Michael J. Fox Debuts NBC Show Aided by Parkinson’s Drugs

Michael J. Fox left prime-time television more than a decade ago to focus on his battle with Parkinson’s disease. Now he’s back, with the help of drugs that keep his own shaking from the illness mostly under control.

Fox, 51, will star in “The Michael J. Fox Show,” a comedy on Comcast Corp.’s NBC about a news anchor who returns to work after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a condition that causes nerve cells to misfire, leaving patients unable to control their movements. The program will air on Thursdays when the new TV season starts, NBC said yesterday in a statement.

NBC is betting the actor’s return to the spotlight can help it climb out of last place among the four major broadcast networks in total viewers. Fox, who disclosed his condition in 1998 and last anchored the series “Spin City” in 2000, has kept many of the specifics of his health struggles private.

“Parkinson’s is different in every patient,” Michael Okun, national medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation, said in a phone interview. “Personally I think he’s being very responsible for not giving a lot of details.”

NBC is presenting its 2013-14 schedule to advertisers as part of an annual ritual where broadcasters seek advance commitments from sponsors for their prime-time programs.

The network, which outbid competitors for the show and ordered a full 22-episode season without a script, is banking on Fox, who came to prominence in the 1980s with “Family Ties,” to appeal to a wide audience. Sony Corp. and Olive Bridge Entertainment are co-producers.

Shooting Schedule

Fox’s condition doesn’t require special accommodations to produce the show, although his medications are timed for shooting sessions, said an NBC spokesman.

The network is using “The Michael J. Fox Show” to help rebuild its Thursday night lineup with the end of “30 Rock” and “The Office.”

While Fox is remembered and well-liked by fans, the success of the show will hinge of the quality of the story and the acting, said Brad Adgate, head of research at New York advertising-services firm Horizon Media.

“It really depends on how viewers react to the show based on character development and story lines,” Adgate said. “The ratings will not be what they were when he starred in previous sitcoms.”

Drug Cocktail

NBC may generate $3.8 billion in advance advertising commitments, a 17 percent increase from 2011, the last year without major campaign spending, according to estimates from researcher SNL Kagan. That would be down 20 percent from last year, when political outlays soared with the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

Fox takes a combination of medicines that includes amantadine, originally used to combat the flu. The drug helps reduce his dyskinesia, the uncontrolled movements related to long-term use of the Parkinson’s drug levodopa. Amantadine was serendipitously discovered to be beneficial to some patients with Parkinson’s, according to Okun.

Parkinson’s can cause tremors, stiffness and cognitive impairment, and may affect more than 5 million people globally, according to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Patients often rely on a combination of therapies to manage symptoms, including at times more than a dozen different drugs, said Okun, author of “Parkinson’s Treatment: 10 Secrets to a Happier Life.”

No Flu

Fox spoke of his medicine regimen in an interview last year on ABC’s “World News with Diane Sawyer,” saying the combination reduced the uncontrolled movements that had made work challenging.

“Once that was tackled, to the point where I can be as still as I am now, I thought, ‘There’s no reason not to work,’” Fox said. “Now I have less dyskinesia and don’t get the flu, so that’s kinda nice.”

NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt and Fox, through his publicist, declined to be interviewed.

Comcast, based in Philadelphia, fell 0.5 percent to $42.86 at 1:50 p.m. in New York. Shares of the company, which paid $16.7 billion to complete its purchase of NBC Universal this year, had climbed 15 percent this year through May 10, matching the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 and disclosed the condition publicly seven years later, according to a biography at the website of the foundation he established in 2000 to push for more insight into the disease. The goal is to fund development of new drugs, including the creation of a vaccine.

‘Family Ties’

The organization has funded $325 million in research, Sarah Schultz, an outside spokeswoman for the foundation with Ruder Finn in New York, said in an e-mail. It works closely with pharmaceutical companies like Sanofi and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. to keep experimental medicines moving through the pipeline, according to the website.

Fox gained national fame in NBC’s “Family Ties” playing Alex P. Keaton, a teen Republican who argues with his liberal parents. The show, which ran for seven seasons starting in 1982, won Fox his first acting Emmy and Golden Globe awards.

After years of appearing in films, including the 1985 hit “Back to the Future,” Fox returned to television with “Spin City” on Walt Disney Co.’s ABC in 1996, winning another Emmy and three Golden Globes.

Changing Regimen

Even after Fox stepped away from “Spin City” to focus on his foundation and treatment, he continued to appear on TV shows, including “Scrubs” and “Boston Legal,” both on ABC, CBS’s “The Good Wife,” and HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

With “The Good Wife,” Fox appeared in four episodes in each of the past two seasons as Louis Canning, a lawyer who uses his disability to win sympathy with judges and juries. The actor was nominated for an Emmy in 2011 and 2012 for the role.

The nature of Fox’s illness is such that his mix of medicines may require tinkering, Okun said, noting that such regimens “often have to be changed every three or six months.”

Amantadine works better for some people than for others, and has side effects such as swelling and rash on the legs and hallucinations or confusion, he said.

“There are lots of great things you can do to help yourself with Parkinson’s disease,” Okun said, “but don’t look for the one-off pill.”

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