It's back to the future for Michael J Fox, who is to revive his illness-stalled career with a new comedy sitcom on NBC.
The decision to rejoin the sitcom fray by Fox, 51, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1991, is a bolt of lightning that has lit up the television universe. It triggered a fierce bidding war between the American broadcast giants and NBC – the same network that propelled Fox to stardom in Family Ties 30 years ago – eventually won.
"To bring Michael J Fox back to NBC is a supreme honour," Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, said in a statement. "We are thrilled that one of the great comedic television stars is coming home again." He called the Canadian-born actor "utterly relatable, optimistic and in a class by himself".
The new show, which has not been named and will not debut until the autumn of 2013, will follow the fortunes and tribulations of a New York father of four trying to juggle his family and professional commitments while at the same time coping with the effects of Parkinson's.
If the art-imitating-life premise does not immediately sound funny, there are reasons to assume that the show will be a smash big enough to bulldoze any competition. Viewers will be curious, first off, to see the return of Fox to a fully fledged television role. He publicly disclosed his affliction in 1998 and dropped out of his role on the ABC hit Spin City two years later when the symptoms became too great. Beyond that, there is the extraordinary appeal of Fox, who, by force of talent and personality, has managed always to retain the affection of audiences everywhere, whether he has been performing for television – winning five Emmy Awards – or on the big screen, where his film credits before his diagnosis included the Back to the Future trilogy, Teen Wolf and Bright Lights, Big City.
Fox, who lives with his wife and children in New York, began putting the word out in May that a new treatment regime had allowed him to control his symptoms to the point where he could consider a major new project. Over recent years, he has limited himself to voice-overs for films like Stuart Little and guest appearances on TV shows such as The Good Wife.
The enthusiasm of NBC, by contrast, was far from curbed. It took the unusual step of ordering a pilot and a full 22-episode first season of the new show sight unseen, thus revealing an extraordinary level of confidence in Fox and in a creative team that will include Will Gluck (Friends with Benefits) and Sam Laybourne (Arrested Development). It will be shot with a single camera; for now there is no word on who else might join the cast.
"We have all been such huge fans of Michael's and hoped one day he would return to television with his own show," Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment, said.
"He had us at hello with his warmth, humour and incredible charisma. The fact that he pitched us a show that was funny, heartwarming and personal was the icing on the cake."
Parkinson's disease Q&A
Q: Can Parkinson's be cured?
A: Parkinson's cannot be cured and, as a degenerative disease, sufferers tend to get worse over time. But drugs have been developed that can stem the worst effects. Doctors have also suggested a healthy lifestyle can offset the worst symptoms.
Q: How is Michael J Fox able to go back to work?
A: In May, he said new medication was helping him control the tics that are synonymous with the condition.
Q: What is the outlook for people with Parkinson's disease?
A: Many people discover that life continues as normal, at least in the short term. Life expectancy is not reduced but eventually sufferers do develop various levels of disability.