When Michael J. Fox returns to the spotlight, he doesn’t mess around. The 47-year-old actor/writer/activist (who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991) just released his second memoir, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, and has an accompanying TV special airing May 7 on ABC, and he’s in the midst of a four-episode run playing a cantankerous paraplegic on his buddy Denis Leary’s firefighter drama, Rescue Me (Tuesdays at 10 p.m., FX). ”It’s like bringing Michael Jordan out of retirement,” says Leary. ”I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I gotta really bring my A game. This guy’s going to wipe me off the screen here.”’ EW spoke to Fox about his return to the court.
EW: What did you think when Denis offered you the role of Dwight, the bellicose, pill-addicted paraplegic who’s dating the estranged wife of Leary’s character, Tommy?
MJF: I said to him, ”I’m like the opposite of a paralyzed guy — I can’t be still that much. Have we thought this through?” And he said, ”We’ll shoot you above your legs,” and I said, ”Well, it’s tricky because I move a lot.” But there was so much about the character that appealed to me. I look at Dwight as a road that I didn’t take, but a road that could be taken by someone who finds himself in a life-changing situation. People don’t often think of me as being a bitter misanthrope, so to get a chance to play one? It’s too much fun to pass up…. Hopefully no one thinks they’re going to find Stuart Little and need to be in therapy for the rest of their lives.
EW: What was tough about the shoot?
MJF: It’s just about being slow and trying to time medication. That’s the thing that makes acting tough now — it becomes as logistical as it is creative. But when you’re locked into a scene with an actor like Denis and a character like Dwight, you forget the math and it’s just fun with crayons…. I was really tired at the end. I don’t think I could do 22 episodes anymore, but it was a blast.
EW: What did you want to accomplish with your new book and TV special?
MJF: I don’t necessarily have any sage advice for anybody, other than if they want to get something from my example. I don’t have a choice of whether or not I have Parkinson’s: I have it. But other than that, I have a thousand choices, and I can’t let myself be sunk by the weight of that one non-choice…. After I wrote this memoir, I still had broader journalistic questions about optimism, so I floated to ABC this idea of looking at optimism in an empirical way. We went to Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom that actually measures its gross national happiness along with its gross domestic product. [We] searched out what fills people with hope and optimism.
EW: Should we be optimistic that you’ll do more TV guest shots?
MJF: There are shows I like, but I don’t know if I’d like them with me in them.
EW: For example?
MJF: Like Lost. We were cracking up when they got into a lot of stuff with [time-traveling physicist Daniel] Faraday. I expected Chris Lloyd to come out and go, ”Faraday! Great Scott! I came here in a time machine that you invented!” It would’ve been a funny in-joke to pass each other in the space-time continuum.