Michael J. Fox — at the 2021 "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Cure Parkinson's" gala on October 23 — talks about his 30-year battle with Parkinson's. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images for The Michael J. Fox Foundation)
Michael J. Fox says he doesn't fear death, but has a lot more of life to live.
For 30 years now, the TV and movie star has been battling Parkinson's disease. After a dark period as he processed the life-changing news, he channeled his inner optimist and that's what has guided him during his fight. Obstacle after obstacle — and there have been many, especially over the last three years — he has continued marching along during his uphill battle, while also raising over $1 billion for Parkinson’s research through his Michael J. Fox Foundation. But he's not kidding himself about what he's up against — nor is he letting it overshadow the joys in his life.
“As I wrote in my latest book, I’m now out of the lemonade business,” the No Time Like the Future author told AARP in a new interview. “I’m really blunt with people about cures. When they ask me if I will be relieved of Parkinson’s in my lifetime, I say, ‘I’m 60 years old, and science is hard. So, no.’ ”
That said, "I am genuinely a happy guy. I don’t have a morbid thought in my head — I don’t fear death. At all.”
He knows that he's luckier than the average person with the degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.
“It’s hard to explain to people how lucky I am, because I also have Parkinson’s,” Fox said. “Some days are a struggle. Some days are more difficult than others. But the disease is this thing that’s attached to my life — it isn’t the driver. And because I have assets, I have access to things others don’t. I wouldn’t begin to compare my experience to that of a working guy who gets Parkinson’s and has to quit his job and find a new way to live. So, I’m really lucky.”
While lucky, it's absolutely no picnic.
“I’m kind of a freak. It’s weird that I’ve done as well as I have for as long as I have. People often think of Parkinson’s as a visual thing, but the visuals of it are nothing. On any given day, my hands could be barely shaking or they could be [flailing],” he said. “It’s what you can’t see — the lack of an inner gyroscope, of a sense of balance, of peripheral perception. I mean, I’m sailing a ship on stormy seas on the brightest of days.”
An especially stormy time in his life was 2018, when surgeons partially removed a benign tumor that had wrapped around his spinal cord. He had to learn to walk again. Then, four months after surgery, he fell at home and shattered his left arm. It was repaired with 19 screws and a metal plate.
“If you don't think you have anything to be grateful for, keep looking,” he said. “Because you don't just receive optimism. You can't wait for things to be great and then be grateful for that. You've got to behave in a way that promotes that.”
He also spoke about the period after he was diagnosed — and how he “spent seven years keeping it to myself, not telling anybody and not learning about it.” (It was during that time he drank heavily. He then got sober and went public with his diagnosis.)
He said he later learned “others were isolated [too over their diagnoses] and didn’t have a central unifying force that would be their advocate. So, now, along with pushing hard on the science through the foundation, I am a motivator and someone who tries to demystify and normalize Parkinson’s — to take away any shame or sense that it should be hidden. Because unfortunately, inevitably, it will reveal itself. There will always be people who say, 'Why do you have to keep telling me about it?' Well, the fact of my existence is evidence of this disease, and I’m not going to candy coat that for people.”
Fox officially retired from acting last year, explaining that while he worked for 30 years after his diagnosis, finding new ways to act, he “reached the point where I couldn’t rely on my ability to speak on any given day, which meant I couldn’t act comfortably at all anymore.”
For the first time, he's been able to watch some of his work, including Back to the Future. He credits the late Muhammad Ali — who died in 2016 and also had Parkinson’s — for that.
“I used to avoid watching myself on the TV shows I did when I was much younger, because I was healthier then and showed no signs of Parkinson’s,” the Family Ties alum, who played Alex P. Keaton, said. “But I wondered about Ali, whom I had become friendly with. He’d been such a beautiful athlete before Parkinson’s. So, after he died, I asked his wife, Lonnie, if he ever watched recordings of his fights. ‘He watched for hours,’ she said. ‘He loved it!’ And I thought, Yeah, I should love it, too. It’s a legacy, some graffiti that leaves a message of positivity.”
As a result, he has reacquainted himself with his Back to the Future character Marty McFly.
“More people, of all ages, approach me now about that movie than ever before,” he said. “I’m not sure I understood why. Then I came across it on TV last Christmas. And I thought I was really good in it, better than I thought I’d been. More important, I got the spirit of the movie.”
Fox continued, “I understood it was just a big giggle and that we all need ... to take credit for what we’ve done and the lives we’ve touched and to occasionally step back a bit and appreciate that much of life has been great and that there's a lot more to live.”
The actor, who has been married to his Family Ties co-star Tracy Pollan since 1988, ended his interview discussing his legacy — and what he wants it to be.
“I hope people will enjoy my work as an actor and get something from it,” he said. “At a deeper level, I hope people see sincerity in the things I’ve said and done. If I’ve positively helped anybody with Parkinson’s, that’s great, too. I appreciate the purpose and the opportunity to help the foundation, to be part of something that’s potentially so powerful and life changing and world changing — that’s huge.”
He added, “Beyond that — and this is kind of a vanity thing — a lot of really great guitarists have come up to me over the years and said they picked up the guitar because of the ‘Johnny B. Goode’ scene in Back to the Future. If I did anything in this life, I got John Mayer to pick up the guitar!”