How Michael J. Fox Finds Ways Around Life’s Obstacles
Hollywood loves a good story, and few have a better one than Michael J. Fox.
The charming Canadian child actor transitioned into adulthood as a box-office star miraculously untainted by scandal, and was blessed by a great marriage and family life. Then Fox’s golden-boy career was seemingly derailed much too soon by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease—only to be resurrected by award-winning guest roles and, briefly, his own NBC sitcom before he officially retired in 2020.
The Michael J. Fox Show on NBC represented Fox’s first full-time TV gig since he left Spin City in 2001. Fox admits he had a little trepidation about coming back to the grind of carrying a TV series after his decade-long hiatus. “It’s funny. You want to go back, and the struggle I had is that you want to do the work and you want to do serious work, and you don’t want to be a novelty,” Fox says. “I think I avoided it by taking the work seriously and not cruising on any perceived goodwill.”
While the network hoped Fox’s return would be a ratings boon, the series fought to find an audience. “This [is] a warm family show. That’s what he wanted to do. It’s inspired by his own life,” says former NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke. “Somehow the alchemy of that night isn’t getting the show the audience we think it deserves.” Unfortunately, the show was canceled after only one season due to low viewership and ratings. Fox, however, wasn’t away from television for long, returning to The Good Wife late in its fifth season to reprise his role as Louis Canning.
It’s been a long hard road for Fox, but you’d never know it from chatting with him. In his suit jacket and jeans, he still looks younger than his years (he turns 62 in June). While there are physical reminders of his disease, he’s able to control it most of the time with medication and a healthy lifestyle.
There’s a definite hitch in his gait and some slight shaking in his head and arms. But it’s not long before you cease noticing these frailties. He sheds his sunglasses despite the glaring light so he can make eye contact and quickly puts you at ease.
Michael J. Fox’s inner strength
Fox’s strength comes from his upbringing and the kind of person he is, says Bill Lawrence, TV producer, writer and director. Lawrence co-created the 1996 comedy Spin City, which starred Fox as New York City’s deputy mayor.
“He’s just a hero,” Lawrence says.
“Watching Michael deal with that, and to be so professional and so giving, well, it lets you know that you don’t have a lot to [gripe] and moan about,” continues Lawrence, who went on to create and co-create shows such as Scrubs, Cougar Town and Clone High. “It changed me as a guy, as a person. I was just 26, and to see this really changed me and the way I treated other people.”
Fox’s new show takes a decidedly personal direction. He plays a popular former news anchor returning to his job after stepping away when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
The show centers on the family, reflecting much of Fox’s own personal life. “The way I look at Parkinson’s is that sometimes it’s frustrating and sometimes it’s funny,” he says. “I think we all get our own bag of hammers, our own personal Parkinson’s to deal with.”
It’s all a matter of perception. Fox says that when you have a disability, one of the things you deal with is the way other people perceive your experience by filtering it through their own fears. And those fears may be worse than the reality.
“There’s nothing horrifying about Parkinson’s. It’s not Gothic nastiness, there’s nothing horrible about someone with a shaky hand,” Fox says. “That’s our reality. We have no control over it, but it’s not horrible.”
‘It’s about acceptance’
But that realization took a while for Fox, who has made no secret of the battle with alcohol—alongside abuse of the dopamine pills used to help treat symptoms of Parkinson’s—which followed his diagnosis. He admits he spent seven years in denial before finally coming to terms with it and going on to establish The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in 2000.
“Truthfully, with being able to cope with anything like this in your life, it’s about acceptance. It took me a long time to acknowledge the truth about my situation,” Fox says. “Accept that facts are facts and give yourself a lot of room to maneuver around. Once I did, there was room to do other things and be other things.”
Fox believes his first difficult obstacle in life was not establishing his career or even dealing with Parkinson’s. “If you want to know what first drove me, I think it’s really about always being small,” says the 5-foot-4 actor. “I had a desire to overcome that and get the most out of myself.”
Fox grew up in a loving, supportive family that settled in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby after his father retired. The son of a sergeant in the Canadian Army Signal Corps and an actress and payroll clerk mom, he had four siblings. One of his first loves was hockey. He wanted to pursue a career as a professional hockey player, though he soon realized that wasn’t going to happen.
