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.
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."
His wife said, 'Hold my hand, and we'll get over that'
Michael J. Fox has always looked at least a decade younger than his age, and he's still got that "#boyishcharm," as those who work at the Michael J. Fox Foundation put it. Yes, the Parkinson's has etched some age into his face. But it's the darnedest thing — the cluttery, skid-and-slide elocution that comes with his condition actually amplifies his boyishness. At times, he seems like a very bright young guy whose mind goes far faster than his jaw, the words emerging bumper to bumper at 80 miles per hour — and frequently crashing into the back of his teeth in spectacular fashion.
Fox has, of course, made a career of playing youthful characters, in a journey that is universally known. Well, almost.
"My youngest, Esmé [now 15, the only one of his children who's still at home], has been getting into crosswords. A few days ago, one of the clues was 'Michael's role in Family Ties.' I got all excited and said, 'You know that!' She said, 'What, is that you?' 'Uh, yeah. That was me. With a role. In Family Ties.… Young Republican?… Ronald Reagan's favorite show?…' She still drew a blank. So I told her: 'Alex. A-l-e-x.…' She asked, 'Who's 'Alex?'"
Kids these days
Esmé and the rest of us all remember Fox's next big gig, as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy — which made him the boy next door — and his role as deputy New York mayor Mike Flaherty in Spin City, which earned him four consecutive Emmy nominations (including one win). He was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991 — the same year Magic Johnson announced he had tested positive for HIV. Though the men and their conditions couldn't be more different, their announcements, made years apart, resonated in devastating ways. Both were ageless, iconically sunny personalities. Skip ahead to 2017: In both cases, the science has come so far so fast (in no small part because of each man) that it's easy to forget that each, at the time of his coming out, seemed to be announcing his own imminent death.
Fox, for his part, ascribes his sanity and emotional salvation to his wife.
"Tracy wasn't sentimental or romantic about it at all," he says. "No terror. No big windy … exaltation …" — he clutches at the word, discards it — "um … exposition? Huh? Uh …"
This is a Parkinson's thing, an exaggerated version of the tip-of-the-tongue stutters to which all of us are prone. The first time or two Fox does this in your presence, you're tempted to rush in and fill the vacuum. But slowly it dawns on you that he's not the one you're trying to help. He meant to say that his wife showed no "exhibition of grief and fear."
But Fox, he's good with it. He knows the word he wants is waiting for him and that they'll meet up soon enough. In the meantime, he seems to regard the "exaltation" and "exposition" as practical jokers photobombing the picture he's trying to create. "Whew, that was close!" he says, laughing. "Two strikes — but then I hit it out of the park with that 'exhibition,' huh?
"So," he continues, "no exhibition of grief and fear. Tracy was just like, 'You've got a stone in your shoe. We'll do what we can until you can get it out. In the meantime, if you limp with the stone, that's all right. You can hold my hand, and we'll get over that.' "
Muhammad Ali would not permit surrender!
The news of Fox's demise as a human being and an actor was premature. Thirteen of his 18 Emmy nominations and five of his nine Golden Globe nominations came after his diagnosis. Impressive stuff, though perhaps not so much as the evolving way he's dealt with the reality of his disease. The first motivator came immediately after he revealed his condition, when he started hearing from other Parkinson's patients.
"Muhammad Ali [who suffered from Parkinson's syndrome for 32 years before his death last June] called me at home," Fox says. "And in this raspy, paper-thin voice, he said, 'Aahhhhh … Michael, now that you're in it, we'll win this fight.' What could I say? Sitting there alone listening to Muhammad Ali, this giant — I was welling up, almost openly weeping."
Another motivator was the feedback generated by Fox's public embrace of his condition — a kind of self-amplifying echo chamber of positivity that became a blueprint for the success of his foundation.
"A funny thing happened," Fox recalls. "Doctors reached out to me. And I reached out to doctors. More important, the Parkinson's community reached out to me, and I immediately felt better, just empowered, knowing there were people who understood what I was going through. It was also empowering for physicians, specialists and researchers I began meeting all over the country. They'd never had a patient coming in and saying, 'Hey, what's in your petri dish?' They'd go, ' You really wanna know?' Hell, yeah, I wanted to know! 'Then I'm gonna show you!' And so we'd be standing there, both thinking, The stuff in that dish could affect me. There was a primal satisfaction to that."
"His message is so simple, it gets forgotten: The people living with the disease are the experts," says Holly Teichholtz, head of communications at the Fox Foundation.
Though the foundation's work may be at risk with the sea changes happening in Washington, Fox takes any potential setbacks as an impetus to work harder. "On average, Parkinson's patients in this country spend $12,000 to $17,000 a year out of pocket," he recites. "Eighty percent of Parkinson's patients are on Medicare." Which is why Fox and some 200 grassroots community members, representing 43 states, traveled to Washington in February to visit Capitol Hill. "If the Affordable Care Act and even Medicare come under the knife, that's not political," Fox says. "That's our lives."
Though acting is different, it's still a blast
Fox himself is something of a medical anomaly. After a decade or so, most Parkinson's patients become less responsive to the synthetic dopamine that can help regulate the condition's characteristic tremors. But he's still responsive and has found a mix of drugs that has him feeling better than he did 10 years ago. Which is why he's been able to extend his working career far beyond the decade he was allotted in 1991. The Michael J. Fox Show finished its two-year run in 2014; The Good Wife ended in 2016. Fox also voiced the title character (a robot dog) in last year's A.R.C.H.I.E. "My visible symptoms are distracting, but none of them hurt," Fox says, shrugging. "The only real pain I get is in my feet, which sometimes shuffle and curl up in cramps when I'm sleeping — which is why I keep a very stiff pair of shoes on the floor next to my bed."
Those symptoms have required a metamorphosis of Fox's acting in the past 15 years, both in terms of the way he experiences his craft and in the kinds of performances he has delivered. Before Parkinson's, Fox was a highly studied actor who approached his work like an engineer: crossing t's, dotting i's and nailing every take. He was a bankable talent who always satisfied — though he didn't always surprise. The acting he's done since his diagnosis has had edge, has put you on edge, because you don't know what you're getting with Dwight (the angry wheelchair-using ex-athlete romancing the ex-wife of Denis Leary's character in Rescue Me) or The Good Wife 's manipulative Louis Canning. There's something dark, predatory and elusive about the performances; you lose track of the fact that you're watching Michael J. Fox.
"I no longer have my stuff, the big bag of tricks I relied on in the past," Fox admits. "I can't do a double take anymore, for one. I'm more into the moment of what I'm doing because I don't — I can't — have any expectations. I'm forced to approach every take as a whole new thing. My experience of acting has become much more still and quiet and surprising to me. I think I've been given a power of observation that is not self-observation — which is what acting should be."
Though still and quiet have recently earned him critical kudos, don't people still yell "Mc-FLYYYYYY!" at him on the street? Fox just shakes his head and smiles at the question.
"They've never stopped."
Correction: A previous version of this story stated Fox “had 10 years left.” The story has been corrected to say Fox “had only about 10 good working years left.”