Michael J. Fox’s family life with his wife, Tracy Pollan, and four children, is by all accounts a dream. He has received several honorary degrees and lifetime achievement awards for his accomplishments, authored several best-selling books, and raised more than $1.5 billion through The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
Recently, on 19th November 2022, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an honorary Oscar recognizing outstanding philanthropic efforts, at the 13th Governors Awards.
When he took the podium to accept the award, he received a standing ovation and gave a moving acceptance speech. He recalled how Parkinson’s disease affected his life and career, from spurring seven years of denial to finally accepting it and seeing it as, in his own words, a “gift that keeps on taking.”
What is Parkinson’s disease (PD)?
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disease which occurs when the brain cells that make dopamine stop working or die. Dopamine coordinates movement, which is why PD can cause tremors, stiffness, slowness, and balance and walking problems.
People with PD also lose the nerve endings that produce norepinephrine, which controls many body functions. That is why it causes other non-movement symptoms such as fatigue, low blood pressure, memory problems, depression and constipation.
The symptoms and progression of PD are unique to each person. No one can predict when you will get the symptoms, what symptoms you will get, and how severe they will be. Some of the signs and symptoms include the following:
- Slowed movement
- Rigid muscles
- Impaired balance and posture
- Loss of automatic movements, such as blinking or smiling
- Speech and writing changes
According to a study by the Parkinson’s Foundation, almost one million people in the US are living with PD, and 60,000 are diagnosed every year. More than 10 million globally are living with PD.
Currently, there is no cure for PD, but treatments like supportive therapies, medication and surgery can relieve the symptoms and improve the quality of life.
How Parkinson’s disease impacted Michael J. Fox’s life and career
Michael J. Fox became a household name in the early 1980s when he starred as Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties, which won him a Golden Globe and three Emmys. In 1985, he starred in Back to the Future as Marty McFly. The movie was a huge success, and Fox gave one of the most beloved and iconic performances in modern movie history. He went on to give memorable performances in several classics, including Teen Wolf.
In 1991, while filming Doc Hollywood, he was diagnosed with young-onset PD. He was only 29 years old. “My world as I knew it changed in the instant the doctor pronounced my condition,” Fox said. The diagnosis impacted his life in the following ways.
It brought uncertainty
When he was diagnosed, Fox was newly married to his wife, whom he met on Family Ties. It was a massive blow as the territories were uncharted, and they didn’t understand what PD meant.
In his Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award acceptance speech, he said, “The hardest part of my diagnosis was grappling with the certainty of the diagnosis and the uncertainty of the situation!” The couple only knew it would get worse but didn’t know when and how it would progress. He recalled how bad it felt knowing he had only ten years left before the disease took hold.
Fox went into denial and started making ridiculous decisions. He made a series of mediocre comedies hoping for a hit. Films like Life with Mikey, For Love or Money, and Greedy were commercial flops. He told The New York Times Magazine he was trying to do as many quick and successful movies as possible instead of doing one good one that meant something to him.
In 1994, Fox started accepting the disease and sought to understand it to deal with it straightforwardly. In 1996, he starred in Spin City, ABC’s breezy workplace sitcom, playing NYC’s Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty. It earned him four Emmy nominations, including one win.
It brought support and a newly found purpose after coming out
Fox kept his diagnosis private for seven years because he didn’t know if his audience could laugh if they knew he was struggling. He told very few people and kept it his secret. His wife, Tracy Pollan, had made it clear she was with him for the duration and stood by him.
When he started accepting the disease, he sought to understand it.
“There were all kinds of doctors who helped me understand the processes that were at work, or not at work, in my brain, as the case may be,” he said. Once he did, he felt he needed to tell everybody. Even though he eventually announced his diagnosis because of being bullied by the paparazzi, he wasn’t expecting the support he received.
He received overwhelming support from his peers in the entertainment business and the public. They responded with interest and the desire to find an answer to it.
