Michael J. Fox Looks Back on Hollywood Triumphs, Setbacks and Why ‘Parkinson’s Is the Gift That Keeps on Taking’

Michael J. Fox has been through hell, and not in the way you’re thinking.

In the last few years, his mother died, his father-in-law died, and he had to put his beloved dog, Gus, a 120-pound mutt, to sleep after more than a decade of loyal companionship. And then there was an almost biblical series of health challenges, many of them indirectly related to his Parkinson’s disease.

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“I broke this shoulder — had it replaced. I broke this elbow. I broke this hand. I had an infection that almost cost me this finger. I broke my face. I broke this humerus,” Fox says, pointing to each part of his fractured body, before concluding with a wry snort. “And that sucked.”

That’s to say nothing of the spinal surgery he underwent in 2018 to remove a tumor, a visit to the hospital completely independent of the falls he experiences more frequently as Parkinson’s robs him of his balance. The whole thing left Fox feeling nearly as despondent as when he was first diagnosed with the disease in 1991 at the age of 29. In those days, he would retreat into his bathroom, get in the tub and ruminate with a bottle of wine or some vodka. Now sober for more than 30 years, he hasn’t used booze as a shield for a long time.

But Fox says that as he grappled with these recent losses and medical setbacks, he felt a “similar emptiness” to that dark time when doctors first delivered the Parkinson’s news. “I have aides around me quite a bit of the time in case I fall, and that lack of privacy is hard to deal with,” he says. “I lost family members, I lost my dog, I lost freedom, I lost health. I hesitate to use the term ‘depression,’ because I’m not qualified to diagnose myself, but all the signs were there.”

Michael J Fox Variety Cover Story
Michael J Fox Variety Cover Story

So how, I ask, was he able to shake it off? “My family,” he says. “My family pulled me out.”

And as we sit in Fox’s Upper East Side office on a sweltering April afternoon, we’re surrounded by mementos and images from that rich family life. There are snapshots of Fox and his wife, Tracy Pollan, flanked by their four children on beaches and in backyards. There’s even a painting of Gus, staring back at us with soulful eyes. All of it vying for space with the Emmys, Golden Globes and honorary Oscar that Fox has accumulated for his work on sitcoms and movies, and for his advocacy for Parkinson’s research. They are milestones on an improbable journey, one that’s taken the 61-year-old from an obscure sliver of British Columbia to the height of Hollywood stardom, all while withstanding a devastating diagnosis when he should have been basking in that hard-won success. Through it all, Fox has been guided by an indomitable confidence — an optimism, not that any problem can be easily overcome, but that there are reasons to be grateful for what life with all its chaotic convulsions has to offer.

“I’m still happy to join the day and be a part of things,” he says. “I just enjoy the little math problems of existence. I love waking up and figuring that stuff out and at the same time being with my family. My problem is I fall down. I trip over things and fall down and break things. And that’s part of having this. But I hope that, and I feel that, I won’t break as many bones tomorrow. So that’s being optimistic.”

There are signs of life’s inescapable progression around us too, as well as fresh reasons for hope. Just before Fox sits down, I’m greeted by a new addition to his household, Blue, an Aussie Bernedoodle puppy fresh from her walk. (“She’s not a dog — she’s a science experiment,” Fox joked to Pollan when she revealed that Blue was a combination of Australian shepherd, Bernese mountain dog and poodle.) And Fox is feeling emboldened by a recent scientific breakthrough that can detect the disease at the molecular level before symptoms start appearing. That could, he says, lead to more proactive treatment and drug development. And then there’s the reason that we’re meeting today, the upcoming release of “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” a documentary from Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim that explores the actor’s life and serves as a reminder of his formidable gifts as a comic star. Guggenheim says that Fox refused to have any control over the finished film, which begins streaming on Apple TV+ on May 12, leaving the director with a single creative admonition.

“The only thing he ever asked of me was no violins,” Guggenheim says. “He didn’t want to make a pitiful, maudlin movie about a person with a condition.”

