I never thought of revealing my disease… I had work to do
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s as an otherwise healthy 29-year-old, Michael J Fox hid the symptoms from all but his closest family. As the Back To The Future star reveals in a poignant new documentary, it wasn’t until he finally told the truth about his condition that he could start living with it
MICHAEL J Fox woke up after a night of heavy drinking in November 1990, his pinkie fluttering uncontrollably. He initially thought it was just his “ferocious hangover”. But later, after diagnosis by a doctor, he discovered the terrible truth: he had Parkinson’s disease.
Fox was in Florida filming the romantic comedy Doc Hollywood with co-star Woody Harrelson. He was already an international film star having played Marty McFly in the Back To The Future trilogy. Slim, fit and just 29, the last thing he expected to be suffering from was a neurodegenerative disease.
“The trembling was a message from the future,” he says in a documentary about his life, called Still: A Michael J Fox Movie. “I was in my late 20s. How could I possibly have this old persons’ disease?
“I clung to fantasies of escape, that somehow my diagnosis would turn out to be a mistake.”
At first he attempted to disguise the ailment from his legions of fans.
“I never gave a thought of sharing my diagnosis with anyone,” he explains in the film. “I had work to do. I intended to carry on as though none of this was actually happening to me.”
Born in Alberta, Canada, in 1961, Fox first rose to fame through his portrayal of Alex P Keaton in the TV sitcom Family Ties.
The first film in the Back To The Future franchise, in which he played a teenager transported back in time to the 1950s, established him as a global star. There followed a string of successful movies, including Teen Wolf, The Secret Of My Success, Casualties Of War, and Bright Lights, Big City.
When he was formally diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he was at the height of his fame. Seemingly glowing with health, he was goodlooking, charming, seldom off the covers of teen magazines.
Silently, though, the cruel disease was attacking his brain. To curb the trembling, he started taking dopamine pills.
“I became a virtuoso in manipulating my drug intake so I would peak at exactly the right time and place,” he remembers. The deception worked brilliantly for many years but away from the bright lights of the film studios he found himself turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism.
This inflicted yet more pain on his wife, fellow actor Tracy Pollan, and their young family. “I drank to escape my situation,” admits the star, now 61.
“I was sullen and angry. The core of that behaviour is fear. I had never been so frightened in my life. I definitely was an alcoholic. As low as alcohol had brought me, abstinence would bring me lower. I could no longer escape myself.”
For the sake of his family, he tried to stay sober but chose to make films in foreign locations, where he could live his bizarre double life as Hollywood star by day and desperately ill young man at night in his hotel room. Inevitably, strains began to appear in his marriage.
“Tracy was having a hard time, getting to the end of the rope,” he confesses in the film.
Together they had a son, Sam, born in 1989, twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, born in 1995, and a final daughter, Esme, born in 2001.
By 1996, Fox had returned to television, playing the deputy mayor of New York in the sitcom Spin City. But this added to his secret health battles.
“Television schedules meshed better with family life but the stress of doing a weekly
‘My fear was they’d reject me. If I was sick, could I still be funny? I had to hope that they would accept me’
show in front of an audience left my whole left arm trembling,” he says.
“I was popping pills, all the while doing the maths. How long since the last pill? No one outside of the family knew. To me the worst thing is to be restrained, confined. I would spruce up the walls with fist-sized holes.” Parkinson’s was tightening its grip and he soon found walking more difficult.
Metal pins were inserted into his hand where he had broken bones falling over. At one point, he almost had to have a finger amputated. Today he lives with daily pain.
In 1998, the strain of living a lie became too much, and he decided to give a press conference where he revealed his condition.
His emotions were obvious and his fans were shocked.
AFTER THE announcement, he found being on set in front of a live audience especially tough. Now everyone knew about his illness. “My fear was that they would reject me,” he reveals. “If I was sick, could I still be funny? I had to hope they would accept me.”
Some people, he says, may view his decision to share his diagnosis as career-ending, but he saw it as the beginning of a new life in which he would stop retreating from the world and focus on being himself. He grew more confident with the public.
Once, in a speech to fans at a function, with his hand shaking violently, he said: “I find it extremely moving, no pun intended, to be here today.” Helping him throughout all the struggles, the endless medical appointments, the drug-taking regimes and the career highs and lows has been wife Tracy. He first met her as his on-screen love interest in Family Ties, the sitcom that brought him to fame.
The new documentary shows the couple laughing and joking at home. She’s there supporting him when he receives physical therapy to strengthen his muscles in an attempt to stop him falling over so much.
“I was the most in-love person and I still am,” he says of Tracy, who has made big sacrifices in her career to help him.
Back in the 1990s, when he first broke the news of his illness to her, she reassured him nothing would change between them, reminding him: “In sickness and in health”.
Paying tribute to her rock-solid reliability, he adds: “Tracy is the smartest person I know. Tracy is always in the same spot. She has learned to deal with a lot of stuff. How frustrating it must be to bear the burden of something that isn’t her burden. She shares it with me and takes on more than I can. Everything I have gone through, she has gone through. I could be the King of England, and she would be her. I could be Elvis, and she would be her. I was the Prince of Hollywood. I was bigger than bubblegum. You think it’s made out of brick and rock, but it’s made out of paper and feathers. It’s an illusion.”
Calm and clear-headed, Tracy also gives him “clarity” in his daily battles which often result in injuries when he falls over, a situation he dismisses lightly as a “festival of abuse”. He has broken bones in his face and his shoulder, and has a benign tumour on his spine. That he’s able to cope so well may in part be a result of his upbringing.
The new documentary delves into his early life in Canada. He was born in Edmonton, Alberta, on June 9, 1961, and grew up in Burnaby, near Vancouver. His father William had spent 25 years in the Canadian armed forces before becoming a police dispatcher. Mother Phyliss was an actress and payroll clerk whose own mother came from Northern Ireland. Fox was always rather short and, as a child, he learned to deal with comments about it.At the age of six he was the same height as his threeyear-old sister.
Although academically average, he excelled at drama, joining the Canadian TV series Leo And Me aged just 15. Oddly, he was one of four people involved in the programme who developed Parkinson’s at a young age. By the late 1970s he had moved to Los Angeles to further his acting career. His father told him: “You’ve got the world by the tail, just hang on.”
Initially Fox picked up only minor roles, living in a tiny studio apartment in the slums of Beverly Hills, barely earning enough to eat. “In poker terms I still had a chip and a chair,” he says of those hard times. “As long as you’ve got that, you’re still in the game.”
HE’D BEEN looking for a break for three years before the 1982 role as Alex P Keaton in Family Ties came up, for which he later won several awards. Despite the fame and fortune, his most satisfying achievement, he says, was forming the Michael J Fox Foundation which has raised millions for research into Parkinson’s.
He won a special Oscar last year for his work combatting the disease he sadly predicts will stop him reaching 80. “My world is getting smaller,” he concludes in the film.
“I love my mind and where it takes me and I don’t want that cut short.”
As this remarkably candid film shows, however many more years Fox has left to live, he will continue to fight every day with a barrel full of jokes, and an impish – if now slightly lopsided – grin.
And Tracy and his children will be there to support him.
● Still: A Michael J Fox Movie is released in cinemas and on Apple TV+ on Friday