At 24, Michael J. Fox was a Hollywood phenom, the star of both TV’s Family Ties and Back to the Future, the movie box office champ of 1985. Six years later, in the middle of the rocket ride, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an incurable, degenerative neurological disorder that affects some 1.5 million Americans. (The vast majority are over age 50 when they are diagnosed; only 10 percent are, as Fox was, under 40.) As he writes in this exclusive excerpt from his new autobiography, Lucky Man, the diagnosis, which he kept hidden from all but his closest friends and family for seven years, launched him on a physical and spiritual odyssey that changed his life — in many ways, remarkably, for the better.
Since going public with his condition in 1998 — and leaving his hit ABC series Spin City — the Canadian-born actor, founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, has become an eloquent spokesman for his fellow sufferers, testifying on Capitol Hill in support of stem-cell research and increased federal funding. His illness continues to progress. Most of the time, when his medication takes effect, "I’m relatively loose and fluid, my mind clear and movements under control," he writes. If it wears off — as it can three or four times a day — "I experience the full panoply of classic Parkinsonian symptoms: rigidity, shuffling, tremors, lack of balance, diminished small motor control."
Nonetheless, Fox, 40, who is married to actress Tracy Pollan, 41, and affectionately called Shaky Dad by son Sam, 12, and twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, 7 (baby Esm is 5 months old), says he has made peace with the disease. Parkinson’s "has been a real learning opportunity," he says. "And to know that there are a couple million people out there who actually give a damn about what’s happening to me — that’s a tremendous blessing." It didn’t seem that way in November 1990, when Parkinson’s made its first tentative appearance, while Fox was in Gainesville, Fla., filming Doc Hollywood.
I’d only been shooting the movie in Florida for a week or so, and the massive, pink-lacquered, four-poster bed of the University Center Hotel’s Presidential Suite still came as a shock each morning. Oh yeah — and I had a ferocious hangover. That was less shocking.
Eyes clenched shut, I placed the palm of my left hand across the bridge of my nose in a weak attempt to block the glare. A moth’s wing — or so I thought — fluttered against my right cheek. That’s when I noticed my pinkie. It was trembling, twitching, auto-animated. How long this had been going on I wasn’t sure. But now that I noticed it, I was surprised to discover that I couldn’t stop it.
I’d put away a lot of beers in my time, but had never woken up with the shakes; maybe this was what they called delirium tremens? Woody Harrelson was in Gainesville with me on this film, and he had been in the bar the night before — maybe we’d had one of our legendary drunken slap fights. But I didn’t feel any bumps, so that couldn’t have been it. Throughout the morning, the twitching would intensify, as would my search for a cause — not just for the rest of that day, but for months to follow. The true answer was elusive, and in fact wouldn’t reveal itself for another full year.
I called Brigette, my assistant. Trying my best not to sound panicky, I casually mentioned what was happening to my finger. She scared the hell out of me by suggesting that it sounded to her like a neurological problem, and did I want to speak to her brother, who happened to be a brain surgeon up in Boston? “No, that’s okay. I really don’t think it’s that big a deal,” I said, trying to convince myself as much as her. “I’ll just give Tracy a call.” Ten minutes after I’d spoken to Tracy, Brigette was in my room with her brother on the line (and she) handed me the phone. Brigette’s brother, Dr. Phillip Roux-Lough, very serious, very professional, came up with a host of possible explanations, each one more horrific than the last. I was amazed to learn that people my age actually had strokes and aneurysms — good God. The words “brain tumor” surfaced, but this was not an area I wanted to explore too deeply. He suggested I consult a neurologist.
The neurologist concluded that the most likely source of the spasms was a minor injury to the funny bone. Relieved, Fox continued filming Doc Hollywood, which wrapped in February 1991. But his symptoms worsened.
The twitching in my pinkie persisted, but now my ring and middle finger occasionally joined in on the act. I was experiencing weakness in my left hand, stiffness in my shoulder and achiness in the muscles on the left side of my chest.
Tracy, Sam and I had plans to spend August at her parents’ place on Martha’s Vineyard. The Pollans’ Vineyard home was as cozy as a hug. Tracy and I sipped wine on the veranda and watched the sun set each night. On mornings when Sam was restless, I’d scoop him up and, sitting on the porch, we’d watch that same sun rise up to greet another perfect summer day. Energized by the success of the movie, I resolved to get myself in shape — cut back on the beers, lose a few pounds. There’s no more beautiful place to jog than Martha’s Vineyard. Near the end of our stay, I decided to go for it and do the entire five-mile loop along Moshup Trail. It was late afternoon on a particularly gorgeous day.
