Technically, Michael J. Fox is not supposed to be enjoying himself as much as he is these days. When the actor was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease at age 30 after noticing a twitch in his left pinkie, his doctors told him he had 10 more years to work, tops. That was 21 years ago. "The implication was that I was going to be in an invalid state," Fox says.
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Without question, the actor's illness has advanced. During a long, candid conversation in his New York City office about his health, career, family and philanthropic efforts, Fox's body never stops moving. His right knee swings, his hands tremble, his shoulders seesaw up and down.
"It's like your gyroscope is off," he says when asked what Parkinson's feels like. "I can be shaky. I can be slow. I can wake up with festination" — an involuntary shuffling of the feet — "and I'll say, 'This is going to be a struggle today.' " At one point, Fox, 51, calls out to his assistant to bring him an amantadine pill, which helps quiet the Parkinson's-related movement disorder known as dyskinesia. "I feel that kind of sideways feeling coming on," he says. But his resolve is steady.
"There's an idea I came across a few years ago that I love," he says. "My happiness grows in direct proportion [to] my acceptance and in inverse proportion to my expectations." Though Parkinson's has weakened his voice, Fox's face looks mostly unchanged since he appeared on TV's Spin City and in his Back to the Future movies. "That's the key for me. If I can accept the truth of 'This is what I'm facing — not what can I expect but what I am experiencing now' — then I have all this freedom to do other things."
For Fox, acceptance translates into a positive outlook. Where others would see devastating physical and emotional consequences, he counts his blessings. It took him years to get there, but at times all he can do now is laugh.
"Even when his symptoms are most acute, it drives him crazy to be pitied," says actor Denis Leary, Fox's longtime friend, Rescue Me costar and sports buddy. "I've walked down the hall with him and he's herky-jerky and he'll go, 'Watch out, Denis, you might get an elbow in the face.' "
Indeed, Fox has a whole dark-humor repertoire. As he jokes, who needs an electric toothbrush when you have a vibrating hand? As for shaving with a blade, "I'm not suicidal," Fox cracks. His golf game — yes, Fox still plays — suffers more from comic indignity than anything else. "People say, 'Stay still over the ball.' I'm, like, 'Yeah, screw you.' " Even a box of cereal comes with a punch line. "When I start pouring, I don't know what's going to happen," he says. "The next thing I know, I'm spraying All-Bran all over the kitchen."
Fox's new NBC comedy series, coming this fall, in which he'll play a New York anchorman, husband and father of three whose family and career are shaken up by Parkinson's, is loosely based on the lighter side of life with the disease. That's not to suggest that PD is one big thigh-slapper.
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."