Michael J. Fox’s Determination to Combat Parkinson’s

July 30, 2018

Among the many celebrity actors dedicating themselves to philanthropic causes is Michael J. Fox whose goal is to “Eliminate Parkinson’s in our lifetime.” The Canadian-American actor founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation in 2000–nine years after being diagnosed with the long-term degenerative disorder himself. The foundation is the largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s research across the globe, indeed raising $800 million to date.

Growing up in Canada, Michael quit high school before graduating from his senior year and, at the age of 18, moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. Soon, he was running out of money and surviving on boxes of macaroni and cheese. When Fox was offered the role of the Ronald Reagan enthusiast Alex P. Keaton on the sitcom Family Ties, his phone had been disconnected, so he had to negotiate his salary using a fast-food chicken joint’s payphone. The popular 1980s show would go on to run for seven seasons, and Fox rose to fame.

In a CBS Sunday Morning interview, the actor reflects on the years his career was peaking while playing Alex as well as starring as the adventure-bound Marty McFly in the blockbuster trilogy Back to the Future. But when reviewing one episode of Family Ties, Fox notices his attempts to hide his early Parkinson’s symptoms from the camera during the shoot. He points out how his head involuntarily bobbed, how he tucked his quivering hand into his pocket or anchored it onto furniture, and he grabbed his shaking foot in attempts to appear like everything was “normal.”

Michael was in shock and denial when he first received his diagnosis of the disease at the early age of 29. He’d paid a visit to a neurologist because, while shooting the romantic comedy Doc Hollywood, he noticed his pinky was twitching, and he wondered if it was the result of injuring his shoulder while performing a stunt. The news was so shocking, as the doctor said Michael had ten years left of being able to work as an actor. At first, the star refused to believe he actually had the disease, and he jokes that he thought he could use his celebrity status to negotiate the diagnosis away. And so for seven years, Fox hid his condition from the public and turned to heavy drinking. But he continued to act all the while. It was when he realized his drinking was taking a toll on his family life that he knew he needed to make some real changes in how he was handling his affliction.

In 1998, Fox opened up to the public about his condition, and he testified before Congress to raise awareness and advocate for the much-needed funding to combat Parkinson’s. Fox admits that his efforts were to benefit himself initially; but, over time, he came to appreciate he was part of an ever-growing community of fellow Parkinson’s sufferers, and so his dedication to the cause increased greatly. Realizing he had the potential to help so many others gave him a tremendous sense of purpose. “I gave up my job to do my life’s work,” he says.

It’s estimated over six million people across the globe have Parkinson’s, a nerve disease of the brain. Symptoms include tremors, impaired speech, muscle stiffness, loss of balance, and sometimes anxiety and depression. Through his foundation, Fox helped assemble the world’s leading researchers on the topic.

After playing Mike Flaherty, the Deputy Mayor of New York in four seasons of the ABC sitcom Spin City, Michael semi-retired from acting as his symptoms were worsening. But Fox continued to act, voicing Stuart Little in the Stuart Little film trilogy, playing the lawyer Louis Canning in The Good Wife, and making several cameo and guest role appearances. Michael has won four Golden Globe Awards and five Emmy Awards throughout his career.

“People always ask me if I say to myself, ‘Why me?’ and I tell them, ‘Why not me?’” he says. Although he admits, “Parkinson’s sucks,” Fox keeps an optimistic attitude, saying, “In every aspect, I have been blessed with the opportunity to work toward leaving an impact on the world and on the lives around me and to be a partner in the critical research for answers.”

 

Let Your Weakness Be Your Strength

August 23, 2012

Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 and semi retired from acting in 2000 as his symptoms made consistent on-camera work untenable. Since 2000 Fox has done voice overs and guest starred on various TV shows such as Boston Legal, The Good Wife, and Scrubs. But in Hollywood, as in life, you can’t keep a good man down. At the ripe old age of fifty-one, Michael J. Fox is set to star in a new NBC episodic comedy series inspired by his life experiences; he will play a disabled husband and father of three dealing with family and career challenges. The show is quite a homecoming for Fox who thirty years ago starred in the groundbreaking NBC hit Family Ties. So confidant is the NBC entertainment division in Michael’s star power and comedic acumen, they’ve committed to air a full season of 22 episodes even before a pilot is filmed. This is unheard of in current ratings-driven network television culture.

Michael J. Fox is a testament to the sticktoitiveness of the successful actor. Yes, he fell down; and yes, it was more than difficult to get up. But he kept looking for ways to overcome the challenges that faced him in a business that can be cruel and an industry married to the bottom line. Well, the bottom line in this story is true talent and hard work will always be served in time. It can be very easy to give up and walk away when it feels like the obstacles are insurmountable and fate itself seems to be working against you; but that is the crucible through which all great actors are borne. When times get tough and you feel like your dreams are dying, remember the philosopher Nietzche’s maxim: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” And every rejection and defeat just means you’ll bring that much more passion, heart, drive, and commitment to every role you’re fortunate enough to land. Michael J. Fox is an inspiration to all of us reaching for a goal that, at times, can seem out of reach.