BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - What happens when you put Michael J. Fox and five Canadian reporters at a table?
The Edmonton-born, Burnaby, B.C.-raised actor has lived almost two-thirds of his life in the United States, but while you can take the boy out of Canada, you can't take the Canadian out of the boy.
Though Fox's interview time is carefully limited, there's a full five minutes of chatter about the Leafs, Canucks and his beloved Bruins before everyone gets down to the reason Fox is at the summer network press tour — to promote "The Michael J. Fox Show." The sitcom premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on NBC and Global.
The series has been tailor-made for the actor. Fox stars as Mike Henry, a popular New York news anchor who gave up his job after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Five years later, with his family's support, he decides to go back in front of the cameras. Betsy Brandt ("Breaking Bad") plays wife Annie Henry, Wendell Pierce ("Treme") his boss Harris Green. Recurring characters include Anne Heche as a rival news anchor and TV veterans Candice Bergen and Charles Grodin as Mike's parents.
Fox teamed with executive producers Sam Laybourne ("Cougar Town") and Will Gluck ("Friends with Benefits") on the project.
"I really wanted to do a show about a guy with Parkinson's," Gluck jokes, "and a couple of people passed."
Gluck and the others see it as a family comedy first, but one absolutely based on Fox's own experiences dealing with Parkinson's. Henry is shown in the pilot scattering instead of serving scrambled eggs and misdialling 911, all played for laughs.
"Mike paid for those experiences," says Gluck, "so they're the intellectual property of Michael J. Fox."
Fox himself stepped away from his last regular series, "Spin City," in 2000 after going public with his struggles with Parkinson's, first detected a decade earlier.
At the time of the revelation it seemed like a cruel twist of fate for the actor, who was beloved for his "Back to the Future" films as well as for his run in the '80s as young conservative Alex P. Keaton in "Family Ties."
Fox came to terms with his situation and became a leading spokesperson for efforts to combat the disease. His Michael J. Fox Foundation has so far funded more than US$350 million in research toward finding a cure.
Spearheading that drive and helping his wife of 25 years, actor Tracey Pollan, raise their four children became Fox's main focus for a decade. When medical advances helped to stabilize Fox's tremor symptoms, the itch to get back on TV began to develop.
"I just thought, 'Why can't I?'" he says. "I mean, there's no reason not to do it."
He felt relatively healthy and rested and was there for his kids when they needed him most. New medications helped him deal with dyskinesia and other side-effects.
"So it just seemed like the right time to do it."
Fox tested the waters with a string of guest shots. What he learned from those roles helped convince him he had more in the tank.
"I'd done 'Curb (Your Enthusiasm)' and 'Rescue Me' and 'Good Wife' and I realized that I was working differently than I worked when I was younger," he says.
The 52-year-old found himself "arriving in different places than I had done before," finding "moments that were in some ways better, more felt than I had before. I just thought, 'This is really cool. I want to get into this.'"
Part of what had changed was linked to vanity, Fox says.
"When you have something like Parkinson's, you get rid of vanity real quick. You don't spend a lot of time checking yourself out because you know what you're going to see."
He was ready to go back, but only on his terms. For one, he wasn't going to leave New York, where all those guest appearances were shot. His series went into production months earlier than most, allowing the producers to build in weeks in between shooting to make things easier for their star.
Fox briefly considered headlining a drama series like "The Good Wife," but the long hours were a deal breaker. Besides, when he really thought about it, all he wanted to do was comedy.
There was no question the networks wanted him back. NBC offered him a full 22-episode commitment, rare these days. Did that make him nervous? they asked.
"Nah, that's what we were going for," said Fox.
Now the only question, he says, is how audiences will respond to an actor and a character with Parkinson's. He hopes to show that there's "nothing on the surface horrible about someone with a shaky hand," he says. "That's our reality. We have no control."
What he can control is storylines, so, yes, look for a hockey episode. Mike Henry is appalled his son is always stuck in front of a video game and takes him to a rink in hopes the lad catches hockey fever.
Fox, who still plays in a few "beer leagues" — including games with his pal Denis Leary — laced up his skates for the episode. His co-stars didn't join him on the ice.
"They weren't in the scene and it was cold. Besides, I talk hockey all the time so they're getting it by osmosis."
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.
© Copyright 2013