Beyond ‘Back to the Future’: Michael J. Fox’s legacy on TV

‘Family Ties’ and ‘Spin City’ remain the best examples of the actor’s comic ability and why he was one of TV’s most beloved performers

Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, Brian Bonsall as Andrew 'Andy' Keaton
Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton in 'Family Ties'NBC (Getty Images)

Michael J. Fox will always be remembered for his role of Marty McFly in the 1985 classic film Back to the Future. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the movie catapulted him into global fame and made him one of the most popular celebrities of the 80s. However, even before his time-traveling adventure, Fox had already established himself as a household name in the U.S. thanks to his role in the NBC sitcom Family Ties, which he had been starring in since 1982, three years prior to his journey to 1955.

In his recent documentary Still, where Fox opens up about his experience with Parkinson’s disease, he also reflects on his journey into show business. Prior to Family Ties, the young actor struggled to find work and had only played a few roles in movies and TV shows. He landed the part in the sitcom after auditioning, but primarily because Matthew Broderick, who would later also become an 80s star with his starring role in Ferris Beuler’s Day Off, was unavailable.

Family Ties

Brandon Tartikoff, producer of Family Ties, initially had reservations about Fox’s height in relation to the actors playing his parents and attempted to remove him from the show. Tartikoff famously remarked that “this is not the kind of face you’ll ever find on a lunch box”. However, after the show became successful, Fox presented Tartikoff a custom-made lunch box featuring his face as a playful gesture.

Although the original focus of the show centered on the parents, Fox’s exceptional performance as the charming “Young Republican” Alex P. Keaton garnered such a positive response that his character became the central focus in later episodes.

Family Ties gained significant popularity during its run, thanks to strong writing, well-developed characters and engaging storylines. By its third season, which ended on March 28,1985, the show had amassed an audience of 22.1 million viewers. Its widespread fame led to the production of a TV film based on the series.

Back to the Future was released on July 3, 1985, followed by another successful film, Teen Wolf, which premiered on August 23, 1985. The success of these films propelled Fox to global fame and likely contributed to the high ratings of the subsequent two seasons of Family Ties.

Michael J. Fox’s outstanding portrayal in the show earned him three consecutive Emmy Awards from 1986 to 1988 and a Golden Globe in 1989. Additionally, the show received an Emmy for writing in 1987.

With a total of seven seasons, Family Ties remains one of the most memorable sitcoms of the 80s and has even been referenced in Marvel’s WandaVision.

Following his success on Family Ties, Fox went on to star in several films, including both sequels of Back to the Future. His last major hit was Doc Hollywood, after which he struggled to replicate his box office success. While he made a few appearances on TV, his comeback came in 1996 with the ABC sitcom Spin City, five years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis.

Michael J. Fox, Carla Gugino
SPIN CITY - 1997 - Michael J. Fox, Carla Gugino (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images) MICHAEL J. FOX;CARLA GUGINOABC (Getty Images)

Spin City

Spin City, created by Bill Lawrence (known for Scrubs) and Gary David Goldberg (the developer of Family Ties), revolved around Fox’s character, Mike Flaherty, the Deputy Mayor of New York, known for his expertise in political spin and handling office chaos. Although the show did not reach massive hit status, it consistently garnered millions of viewers each season and received several Golden Globe nominations. Fox’s first Golden Globe nomination came in 1997, and he won consecutively in 1998, 1999, and 2000. He also won an Emmy in 2000.

Despite experiencing Parkinson’s symptoms from the show’s inception, Fox attempted to conceal his condition using various techniques. However, as the pain worsened, he eventually disclosed his disease publicly to the show’s team. He departed the show after its fourth season but returned for the first three episodes of the sixth season. Several of his later episodes paid homage to Family Ties.

However, Fox’s TV career did not end there. He made guest appearances in several episodes of Boston Legal and Rescue Me, and had a recurring role in The Good Wife from 2010 to 2016. He also starred in his own program, The Michael J. Fox Show, in which he portrayed a character diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Fox received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.

His most recent TV acting credits include the acclaimed drama Designated Survivor in 2018, and reprising his role as Louis Canning from The Good Wife in The Good Fight in 2020.

While his role in Back to the Future left a significant mark on the history of cinema, Fox’s contributions to television solidified him as one of America’s most beloved actors. His charisma and unique comedic style provided us with hundreds of episodes of quality TV.

Now, as the future of his on-screen career becomes more uncertain due to his disease, it is worthwhile to reflect on some of his work beyond Back to the Future.

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
This image released by Apple TV+ shows Michael J. Fox in a scene from the documentary "Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie."AP

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