The Canadian started to see the support as a great opportunity. It allowed him to establish The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and go back into acting until his full retirement in 2020.
It brought investments in Parkinson’s disease
As he discovered more about the disease, every piece of information he learned and every researcher or NIH official he talked to confirmed that the science was ahead of the money. He realized he could get answers if he made the right investments, so he established The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in 2000, hoping to find a cure. He wanted to call it “PD Cure,” but his wife hilariously remarked it sounded like “pedicure.”
He realized that everything he had been given – his success and his life and family – had prepared him for that opportunity. He reached out to the Parkinson’s community; everything else is history. Today, his organization is recognized as the largest non-profit funder of Parkinson’s disease research in the world and has funded more than $1.5 billion in research projects.
It brought mockery
In 2006, the Back to the Future and Family Ties star appeared in then-Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill’s campaign video. When Rush Limbaugh saw the ad, he mocked him in a podcast. He said Fox is exaggerating the effects while mocking his tremors.
Limbaugh said the movements and shakes were purely an act and that he had never displayed any of those symptoms before. He called it shameless and claimed either he didn’t take his medication or was acting. He later retracted and apologized, but the damage was already done.
It changed the acting roles he took
PD significantly impacted Michael J. Fox’s acting. One of the reasons he left Spin City was that he felt his face hardening and his movements constricted. In his interview with The New York Times Magazine, he points out how he would anchor himself against the wall or a desk in the last couple of seasons of the sitcom. It became too much, and he left.
A few years later, he was asked to do Scrubs, Boston Legal, and Rescue Me. During this time, he adopted a “less is more” philosophy.
He also experiences issues with memory and remembering lines. Speaking to Mike Birbiglia on his “Working It Out” podcast, he admitted that memorizing lines had gotten much harder. He recalls how he didn’t struggle to remember his lines in Family Ties, with tens and tens of pages of dialogue. But he couldn’t remember his lines when doing the spinoff from The Good Wife, which is The Good Fight. He called the experience “strange.”
It was the same thing when filming Designated Survivor. He said, “It was this legal stuff and I just couldn’t get it.”
Using his “less is more” philosophy, he no longer makes progress with many lines because he cannot remember five pages of dialogue. However, in 2020, he retired from acting permanently due to the progression of his PD.
It brought injuries
In his 2020 memoir No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, Michael J. Fox says 2018 was the worst year of his life. In the year, he had spinal-cord surgery to remove a tumor and broke his left arm. He ended up recovering and took his family on an African safari.
In 2022, Michael J. Fox lost his mom, Phyllis, at 92 years in September and has suffered a series of broken bones and injuries since then. He has broken his cheek, hand, shoulder, right arm, and elbow. He has a replacement shoulder. The surgery for his broken hand left him with an infection, so he couldn’t use the arm for a while, leading to balance issues and more falls.
In an interview with AARP The Magazine, Fox says, “As I came through that darkness, I also had an insight about my father-in-law, who had passed away and always espoused gratitude and acceptance and confidence. And I started to notice things I was grateful for and the way other people would respond to difficulty with gratitude”.
He concluded that gratitude makes optimism sustainable, which he echoed in his Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award acceptance speech when he said, “with gratitude, optimism is sustainable.”
Although it took time to adjust and accept, Michael J. Fox turned a chilling diagnosis into a courageous mission. He could have chosen to disappear from the public eye. But, despite his struggles, he used his platform to raise awareness and funds while showing how the illness doesn’t limit anyone’s potential.
Fox counts himself lucky to have the disease as it helped him start and complete his life’s work. He finds gratitude in the little things in life and uses it to fuel his optimism in life. In his AARP interview, he said, “At 60, I just feel like, in spite of this thing I carry every day, I love my life, I love my wife, I love my kids … Parkinson’s is just this thing that’s attached to my life. It isn’t the driver … I’m really lucky, and I try to spread that luck around.”
His optimism is something we should all struggle to achieve.