“Still” steers clear of mawkishness, even as it offers an uplifting look at the triumph of one implacable spirit. But, of course, that’s to be expected, and by now people around the world are intimately familiar with how Fox turned a potentially career-ending diagnosis into a rallying cry for awareness and action. What’s more unexpected is that “Still” also gives Fox his due as a performer, something that critics were often loath to do when he was a leading box office draw and TV idol. In clips from “Family Ties” and “Spin City,” or snippets of “The Secret of My Success” and “Back to the Future,” Fox is constantly in motion, making pratfalls, backflipping over beds, sliding over the hood of a DeLorean. All of it is augmented by a preternatural sense of timing. He’s almost balletic in his ability to land a joke.

“I underestimated him as an actor,” Guggenheim admits. “And maybe until now the world has underestimated him. He’s super funny, but sometimes we fail to realize that humor and physical comedy is a craft worthy of awe. Seeing him move his body, he was graceful and swift and elegant. It seems effortless. And you’d think he was trained in some fancy French school of movement, which of course he wasn’t.”

Castmates fondly recall Fox’s gymnastic approach to comedy. “He bounced around in all of his scenes,” remembers Meredith Baxter, who played Fox’s TV mom in “Family Ties.” “He’d bound in the backdoor of the house, then he’d bounce over to the fridge and pour some orange juice and then he’d bounce again to answer the phone. He had so much energy.”

Michael J Fox Variety Cover Story
Michael J Fox Variety Cover Story

That same spark is evident when Fox sits down to talk to me. His eyes pirouette as he comes up with a punchline or joke, springing to life when he ribs someone for moving his handkerchief so it will be more accessible on the table beside him. “Now I need to get tested for COVID,” he says with a laugh.

But Parkinson’s has also taken a physical toll. Fox walks in a jerking, hesitant manner, willing himself not to stumble, and his hands tremble throughout much of our discussion, the left one making looping motions while the right one taps against the side of his chair. And then there’s Fox’s speech, which has also become more impaired in recent years. His words sometimes careen into each other, occasionally erupting into an imperceptible slur of consonants. For someone who was once so verbally dexterous, it must be endlessly frustrating.

“I sometimes have a fleeting moment of disappointment when a really great joke comes out and lands flat because people can’t understand what I’m saying,” Fox says. “It’s not like you can just repeat it. It’s dead on arrival. But you find ways to navigate it.”

It takes time for the medication that Fox uses when he’s got an interview or a public event to have an effect. As he eases into the chair and begins to talk, his left leg moves spastically and his head ducks down toward his chest. Then after about five minutes of jerking motions, a calm washes over Fox, and his leg, at last, stops tremoring. “That’s the pills kicking in,” he says.

“Still,” the title of Guggenheim’s film, isn’t just a sad nod to the ravages of Parkinson’s and the way it consigns its sufferers to a lifetime of uncontrollable movement. It also alludes to the restlessness that characterized Fox’s rise in the entertainment industry. The son of William Fox, a former Army sergeant turned police dispatcher, and Phyllis Fox, a payroll clerk, Fox was raised primarily in a suburb of Vancouver. An indifferent student, he started doing plays in school to meet girls, discovering he had a knack for performing. After landing a few TV roles in Canada (usually with the diminutive Fox playing much younger than his age), he was convinced that he had what it took to make it in Hollywood. So he dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles.

“I knew I was more talented than a lot of people,” says Fox. “And I knew that if I wanted to be someone, I couldn’t just sit on my parents’ porch and think, ‘Boy, if I was only born in the States and my parents had money and weren’t living paycheck to paycheck, I could do something with my life.’”

It was rough. He had a few failed auditions — Robert Redford flossed his teeth while Fox read for the role of the troubled son in “Ordinary People.” And the gigs he managed to land were few and largely forgettable. But Fox was guided by an unwavering confidence that allowed him to keep pushing forward. Decades later, he still thinks back to a revelation he had on the set of “Midnight Madness,” a little-seen 1980 Disney comedy that marked his feature film debut. “I was sitting around with all these actors, and I remember thinking, ‘Why is this going to work for me and not for them?’” he says. “It’s not that I wished them unhappiness or bad luck — I wished them all the success in the world. But I knew I was going to make it. God knows why. I was living on the margins. I was 18 years old, with no money, no connections, literally dumpster diving for food.”

