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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
by David Hochman, AARP The Magazine, April/May 2013
Michael J. Fox will star in an NBC sitcom this fall loosely based on the lighter side of his life with Parkinson's disease. — Jeff Lipsky
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.
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."
Fox starred with Heather Locklear in "Spin City" before leaving the show in 2000 to focus on finding a cure for Parkinson's. — Everett Collection
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.
Family outings can be a challenge, but Fox (with wife Tracy Pollan and children, Esmé, twins Schuyler and Aquinnah, and Sam at Disneyland in 2009) says he manages by taking it one day at a time. — Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland/AP Photo
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."
"By 21, I was earning six figures a week. By 23, I had a Ferrari. It was nuts."
Fox as Marty McFly in the 1985 summer blockbuster "Back to the Future." — Everett Collection
Becoming Michael J. Fox
Michael Andrew Fox — the "J" came years later; he thought it sounded cooler — was born in Edmonton, Alberta, on June 9, 1961. His father, Bill, once worked as a jockey and was a sergeant in the Canadian Army; his mother, Phyllis, was a payroll clerk.
Mike, as he's known to friends and family, was the fourth of five children. Fox was too small to live out his dream of becoming a competitive ice hockey player. He turned to acting, and at 16 earned a part in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation sitcom called Leo and Me, playing a 12-year-old. Two years later, he quit high school and drove to Los Angeles with his dad, where he was cast in the Alex Haley-Norman Lear series Palmerstown, U.S.A. before landing the star-making role of Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties in 1982.
"I negotiated the deal from a phone booth outside of Pioneer Chicken, wishing I had $1.99 for a wing-and-biscuit combo," Fox remembers.
Family Ties, about the clash of values of liberal, former-hippie parents and their conservative offspring, arrived after America's cultural consciousness had shifted from Haight-Ashbury to Wall Street, and the show ran for seven seasons. President Ronald Reagan called it his favorite TV program, and Fox, who won three Emmy Awards for his role, parlayed his success into a hit movie career, with popcorn classics likeTeen Wolf and the Back to the Future trilogy. A slide into drinking, carousing and overspending followed.
"By 21, I was earning six figures a week. By 23, I had a Ferrari," he says. "It was nuts. I never stopped to figure that out." In 1986 he met Pollan, a nice girl from Long Island and the sister of The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan, when she guest-starred as his girlfriend on Family Ties. They married in 1988. With Tracy's insistence and encouragement, Fox quit drinking in 1992, which prompted a new outlook on his success.
"You're not just a lottery winner," says Fox. "You have to respect the work you do and the work others do and how you got there."
Back to the future
These days, even with a condition known for making patients fitful, Fox sleeps well and wakes around 8 a.m. He walks his dog, Gus ("or he walks me," Fox concedes, eyeing the gargantuan Great Dane at his feet), then sees the kids off to school.
The actor, who receives treatment available to all Parkinson's patients despite having financial resources others don't, has responded extremely well to medication and has no need for physical therapy — unusual for someone diagnosed so long ago. Even his daily pill intake (a full-time preoccupation for most PD sufferers) is "not that many relative to most people," Fox says. As with so many mysteries with Parkinson's, scientists do not know why some patients react better than others to treatment.
"I'm always aware that there are others who don't feel so good and can't express themselves the way I can," Fox says. "That's no small factor in the way I've been able to deal with this."
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."
"The attention Michael has brought to Parkinson's research has sparked a complete revolution."
Fox testifies before Congress in 2000 on the benefits of stem cell research. — Ron Sachs/CNP/Corbis
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 (foxtrialfinder.org), 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."