Fox, Michael J. (Profile)
He was a blur. That's how I remember Michael J. FOX the first time we talked. It was 1987. I'd come to Los Angeles to interview him for a Maclean's cover story, and we met at a Family Ties rehearsal at Paramount. He bounced around the set like a hyperactive kid, cranking Diet Pepsi, and kept ducking out to smoke Export 'A's, lighting one off the other. During a break, we hopped into his black Ferrari for a quick trip to his house halfway across town, and he tore down the Hollywood Freeway at twice the speed limit, his seat belt unbuckled, the dashboard dusty with cigarette ash, the floor of the car littered with beer cans.
Yet somehow he didn't come across as a jerk. Fox was the first movie star I'd ever interviewed, and more likeable than dozens who followed. He was the ultimate nice guy, Canadian to a fault. The next day he suggested lunch at Musso & Frank's, a vintage Hollywood diner with ancient waiters who treated everyone with gruff indifference. Which is why Fox loved the place. For a star, nothing is more exotic than anonymity in the heart of Hollywood. I still have an image of him sitting at a banquette, talking a mile a minute, his eyes darting about the room, his body constantly mobile, a moving target in the crosshairs of the media. He couldn't sit still.
Last week I saw him again, 15 years later, at his home in New York City. And now, more than ever, Michael J. Fox can't keep still. But while he was once just restless, these days his movements are beyond his control. As the world now knows, the actor suffers from early-onset Parkinson's disease. He was first diagnosed in 1991, but kept his condition in the closet for seven years. Now, at the relatively tender age of 40, he's the public face of Parkinson's, devoting himself to raising awareness, and money, to help find a cure.
In the process, he's reclaimed the spotlight as the author of Lucky Man, an anti-celebrity memoir that reveals as much about the corrosive nature of fame, and alcohol, as it does about the humbling effects of Parkinson's. It's an intimate, unsentimental journey through one man's private midway. And while the book eviscerates celebrity culture from the inside with a stark wit, Fox's story has all the classic elements of that culture: runaway success, calamity, addiction, recovery - and redemption.
As a star living in a bubble of unlimited indulgence, Fox had begun to feel a gnawing, irrepressibly Canadian paranoia that his success was undeserved, and unnatural. He kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for someone, or something, to say no. "Then," he told me, "there was this implacable no of Parkinson's, and you realize there are no's that are non-negotiable, that you can't charm your way out of - you can't do a good spot on Johnny and it will all go away tomorrow."
But the actor who played time-travelling Marty McFly in Back to the Future insists that if he could go back in time and undo his disease, he wouldn't want to. Confronting Parkinson's has turned his life around. And although he's lost a measure of motor control, and a career in front of the camera, he says he's found unprecedented inner calm. "I'm moving a lot less inside than I was. One of the great ironies is that I couldn't be still until it became virtually impossible to keep my body from moving."
It's a summer-hot spring day on Manhattan's Upper East Side. In Central Park a stray peacock wanders outside the fence, and the playground burbles with well-fed children minded by the cream of Asian and Hispanic nannies. Fox's Fifth Avenue apartment building, overlooking the park, is what you might call a good address. It's home to Paul Newman, Kevin Kline and Bette Midler, and like Fox they all have offices downstairs from their residences. "It's funny," he says. "They used to belong to a plastic surgeon, and people still wander in here looking for a tummy tuck. Instead they find us." Fox leads me past his two assistants, who work at desks under an antique sign for Vermont maple syrup. Through a door is his private sanctuary, where there's a desk, a sitting area and a home-entertainment unit with a TV the size of a fridge. "My wife kicked it out of the house," he sighs. "She evicted it."
Fox takes a seat on the couch. He takes some getting used to. Although he's on medication that reduces his symptoms, his legs flip around constantly, occasionally banging into the glass coffee table. But the movements ebb and flow, and even subside for a while as we settle into the interview. "Am I ever comfortable?" he asks. "You might think no. We're used to the idea that our body language reflects our state of mind. And it doesn't with me. I'm very used to that. It's forced me to do things differently. But I'm very comfortable because it's my reality."
