Matthew Fox: TV drama’s eldest brother battles cancer

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
November 19, 1997

There isn’t much that hasn’t happened to the orphaned siblings on “Party of Five.” Death, infidelity, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, mental illness and alcoholism all have been dealt with responsibly on the Fox drama.

On tonight’s episode, from 8 to 9 on Channel 32, the family faces another blow when eldest brother Charlie Salinger reveals that he has Hodgkin’s disease.

Charlie, portrayed by Matthew Fox, has come a long way since the show’s 1994 debut. Once a womanizing screw-up who resented having to care for his younger siblings, he has grown into his role as the de facto man of the house.

“It’s taken three years for Charlie to come to terms with that whole thing,” said Fox, 31, phoning from his home in Los Angeles. “But he needs the family now.  I think if someone said, `OK, Charlie. You can go off and lead your own life now,’ I don’t think he’d do it.  (The family) has become such a big part of his life that it sort of defines who he is.”

Tonight, Charlie waffles between confiding in his brothers and sisters and protecting them from his tragedy. When they find out, each reacts differently to the news.

“Party of Five” writers aren’t afraid to make the Salingers realistically unlikable at times. Bailey (Scott Wolf), Julia (Neve Campbell) and Claudia (Lacey Chabert) all have their grating moments, and Charlie reacts appropriately.

When recovering alcoholic Bailey encourages his brother to apply the 12-step program to help treat his cancer, Charlie snaps back, “I have a disease, Bailey. You don’t have a disease. You’ve got a problem. It’s not the same thing. You can stop drinking if you want to. I can’t stop having cancer.  . . .  You don’t have a clue.”

Though it’s unlikely the producers would kill off such a popular character, Fox said the possibility always was there.

But he’s not afraid to let Charlie die, even if it means losing his job.

“If you’re going to tackle an issue like cancer on your show, then you’d better be willing to go all the way with it,” said Fox, who is married and has an 8-month-old daughter.  “It’s a life-threatening disease, and that’s what makes the story line so dramatic and the stakes so high. The story line needs the possibility that Charlie could die. For me as an actor, it’s important to be unsure about what’s going to happen because he’s in a position where he doesn’t know and that’s got to be incredibly scary to him.”

To lend authenticity to his role, the former football star at Columbia University dropped 9 pounds from his already slender frame. Fox said he’d like to lose another 10 pounds by the end of the season.

“I felt there should be some progression and that people should either consciously or unconsciously feel that the character was drifting away physcially.  No one’s going to believe Charlie could be dying if he’s all toned and healthy looking.”

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