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Michael J. Fox: Fox Trots

Michael J. Fox plans to give up the weekly sitcom grind. He’ll be sorely missed.

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The news that Michael J. Fox will leave his sitcom Spin City after 100 episodes to deal with his diagnosed case of Parkinson’s disease signals the effective end of Fox as a regular television personality. While he has said he will continue to act occasionally and perhaps produce and direct, Fox has ruled out the daily grind of starring in a weekly series, a chore that exacerbates the symptoms of his degenerative malady.

This is a sad but, of course, understandable decision, one that I would venture to guess has caused Fox no small amount of pain in itself, because, like the hockey players this 38-year-old native of Alberta, Canada, has long admired, he has always prided himself on having a long, hardworking career. And while he has had sporadic success as a feature-film star — most notably in the Back to the Future movies and The American President, as well as the underrated dramatic performance he gave in the 1989 Brian De Palma non-hit Casualties of War — Fox’s most consistent talent has been as a weekly TV actor.

He became a star on Family Ties, the 1982-89 sitcom in which he portrayed Alex P. Keaton, the wily young-Republican son of ex-hippie parents. It’s no small measure of his skill that Fox took a role that, on paper, was little more than that of a scheming shnook and turned Alex into a clever, likable young man, charming in spite of his naked greed and lack of scruples: the perfect Reagan-era sitcom youth.

Politics of an only slightly different sort brought Fox his second major TV role, as Michael Flaherty, deputy mayor of New York City in Spin City. Flaherty is Alex Keaton grown up, gone Democratic, but with his wit and his wiles intact.

It ain’t easy being a welcome weekly presence in millions of homes; scores of far bigger-name actors have flickered when they brought their too-bright star wattage to the small screen. But Fox, like James Garner and Michael Landon, to name just two, is an authentic TV star: His low-key affability, combined with a nimble way with a line reading and a not-often-noted gift for physical slapstick, made Fox ideal company, week in, week out. Spin City also stands as a testament to Fox’s generosity and shrewdness as a team player — he has been unfailingly willing to let his supporting cast get laughs as big as or bigger than his own.

If this appreciation of Fox’s gifts is taking on the air of an elegy, it shouldn’t. According to medical reports, Fox can live a good long life with his Parkinson’s, and, once again, he does plan to continue in show business in various capacities. (Among many other things, he can be the voice of Stuart Little in as many sequels as the market will bear.) But Michael J. Fox will now be denied his true calling as a weekly sitcom performer, and for that loss, we express our regret and extend our best wishes.