As Health Issues Force Michael J. Fox to Retire From Acting, Revisit His Activism to Combat Parkinson’s Disease
Canadian actor Michael J. Fox, seen here at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017, announced in his new memoir that the effects of Parkinson's Disease are forcing him to retire from acting. Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage via Getty Images
Michael J. Fox, the beloved Edmonton-born actor best known far his starring roles in the sitcom Family Ties and the Back to the Future movie trilogy, has revealed in his new memoir that he is retiring from acting due to the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease.
The 59-year-old, who was diagnosed with the progressive nervous disorder that causes stiffness, tremors and slurred speech at the age of 29, writes in his latest book, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality: “There is a time for everything, and my time of putting in a twelve-hour workday, and memorizing seven pages of dialogue, is best behind me.”
Fox, who lives in New York along with wife Tracy Pollan (the couple met on the set of Family Ties), adds in his trademark ironic humour that while his retirement plans may change, “not being able to speak reliably is a game-breaker for an actor.”
The actor notes that his decision to quit came about after recent medical setbacks. While recovering from surgery to remove a spinal tumour, he fell and broke his arm. “That was the point where I went ‘I’m out of the freakin’ lemonade business. I can’t put a shiny face on this. This sucks, and who am I to tell people to be optimistic?’” he writes.
In retirement, Fox says he will concentrate on finding a cure to Parkinson’s through his Michael J. Fox Foundation, which over 20 years has raised over $1 billion for research into the disease. “In the quest to cure Parkinson’s, we’re absolutely certain we’re the tip of the spear,” he notes in the memoir.
Fox appeared on the April, 2010 cover of Zoomer magazine, in which he was photographed by Bryan Adams. In the feature article — My Way — journalist Johanna Schneller asked the then 48-year old actor to describe the work of his foundation and reflect on the struggles he faced in coming to grips with his life-changing diagnosis. — Peter Muggeridge
My Way: Michael J. Fox Brings his own Brand of Activism to Canada to Continue the Fight Against Parkinson’s DiseaseCover photo by Bryan Adams
Some part of him is always moving, but it’s not distracting, not significantly. As Michael J. Fox chats away this December morning on the slouchy sofa in his Manhattan office, he sometimes uses one or both arms to gesticulate, and sometimes his knees jiggle like an overcaffeinated kid’s. He pushes up the sleeves of his grey V-neck sweater, then tugs them back down. He readjusts the brim of his baseball cap, crosses and uncrosses his jean-clad legs, fiddles with the tops of his gray ribbed socks. (He never messes with his loafers, though; later, you’ll learn that snug shoes help keep his feet working.) He doesn’t seem troubled or in trouble. In fact, he seems like any other fidgety actor—they’re a jittery bunch.
But pretty soon you notice that the fabric on one sofa arm is nearly worn away (his usual spot?). And despite his animated, articulate answers—Fox has always known his way around an anecdote —his voice sounds thin and strained, and his words occasionally slush together. You realize that all his readjustments are tricks to disguise the involuntary movements of Parkinson’s disease (PD), which he’s lived with for 18 years. He’s only 48. Today is one of his good days.
So when his twins squabble over a sweater, Fox will roll his eyes like any father, but he’ll also take an extra beat and think, “Maybe it’s about who the alpha dog is that day.” With people like Limbaugh, “I don’t go, ‘Fuck you!’ ” Fox says. “I go, ‘Really? Is that what we’re doing? Okay …’ ” Instead of being furious that Parkinson’s brought his career to a screeching halt, Fox realizes that it made him quit drinking and gave him time to really get to know his kids, about whom he talks with evident delight.
“It really is about choices,” he finally says. “I don’t have a choice whether I have Parkinson’s, so why spend one second on that? But I have a choice about how I feel about everything else.”
His foundation—the second-largest funder of PD research after the U.S. government—mirrors its founder’s practicality. Over the last 10 years, it’s become a model in fundraising because it applies the tenets of business to philanthropy: every donation that comes in goes straight out in grants. All good ideas are funded, regardless of country or institution. If a line of research hits a wall, money is diverted elsewhere. Grantees are expected to share information with one another and to actively pursue practical applications—both rare in conventional research. Drug companies are not the enemy: one of the MJFF’s greatest success stories was a $1 million grant to Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, which led to results promising enough that the company itself invested another $10 million to keep it going.
Fox knows PD will close in one day and that he’s going to die—but, he says, who isn’t? He’s been through “that whole Elizabeth Kubler-Ross five stages of death thing” and he’s made the choice to not live in bitterness. “It really comes down to, for me, if I do the right things on a daily basis, tomorrow will take care of itself,” he says. “I look in my kids’ eyes—and I would see it if it was there —but I don’t see fear. They feel secure and know who I am in their world. I can’t anticipate some calamity and I don’t want to. It’s why I don’t take pictures on vacation because if I go like this [he makes a clicking-camera gesture], then I’m not on vacation anymore. I’m in this box. So maybe I don’t have as many pictures. But I have more memories.
This article was originally published in March 2010.