Michael J. Fox on return to TV: 'I never really went anywhere'

Image: Michael J. Fox

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By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's, is returning to work in TV starring on a show about a man with Parkinson's who's returning to work in TV. Got that? But don't call this a comeback. "It's pretty flattering that people give (his casting) the attention and — and that on some level, people are excited about it," Fox told Willie Geist on TODAY Wednesday. "It's funny, it is kind of weird to have been low-key for a few years ... but I never really went anywhere."

On the new "Michael J. Fox Show," Fox plays family man and TV anchor Mike Henry, who returns to the air five years after Parkinson's put his career on hold. Fox himself was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's in 1991, when he was 30 years old and flying high after starring on the hit sitcom "Family Ties" and in three "Back to the Future" movies.

"(The diagnosis) came ... with a prognosis that ... I'd have ... maybe 10 years left to work," Fox told Geist, whose own father has Parkinson's and who sits on the board of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. "I was just married and my son was just born and my father had just passed away. And it was — all kinds of stuff going on and — and it flattened me."

Fox did work for those next 10 years, leaving "Spin City" in 2000. "I thought it was the last of me in series television," he said of his departure from that show. Yet he's found his transition back into starring on a weekly series challenging but exciting.

"It's more (work) than I thought it would be, but I've handled it better than I thought I would," he said. "It's what I do, it's what I have done for years, and it's what I enjoy doing."

That said, he has had to adjust to the restrictions of his disease. “It’s changed me,” he told Geist. “It’s changed the way I work. I can’t rely on a quick eyebrow lift or … express myself in a certain way facially. I just feel stuff more and so what comes out, I have less control over, but it tends to be more honest.”

Sometimes he surprises himself. “I have difficulty running,” he told Geist. “And another feature of the condition is that I can’t turn sideways when I’m … moving. … We shot a scene in a park with a football and I ran 20-yard out-and-post and caught it over my shoulder and kept running, ’cause I just said to myself, ‘I’m not gonna tell myself I can’t do this, I’m just gonna do it.’ And if a ball hits me on the side of the head and I fall down, then that happened.”

In the show’s first episode, Fox’s character must tell his family he’s going back to work, a scene Fox had to enact in his own life as well.

“I said to (wife) Tracy (Pollan), ‘What do you think of me going back to work?’” Fox recalls. “And she … thought I could do it, but they were all kind of like, ‘Yeah, you got to … do something. ‘Cause you’re just hanging around the house.”

The transition wasn’t stress free. Fox’s character worries at one point, “What if I’m not the guy they remember when I go back to work?” Fox says that line spoke for him at an earlier stage of life. “I didn’t wake up and be in this place of positivity and hearts and flowers and unicorns,” he said. “I went through a lot of stuff.”

Fox doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him — he knows that everyone's life has challenges, or as the actor told Willie Geist on TODAY, "Everybody's gonna get a thing."

"(Your challenge) doesn't have to be life-shattering or life-ending," Fox told Geist. "It can just be a new thing that pushes you to a new place. And so like when I thought about doing this show, it's like, why not? Why can't I? Why can't I?"

Some people look at Fox with pity, but he says that derives from their own fear. “They’re going, ‘Oh, I really hope I don’t get what you have; I’m in much better shape than you,’” he told Geist with a laugh. “And (that’s not necessarily true), because everybody’d got their own bag of hammers.”

And even when Geist told him that he used Fox as an example to his father of someone dealing with the disease publicly and openly, Fox was modest.

"I don't look at myself as a leader," he said. "I do look at myself as part of a community. I'm a visible member of the community. ... And if I can set that example for people and make them feel that ... you don't have to shut it down. You don't have to withdraw. You don't have to pull in."

He’s not self-conscious about how his disease makes him appear to others, Fox said – those days are over. “Vanity’s really overrated,” he told Geist. “When I was 20, teenage girls had my picture on the wall. … I don’t need to be pretty anymore. I just am who I am.”

"The Michael J. Fox Show" premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on NBC.