When Michael J. Fox opens the door of his mature Metropolitan Home kind of house (hardwood floors, fireplaces, three bedrooms) in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon, you look at him and can’t help wanting to ask, “Is your daddy home?” At 5’4″ and 24, the actor looks like the paperboy.
Look on him instead as David smiting a whole gang of Goliaths, including the biggest bully on the block, Rambo, whose newest shootathon surrendered its No. 1 rank to Fox’s Back to the Future, $150 vs. $180 million. Even Michael J.’s low-budget Teen Wolf earned $32 million on the strength of his name. And on TV the guy is second only to King Cosby. After four seasons Fox has made Family Ties a No. 2 smash, whomping Dynasty, Dallas and Don Johnson.
He is as unlikely a superstar as Mickey Rooney (whose stature he shares) or Jack Benny (whose timing he shares) or his idol Jimmy Cagney (whose squat determination he shares). He’s reached the heights without Madonna‘s navel, Schwarzenegger’s flex or Sean Penn’s punch. Even he wonders how he got there. Just listen to him:
On his good fortune: “Back to the Future came out of nowhere. I don’t know where it’s all coming from, but whoever’s behind it, I’d like to send him a bottle of wine.”
On fame: “I got sick of turning on the TV and seeing my face. The television turned into a mirror for a while.”
On his fame’s effect on Family friends: “Unless Meredith [Baxter Birney] and Michael Gross are barefaced liars, I have every reason to believe they are happy for me. I think the day I start wearing a Back to the Future T-shirt and blasting Power of Love on my tape deck, things might get a little tight.”
On his fans: “I have this theory that if I started wearing sunglasses and went out and bought a stretch limo with tinted windows and hired four guys to beat back 12 year olds, I’d get bothered a hell of a lot more than I do now. People see this ponytail threat, this freckle-face menace. But [my fans] are just kids who are open and affectionate. My attitude is that this person paid my rent, that one bought the car, that one paid for the hockey tickets. The only time it gets to me is when they treat you like a statue: ‘Quick, Herb! Quick, kids! Get in there! Get in beside it!’ ”
On working hard: “I got grumpy. During my ‘year of living dangerously,’ I worked Family Ties during the day and Future at night and got maybe three hours’ sleep. You know how your dreams are peopled with family and friends? Well, imagine all those people in your dreams plus two full crews, two directors, like six producers, then the public. My dreams looked like the Olympics.”
On surviving hard work: “If I did drugs to get through that time, I wouldn’t have a nose left.”
On being un-tall: “There’s not a hell of a lot I can do about being short. You just gotta run with it…. [Before acting] I was getting attention anyway because I’m so small, so I thought now that I’ve got all this attention, I might as well make it positive attention. This little guy with the size-four shoes. They are going to look at you anyway, so you might as well be the funny guy…. Girls think you’re cute and the bullies want to thump you, so you’ve got to be pretty damned funny or you’ll get thumped.”
Speaking of girls: “I never tried to date a girl because she was 5’1″. I wouldn’t think twice if she was 5’8″.”
On girlfriend Nancy McKeon (The Facts of Life star and his co-star in Poison Ivy): “Nancy and I always say this to people and they never believe us: ‘We are more than anything best friends. She is the most fun person to be with. No, we are not getting married.’ ”
On marriage and kids: “When I was 15, I thought I would have kids when I was 30. Now that I’m 24, I think 35 would be a good age.”
On interior design: “I’ll pay top dollar for anything that looks old and junky.”
So Michael J. Fox sits on his junky, corn-colored “great football-watching couch,” and you’re left wondering how this regular if short guy, this engaging kid-man, got to be the year’s biggest crossover star in film and TV. Against your better judgment, he makes you like Alex Keaton, the disgustingly yuppie Reaganaut he plays on Family Ties. He plays a teen time-traveler and werewolf without coming off like another of this year’s wise-ass adolescents. He talks about fame without making you want to slap him and yell, “Grow up!”
In short, the mystery of Michael J. Fox is the secret to Michael J. Fox: You wonder how, in this year of overmuscled-Brat-Pack-primary-colored-hair gimmicks, he became a star without having a gimmick; then you realize that that’s just why you like him so much. He did it on charm. Hallelujah for small virtues.