Michael J. Fox at 60: Celebrating His Activism in Combating Parkinson’s Disease, Featuring Photos by Bryan Adams
Michael J. Fox, who turns 60 on June 9, retired from acting in 2020 and said he planned to devote himself to helping find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Photo: Bryan Adams
“Optimism is a choice, but in a way it isn’t. I don’t think there’s any other viable choice than to hope for the best and to work toward it.”
Michael J. Fox, who turns 60 on June 9, made that observation about optimism last November during an appearance on Sunday Today to promote his 2020 memoir No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality.
The Edmonton-born actor earned stardom — and multiple Emmy Awards — on the hit 1980s sitcom Family Ties while at the same time striking gold on the big screen with Teen Wolf and the Back to the Future film trilogy. But he moves into the next decade of life having recently survived some of the most serious challenges to his natural, optimistic nature.
The Parkinson’s diagnosis he received at age 29 was, of course, a serious blow. But in No Time Like the Future, Fox revealed that he was retiring from acting due to the debilitating effects of the disease.
“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,” he wrote. He added that “not being able to speak reliably is a game-breaker for an actor.”
Fox also detailed how his decision to quit acting came about after a pair of medical setbacks. While recovering from surgery to remove a spinal tumour, he fell and broke his arm. He wrote: “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?’”
In an interview with the New York Times following the release of the memoir, however, Fox offered an example of his refined brand of seeing the glass half full. “Optimism is informed hope. You’ve been given something, you’ve accepted it and understood it, and then you have to pass it on.”
And in recent months, Fox has been passing it on — as well as some laughs. In a Tonight Show appearance around the release of his book, the actor recalled the time he attended the world premiere of Back to the Future in London and was seated next to Diana, Princess of Wales in the theatre.
“The lights go down and the movie starts and I realize that I’m one fake yawn and arm stretch away from being on a date with her,” he quipped. “But then what happened was the movie started and then I had to go pee, so the rest of the movie I’m sitting there and I’m dying. And I can’t say anything to her and I can’t walk away from her because I can’t turn my back on her, so it was just agony. It could have been the greatest night of my life. It was just a nightmare.”
He also explained why he went with the middle initial “J” since his actual middle name is Andrew. Fox says it’s because he’s Canadian, and he felt that “Michael A.” — read: Michael “eh” — sounded too stereotypically Canadian. So he adopted the middle initial “J” after actor Michael J. Pollard, who co-starred in the 1967 film classic Bonnie and Clyde. When asked by host Jimmy Fallon what the “J” stands for, Fox quipped, “Jenuine. And Jenius.”
Meanwhile, last month Fox was spotted with his wife, actress Tracy Pollan, 60 (who he met while filming Family Ties), at an NBA playoff game at Madison Square Garden in New York, where the couple resides.
And, while it wasn’t recent, who could forget Fox’s hilarious appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where he and actor Christopher Lloyd reprised their Back to the Future characters of Marty McFly and Doc Brown, and showed up on the talk show stage in their time-travelling DeLorean on Oct. 21, 2015 — the date to which the pair travel in the hit 1985 film. Evidently, Marty and Doc were disappointed with the lack of flying cars and hoverboards.
But when it comes to the real future, Fox remains focussed on his most important mission. In retirement, the actor said he’d concentrate on finding a cure to Parkinson’s through his Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF), which over 20 years has raised more than $1 billion for research into the disease. “In the quest to cure Parkinson’s,” he noted in his memoir, “we’re absolutely certain we’re the tip of the spear.”
To that end, the day before Fox turned 60, the MJFF announced, in a press release, a partnership with genetic research company 23andMe that “enables robust sharing of de-identified genetic data with researchers worldwide through the Fox Insight Data Exploration Network (Fox DEN).” The release went on to say that, “Via Fox DEN, researchers can create cohorts and statistical models combining Parkinson’s-related factors with genetic mutations to accelerate scientific discovery.”
23andMe’s Parkinson’s disease principal program manager Paul Cannon added that, “Genetics, along with environmental data, can inform many facets of disease including: risk, progression and response to medication. It is our mission to uncover those connections to improve health and quality of life of individuals living with Parkinson’s, and this partnership and the availability of data accelerates the pace of those breakthroughs.”
Fox himself appeared on the cover of the April 2010 issue of Zoomer magazine, in which he was photographed by Canadian rocker 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. To mark the actor’s 60th birthday, we revisit that story below. — Peter Muggeridge and Mike Crisolago
My Way: Michael J. Fox Brings his own Brand of Activism to Canada to Continue the Fight Against Parkinson’s Disease. Story by Johanna Schneller; Photography 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.
