What makes us follow a star; Fans: Viewers remain faithful to actors such as Michael J. Fox, who appears to be genuine and likable.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They're a television producer's dream and a casting agent's easiest call: actors who come with an audience built right in.

They're people like James Garner and Carol Burnett, Andy Griffith and Carroll O'Connor, Ted Danson and Bill Cosby, Rosie O'Donnell and Oprah Winfrey.

And, of course, Michael J. Fox.

Let's admit this up front: "Spin City" has never been a hit -- it ranks 37th among current TV programs, down from 29th last season -- and it's not among the brightest lights of the sitcom world. Were it not for the departure of Fox after tonight's season finale, the episode would be just another blip on TV's radar screen: there, but not that noticeable.

It does star Fox, however, and that makes all the difference. Millions of TV viewers, many of whom couldn't name another star of "Spin City" if Regis Philbin were sitting across from them holding a check for $1 million, will be watching ABC tonight. They couldn't care less about tonight's plot, which has New York Deputy Mayor Michael Flaherty (Fox) taking the heat when scandal threatens to bring down the mayor and his administration.

But they care plenty about the 38-year-old actor, who is leaving the show -- in fact, leaving television as a whole, save for occasional guest appearances -- after tonight, the better to devote his energies to battling Parkinson's disease.

He will be missed.

Fox has "an innate charisma" says "Spin City" co-star Richard Kind. "He's an immensely likable actor. He's good-looking, he's charming, and he's got great comic timing."

A favorite of TV audiences since "Family Ties" debuted in September 1982, Fox has the advantage of leaving on top, his reputation intact and his popularity undimmed. Regardless of what the future brings, he'll be remembered as one of the medium's most consistently popular stars. And he'll remain the topic of considerable speculation among TV programmers, as they struggle to figure out what makes him -- and others like him -- click so spectacularly with audiences.

Good luck on figuring that out.

"There may not be an answer," says Bill Robinson, personal manager for both Garner and Burnett. "You can describe who they are and what they are, but there are other people who fit that same description who don't have that same type of success."

Adds Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, "As much as we want to make this scientific, to figure out how this works it's alchemy. It's like turning lead into gold. It's magic."

OK, so maybe there's no tried-and-true formula, no recipe, no sure way to capture lightning in a bottle. But there are some common threads.

Difference in mediums

For one thing, there's a big difference between success on the big screen and success on television. There's a reason so few actors become big on both.

"TV is an intimate medium," Thompson says. "On an average 21-inch screen, we see these people in close-up, where the human face is about the same size as the faces of the other people we are sitting in the room watching TV with. And it's a medium where we are inviting these people into our bedrooms and our living rooms.

"There needs to be some sense of everyperson-ness, some connection. If it can be made, between the face on the screen and the face watching it, you've taken a major leap into this realm of likability."

A movie screen is different, Thompson says.

"On the big screen, where everything is bigger than life, those people aren't human like us," he says. "They're 25 feet tall. We don't need to relate to them in the same way. In television, you really need the ability to jump through the screen into that domestic space in which the TV is being viewed. And Michael J. Fox is about as good at doing that as anyone I can think of."

Steven Levitt is president of Marketing Evaluations, a New York-based company devoted to measuring how much certain television shows and television actors are liked, using measures labeled "TVQ" and "PerformerQ." Ask people if certain actors are among their favorites, he says, and the names that pop up most frequently share some very basic traits.

Common good traits

"Humility. Genuineness. Warmth. They appear to be interested and caring, with wholesome values. They're not made-up, they're not artificial, they're not disingenuous, they're not egotistical.

"There is," he notes, "a real absence of negative phrases."

Thompson agrees. "In America, it's amazing how important being a nice guy is," he says.

It's also amazing how important it is that a star not be too full of himself. It's no accident that people like Fox, Danson, Tom Selleck and Heather Locklear, TV stalwarts all, make the best Letterman guests. None are above having a little fun with their own images.

Selleck once stuck his head in a tub of water and made like a submarine. Just two nights ago, Fox appeared on "The Late Show With David Letterman" to wisecrack about both "Spin City" and the disease that's forcing him to give it up. Although clearly nervous and fighting to keep the effects of Parkinson's from showing on-screen, the actor refused to be seen taking himself, his career or his future too seriously.

Humor goes far

"A sense of humor and self-deprecating behavior is very appealing," says Tim Brooks, co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows," and a senior vice president of Lifetime Television. "And Michael J. Fox has that in spades. He comes across as a very natural, I'm-not-too-full-of-myself kind of person."

Perhaps the key to such sustainable popularity, particularly on the small screen, is the ability to seem no different than the audience. That's no easy trick, especially given how our culture worships entertainers. Perhaps the easiest way is to poke gentle fun at our preconceptions of what a TV star must be like.

Garner, for instance, has made a career of regarding life with a raised eyebrow. He got his start on TV in "Maverick," playing a smooth-talking card shark who could wisecrack his way out of almost any situation. Legend has it the wiseacre hero he pioneered was his own creation. Whatever its origin, he made the character his career, parlaying it into winning stints on "The Rockford Files" and even the more recent -- and otherwise forgettable -- "God, the Devil and Bob."

"There's no pretentiousness about him," says Robinson, who's worked with Garner for 32 years. "He's a person who takes his work seriously but doesn't take himself seriously. Some stars have an attitude that they're better than you. Everything is me, mine, my director, my cast, my producer. That's not stuff that appeals to people.

Robinson says that stars with a dedicated following may have share just one trait. "That's probably all they have in common, that lack of arrogance, of self-importance," she says.

Kind, who has experienced Fox's TV-charisma firsthand, says that Fox's appeal also may stem from our long-term association with the Canadian-born actor. Television, Kind says, is a medium where familiarity breeds anything but contempt.

'Family Ties'

"We saw him grow up on 'Family Ties,' " he says. "Although he was older than the age he was playing, we saw him adolesce right before our eyes for seven years, like a brother."

Still, for all one might try to figure what makes an actor click with audiences, the effort might be futile. "In the end, we have yet to come up with a way to mass-produce stars," says Syracuse's Thompson. "They're still these sort of hand-crafted, self-made, unique entities."

Maybe, in the final analysis, it's something they were simply born with. The lucky stiffs.

Says Emmy-winning casting director Pat Moran: "I really think that people genuinely feel something for the guy. If Michael J. Fox had chosen to be a plumber, you'd like him just as much."

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