“I am not the focus of the story,” states Michael J Fox, who remains kind and resolute throughout our conversation, though ultimately unconvincing. “The true story is about the strength of optimism and the choice that it presents. Acceptance does not equate to giving in to something. Instead, it means acknowledging it and asking yourself, ‘What actions does this truth demand of me?'”
He takes a sip of Diet Coke. “It’s similar to our former president: the only solution is honesty. It’s easy to get swept up in the fabricated narrative. In the close-mindedness and animosity, the bitterness and ugliness of it all. It can consume you. That’s why you have to resist it.”
I question if the truth is being overshadowed by Donald Trump. However, I do not believe we will follow that path. He is making progress and approaching the end. It is crucial that we continue to remember our values. I trust that we will overcome, but the current state of the world is concerning.
Fox is currently talking from his office located in Los Angeles. In the unfocused background, his assistants are milling around. He can be seen at the center of the screen with his chestnut hair and greying stubble. Despite being 62 years old and living with Parkinson’s for more than half of his life, there is still a hint of youthfulness in his neat features.
Fox’s story – and he is the story – is one hell of a tale. Cute Canadian titch quits school, moves to Los Angeles, dumpster-dives for food, then lands the role of a yuppie teen on the smash sitcom Family Ties. Superstardom is sealed by Back to the Future. By August 1985, he has the US’s No 1 film in cinemas, and the No 2 (Teen Wolf), and the biggest TV show. He is on every magazine cover, every chatshow, every bedroom wall.
He stars in several hit films such as The Secret of My Success, The Hard Way, and Casualties of War. He also ties the knot with his on-screen love interest from Family Ties, Tracy Pollan. However, at the young age of 29, he receives the devastating news that he has Parkinson’s disease. The average life expectancy for someone with this condition is 10-20 years.
The fox begins to drink excessively and disappears while working on film sets abroad. When Pollan informs him that she does not want to have children with an alcoholic, he decides to change his ways. He takes on another sitcom, Spin City, that fits into his schedule between breakfast and bath time. In 1998, he publicly reveals his diagnosis. Two years later, he establishes the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, initially named PD Cure until Pollan asked about the name sounding like “pedicure.” The foundation has currently distributed a total of £2 billion.
The movie “Still” directed by Davis Guggenheim tells the story of Michael J Fox and has been nominated for a Bafta award, but surprisingly not for an Oscar. Fox comments that the snub didn’t deeply affect him, possibly because the movie had already won four Emmys. He is no stranger to being overlooked for his work on TV or in comedy, but he doesn’t seem to mind as he already has an honorary Oscar and enjoys it.
It was created in 2022, around the time he was given the award. The film includes old clips from his projects, passages from his exceptional memoirs, and a personal interview with Guggenheim. Despite being physically bruised from multiple falls, Fox remains optimistic and humorous.
During our video call earlier this week, he remains very much the same. His mind is still sharp as a razor. I asked if he sees any similarities between himself and previous subjects of Guggenheim. He promptly responds, “No, Bill Gates is much taller than me.” He then adds with kindness, “I really like your prints,” as he leans in to get a closer look at the wall behind me. It’s surprising yet heartening to hear that he is an avid fan of 1950s British Rail posters.
However, his narrative has omitted several sections since the incident where Still was wounded. In the movie, he experiences periods of concentrated determination that are currently missing as his body sways in continuous movement. He avoids talking about his constant agony, but the word “tormented” frequently comes to mind. The sentiments he is able to convey through his facial expressions are subdued, making conversation challenging, along with his occasionally unintelligible speech. Yet, when he does beam, it is profoundly touching.
Explores the contrast between 2022 Fox, seeking serenity, and the eerily young 80s heartthrob. It could also be a combination of both. In the footage, he is constantly in motion: bursting through doors, zooming on skateboards, effortlessly sliding over car hoods. Guggenheim, who I spoke with last week, says, “Michael is always on the go, go, go, go. You have to wonder: is he dancing gracefully like Fred Astaire or is he, like, half-stumbling? He still wants to rush across the room to hand me a Diet Coke, but he shouldn’t.”
Some of the most striking material Guggenheim and his editor assembled comes from early seasons of Spin City when Fox – not yet public with his diagnosis – finds his body betraying him. His left hand twists behind his back; the contortion of a man worried that if people knew he had Parkinson’s they would no longer find him funny.
I found it strange to witness, Fox confirms, as sitcom dialogue overlapped with medical proof. What about the rest of the footage? “People often wonder how I feel seeing my younger, athletic, and graceful self. Does it bother me? No. Do I switch the channel? Yes.”
This caused him to reflect. As he often does, he contemplated what actions Muhammad Ali would take in this situation. He contacted Ali’s widow, Lonnie, who shared that her husband enjoyed revisiting recordings of his past boxing matches. “He could spend hours watching it. And I also feel very content and proud of the result. I appreciate that it holds significance. What’s especially gratifying is when individuals approach and express – they struggle to articulate it – ‘Thank you for my childhood.’ While I cannot take credit for their childhood, I comprehend their sentiment. There was a strong bond there.”
The link between Ali and Fox is clear: they both gained fame as agile performers, but later became renowned for their battle with Parkinson’s disease. However, they both used their influence to give back to society through charitable work. According to Guggenheim, one of the remarkable things about Michael is that he initially had no intentions of making a positive impact on the world. His main goal was to achieve fame and wealth. When he achieved this, he indulged in material possessions such as multiple sports cars. However, when he received his diagnosis, his initial reaction was to turn to alcohol and escape. He made all the wrong choices.
