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TV'S NEW SEASON

Ties That Bind

Michael J. Fox is returning to series TV with the producer who helped make him a star in the '80s. But this isn't the '80s, and 'Spin City' certainly isn't 'Family Ties.'

September 15, 1996|Jane Hall | Jane Hall is a Times staff writer

NEW YORK — Michael J. Fox is chain-smoking cigarettes, which is a startling sight for those of us who have him fixed in our brains as straight-arrow teenager Alex P. Keaton from "Family Ties."

He has reason to be nervous. Seven years after the end of the long-running Reagan-era sitcom that made him a star, the 35-year-old actor is returning to television in "Spin City," an ABC comedy from "Family Ties" creator Gary David Goldberg. The stakes are high.

ABC needs a new hit to improve its prime-time standings. DreamWorks, the producer of the show, needs a splashy success to prove that there's more to the company than hype. And Fox has the heaviest burden of all: living up to some fans' rosy memories of "Family Ties" while winning over a whole new generation of viewers.

"I'm very happy to be back working with Gary--it feels like coming home," Fox says during a break in rehearsals at the pier-side studios where "Spin City" is being filmed. "The nervousness I feel, he said, lighting another cigarette, is about the expectations of TV viewers," he says, describing his own actions.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 22, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 16 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelled name--The name of one of Michael J. Fox's daughters was misspelled last Sunday. Her name is Aquinnah.

Fox has such a high "likability" quotient among viewers that he could probably read the Nielsen ratings and get an audience. But the actor, who is joining Bill Cosby and Ted Danson in coming back to TV this season, is hard on himself in describing a tough-minded audience that will judge for itself his new show.

"It's great for the network to pay me more money because I'm well known," Fox says. "But you can't just say to viewers, 'We've got so-and-so; therefore, you must watch.' If I were in the audience, I wouldn't care that the star of 'Spin City' was an actor who was a big TV star seven years ago. This show has got to be good."

So far, the signs are promising. Many TV critics have called the "Spin City" pilot the best of the new season. On the strength of Fox's popularity, ABC gave the show its premier time slot behind "Home Improvement" and committed to 22 episodes. It premieres Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.

In contrast to the intergenerational warmth of "Family Ties," "Spin City" is an edgy romantic comedy. Fox plays a canny deputy mayor who is idealistic and opportunistic--and engaged in a workaholic romance with a City Hall reporter, played by Carla Gugino.

"Spin City" reunites Fox with Goldberg, the man who made him famous by casting the then-20-year-old unknown in his autobiographical series about former hippie parents with a teenager who confounds them by embracing the Republican Party and spouting supply-side economics.

"I told Gary he'd better be ready this time for a 35-year-old father of three," Fox says, laughing.

Fox and Goldberg could easily retire to their respective New England farms on their previous successes. But both men have had their share of show business disappointments in the years since "Family Ties."

Goldberg created a couple of unsuccessful series--the critically lauded but low-rated "Brooklyn Bridge" in 1991 and last season's critically panned and low-rated "Champs"--and produced and co-wrote the moderately successful 1995 film "Bye Bye, Love." Fox has a mixed record in movies, winning praise in such hits as the "Back to the Future" trilogy and "The American President" but also appearing in such box-office duds as "Life With Mikey," "For Love or Money" and this summer's "The Frighteners."

"I didn't have that much fun [doing movies] the last seven years," Fox says. "With a theatrical film, you sit in a trailer for five hours, then do the part where you walk up to the door--not the part where you go in the door; that comes three weeks from now. You're never sure where the movie fits into the studio's plans--and when it comes out, you are either praised or you get the [expletive] kicked out of you.

" . . . Now that I'm back in TV, I realize that I've missed the immediacy of television--the script building over the week to performing before an audience."

*

"Spin City"--which was nothing more than an idea in mid-February--went into production just five weeks before the season premiere. The cast, producers and writers, most of them from California, quickly set up shop this summer in the new, huge Chelsea Piers studios in Manhattan. They are in New York because Fox wanted to work close to home.

"Gary said it would be like boot camp at first--no wives, no girlfriends," jokes 27-year-old Bill Lawrence, a former "Friends" writer who created "Spin City" with Goldberg.

The studios, which were raw space a few weeks earlier, now include a press-briefing room, mayoral offices and other sets that duplicate New York's City Hall and its environs.

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