A breakthrough role at 15
Acting was another passion. Fox was 15 when he landed a role on the Canadian sitcom Leo and Me.
Oddly enough, four cast and crew members developed Parkinson’s disease. That led to an investigation in 2002 as to whether some environmental factor played a role. But during a September 2013 interview with Howard Stern, Fox told the radio host, “Believe it or not, from a scientific point of view, that’s not significant.”
Fox wanted to pursue acting full-time, so he quit high school before graduating and moved to Los Angeles. He quickly garnered some success with roles in Family and Lou Grant. When he landed a role in the series Palmerstown, U.S.A. from Norman Lear and Alex Haley, he figured it was all high times and clear skies. But like any number of good television shows boasting strong pedigrees, it was eventually canceled.
The young actor quickly burned through his money, thinking his early success meant a fountain of cash would continue to flow. It didn’t.
By the time he auditioned for the role of Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, he didn’t even have a phone. After auditioning, he told producers to call him between 4 and 5 o’clock at a certain number because that was the only time he would be home. The number was for a phone booth. The producers called, and Fox used the pay phone to seal the deal.
Fox’s career exploded with the series, which he parlayed into roles in box office hits including Teen Wolf and the Back to the Future franchise.
His personal life was going well, too. Fox and wife Tracy Pollan, who played his love interest on Family Ties, started a family. They already had a son, Sam, at the time of Fox’s diagnosis at age 29.
Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s diagnosis began with a twitch.
Fox was working on the 1991 film Doc Hollywood when he noticed a twitch in his left little finger, he told People magazine. His doctor gave him about a decade before the progressive degenerative disease would prevent Fox from working.
He continued to do guest-star appearances and some voiceover work for feature films, including the Stuart Little franchise. But Fox’s exit from full-time acting gave him considerably more time with his family. Twins Aquinnah and Schuyler were born in 1995, six years after big brother Sam; daughter Esmé came along in 2001.
“They were the focus of my attention, and it was beautiful. It was so great,” Fox says. “For them it may have been a different experience.”
Actually, the kids easily adapted to their father’s disease. If Fox couldn’t open a jar, he handed it over to one of the children to open and hand back to him. His children knew there were some things, like opening a jar, he couldn’t do one day but could do perfectly well the next.
“They have learned not to count on everything being the same and to react to subtle changes. They have learned resiliency,” Fox says. “This never took up more space than it needed. If you ask my kids to describe me, they would say, ‘wears hats funny,’ and the last thing they would think of would be Parkinson’s.”
In addition to his family life and guest-star appearances, Fox has written four books and established a thriving nonprofit.
Michael J. Fox on keeping himself out there
Lawrence cast Fox in a two-episode arc on Scrubs in 2004 as a doctor with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He followed that with guest-star roles on Boston Legal, which earned him an Emmy nod, as well as an Emmy award-winning appearance on Rescue Me and a recurring guest role on The Good Wife that earned him five Emmy nominations.
Fox’s work prevented him from becoming forgotten in a business where you’re only as good as your last role.
“I kept being reminded of how good he is and how beloved he is as an actor,” says former Chairman of NBC Entertainment Robert Greenblatt. “I don’t presume to know what he goes through on a daily basis with this illness, but he’s been up to the task as the star of this show.”
Fox used his guest shots to keep his acting muscles from atrophying, but he also spent his hiatus building up his physical and mental state.
“I just rested. I spent that time with my family during their really formative years,” Fox says. “[I] messed with pills and new medications that help me deal with dyskinesia and some other things I was struggling with earlier that I don’t have as much now.”
And Fox credits his fans and supporters for his ability to do all he does.
“I just want people to accept what I do and allow me to be an activist, an advocate and an actor at the same time,” Fox says. “Celebrity doesn’t belong to me; I don’t own my celebrity. You do. Because if you don’t give a [darn], then I don’t have it. Everything is just a privilege.”
This article was published in June 2014 and has been updated. Photo by ©Splash News/Splash News/Corbis
Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for SUCCESS.com. A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.
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