As I become less distracted by his perpetual motion, I begin to notice a calmness at the centre - a strong, steady gaze from those slate-blue eyes, which were so restless the last time we talked. His gaunt face still glimmers with boyish charm, but it's offset by the gravity of age and circumstance. It's not just Parkinson's. Now Michael's sober, in the 13th year of a solid marriage to actor Tracy Pollan, and the father of four children, aged six months to 12 years; then he was wild and single, stoned on the adrenaline of success, and running scared.
Remembering that time, he says, "I was going 100 miles an hour because it seemed like a game of mumblety-peg. I just wanted to keep fingers moving and maintain my chances of not getting amputated. The fear intensified as things went on. I was having fun, but I had this sense that somebody was going to knock on the door and take it away. You just think, 'How on earth can I be getting away with this? If I was Jonas Salk, how would I be getting away with this? But I'm just a guy with an Irish face and Yiddish timing.'"
Born in Edmonton, Fox grew up an army brat, on bases ranging from Chilliwack, B.C. to North Bay, Ont., before his family settled in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby in 1971. At 16, he got his first break playing a 10-year-old boy opposite Brent Carver in the short-lived CBC sitcom Leo and Me. Recently it's come to light that three employees he worked with at the CBC are also afflicted by Parkinson's, a cluster which raises the possibility that all were exposed to a common toxin or virus that might have triggered the disease. "I'm sad for those people I worked with," says Fox, who contacted them during the shooting of a recent CTV documentary on Parkinson's. "I'm curious about the connection. And it is ironic that the beginning of my career could possibly be the beginning of my illness."
After Leo and Me, Fox plunged headlong into acting. By 18, he had dropped out of school and, with the skeptical support of his parents, moved to Los Angeles. Three years later, he was in debt, demoralized and ready to come back to Canada when he landed the role of Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties. After it became a hit, he skateboarded to certified stardom with Back to the Future, 1985's top-grossing movie.
Fox doesn't try to play down how much fun it was being young, rich, famous and single. "There was a period of time when I would literally go out with everybody." In his memoir he writes that girls who "never used to give me the time of day ... were now inviting me home to read it off of their bedside alarm clocks. As for the question, 'Does it bother you that maybe she just wants to sleep with you because you're a celebrity?' My answer to that one was, 'Ah ... nope!'" But Michael met his match in Tracy, and in 1988 they were married, three years after she was cast as his girlfriend on Family Ties. "I was so happy to get off that roller coaster," he says, adding that Pollan was the first woman who dared stand up to him: "Tracy set boundaries."
In 1990, Fox woke up one morning with a strange, uncontrollable tremor in his baby finger, the first in a series of escalating symptoms that led to his Parkinson's diagnosis about a year later. He had just turned 30, and plunged into a spiral of depression and denial. His drinking, meanwhile, spun out of control until one day in 1992, waking up with an especially brutal hangover, he quit for good. "Helping me to make that choice," he writes, "was the first thing I'd actually be grateful to Parkinson's for. Part of the disease's 'gift' is a certain stark clarity about the rest of your life."
Fox admits that at first he was inclined to view his disease as the "cosmic price" of success. "It was payback," he writes. "It was the bill being brought to a sloppy table after an ill-deserved and under-appreciated banquet." And he imagines that his military father, Bill Fox (who died in 1990), would have seen it the same way. Asked if there's isn't something deeply Canadian about that suspicion of success, Michael replies, "Absolutely. It's what sent me packing [from Canada], but at the same time it's why my heart will always be there. What it all comes down to - much more than the fact that we live in these wide open spaces and have this British sense of class - is that Canadians are hyper-aware of their impact on the people around them. And you don't want to be busted on it. You don't want to be a tall poppy."
Eventually, through years of therapy with a Jungian psychoanalyst, Fox says "I disabused myself of that superstitious notion" of Parkinson's being some form of retribution. But he remains fascinated by the symmetry of his success and misfortune, a dialectic that became the creative axis for the book. Becoming hugely successful, he explains, is "unbidden. It's an action to you, not an action by you. So in the same way, Parkinson's was unbidden. One brings you all this stuff and the other seems to take away stuff. But by virtue of the fact that one is based on fact and one on fantasy, the one based on fact has far more value."
In Lucky Man, Fox conducts quite a ruthless autopsy of his movie career. He'd often made idle threats of quitting show business, but when a doctor told him he had 10 years left to work as an actor, he panicked. "I wasn't just losing my brain," he writes, "I was losing my franchise... Forget abdication, this was a coup, and in my panic I decided to break out the pillowcases, loot the palace, and escape with whatever I could carry." Attempting to do "as many lucrative, broad-appeal comedies as possible," Fox watched them bomb one after the other: For Love or Money, Life With Mikey and Greedy. But in 1996, he found refuge in the medium that launched him - as a sharp politician on Spin City, which he would also executive-produce.
