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It's hilarious when other people think, 'Poor Michael!'
Has any American in public life confounded expectations more than Michael J. Fox? Even Fox is surprised to find himself where he is today — alive and well (enough), and at this moment in jeans and a baggy T-shirt, comfortably ensconced on an old leather couch near his Great Dane mix, Gus, who is splayed and snoring on a well-worn rug in an office that Fox keeps in the New York apartment building where he lives.
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He's also surprised to find himself so mentally hale — as sharp, earnest, open and golly-gee as when he first came out of our cathode Trinitrons and into our living rooms as Alex P. Keaton in the early 1980s. At 55, the father of four is happily married to his first and only wife, the actress Tracy Pollan. And against all odds, Fox has continued to act, earning his 18th Emmy nomination last year for his role as the Machiavellian lawyer Louis Canning on The Good Wife. His eponymous foundation, meanwhile, has funded more than $700 million for research into Parkinson's disease. If anyone had predicted any of this back when …. Well, of course nobody did, because people — doctors in fact — told Fox more than two and a half decades ago that he only had about ten good working years left.
"You sure you want the truth?" Fox asks, raising his right arm and beholding the hand as it flutters about, as if in pursuit of some irksome flying pest . "The truth is that on most days, there comes a point where I literally can't stop laughing at my own symptoms."
He clasps his arm to his chest, restricting the renegade hand to a fitful scratching motion.
"Just the other morning. I come into the kitchen. Oh, good, coffee. I'm gonna get some! No, wait — I'm gonna get some for Tracy — who's at the table with the paper. I pour a cup — a little trouble there. Then I put both hands around the cup. She's watching. 'Can I get that for you, dear?' 'Nah, I got it!' Then I begin this trek across the kitchen. It starts off bad. Only gets worse. Hot java's sloshing onto my hands, onto the floor …"
Fox begins to raise the volume and pitch of his voice to convey his own teetering ineptitude and denial.
"… And Tracy's watching calmly, going, 'Darling, why don't you [emphatic expletive] let me get it?' 'I'm almost there, babe !' Of course, by the time I reach the table, the cup's all but empty. 'Here's your coffee, dear — enjoy!'"
A great yuk, like a great melody, tends to defy reason. But when I ask Fox if he can explain why this bit of slapstick so thoroughly slays him, he nails it.
"There's the fact that it's 7 in the morning and 'This is how we begin our day — the right way!' But the thing that makes it hilarious to me is when I think of someone else watching all this and thinking, Poor Michael can't even get the coffee — it's so sad!
"After I made my diagnosis public back in 1998, I began to realize that Parkinson's gives you two things to reckon with," Fox explains. "You deal with the condition, and you deal with people's perception of the condition. It was easy for me to tune in to the way other people were looking into my eyes and seeing their own fear reflected back. I'd assure them that 'I'm doing great' — because I was. After a while, the disconnect between the way I felt and the dread people were projecting just seemed, you know, funny."