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Michael J. Fox Is Back With a New Show and Feelin' Alright After 20+ Years With Parkinson’s

The actor, 51, gets by — even thrives — with a little luck, a lot of love and lots of laughs

Michael J. Fox, his wife Tracy Pollan, and their kids pose at Disneyland

Family outings can be a challenge, but Fox (with wife Tracy Pollan and children, Esmé, twins Schuyler and Aquinnah, and Sam at Disneyland in 2009) says he manages by taking it one day at a time. — Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland/AP Photo

Fox and his wife of 24 years, actress Tracy Pollan, 52, and their four children — Sam, 23, twins Aquinnah and Schuyler, 18, and Esmé, 11 — face daily challenges. Family outings need to be timed to Fox's medication schedule.

"Sometimes the kids will need their dad's help and he'll say, 'I'm not feeling great right now,'" says Pollan, who admits she's more of a worrier than her husband is. "But on the flip side, the first thing he does is go back to the kids when he's feeling good. It teaches them patience and empathy."

Scattered about Fox's office are mementos of a life well lived: a photo of the actor playing guitar at a fundraiser with The Who. Fox on the ice with hockey legend Bobby Orr. Winged statuettes honoring every aspect of his work. Each item brings out a boyish exuberance, as if Fox still can't believe his own luck.

"Tracy and I were talking the other day about all the people we know who since my diagnosis have died of cancer or had terrible things happen to them," he explains. "If you would have told them 10 years ago you can have that or you can have what I have, they would have taken what I have. That's only to say we all get our own bag of hammers."

Becoming Michael J. Fox

Michael Andrew Fox — the "J" came years later; he thought it sounded cooler — was born in Edmonton, Alberta, on June 9, 1961. His father, Bill, once worked as a jockey and was a sergeant in the Canadian Army; his mother, Phyllis, was a payroll clerk.

Mike, as he's known to friends and family, was the fourth of five children. Fox was too small to live out his dream of becoming a competitive ice hockey player. He turned to acting, and at 16 earned a part in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation sitcom called Leo and Me, playing a 12-year-old. Two years later, he quit high school and drove to Los Angeles with his dad, where he was cast in the Alex Haley-Norman Lear series Palmerstown, U.S.A. before landing the star-making role of Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties in 1982.

"I negotiated the deal from a phone booth outside of Pioneer Chicken, wishing I had $1.99 for a wing-and-biscuit combo," Fox remembers.

Family Ties, about the clash of values of liberal, former-hippie parents and their conservative offspring, arrived after America's cultural consciousness had shifted from Haight-Ashbury to Wall Street, and the show ran for seven seasons. President Ronald Reagan called it his favorite TV program, and Fox, who won three Emmy Awards for his role, parlayed his success into a hit movie career, with popcorn classics likeTeen Wolf and the Back to the Future trilogy. A slide into drinking, carousing and overspending followed.

"By 21, I was earning six figures a week. By 23, I had a Ferrari," he says. "It was nuts. I never stopped to figure that out." In 1986 he met Pollan, a nice girl from Long Island and the sister of The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan, when she guest-starred as his girlfriend on Family Ties. They married in 1988. With Tracy's insistence and encouragement, Fox quit drinking in 1992, which prompted a new outlook on his success.

"You're not just a lottery winner," says Fox. "You have to respect the work you do and the work others do and how you got there."

Back to the future

These days, even with a condition known for making patients fitful, Fox sleeps well and wakes around 8 a.m. He walks his dog, Gus ("or he walks me," Fox concedes, eyeing the gargantuan Great Dane at his feet), then sees the kids off to school.

The actor, who receives treatment available to all Parkinson's patients despite having financial resources others don't, has responded extremely well to medication and has no need for physical therapy — unusual for someone diagnosed so long ago. Even his daily pill intake (a full-time preoccupation for most PD sufferers) is "not that many relative to most people," Fox says. As with so many mysteries with Parkinson's, scientists do not know why some patients react better than others to treatment.

"I'm always aware that there are others who don't feel so good and can't express themselves the way I can," Fox says. "That's no small factor in the way I've been able to deal with this."

Next page: Making an impact in Parkinson's disease research. »

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