Alan Ruck is famous as Ferris Bueller's best mate – "You killed the car!" Later he got the groundbreaking role as the master of political spin for Mayor Michael J. Fox on Spin City. There was real-life spin, too, as Fox valiantly kept working despite his then-secret Parkinson's. Alan Ruck is on the line from LA, talking to Ian Horner.
"Spin" is an innocent sounding little word but it actually encapsulates quite a devious artform which has grown into an industry. Manipulating the media to distort the truth, though not new back when you shot Spin City, 1996, was less of the huge threat to honesty and credibility it is today, do you think?
Well, you're right. I don't think it's really anything new. I think maybe it's become a little more blatant but public relations and "damage control" has been in place in one form or another since the beginning. There's been manipulation in one way or another as far as politics is concerned but now it affects any sort of big business where they want to sort of assuage the public or to mollify them or whatever they think they need to do to keep them where they want them. I don't actually think it's a new concept. It was 18 years ago we made the pilot for the show and an awful lot has happened since then.
Even in 18 years the world has become considerably more cynical than it was. Maybe I'm just becoming cynical now I’m older but it seems the mid-'90s was a slightly more innocent time. They originally wanted to call the show Spin but [media tycoon] Bob Guccione's son, I believe, had a publication called Spin magazine which was all about the recording industry. Although you cannot actually copyright a title the Guccione people said they'd probably press a lawsuit if the name of the show wasn't changed, just in case they ever wanted to have a television show based on the magazine. So we just changed it to Spin City.
I don't think spin is anything new, I just think over the past several decades it's become more blatant. It's politics. Nobody cares. It's all about money and if you don't have money just start walking. Especially in this country [United States]. In our country it's really a shame. My Dad is 86 and he says stuff like "You know, this used to be a really nice country to live in!" [laughs].
It's become really sad. The people in charge don't care about the regular people, they care about the big-moneyed interests and that's about it.
The producers and writers on Spin City were able to keep cynicism at bay and concentrate on the comedy. But you also had the other problem of Michael J. Fox's condition which must have got increasingly difficult to work around. How did you cope with his Parkinson's on a day-to-day basis?
It wasn't that hard in the beginning. To tell you the truth, it wasn't until the end of the first season and the beginning of the second season, because people in the media – a couple of different magazines, different publications – were snooping around. They were literally going through his garbage trying to find medication vials and so forth. We didn't know he had this condition. He was very private. And then Michael Boatman [he played Carter Heywood] and I and Barry Bostwick [Mayor Randall Winston] were brought into the fold, so to speak, because we were helping Michael deal with his twitching.
It was about a year in on Spin City we were told what was going on with Michael and we tried to keep the scam going.
Apart from having Parkinson's Michael also had Lyme disease at the time. He owned a property up in Connecticut and he was bitten by a deer tick and developed Lyme disease so he had to have antibiotics and all this stuff. We were told if anybody asks you in any radio or TV or press interviews about Michael's deteriorating condition or asks if Michael has a serious problem just say "Well, he's got Lyme disease" which is pretty serious.
It was probably about a year in we were told what was going on and we tried to keep the scam going, so to speak. As far as Michael's condition was concerned he wouldn't take his medicine all day long until showtime and then he'd have a big dose of it so he'd be shake-free for the show.
Sometimes that worked really, really well and occasionally it backfired because it's an inexact science. There would be times we'd say well, what are we doing? What are we waiting for? We'd be told oh, Michael has to be massaged right now because the muscles in his neck are cramping up.
He's a tough little Canadian and he didn't let a lot of stuff get in his way. So it really wasn't that difficult for us.
Ian interviews Alan Ruck about Spin City on 2UE:
You were one of the few shows in television history that have been able to change the lead actor mid-season – and still have a show years later. Were there fears at the time that it mightn't work?
Nobody was exactly sure, except for Jerry David Goldberg, and he was just like "This show's still got legs! It has legs!" And then we brought in Charlie [Sheen]. I've known Charlie since he was 21 and he was in a really good spot right then because he was clean and sober and just kind of grateful to be back in the game. I gotta say Charlie is one of the most generous people you'd ever meet. He'd literally give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. He was at his very best when he came to replace Michael. Unfortunately I think by the time he came in I think maybe we might've peaked, as shows do. I mean, truthfully, they like to run shows for seven years but I think maybe after four or five seasons we'd probably done it, you know?
Watch Alan Ruck and Michael J. Fox on Spin City (8.12):
Charlie had one of the great scenes, a cameo, in the landmark pop culture movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), made by the late John Hughes, in which you played Ferris's best mate, Cameron Frye. About a high school student who wags school for the day with his mates. I interviewed Hughes at the time and asked him what would've happened if one of the actors had done just that – wagged a day from the shoot? He said he would've had to let the actor go, given what the film was about! I also put that question to Matthew Broderick. Would you have considered wagging the set for a day?
No [laughs]! I really wouldn't have because that was my first big part in a movie and I wouldn't have wanted to screw anything up. I'm sure I could've waited until the end of the day. I wasn't gonna take any chances of screwing that up!
Broderick told me the same thing. But Hughes said no one had ever asked him that and after thinking about it he said that's what the whole film was about and he would've had to let the actors take a day off without any complaints from him!
Wagged a day from the set? No! I really wouldn't have. It was my first big movie and I wasn't gonna screw that up!
Yeah, well, I wonder . . . ! John was very confident, very creative, and put a great deal of thought into everything he did. It was a really nice time in my life. Obviously, we had no idea the thing would have a life of, you know, 30 years. We had a lot of fun making it.
Ever re-watch it?
I think I've seen it as much as I ever need to. Maybe I'll watch it again when I'm 80 and say "Oh, yes, I was young once!" I think it's a terrific movie and every time I do see it I'm taken by everybody in the picture and how good they are. But I don't think I need to watch it again [laughs]. ■
The 2UE audio has been subsequently added to this page.
Series 1 to 6 of Spin City are now on DVD on Via Vision. Rated PG (sexual references, low-level coarse language).
■ Alan Ruck on IMDb
■ Spin City (1996-2002) on IMDb
■ Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) on IMDb
■ Buy Spin City on EzyDVD
■ Read Ian's other interviews:
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The story VIDEO: Alan Ruck – Ferris Bueller's mate on the art of Spin first appeared on Blacktown Sun.