But keeping his condition a secret became increasingly difficult. "Can you imagine?" he says, "You're running this company basically, and people don't know the biggest single truth in your life. You have to work everything around it." Just like President Bartlet having to hide his multiple sclerosis in The West Wing, I suggest. Fox was aware of the parallel, but he doesn't watch the show, and tends to avoid the prime-time escapism that was once his stock-in-trade. "ESPN, CNN and CBC Newsworld - that's what I watch."
After finally going public about his condition in 1998, he completed two more seasons of Spin City, then retired with an Emmy in 2000. Fox soon found a new outlet for his creative energies. "I've always loved words and I've always loved books," he says. "I love to play with words. And the fact that I've lost a certain amount of physical agility is compensated by the fact that I sat down for 14 months and wrote a book - or paced and wrote a book."
Fox didn't use a ghostwriter. He would outline episodes on paper, dictate them to a typist, Heidi Pollock, then rewrite his way through successive printouts. When his family vacationed on Martha's Vineyard, Heidi joined them. "We rented her a little house," he says. "She'd ride over on her bike and we'd work in the garage. I'd watch everybody go to the beach every morning, then write all day."
As he developed a passion for writing, Fox says he found it similar, in a way, to acting: "It was amazing to find out that timing is as important on a page as it is on a stage, in the sense of when to get in and when to get out, and does it move the story forward." The actor's brother-in-law, Michael Pollan - author of The Botany of Desire and a contributing editor at the New York Times Magazine - served as a mentor. At one point Fox told him, "One thing I worry about is I've got a weakness for metaphor." And Pollan replied, "You think in metaphor. That's why you're an actor."
In fact, Lucky Man is deftly written, with a verbal agility that seems like an incarnation of the actor's nimble screen persona. He does have a knack for metaphor. He describes his first Parkinson's symptom as his brain "serving notice" that it had "initiated a divorce from my mind." He writes of his "knuckles white from hanging onto that goddamned brass ring;" and he deconstructs the "Being-Famous-in-America Fun House" as a "theatre of celebrity" fed by a media construct of "magical thinking... there seems to be no beginning or end to the performance, no backstage or onstage, no proscenium. Everything is now part of the show - the performer's private life included."
Of course, as he does the rounds of David Letterman and Larry King, Fox is once again trafficking in celebrity. But he writes that he's found a wonderful way to spend "this most rare and useful currency." All the proceeds from the book, and the serial rights, go to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. Science, says Fox, is closer to finding a cure for Parkinson's than for diseases that attract much heavier funding. And with his foundation, a scattering of patients' advocacy groups now have a common voice.
Aside from raising money and galvanizing the cause, Fox has entered the Spin City of political controversy around stem-cell research. Last week he visited Washington to meet with U.S. Secretary of Health Tommy Thompson as rival senators push bills for and against using stem cells from discarded embryos. President Bush's decision to allow limited use of stem cells, he says, "just seems so carefully calculated. It was a bunt when he really could have hit it out of the park. He could have set a course to get this done with a two-term presidency. Not just for Parkinson's but a lot of things [from multiple sclerosis to diabetes]. This is a Pandora's box of possible breakthroughs."
The so-called pro-life argument against using embryo stem cells is inflammatory rhetoric, Fox argues. "Embryonic stem cells have the potential to be anything - except a person, because they've been thrown away. You could put them in a brain and the cell says, 'I'm a dopamine-producing cell, that's what I do.'"
Dopamine is the neurochemical that the damaged brain cells of Parkinson's patients can no longer produce. Fox submits to a regimen of L-dopa medication to compensate for the missing chemical. Because the disease hit him at a young age, his degeneration has been more gradual than in the vast majority of patients, who contract it in their later years. And he needs relatively small doses of the medication. If anything, he says, he responds too well to the drug, which can cause dyskinesia - unlocking the rigidity and spasmodic tremors of Parkinson's to the point that the body starts to writhe with excess fluidity. "Sometimes," says Fox, "people with Parkinson's will come up to me and say, 'You're taking too much medication.' And I say, 'Listen, if I've got to keep up with Larry King, I've got to take too much.' I don't have the luxury of having any kind of halting thing. I'm used to it, my family's used to it, but in a high-stress situation I can't afford it."
