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Michael J. Fox is going back to the future. His seven-year career on "Family Ties" led him to a feature film career, and now his real-life family ties are bringing him back to television.

Fox returns as Michael Flaherty, an administrative assistant to a cartoonlike New York mayor in one of the fall's most promising comedies, ABC's "Spin City."

Fox's spin: He wants to do TV in order to spend more time with his wife, Tracy Pollan (who also was on "Family Ties"), and their three children.

He made this bit of self-discovery after spending seven months in New Zealand making a film.

"The idea of a regular job sounded pretty good," Fox said at a press conference here.

He's not alone. From Christine Lahti on "Chicago Hope" to Candice Bergen on "Murphy Brown" to Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen on "Ink," actors here have discussed the family benefits of working in television.

Fox, a three-time Emmy winner, admits to having some anxiety about returning to television with the creator and producer of "Family Ties," Gary David Goldberg.

"It's anxiety about having had such a great experience in television, and worrying about kind of screwing up that legacy or diminishing it by doing it again," Fox said.

Fox, who remains a Canadian citizen, still looks young enough to be carded in New York bars. He still has the boyish charm he displayed on "Family Ties," but he's different

from the young man who played conservative Alex Keaton. For one thing, he has a different relationship with Goldberg, "Spin's" co-creator.

"I didn't know whether or not we'd be able to work together, because I'm 35 now and I won't wash his car anymore like I used to," Fox cracked.

He may owe his career to Goldberg. The producer fought to hire Fox on "Ties" even though NBC executives were against it. They didn't think Fox had the kind of face that would sell lunch boxes.

Eventually it sold millions in feature film tickets in all the "Back to the Future" movies, "Doc Hollywood," "The Secret of My Success" and several other films, including the recent political comedy "The American President."

He played a political adviser in "President," a role similar to the one he plays in "Spin City." Initially, that concerned Fox.

"When Gary said it's about a guy who's the deputy mayor of New York, my first thought was, I just did that and I don't know if I want to do it again. What we did in the first episode was sufficient evidence that this is a completely different guy. Until I was sure he would be a different guy, it was a little bit of a concern."

He has had fun playing politicos: "You get to play very articulate, very bright, very energetic people with very loose morals, and that's a lot of fun."

He had some fun at the expense of his old character when asked what he thought Alex would be doing today, seven years after "Family Ties" exited NBC.

"I think he'd be eligible for parole right about now," Fox said. "I always figured that Alex was heading for a fall. He's probably just making the recovery. He's just turning the corner right now. I think he probably went to work for some (savings and loan scandal) character and was made a patsy and had to take the fall."

In the occasionally risque "Spin," Fox's character lives with a female reporter who covers politics. One critic found this unrealistic.

But executive producer-writer Bill Lawrence, who is so young that he makes Fox look middle-aged, said the reality of politics can be too unbelievable for viewers.

Before writing the pilot, Lawrence and Goldberg talked with politicians. Former New York Mayor John V. Lindsay's administration was a primary source.

"It was a starting point, because Gary has some personal relationships with people who worked in that administration," Lawrence said. "Right away, we had someone we were comfortable with tell us about the inner workings of politics. And then we were lucky enough to meet people in the current administration."

Truth can be stranger than fiction in New York politics. For instance, there was the day in the Lindsay administration a body was lost.

"A young kid was killed and it was a political event of sorts," Lawrence said. "They planned a big public funeral and they lost the body. They had to do it closed casket. If we do that in a sitcom, people would go, 'Oh, c'mon.'

"One thing we're going to end up using is when a lesbian activist group and a group of nuns came to visit the administration. Then they sent the wrong negotiators in the wrong rooms."

ABC obviously has big hopes for "Spin," which will be taped in New York so Fox can be near his family.

The network is giving the show the coveted 9:30 p.m. Tuesday time slot after "Home Improvement." That means Fox will be competing with the actress who played his mother in "Back to the Future." Lea Thompson's "Caroline in the City" has been moved by NBC to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays.

Thompson, too, entered the sitcom world for family reasons. How does Fox feel about competing with his movie "mother"?

"It's unfortunate," he said. "I'm tremendously fond of Lea and I like her work on the show. . . . If you want to be generous enough to call television an art form, it's the only art form that exists where product is created not only to inspire and entertain the viewer, but also to destroy something else. I wish there was a way we could both get a 51 share."

Hmm. Fox is already sounding like a true politician.

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