The man zooming with me from his New York summer home on Long Island looks fit, sunned and appealingly in need of a haircut. He wears a black Muhammad Ali T-shirt. The trembling is minimal. He is droll, irresistibly upbeat and endlessly forthcoming.
Parkinson’s disease tends to tamp and subdue its victims to various degrees, and Michael J. Fox is no exception. Even so, the frisky aura that first endeared him to the world some 40 years ago is readily apparent.
The instant my mug appears on his computer screen, Fox offers, “Ah — bearded, sagacious and avuncular!” (Which, in addition to establishing that he’s still got it, is the most delightful spin on “heavyset balding guy” I’ve encountered.) When I ask a second later about how he’s feeling, he quips, “Above average, for a brain-damaged human.”
And we’re off. He has always been a rapid speaker, his mind working faster than the speed of articulation. Parkinson’s does its best to dam and blur his words, but Fox just bursts through, his thoughts erupting in batches, sometimes seemingly stuck together.
“I’m kind of a freak. It’s weird that I’ve done as well as I have for as long as I have,” he admits, before instructing me to disregard his appearance. “People often think of Parkinson’s as a visual thing, but the visuals of it are nothing. On any given day, my hands could be barely shaking or they could be …” He flails about to demonstrate. “It’s what you can’t see — the lack of an inner gyroscope, of a sense of balance, of peripheral perception. I mean, I’m sailing a ship on stormy seas on the brightest of days.”
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Any story about Fox is, in part, a story about underestimation, about how the guy has been defying expectations for more than 30 years. I knew this when I profiled him for AARP four years ago. And yet, I admit to him now, I walked out of his office after our 2017 interview and thought, I’m so glad I got the chance to meet him while I still could. Fox laughs at this. “Yeah, the doctor who diagnosed me in 1991 told me I had 10 years left of work.”
“His stamina is phenomenal,” says Fox’s longtime producer Nelle Fortenberry, who has worked with him on his four memoirs. “Even though Parkinson’s is progressive and diminishes what you’re physically able to do, he’s found ways to shift the focus to what he has rather than what he doesn’t have. That’s how he’s managed to bring new things into his life — writing, golf — to fill in for what he’s lost along the way. And these things don’t take energy. They generate it.”
Fox’s wife, Tracy Pollan — whom he met on the set of Family Ties, married in 1988 and with whom he has four children — speaks of her husband’s can-do attitude as if it were a weapon. “I sometimes underestimate the power of his optimism,” she says, “but time and again, I’ve seen him use it to blast his way back.”
He has done a lot of blasting since AARP last checked in with him. In 2018, surgeons partially removed a benign tumor that had coiled around his spinal cord. Four months later, while relearning how to walk — from scratch, “like a cliché from a movie” — he fell at home. Doctors stabilized his shattered left arm with a metal plate and 19 screws. It was a literal and figurative breaking point. As he lay in agony on the kitchen floor waiting for the ambulance, Fox says he had a persistent and angry thought — How full of s--- am I! — and a difficult question: Had he been kidding himself and others about his surgical recovery and maybe more?
As he dropped into what he says was a prolonged “dark patch,” Fox began questioning everything — even his own optimism. Is it still possible for me to be optimistic and realistic at the same time? he asked himself. In other words, had the price of keeping up a good face, of striving to remain the playful, glass-half-full guy audiences had always loved, of being “Michael J. Fox,” become too steep?
To top things off, the increasing unreliability of his speech forced Fox, who turned 60 in June, to end his acting career last year. Fox has rolled with the punches, dusted himself off and moved forward. So, is he the same man I met in 2017? At his core, absolutely: funny, friendly, sharp. Yet he is also perceptibly steelier, more precise, acutely aware of time and interested above all else in clarity — in seeing and accepting things for what they are.
“As I wrote in my latest book, I’m now out of the lemonade business,” he says. “I’m really blunt with people about cures. When they ask me if I will be relieved of Parkinson’s in my lifetime, I say, ‘I’m 60 years old, and science is hard. So, no.’ ”
He is, in short, a person who knows his path and purpose — fitting for a man who, along with gracing this magazine’s cover for the fourth time (“I don’t feel like a guest of AARP anymore,” he says, laughing, “but a resident!”), is receiving an honorary 2022 AARP Purpose Prize for the pioneering work he and his namesake foundation have done for Parkinson’s research.
Now, in another frank, wide-ranging interview with AARP, Fox updates us on what he has been up to — and what’s next.
Do you still consider yourself a lucky man?
Absolutely. It began with the tough working-class family I was born into. My mom was a payroll clerk; my dad was in the Army for 25 years and then a police dispatcher. And they had this freak son who did all this acting and music, and they didn’t know where I came from, but they figured out how to help me. I told my father I was moving to Hollywood when I dropped out of high school, and he drove me down, because I was making a living. And my mother, at 92, is still great, full of advice. Then I met the woman I married and had the children I had and lived the life I live. Still, it’s hard to explain to people how lucky I am, because I also have Parkinson’s. Some days are a struggle. Some days are more difficult than others. But the disease is this thing that’s attached to my life — it isn’t the driver. And because I have assets, I have access to things others don’t. I wouldn’t begin to compare my experience to that of a working guy who gets Parkinson’s and has to quit his job and find a new way to live. So, I’m really lucky.
How did you pull out of that dark place you were in?
For one thing, I am genuinely a happy guy. I don’t have a morbid thought in my head — I don’t fear death. At all. But as I came through that darkness, I also had an insight about my father-in-law, who had passed away and always espoused gratitude and acceptance and confidence. And I started to notice things I was grateful for and the way other people would respond to difficulty with gratitude. I concluded that gratitude makes optimism sustainable.
