By Tom Gliatto
May 29, 2000 12:00 PM

As Michael J. Fox approaches May 24, the broadcast date of his final appearance on ABC’s Spin City, he has the wistful air of a seasoned politician bidding farewell to the public arena. But any comparison to New York City’s beleaguered mayor, Rudy Giuliani, begins and ends there. “Now I’m a man with Parkinson’s disease,” says Fox, 38, who announced in January that his nine-year fight with the crippling illness had wearied him so much that he would quit the show to devote time to his family and medical-research fund-raising. “That’s who I am.”

Although cast and crew won’t divulge the ending of this hour-long episode, they make it clear the show is a tribute to Fox—not the patient, but the friend, the ace comic actor, even producer. Fox’s character, a quick-thinking New York City deputy mayor named Mike Flaherty, will resolve his romantic quandary over campaign finance manager Caitlin Moore (Heather Locklear) and leave city hall because of a Mob scandal. But the script has been engineered to play off Fox’s own tragic but courageous struggle. “It’s a wonderful parallel to what he’s about to embark on himself,” says Barry Bostwick, the show’s mildly befuddled Mayor Randall Winston. The program even features a cameo by Michael Gross, Fox’s father in the ’80s sitcom Family Ties. “Mike sort of turned to everybody and said, ‘Write this man a part!’ ” says Gross, laughing. “Everything had double meanings,” adds Fox, who will be replaced next season by Charlie Sheen (in a new role).

And so Fox’s last days on Spin City were an emotional tug of war between smart sitcom humor and personal sorrow. Rehearsing the big goodbye scene for the March 17 taping in Manhattan, “we never got through it without being in tears,” says Connie Britton (who plays Nikki Faber, an administrative accountant). For Bostwick, “the most poignant moments were the little ones. You would see Michael sitting at the video monitor, watching the other actors, seeing the appreciation and respect he has for them.” This still wasn’t quite the end, though. Because the finale was shot out of sequence, the series didn’t formally wrap until last month, with the taping of the May 17 episode. “That last night we felt like a great family,” says Michael Boatman, who plays minority-affairs specialist Carter Heywood. Fox had brought along most of his family, including his wife, actress Tracy Pollan, 39, and son Sam, 10, “but they didn’t feel nostalgic the way I felt,” says the star, who has had an increasingly tough time mustering the energy for anything as demanding as sitcom work. “It was a long night and very exhausting.” His last line uttered, Fox bowed before a cheering audience and a weeping crew. The following night, the show celebrated at City Hall, a downtown restaurant, where some 400 guests watched highlights since the series’ 1996 debut. “It was great,” says fellow executive producer David Rosenthal. “Mike’s an icon, and this show was a part of who he is.”

As both executive producer and star, Fox (who’ll keep that first credit) put his heart into the show. “He was like a mother hen,” says Bostwick. When Beth Littleford joined the cast in 1998 as the girlfriend of chief of staff Stuart Bondek (Alan Ruck), “Michael just embraced me,” she says. “At the end of my first year, he gave me a bottle of Dom Pérignon and told me he thought I was the cat’s ass.” With Fox’s impeccable comic instincts shaping not only his own acting but scripts and casting (including the addition last year of Locklear), “we did not make many wrong turns,” says Bostwick.

Now, however, the show will definitely change direction. A beetle-browed bad boy, Sheen is no Fox clone. And the production has shut down in Manhattan, Fox’s home base, to reopen on a Los Angeles soundstage. Married last year to nonprofit executive Dana Stanley, Richard Kind (the show’s harried press secretary) plans to move West permanently, while costars Britton, Alexander Chaplin and Victoria Dillard will leave the series. For Locklear, an L.A. native who has said she grew to love Manhattan in her year living there with her husband, Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, and daughter Ava, 2, it should be a sweet homecoming. But Bostwick, Boatman and Ruck, fathers of young children, will fly coast to coast on the weekends. Boatman’s wife, Myrna, an attorney, is six months pregnant, and Bostwick, who lives more than 20 miles outside Manhattan with his wife, Sherri, a former actress, son Brian, 5, and daughter Chelsea, 3, says he isn’t ready to leave “acres of forests and water. Those are things you can’t find in L.A. unless it’s a disaster—too much water, too much fire!”

And Fox? He’s focused on putting together his Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. The star has joked that he wanted a more modest name, P.D. Cure, but it sounded like “pedicure.” “I just met with a Web-design company, and they have a lot of ideas for the Web site,” says Fox, who hopes to be joined by most of the City cast at the foundation’s May 23 kickoff in Washington, D.C. “I work at home now, and I’ll hear the kids’ laughter in the halls.”

Recently, Fox, who also has twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, 5, took young Sam to Gladiator. Come fall, though, he’ll be rooting for Spin City. “Well,” he says, “if you told me there was going to be a sitcom with Heather Locklear, Charlie Sheen, Barry Bostwick, Michael Boatman, Richard Kind and Alan Ruck…I mean, I’m there.”

Tom Gliatto

Cynthia Wang in New York City