Two years later, Fox landed his career-making role as Alex P. Keaton in NBC’s “Family Ties.” The sitcom had an easily digestible premise — “hip parents, square kids” — one tailor-made for the conservative wave sweeping the nation. As a teenage Reaganite outfitted in a suit and armed with a briefcase, Fox’s Keaton embodied the newfound spirit of conspicuous consumption. He quickly became the show’s breakout star.

“There are rare moments where an actor and role simply fit together perfectly,” says Michael Gross, who played the patriarch of the Keaton clan. “Michael just understood Alex intuitively and was so much fun that the writers moved instinctively towards him and gave him more and more to do.”

Viewed from today’s politically polarized vantage point, “Family Ties,” with its portrait of parents and children who can bridge any ideological divide in less than 30 minutes of airtime, seems utterly foreign. And it is. Even Fox thinks that his yuppie alter ego, Alex Keaton, would have abandoned the GOP long before Trump and the Jan. 6 attack changed the face of the party. “He would have left,” says Fox. “I don’t think Alex would even see Republican and Democrat now. He’d see normal people and crazy, fascist weirdos.”

Michael J Fox Variety Cover Story
Michael J Fox Variety Cover Story

In its time, however, “Family Ties” and Fox were riding the zeitgeist. Yet what really catapulted Fox to the top of the A-list was “Back to the Future,” a science-fiction comedy about a 1980s high schooler named Marty McFly who finds himself thrown back in time to 1955. Fox was initially forced to pass on the film because of his commitment to the show. But when Eric Stoltz, the actor cast in the leading role, was fired from the production, director Robert Zemeckis and “Family Ties” showrunner Gary David Goldberg devised a plan that allowed Fox to shoot the sitcom during the day and then hustle to the “Back to the Future” set at night. He’d film there until 3 or 4 in the morning. In between, he’d get two to three hours of sleep before a teamster would wake him up and the whole thing would start again. It was grueling, but Fox thinks it helped his performance.

“I was running on adrenaline,” admits Fox. “I barely knew where I was, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. That served the film because Marty’s supposed to be disoriented.”

Christopher Lloyd, who played Doc Brown, the mad scientist who invents the time-traveling sports car that sends Marty back, says that Fox offered a missing ingredient. “Eric Stoltz is a wonderful actor, but he lacked a certain comedic sense that is inherent in Michael,” he says. “Initially, I was worried because we’d been shooting for six weeks, and it meant going back and redoing all my scenes. I thought I might not be as good. But Michael made me better.”

Zemeckis agrees. “Michael taught me things about comic timing. We’d have conversations, and he’d go, ‘You know, Bob, I’ll get a much bigger laugh if I move three steps, pause, and then say the line.’” “Back to the Future” is a frothy adventure, but it also has some unexpected Oedipal undercurrents — a risky touch for a popcorn flick. After all, when Marty travels back three decades to his hometown, he intersects with his teenage parents, only to find that his mother (Lea Thompson) is hellbent on getting in his pants.

“There’s something about it that people still respond to because it’s so weird,” Fox says. “Not to be crude, but it’s a movie about almost fucking your mom and she’s totally ready for it. Even at the time, I realized it was bizarre — plus Lea was pretty cute.”

“Back to the Future” was a mammoth, decade-bestriding blockbuster, becoming the highest-grossing movie of 1985 and launching a popular film franchise. Fox capitalized on that with a series of hits such as “Teen Wolf ” and “Secret of My Success” that made him one of the hottest stars of the 1980s. Looking back, Fox believes he didn’t handle fame well.

