Some actors captivate audiences with their unparalleled screen performances — take Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, for instance. Others become tabloid fodder and, in even rarer cases, rebound from their personal struggles and deliver even stronger work than before (Robert Downey Jr. comes to mind). And then there is Michael J Fox, an actor who — at 61 years old — is in a league of his own as not just an actor but as a human being.
More than 30 years after his diagnosis, the actor recently spoke about his courage to persevere. He also addressed how even daily tasks are now major challenges to overcome, and what keeps him motivated to live.
Michael J Fox’s Early Successes
While he launched his acting career in the 1970s, Michael J Fox wasn’t really a child actor per se. After all, his breakout role as Alex P. Keaton was in the ‘80s sitcom Family Ties; in the first season, he was already 21 years old.
Fox won three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe Award for his role in the sitcom.
Halfway through that decade-spanning series, Fox replicated his fame on the small screen to the big screen, starring as Marty McFly in the timeless (pun intended) classic trilogy Back to the Future.
Even more success followed as the actor broadened his range, from playing a coming-of-age kid/werewolf in 1985’s Teen Wolf to the hero in the corporate comedy The Secret of My Success (1987) to a soldier in Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War (1989).
In 1996, Michael J Fox returned to TV land to play the lead role in Spin City from 1996 to 2000. But halfway through that series’ span, he revealed his Parkinson’s disease to the public — and drew maybe more attention than he ever had before.
A Never-Ending Battle Begins
Parkinson’s disease is a long-term degenerative disorder that attacks the central nervous system and, in turn, a person’s motor skills. Complications can include tremors, trouble walking and moving, and dementia.
Michael J Fox kept his Parkinson’s diagnosis under wraps for seven long years. But when news got out that he had suddenly quit Spin City, he began talking more publicly about his condition.
“I could not be more proud of the show … and all that we have accomplished over the last four years,” he said at the time, according to the BBC. “But I feel that right now my time and energy would be better spent with my family and working towards a cure for Parkinson’s disease.”
Around that time, he also launched the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which has funneled more than $1 billion toward finding the cure.
After the Parkinson’s diagnosis at only 29 years old, Fox initially fell into a deep depression and turned to heavy drinking. In fact, he thought his early signs of the disease — a shaky finger, for example — were due to hangovers, as The Guardian reported.
However, shortly after he made the public announcement, he began speaking at length about the condition.
“[Parkinson’s] makes me squirm and it makes my pants ride up so my socks are showing and my shoes fall off and I can’t get the food up to my mouth when I want to,” he said, according to The Guardian. “I hate the way it makes me look. That means that I hate me.”
Michael J Fox Perseveres
Now, Fox is so deeply entrenched in attempts to find a Parkinson’s cure that one might forget he was an actor. (Aside, that is, from his hilarious appearance on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.)
Shortly before his 61st birthday, he spoke again about his battle with the horrific disease — and how he managed to keep acting until he finally retired in 2020. (His roles included Rescue Me, The Good Wife, and The Michael J. Fox Show, among others.)
As he recently said on a podcast, according to Prevention.com: “When I did the spinoff from The Good Wife, which is The Good Fight, I couldn’t remember the lines. I just had this blank, I couldn’t remember the lines.”
“I can’t remember five pages of dialogue,” he added.
Keaton revealed in another interview, with People magazine in 2020, that he had to give up hobbies like playing guitar, sketching, dancing because of the effects of the disease.
“So it’s down to writing,” Fox said. “Luckily, I really enjoy it.”
Fox also revealed in an interview with AARP how he is able to continue enjoying life despite the debilitating condition.
“If you can find something to be grateful for, then optimism is sustainable,” 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.”
As Marty McFly would say: “Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”