What Fox admired most about Ali, he says, was how lightly he wore the love lavished on him – and his unexpected new responsibilities. They were often toasted at the same events. “I loved standing next to him,” says Fox, “because that was the greatest way to be invisible. They wouldn’t see you, only him. But he had no time to talk about what he meant to the world. He did what he did, and, to a much lesser degree, I just did what I did, because it seemed the right thing to do.”
Reflection is futile. “It is what it is” and it did not conquer me. I wish it was something heroic, but I don’t welcome it. I despise it. It’s terrible. It’s difficult to wake up in the morning and continue on, but I have a wonderful family and an office filled with trophies.
More admiration does not hold much interest. “I have no interest in writing about someone’s life as if they were a saint or martyr.” Is it because it’s dull? “Yes, it is dull. Life should be accepted for what it is. Trying to present it in a certain way or embellish it will not be successful. It won’t hold any value.”
The producer credit for Still was turned down by Fox, stating “I want to maintain my credibility as a witness. Otherwise, my words and actions could be doubted. What is my true intention?” However, he did ask for more footage of himself being slightly arrogant: “People with disabilities can also have unpleasant attitudes.” This is also why he enjoyed portraying a fictionalized version of himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he may or may not have exaggerated his symptoms to irritate Larry David.
The fox has refrained from taking action for ten years. Is it challenging to consistently be true to oneself? “It’s a constant battle. It’s extremely hard. I tire of discussing myself. I am too familiar with myself.”
He leans towards his drink. “I am often unsure of what image I am portraying to others, as it may not reflect my true emotions. I tell people: what you have witnessed me doing is not necessarily a reflection of my inner state. However, it is not up to others to anticipate how I am feeling. I do not want to inconvenience others by making them adjust their actions or positions to accommodate my current state.”
Observing others observe him is “pleasant, yet peculiar. They are not interacting with me, but rather with the version of myself that they perceive.”
Before speaking with Fox, I intended to inquire about any concerns he may have had about being a highly visible advocate for Parkinson’s disease, considering his unique circumstances such as his younger age, physical fitness, celebrity status, wealth, and access to advanced treatments. However, after spending just a few moments with him, I quickly abandoned that question. Parkinson’s is a harsh disease, regardless of one’s privileges.
However, Fox does not desire sympathy (he has referred to it as “a gentle type of mistreatment”) any more than he desires worship. Instead, he asserts that his illness has actually benefited him rather than hindered him. He believes it is a crucial aspect of his fortunate life, not a form of karmic retribution – although Guggenheim’s film briefly suggests otherwise.
Fox’s tight grip on the silver lining is what first caught the director’s attention. The film’s unspoken conundrum, says Guggenheim, is “what happens when an incurable optimist confronts something perfectly designed to defeat that optimism?”
Can Fox provide a response? “Your future is the one thing that will never run out. No matter your location or actions, it will always be there. Until it’s not. Then it’s gone, and it becomes significant. But I am committed till the end. I won’t leave early just to avoid the crowd.”
After finishing filming for the night, Guggenheim admits that he unexpectedly felt envious of Fox. He reflects on the current state of affairs, such as the turmoil in the Middle East and the American election, and wonders if it’s even possible to maintain a sense of optimism. Meanwhile, he observes how Michael is able to do so effortlessly and is trying to understand how to do the same.
When I bring up this topic to Fox, he stops to think. He expresses his concern about the current situation, saying it’s quite frightening. As a parent of young adults, he feels guilty about the challenges they will have to face when he is no longer around. However, he believes that the best approach is to remain hopeful. He explains that if you constantly fixate on the worst possible outcome and it ends up occurring, you have essentially experienced it twice. He does not want that for himself and chooses to live in the present instead.
This is how Parkinson’s may have actually been beneficial to the individual. Once he openly shared his diagnosis, he became determined to find a way to overcome it. This became his sole focus and provided him with a clear purpose. He no longer had time to dwell on his condition. Surprisingly, Parkinson’s has been the most fulfilling aspect of his life, surpassing even his career.
The initiative may have achieved even greater success. With the goal of utilizing all funds every year, the Fox Foundation has funded more research than the US government. “We aim to fully invest in all potential areas. We thoroughly investigate and take risks with our funding opportunities.”
He is enthusiastic about the potential of deep brain stimulation and hopeful about biomarkers, as they can help detect the disease before symptoms manifest. When his finger started to twitch, 75% of his dopamine-producing cells were already deceased. However, if we catch it early, we can proactively treat it and potentially eliminate it altogether.
I am inquiring about implants for the spinal cord. These implants, which are set to be tested on a larger scale later this year, aim to improve motor function by bypassing the brain. Could this be an option for him? He responds, “I do not view any of these options as a means to explore my own path.” Unfortunately, he is unable to participate due to an unrelated tumor that was removed from his spine in 2018. He also mentions having a mild form of Parkinson’s disease that further disqualifies him.
He grins and then becomes a bit mysterious. He hints at something that is coming up in the future. He is knowledgeable about research in a specific area, but cannot disclose it. He is confident that it will have a significant impact, saying “I bet you it will!” When asked about a timeline, he responds with a playful “I don’t think in exact terms!” But he agrees to provide an estimate, saying that within the next 10 to 15 years, there will be a viable solution in some form, whether it’s a cure or a way to prevent it from happening.
I am rendered speechless. My colleague, Fox, takes over my duties with ease. “The next question is: will I still be present for that? I am skeptical. However, it’s alright. I do not consider this personally – all I want is to seize the opportunity. And I believe the opportunity is approaching. For significant, profound solutions.”