“I was a jerk,” he says. And there’s some archival footage in “Still” where Fox grills the writers of “Family Ties” about one of their scripts, as well as a sequence where he peevishly asks to retake a scene that, he says, captures that jerkishness. “You just want to slap me. You just want to go, ‘Shut up, sit down, have a Diet Coke and relax and sit in the corner,’” Fox says.

Sure, he seems egotistical, but it’s still pretty mild misbehavior for a celebrity. No telephones are thrown, no crew members berated. Is it possible Fox is a little too hard on himself? For their part, Fox’s co-stars don’t remember many diva moments. “I don’t think he lorded it over us,” says Baxter. ”At the same time, when someone gets all that attention and all that heat, it’s hard for it not to go to their head. You can’t fault where that adulation takes you. But if you stay there, then you become insufferable.”

Fox’s good fortune ran out as the 1990s dawned. “Family Ties” went off the air after seven seasons, and “Back to the Future” concluded with two back-to-back sequels. Then Fox suffered a series of flops including “Life With Mikey” and “For Love or Money,” films as generic as their titles. And there were missed opportunities — for instance, Fox turned down the future blockbuster “Ghost.” “I didn’t see how it would work,” he says. “It shows I can be an idiot too.”

There was a reason why Fox was taking jobs for the payday and not the part. What the world didn’t know was that he was processing his 1991 diagnosis of early onset Parkinson’s, something that doctors warned him meant he had only 10 years left to work.

“It’s such a shitty disease,” Fox says. “I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to deal with it. It didn’t fit my story. I just shut down.

He’d always been a heavy drinker, but his alcohol abuse intensified as he looked for ways to numb the pain. As he writes in his memoir “Lucky Man,” and as “Still” depicts, he finally decided to give up booze when Pollan made it clear that she wasn’t interested in raising kids with someone who was out of control.

Why did you drink? I ask. “My friend Jennifer Grey had a great expression in her memoir,” Fox explains. “She wrote, ‘My body cannot metabolize the excitement that I crave.’ And at that point, the same was true for me. I needed something — some way to express myself — and I used drinking.”

In 1996, with his window of opportunity to work fading and his film career stalling, Fox returned to the format that made him a phenomenon, reteaming with “Family Ties” creator Goldberg on “Spin City,” a sitcom about the various wheeler-dealers orbiting an inept mayor. The show was a ratings hit and critics loved having Fox back in front of a studio audience. But as his Parkinson’s worsened, producing the show became more complicated, often leading to long delays in taping. Some of the cast and crew suspected something was wrong, but they were offered various explanations, including that Fox had Lyme disease. A rare few were told the truth and sworn to secrecy.

“We knew about it very early because we had to plan around it, but we kept it from everybody else,” says Bill Lawrence, the co-creator of “Spin City.” “Because Michael had to take meds to stop his tremors and they don’t work instantly, Gary and I had to build around that in the schedule so we could wait to start until he was feeling up to it.”

In 1998, Fox couldn’t keep his illness under wraps any longer. For one thing, he says, paparazzi used to wait outside his apartment building, peppering him with questions about whether he had Parkinson’s. He decided to share the news, sitting down for interviews with Barbara Walters and People. The magazine was supposed to come out on a Tuesday, but on the previous Friday, People went live with its story online, triggering a media frenzy.

“I went online and initially I thought, ‘What have I done?’” Fox says. “‘My life is ruined, and I have little kids who are going to read this stuff.’ The New York tabloids had headlines about how my life was over. It was like, ‘Oh, shit.’”

But as he processed the public’s reaction, Fox started exploring Parkinson’s chat rooms. On the internet, people who had the disease were sharing their hope that Fox’s celebrity would draw attention to an illness that was seen as something that only happened to old people. Those misunderstandings and prejudices meant that Parkinson’s was underfunded. Reading their messages, Fox saw an opportunity.

“People were naked in their thirst for somebody to come and help,” Fox says. “So as much as sharing that news was an unburdening, it also became a re-burdening. It was, I don’t know” — Fox’s hand moves gently as if to grasp the right words — “an adjustment of my burden.”

