co-stars in the show, noted that the underlying focus on the set is making a great comedy, not Fox’s condition. “Mike is an actor. We’re talking about what works and what doesn’t work. The conversation is never about some condition he has, it’s about our work environment. And hockey.”

During the panel, Fox demonstrated his skill at deflecting the outward physical manifestations of his disease. When a reporter waved her hands to get his attention for a question, Fox quipped: “I thought you had Parkinson’s.”

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