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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

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Fox and his family reside seven floors above his Manhattan office in a prewar apartment overlooking Central Park. It's a spacious nest that's about to get noticeably more so. The twins depart for college in the fall, leaving only Esmé at home. The upside is that Fox and Pollan get more time together. In the initial stages of Parkinson's, Fox hid his diagnosis out of fear that it would diminish his offers for work, and he kept Pollan at a distance, too.

"Tracy wanted to get in there and help me with it, but I resisted," he says. In the end, the disease has brought them closer. As Fox puts it, "The more problems you solve together and the more experiences and laughs you have, the tighter you get."

For his 50th birthday, in 2011, Pollan put together a yearbook for Fox, who never graduated from high school. He says, "She had all these people sign it, from Tony Bennett to Bruce Springsteen to my sixth-grade teacher to friends of mine from home." Fox is clearly moved talking about Pollan's support. "Yeah," he says, "my wife is great to me."

Parkinson's is an idiopathic disease, meaning researchers do not know what causes dopamine-producing brain cells to degenerate and trigger symptoms like trembling, slowness and rigidity. Fox's case is unusual in that the average age of onset is late 50s. Genetics and environmental factors, like exposure to pesticides and metals, can play a role, although the connection is unclear.

Says Fox, "When I was younger I fished in rivers that had pulp and paper mills on them, but you never know."

A champion for his cause

The actor sometimes jokes that Parkinson's disease is the gift that keeps on taking. In reality, Fox's illness has helped him give to others.

Since 2000, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research has sought to understand the condition and improve treatment options for the estimated 1 million people in the U.S. who are living with Parkinson's. The foundation has funded nearly $325 million in research, and supported hundreds of scientists in more than 20 countries and 60 clinical studies. At the moment, all eyes are on a promising surgical therapy involving a specialized brain protein called neurturin, which may slow or stop Parkinson's symptoms rather than temporarily mask them. In testing, neurturin has been found to help rejuvenate neurons damaged by Parkinson's, and restore function.

(In 1998, Fox underwent a procedure called a thalamotomy, which destroys an area in the brain that controls some involuntary movements. It temporarily eased symptoms on his left side, but he began experiencing tremors on his right side and has vowed not to have surgery again until a more definitive solution is found.)

"The attention Michael has brought to Parkinson's research has sparked a complete revolution," says the foundation's chief executive officer, Todd Sherer. "Pharmaceutical companies are more focused than ever on finding treatments quickly, and curing PD is job one for some of the best minds in neuroscience."

Fox has testified before Congress and backed efforts to double the National Institutes of Health's research budget while advocating for speedier drug development. "The last thing this is for Michael is a vanity project," says Deborah W. Brooks, the foundation's cofounder and executive vice chairman. "His attitude has always been, 'Let's do this right. People are counting on us.' "

Fox's current push is the Fox Trial Finder, an online resource that connects patients with clinical trials in their area. Fewer than 10 percent of Parkinson's patients enroll in clinical trials, partly because of the mobility issues, depression and apathy that frequently come with PD. "The more people get involved in trials," Fox says, "the quicker our work carries on, and accelerates research down the pathway to the bedside."

Back to TV

Perhaps the surest sign of progress for Fox is that he's going back to work. Even without a pilot episode of his new sitcom, NBC said yes to a 22-show run, a confidence vote critics say is reserved for roughly two people in television: Fox and Bill Cosby.

"As his friend, I was a little concerned when Mike announced he was doing a network show and wondered whether he was up for all the work," says Denis Leary. "But then you talk to him and hear his enthusiasm and you think, 'This man is still unstoppable.' " It's a common sentiment.

Fox got rave reactions guest-starring in recent years on the TV series The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm. In both, Parkinson's was written into the role. "It's too difficult to hide it," he says. "I could manage it for a scene or so, but it would fall apart over time. As long as I play a guy with Parkinson's, I can do anything."

Fox knows returning to TV might be tiring, so he has arranged for "a few trapdoors," like built-in days off when he's not in a scene. He's also looking ahead to new adventures: Visiting the Egyptian pyramids is on his bucket list. He wants his kids to be happy and to see them accomplish something meaningful. Above all, he's trying not to take himself — or his condition — too seriously. Take clapping, for instance.

"If I'm at events and I'm clapping," he says with a smile, "my mind will say, 'Stop clapping,' but I just keep going. Tracy says, 'You're always the last one clapping.' I swear, it's not out of appreciation — it's out of disintegration. You have to laugh at that."

Video Extra

Michael J. Fox - Behind the Scenes Photo Shoot - AARP The Magazine: The former "Back to the Future" and "Spin City" star breaks out the air guitar and  talks about raising his family in New York, being a former teen idol and his acting career, including a recent "Boston Legal" episode with William Shatner.

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