Seven years after his "Family Ties" were severed and he left television to make movies, Michael J. Fox has found that you can go home again.
The epiphany came last spring, mere moments before filming began on the pilot episode of his new ABC series, "Spin City." The actor paced back and forth behind the stage curtain, while an equally restless studio audience whispered and buzzed on the other side. "I was so excited ... I could just hear the din of the people out there," he says, recalling that he always used to get the same feeling on the "Family Ties" set. "I [realized] this is what I love."
Ironically, Fox was not easily sold on "Spin City," a politically minded comedy that focuses on his Mike Flaherty, the fast-talking, crisis-solving brains behind a rather slow-witted New York City mayor. In fact, when first approached about the project last February, he was "90 percent" certain it wouldn't be right for him.
Part of that skepticism stemmed from his fond memories of "Family Ties," the much-loved NBC juggernaut that made him a household name. Conceived in 1982 as a vehicle for actress Meredith Baxter, the show quickly shifted its focus onto Fox's lovable yuppie-in-training character, Alex P. Keaton; by the series' end in 1989, Fox had won three Emmy awards and become a Reagan-era icon. This time around, he admits, there was some "worrying about screwing up that legacy."
But a positive meeting with, among others, Gary David Goldberg - who created "Family Ties" and still counts Fox among his close friends - persuaded the actor to keep an open mind. Days later, the "Spin City" writers sent him part of the first script.
"The pages were coming off the fax," Fox recalls. "I'd read the first page, hand it to my wife, and she'd read it while I read the second page." When husband and wife realized they were laughing out loud, "we both kind of simultaneously said, 'This is it.' "
Professionally speaking, a retreat to the small screen wasn't such a bad idea. His massively popular "Back to the Future" franchise notwithstanding, Fox's movie career has been only erratically successful, with occasional hits like "The American President" hidden among lemons like "Greedy," "For Love or Money," and "The Hard Way." Still, Fox says his return to series television had more to do with his personal life than his questionable box office appeal.
He committed to "Spin City" after wrapping a seven-month shoot in New Zealand, where he made this summer's supernatural thriller "The Frighteners." Living on the other side of the world from his family for so long put things into perspective, and Fox brought one not-very-negotiable request to the bargaining table: The show had to be filmed not in Los Angeles, but in New York, where he, his wife of eight years, actress Tracy Pollan, and their three children - seven-year-old Sam and identical-twin toddler girls Schuyler and Aquinnah - are more or less based.
##"One of the whole reasons for doing this show was so that I could have a stable family life," he explains. "If I did the show in L.A., my family life wouldn't be as stable because they would be 3,000 miles away." The way things are now, with "Spin City" filming at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, Fox can make Sam breakfast pretty much every morning, and tuck all the kids into bed at night.
Not that location was the venue's sole temptation. "Chelsea Piers has two [ice] rinks," grins Fox, who was born and raised in Canada and, as a youth, dreamed of becoming a professional hockey player.
Since "Spin City" is premiring six weeks before the presidential election, potential story-line tie-ins abound. Even more significantly, though, Fox's two most critically acclaimed characters - young Republican Alex P. Keaton on "Family Ties" and the George Stephanopoulos-like adviser he played in "The American President" - capitalized on political humor.
Unlike some actors, Fox embraces political roles. "You get to play very articulate, very bright, very energetic people with very loose morals. And that's a lot of fun." Even so, he initially worried that Mike Flaherty was a little too similar to his "American President" character; he doesn't want to get typecast as a hotheaded young politico. "My first thought was, 'I just did that and I don't know if I want to do it again,' " he says. "Until I was sure that he would be a different guy, it was a little bit of a concern."
As it happens, it is politics as usual neither in front of nor behind the "Spin City" cameras. As well as acting on the series, Fox elected to serve as executive producer, sharing the title with his former "Family Ties" boss, Gary David Goldberg.
"He'll make a great producer," Goldberg predicts. "He's very good at looking at material after it's been cut and talking about things that are working and not working. Plus he's very, very good at network relations."
Or, at least, he used to be. Joking about his new partnership with the man he called boss for seven years, Fox says, "I didn't know whether or not [Goldberg and I] would be able to work together because, you know ... I won't wash his car anymore like I used to."
Perish the thought. With "Spin City" now occupying ABC's most plum time slot - it follows "Home Improvement" on Tuesday nights - it's clear the network believes Fox can resuscitate its gasping comedy lineup. Conventional wisdom agrees. Many critics predict that the series, buoyed by Fox's still boyish charisma, will be one of the upcoming season's only new hits.
None of this hype and hoopla fazes Fox. "We want to please an audience, and we want people to like our work," he nods. "But, you know, [Goldberg and I are] just two guys who are happy to have a job. And we treat it like it's the first job that we've ever had. Whatever the hopes and fears of ABC are, or whatever the burden they put on us, it really pales next to the hopes and fears that we have about our own work and the pressure that we put on ourselves."
But if the success of "Spin City" were to depend exclusively on Fox's performance, Goldberg says all their fears would prove to be completely unfounded. "I've been watching Mike for a long time, and I can honestly say I don't think I've ever seen him as good as he is right now. He hasn't lost the spontaneity and vulnerability that he had when he was new and young, but now, layered on top of that is real craftsmanship.
"It's the difference," Goldberg concludes, "between a hot rookie and a hot veteran."