Fox writes about the "thrill ride" of going on and off the medication in riveting detail. When he's off, he experiences the classic Parkinson's symptoms of rigidity, shuffling, tremors and imbalance. "You wouldn't recognize me when I'm off," he says. And here's how he describes it in the book: "I feel like I'm dangling from a coat hanger that has been surgically implanted under my skin in the muscles of my back, wedged between my shoulder blades. The sensation is not quite one of being suspended in the air; it's more like being jacked up, with my toes scraping and kicking at the ground, straining for purchase."
Diminished small-motor control can make any kind of verbal expression, written or oral, almost impossible. But when he's on the drug, Michael is keenly articulate - in transcribing the tape of our interview, I could detect no evidence of his condition. Over time, however, his medication will become less effective, and the symptoms will escalate. Like Marty McFly racing against the clock in Back to the Future, he's fighting to reverse his destiny. And he's optimistic: "A cure is quite conceivable over the next 10 years, or more likely some kind of real breakthrough in therapy, so at 50 I could take up acting again in the prime of my life."
Meanwhile, Fox remains remarkably active. He still skis, hikes and plays hockey. He heads up a production company and does voice-over acting. He's planning to write a novel about a hockey player, and a TV pilot, also about a hockey player - "we've seen so many things played out in baseball, but hockey to me, because I'm Canadian, that's my metaphor."
Because he's rich, famous and relatively young, Fox is by no means a typical Parkinson's patient. And he realizes that some may resent his buoyant attitude. "For all those people who have Parkinson's," he says, "it is tough, and it's frightening. Just because I'm all happy and chatty about it - that's me, and a reflection of how blessed I've been. I'm not saying no one has a right to complain or be sad or stricken by it. But I have much more in my life now, whatever the limitations of Parkinson's, than the seemingly endless possibilities that were in front me when I met you at Musso & Frank's."
On my way out, I ask Michael if he can recommend a restaurant for lunch nearby. He suggests an Italian place around the corner. "Tell them I sent you, and they'll treat you well." So I head over there, and a few minutes later he shows up to join me. "I figured I had to eat lunch anyway," he says, almost by way of apology. We sit at his usual corner table at the back. The waiters here pay special attention, not just because he's a star, but a regular.
It was here, he says, that he had lunch with Oliver Sacks, the eccentric author and neurologist portrayed by Robin Williams in Awakenings, who has done groundbreaking research into Parkinson's therapy. "It was surreal," says Fox. "I remember he was talking to me about obsessive-compulsive disorder, and at the same time he was methodically slicing his cheese into 16 little pieces all the same size. Later he gave me a ride home, and his car was full of toy squid and octopi."
As Michael picks at a plate of spaghetti puttanesca, we talk about our kids, and the finicky business of writing. Recently he went home to visit his family in B.C. He had only one copy of his book, but his mother, brother and one of his three sisters quickly devoured it, and to his relief they approved. After a ski trip to Whistler with his children, they took a helicopter to Chilliwack for a family gathering and visited the now-defunct army base where his father was once stationed.
"We walked around and looked into the windows of the old houses," he recalls. "I remember seeing my father perform these drag shows at these beer gardens they'd have. I'd pick up the bottles for two cents each. He'd dress up like a woman and lip-synch Allan Sherman records. He was a comedian, which was so antithetical to him being a military guy. That conflict was one of the reasons he ultimately let me act. He had enough of a dreamer within him."
Now Michael is the father of his own large family, watching 12-year-old Sam rock out on bass guitar - "I've turned him on to all this '70s anthem rock." Then there are Aquinnah and Schuyler, his seven-year-old twin daughters, and six-month-old Esmé, who was named after a J.D. Salinger story, For Esmé with Love and Squalor. "She was born after 9/11," Michaels explains, "and around here it seemed there was nothing but love and squalor. The morning she was born, there was still a pall over the city. But the next day was the marathon, and we were standing at the hospital window holding the baby, looking out at the marathon, and it was one of those great moments. Like, the city's going to be OK. We're going to be OK. Life goes on."
See also DISEASE.
Maclean's April 29, 2002