If you watched The Michael J. Fox Show’s premiere Thursday night—and you really, really should have—you likely thought two things. First: thank God Michael J. Fox is back on TV. Second: who was that actress playing the crazy aunt?
Katie Finneran is the veteran theater actress, less sunny than a solar flare of resplendent energy, playing Aunt Leigh, live-in sister to Fox’s Mike Henry, and the big, brassy breakout of what is easily the strongest new sitcom of the fall TV season. It’s the kind of scene-stealing supporting part that lives or dies by the actress filling the role, requiring someone able to pull off a delicate balance of borderline off-putting sassiness, endearing daffiness, and comedic warmth that makes a character who says things like, “I don’t know, I feel like bangs are for heavy people,” somehow still lovable.
As inhabited by Finneran, a two-time Tony winner who wrapped a stint on Broadway playing Miss Hannigan in the revival of Annie just prior to shooting the Michael J. Fox Show pilot, Aunt Leigh proves to be one of fall TV’s biggest joys. It’s a marriage of character and actress reminiscent of Megan Mullally as Karen Walker on Will and Grace or Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester on Glee, a case in which a long-respected actress finds the side-splitting role that gets them the mainstream recognition that industry players have been long-aware she deserves.
No one is more aware of this than Finneran herself.
“It’s the ideal,” Finneran tells The Daily Beast. “The golden egg. The Shangri-La. It’s a job in New York City. It’s 22 episodes picked up. It’s Michael J. Fox, the greatest man in show business. Everybody wanted this job.”
And everybody, it seems, was brought in for it.
“You should’ve seen the lineup in the audition room,” Finneran tells The Daily Beast. “Everyone who’s had their own show was there.”
That Finneran won the role over such apparently stiff competition—she classily demurred listing exactly who—shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with her work on Broadway, where she’s made a career careening between farce, broad comedy, musical theater, and heavy drama with uncanny ease.
She won her first Tony in 2001 for the comedy Noises Off, a play in which the minutes she appeared on stage could be counted on two hands. “Finneran turns a simpleton’s unflappability into fine art,” wrote theater critic Marc Miller at the time. Her second Tony came in 2010 for the revival of the musical Promises, Promises, opposite Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth. This time, her performance boiled down to, essentially, one boffo, boozy, show-stopping number at the beginning of the second act, when, according to Ben Brantley at The New York Times, “a comic volcano named Katie Finneran erupts into molten hilarity.”
In other words, that she turns a fringe part as a wacky aunt into a comedic tour de force is something the industry comes to expect from Finneran.
In one scene in part two of the hour premiere, for example, the ceaselessly needy Aunt Leigh pretends to be the single mother to one of Mike’s kids at a park in order to feel the joy of sympathy from the other nannies. “It’s great to be around people who appreciate what I do. Even if it’s what I pretend to do.” It reads as a throwaway line, but Finneran’s delivery slays it.
And that she overcame the pressure of auditioning against more well-known actresses while reading against, no big deal, Michael J. Fox, should also be no surprise. Auditioning under atypically stressful constraints had become the course de rigueur recently in Finneran’s career.
To win the role of Miss Hannigan in the Annie revival, she teetered around an audition room while seven months pregnant, performing a rendition of “Little Girls” impressive enough to beat out an orphanage full of A-list comedy actresses who were being chased for the part (Rosie O’Donnell one of the most vocal hopefuls). When she was up for her first sitcom lead in the ill-fated 2011 Fox sitcom I Hate My Teenage Daughter, Finneran was asked to audition from the hospital after giving birth to her first son.
“In my head, I was like, ‘No fucking way!’” she says, laughing. “But the real reason—and the only reason—we didn’t do a videotape from the hospital bed is that we needed to buy time, because I was so swollen, blown up from the saline IV.”
It’s almost alarming that it’s taken 23 years—Finneran moved to New York to act when she was 19… you can do the math—for Hollywood to notice what the Broadway community has known all along: that Finneran is an immense talent. There have been a half-dozen or so almosts along the way. She nearly landed leads in films by Scorsese, Coppola, and Ephron. She was a regular on Wonderfalls, which didn’t make it to a full season on Fox in 2004. Even I Hate My Teenage Daughter should’ve worked on paper, with spitfire Jaime Pressly as Finneran’s comedic foil, but crashed and burned.
“I can tell you that I started a beautiful college fund for my children with that show,” Finneran says. No regrets.
Those setbacks, after all, opened the way for an almost nonstop series of pinch-me moments over the course of the last few years. She got engaged to husband Darren Goldstein two weeks before the Tony Awards in 2010. She won, giving the acceptance speech of someone experiencing pure happiness, telling kids watching, “With the world being so fast right now, I want to remind you to focus on what you love, because it is the greatest passport, it is the greatest roadmap to an extraordinarily blissful life.”
Two children followed, now 2½ and 16 months old. Then Miss Hannigan. Now, Shangri-La.
“With Michael, every day I just go, ‘Are you kidding me? Is this real?’”
She is totally aware of the scrutinizing spotlight shining on her show, Fox’s first regular series since leaving Spin City to battle Parkinson’s disease. “I think it will take the audience a moment,” she says. “Michael J. Fox has Parkinson’s. There’s no question about it. He shakes sometimes.”
He also, as it happens, turns into a refreshingly self-aware, effortlessly charming performance. Fox leads what Finneran describes as a “magical” set, but she admits that “every day can be different for him.” There was one day that they were dancing on set, and “I just grabbed him and we were dancing and his body was still.” Some days Fox’s symptoms are more pronounced than others. Filming must adapt accordingly.
That’s just fine, she says, because as someone with spatial dyslexia, ADHD, and a theater background used to six weeks of rehearsal for a scene and not just six minutes, Finneran’s own obstacles present themselves more on some shooting days than others. “I forget my lines more than Michael J. Fox. I’m the one on set always messing things up. I always joke that I have more problems than he does.”
The Michael J. Fox Show is receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, which should, if there’s any justice, mean that audiences will flock to the show, too. After they watch, they’ll likely think: it’s so great to have Michael J. Fox back on TV. And, soon enough: that Katie Finneran is pretty great, too.