PD, a neurological disorder that destroys dopamine, a brain chemical that controls motor functions, usually strikes people much older than Fox. (There are six to seven million sufferers worldwide.) As diseases go, it’s a bitch. Without enough medication, the body shuts down — the face freezes, muscles and organs stop working. With too much, dyskinesia, a violent sideways swaying, sets in. (Fox was experiencing dyskinesia when he recorded the political TV ad that right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh accused him of exaggerating his symptoms in; more on that later.) For a PD sufferer, every day—every hour—is a crap shoot: sometimes the medicine prevails, sometimes the disease, and there’s no predicting which. Some days, Fox can only pace, tracing circles around one piece of furniture and then another for 20 minutes at a time, unable to gather his thoughts or control his voice enough to speak coherently. “It’s like being shaken,” he says. Most horrifyingly, PD is degenerative: over time, symptoms worsen and the effectiveness of medication wanes.
But Fox would be the last person to want you to feel sorry for him—or in his feistier moments, to give a damn if you do. He left his vanity and self-pity behind years ago, along with a bad booze habit. Enough teenage girls had hung his pretty picture on their walls, he’s fond of saying. He lived his Hollywood dream: Edmonton kid moves to L.A. at 18, adds a cool-sounding middle initial to his white-bread name and climbs to stardom in two hit series, three Back to the Future blockbusters and a score of other films. I first met him on the Florida set of the 1991 comedy Doc Hollywood, where he roared around in a rented Corvette and hung out in a movie trailer stacked with cases of Diet Pepsi, whose ad campaign he was headlining. He was living in his hotel’s presidential suite and closing down its bar every night. One finger had just started to twitch. His PD would be diagnosed in a few months.
Some of Fox’s choices: Don’t think in terms of “last times.” Don’t worry in advance: “Tracy (actress Tracy Pollan, Fox’s wife of 21 years) can be a hypochondriac,” he says. “I always say to her if you obsess over your worst-case scenario, probably you do it for nothing, and if it does come to pass, you’ve done it twice.” Be frank: Fox doesn’t hesitate to answer questions about whether he can pee straight (a daily struggle) or have sex. “Sex is not a problem,” he says. “There are times when you are the agent of motion and times when you’re not. For me, it’s great. It’s like my mother once said, ‘The secret to a long marriage is to keep the fights clean and the sex dirty.’ ”
One more choice: Don’t engage with idiots. During the 2006 U.S. midterm elections, Fox recorded TV ads for candidates (usually Democrats but not exclusively) who supported stem-cell research, which the Bush administration had forbidden any institution that accepted federal aid—i.e., nearly every university and research hospital in the U.S.—to do. (One of the Obama’s first acts was to overturn the ban.) While taping his ad for Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, Fox was particularly dyskinetic. Rush Limbaugh on his radio/TV show accused Fox of faking his symptoms, egregiously aping Fox’s movements.
But Limbaugh failed to understand the goodwill Fox had built up over his lifetime—not just with his characters but in the grace with which he’s handled his disease. Fox received a startling amount of personal and media support, which only increased when he steadfastly refused to bite back. “It reminded me of when I was a kid,” Fox says now. “Because I grew up small (he’s five feet four inches), I had to deal with assholes like that my whole life. He was so preposterous, and so to the script. It was like professional wrestling. But I refused to jump off the rope and hit him with a folding chair. I knew that he was wrong. Not about stem cells—anybody can have any opinion about that. He was wrong in the way he did it. It was a shortcut, just bullying. Just lazy.”
Still, I ask, didn’t it make you furious? “I felt exhausted a couple of times,” Fox says. “Tracy congratulated me, though. She was happy to see me not care if I pissed somebody off. I like to be the good guy getting along. But this time I truly didn’t care if I pissed them off because what are they going to take from me? Are they going to come and kick my dog? The combination of Parkinson’s and all the great things that happen in my life put it into relief.” The gift of perspective, I say. “Yeah,” Fox shoots back, “the gift that keeps on taking.”
It’s those little snipes that keep Fox interesting. He’s not allowed becoming the public face of a terrible disease to turn him into a martyr. “I know I’m tougher than a shit-house rat,” he says, enumerating a family history—his grandfather, who lost an eye in the First World War; his uncles who were prisoners of war in Germany; his father, who was in the Army for 25 years—that makes him conclude, “If this [PD] is my fight, this is nothing.”
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.