“Still” also refers to the inner peace Fox found after going public with his illness. Instead of serving as a coda, that declaration began a new phase in his life that was his most triumphant. Since launching the Michael J. Fox Foundation in 2000, he has helped raise more than $1 billion to fund Parkinson’s research. At the same time, Fox has become a prolific writer, penning memoirs that are hilarious, heartbreaking and bracingly candid. (“Everyone has one good book in them,” he says. “I’ve written four.”)

And though he officially retired from acting in 2020 because he was struggling to learn lines, Fox remained active in front of the camera for decades longer than doctors thought he would. Over the past 20 years, he returned to TV frequently — as an OCD doctor on “Scrubs,” as a lawyer on “The Good Wife,” and as himself, facing off against Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“I’ve won more awards and had more nominations since I announced my diagnosis,” says Fox. “It may be that people feel bad for me, but I prefer to look at it as an acknowledgment for continuing to have a legitimate career.”

Guggenheim spent a year interviewing Fox for “Still” and observing him relaxing with Pollan and their children: Sam, 33; Aquinnah, 28; Schuyler, 28; and Esmé, 21. He thinks that as horrible as Parkinson’s is, the illness gave Fox a better sense of what really matters. “Michael calls Parkinson’s ‘the gift that keeps on taking,’ and there’s something to that,” Guggenheim says. “Because there’s a clarity you get when you have this kind of horrible chronic diagnosis. There’s a kind of relentless degradation that comes with Parkinson’s. But what’s amazing about Michael is that all those falls and all those trips to the hospital could have turned him bitter. But, weirdly, it’s only made him more self-assured and openhearted.”

Guggenheim is right. I witnessed the resilience and decency he describes firsthand. In fact, I’m struck that the two times that I met with Fox, he made a point of standing up and walking toward me to shake my hand, despite the physical effort that requires. There’s something about that simple gesture that makes my throat catch. This, I thought at the time, is a really good guy.

Fox is very adroit at remaining upbeat and keeping things light during our time together. But watching him struggle to walk or control his wandering hands makes it clear how hard even the most mundane tasks are when you lose authority over your movements. I worry I’m being too personal or too lurid, but there’s something I want to ask Fox: How does Parkinson’s change your relationship to your body?

“That’s a good question,” Fox assures me. “I think about that all the time.” Sometimes, he says, he will catch himself in a mirror and see his unsteady walk or think about his slurred speech. “All these things together have become who I am and the way I present to the world,” he says.

But, Fox admits, he also thinks about how the medication he takes to dull those symptoms gives him a false idea of what Parkinson’s has done to him.

“When I first sat down and started talking to you, I knew it was going to take a minute for the pills to kick in and then it was going to be OK,” he tells me. “But what I have to understand is that if I take the pills and I feel better, that’s not real. If I don’t take them and feel like shit — that’s real. So the better I feel, the less real it is.”

For now, at least, there are plenty of reasons for Fox to feel proud of what he’s accomplished and excited for what’s to come. The release of “Still” will remind viewers of Fox’s determination to emerge from any ordeal stronger in the broken places. And he’s thrilled with the reaction to the film, which was greeted with glowing reviews and a standing ovation when it premiered at Sundance and screened at SXSW.

People think you’re a hero, I tell Fox. And I sense that makes him uncomfortable, even if he understands it.

“It’s just a nice way of people letting me know they are moved by my acceptance of things and by the way that I’ve tried to make a difference,” he says. “But no matter how much I sit here and talk to you about how I’ve philosophically accepted it and taken its weight, Parkinson’s is still kicking my ass. I won’t win at this. I will lose.”

“But,” Fox adds. “There’s plenty to be gained in the loss.”

Styling: Britt McCamey; Grooming:  Kristan Serafino/Walter Schupfer/The Best Paste; Look 1 (dark crew neck sweater): Sweater: Saint Laurent knit; Look 2 (blue suede jacket): Jacket: Mr P; Look 3 (thumbs up): Jacket: Saint Laurent

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