And if you don’t think you have anything to be grateful for, keep looking. Because you don’t just receive optimism. You can’t wait for things to be great and then be grateful for that. You’ve got to behave in a way that promotes that.
What else has helped you get your groove back?
Back to the Future! It’s amazing — more people, of all ages, approach me now about that movie than ever before. I’m not sure I understood why. Then I came across it on TV last Christmas. And I thought I was really good in it, better than I thought I’d been. More important, I got the spirit of the movie. I understood it was just a big giggle and that we all need — and I mean the readership of this magazine, too — to take credit for what we’ve done and the lives we’ve touched and to occasionally step back a bit and appreciate that much of life has been great and that there’s a lot more to live.
Muhammad Ali helped me, too. I used to avoid watching myself on the TV shows I did when I was much younger, because I was healthier then and showed no signs of Parkinson’s. But I wondered about Ali, whom I had become friendly with. He’d been such a beautiful athlete before Parkinson’s. So, after he died, I asked his wife, Lonnie, if he ever watched recordings of his fights. “He watched for hours,” she said. “He loved it!” And I thought, Yeah, I should love it, too. It’s a legacy, some graffiti that leaves a message of positivity.
You quit acting — why? Any regrets?
I continued to act for almost 30 years after I was diagnosed. After Spin City, I took a break, then did a couple episodes of Scrubs, and it was fun. I played a guy with OCD, and I realized I could put some of the Parkinson’s into that role. I guest starred as a cancer patient on Boston Legal, and that went well. Then I had a great stroke of luck when The Good Wife came to me with the character of Louis Canning, a lawyer who uses his Parkinson’s-like symptoms to manipulate juries. He was so crass — I loved the idea that disabled people can be a--holes, too. When I couldn’t act the way I used to act, I found new ways to act. But then I reached the point where I couldn’t rely on my ability to speak on any given day, which meant I couldn’t act comfortably at all anymore. So, last year I gave it up.
I have only a few regrets about roles I was approached about but didn’t pursue. One is Ghost. Now I can’t imagine anyone other than Patrick Swayze doing it. If I could go back and put all I’ve learned from Parkinson’s into a role, I would do Casualties of War again, with a better understanding of the cruelty and suffering and beauty and sublime qualities of all that mishegoss that I was trying to negotiate while not getting beat up by Sean Penn.
Your Parkinson’s foundation has had great success so far. How did that come about, and what is your role?
It’s been amazing. And that’s because we blew up the usual way you do these things. After finishing Spin City in 2000, I squatted in my office on that stage set and refused to leave until I had built the early stages of the foundation. My cofounder, Deborah Brooks, and I didn’t want to create an endowment to spend on advertising and stuff — we wanted to get the money to science to find a cure. No agenda other than that. So, we created what has become this giant network of patients, scientists and institutions. We’ve put more than a billion dollars into it. And patients are the key. Now they guide our agenda and have been critical, for example, to our promising work in trying to find biomarkers for Parkinson’s, which would allow us to identify the disease in people before symptoms are evident, and to treat it proactively and get rid of it. And we’ve got a lot of treatments that have gone through the FDA, and we’ve developed a great relationship with pharma researchers on Parkinson’s drug development. There are now better drugs and more effective treatments for a lot of the side effects and other aspects of the condition, and we helped make that happen.
What do I do? When I was diagnosed, I spent seven years keeping it to myself, not telling anybody and not learning about it, and I later realized others were isolated and didn’t have a central unifying force that would be their advocate.
So, now, along with pushing hard on the science through the foundation, I am a motivator and someone who tries to demystify and normalize Parkinson’s — to take away any shame or sense that it should be hidden. Because unfortunately, inevitably, it will reveal itself. There will always be people who say, “Why do you have to keep telling me about it?” Well, the fact of my existence is evidence of this disease, and I’m not going to candy coat that for people.
What’s new for you in terms of coping with Parkinson’s?
I’ve ceded a lot of things over. If I feel at all rushed and I have to do something multiple times, it’s just not going to serve me. When I was putting on my shoes the other day, Tracy said, “You want some help with that?” I said, “Well, it will take me a couple of minutes to put my shoes on. If you do it, it’ll take a minute.” So, you weigh it up.
Among the things that bother me the most right now is how hard it is to communicate quickly through electronic means. Voice-enabled technology just isn’t good enough. You say, “I’m catching a lot of s--- for that” and wind up with, “I’m flying on a ship tomorrow.” It’s so frustrating.
What’s your advice for those living with Parkinson’s?
Have an active life and do not let yourself get isolated and marginalized. You can live with it. People sometimes say that a relative or a parent or a friend died of Parkinson’s. You don’t die of Parkinson’s. You die with Parkinson’s, because once you have it, you have it for life — until we can remedy that, and we’re working hard at it. So, to live with it, you need to exercise and be in shape and to eat well. If you can’t drive, find a way to get around. Maintain friendships. Don’t say, “Oh, I don’t have anything to say to Bob.” Bob might have something to say to you. Just make the call.
Finally, I suspect I’m premature in asking this, but what do you want your legacy to be?
I hope my children are a positive influence in the world. I hope people will enjoy my work as an actor and get something from it. At a deeper level, I hope people see sincerity in the things I’ve said and done. If I’ve positively helped anybody with Parkinson’s, that’s great, too. I appreciate the purpose and the opportunity to help the foundation, to be part of something that’s potentially so powerful and life changing and world changing — that’s huge. Beyond that — and this is kind of a vanity thing — a lot of really great guitarists have come up to me over the years and said they picked up the guitar because of the “Johnny B. Goode” scene in Back to the Future. If I did anything in this life, I got John Mayer to pick up the guitar!
Washington, D.C.–based writer Andrew Corsello has written for GQ, ESPN The Magazine and other publications. Additional reporting by Caitlin K. Rossmann.