About a half mile from the turn down the dirt driveway to the house, I saw Tracy driving toward me. She pulled over, got out of the car and waved me to stop. She appeared slightly stricken. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You look like hell. The left side of your body is barely moving. Your arm isn’t swinging at all. I don’t think you should run anymore until you get a chance to see a doctor. I think you should make an appointment as soon as we get back to the city.”
Fox contacted a sports medicine specialist, who, after X rays and an MRI, recommended Fox see another neurologist, which he did in September 1991.
The most paranoid, hypochondriacal fantasy I could think of would not have prepared me for the two words the neurologist bludgeoned me with that day: Parkinson’s disease. Recollecting my exact response to this pronouncement is difficult; there are gaps. I don’t think I said anything. I don’t think I felt anything. The doctor said some more words, like “Young Onset,” “progressive,” “degenerative,” “incurable,” “very rare.” “At your age, new drugs, new hope . . .” The air sucked from my lungs, my left arm was shaking clear up to the shoulder. My only clear memory is of wondering why the hell he was doing this to me, and what was I going to tell Tracy? As I stepped out onto the rain-soaked streets of midtown Manhattan, it was as if I were entering a whole new world.
I let myself into the apartment. I could smell dinner cooking in the kitchen and hear Sam giggling with Iwalani, our friend and Sam’s nanny. Tracy entered from the kitchen, and I met her in the foyer and silently motioned her toward our bedroom, where I told (her). We cried, we held each other. I remember thinking the scene was a very strange, sad, upside-down-funny if it wasn’t so . . . happening to us.
I had my internist prescribe P.D. (Parkinson’s disease) meds. Therapeutic value, treatment, even comfort — none of these was the reason I took these pills. There was only one reason: to hide. No one, outside of family and the very closest of friends and associates, could know. And that is how matters stood for seven years.
Fox was afraid that if word of his disease got out, his career would suffer — payback, he felt, for undeserved success. After leaving Canada and arriving in L.A. as a virtual unknown in 1979, he had spent a few lean years doing commercials and TV spots. In the spring of 1982 he auditioned for executive producer Gary Goldberg for a new sitcom called Family Ties. By August of ’85 it was the No. 2 TV show in the country, while Fox’s features — Back to the Future and Teen Wolf — held the top two box office slots. Fox, then 24, was Hollywood’s new Boy Wonder.
I found myself in the labyrinthine fun house of American megacelebrity — a place where, I discovered, it is easy to get lost. I became so intoxicated on the nectar of money and unlimited possibility that I fell completely under its influence, forgetting for a time that it wasn’t real.
Don’t get me wrong — I had a really, really good time. You know that old sentence that starts with “Girls who never used to give me the time of day . . .”? Well, I’d end it with “. . . were now inviting me home to read it off of their bedside alarm clocks.” And as for the question “Does it bother you that she just wants to sleep with you because you’re a celebrity?” My answer to that one was “Ah . . . nope.”
There were free meals, first-class travel, luxury hotel rooms. The cool thing was, I could still be a nice guy. I didn’t have to sacrifice my Canadian politeness. Still very much a kid in my mid-20s, I was no longer hearing the word “no” very often. And frankly, I was too blissed out to care — at first. I remember this period of my life — to the extent I can remember it — as one blowout after another; the booze was free and I was usually the guest of honor. But perhaps because my success was so sudden and outsized, I had the feeling I was getting away with something.
Fox especially enjoyed the perks of what wife Tracy now calls the "I’m famous, you’re famous" club — flying to Vegas to watch the Hagler-Mugabi fight with Sugar Ray Leonard or, in 1985, being seated next to Princess Diana at the London premiere of Back to the Future.
Of course, not everyone in this elite club is eager to see the membership rolls expanded. At that year’s Oscars, I presented an award and backstage afterward I passed Cher, in full diva regalia, waiting by an elevator. “Hi,” I said, extending my hand. “I’m Mike Fox.”
“I know who you are,” she said flatly, stepping into the elevator without stopping to shake my hand. I’m famous, you . . . not so much.
During the 1985-86 season of Family Ties, Fox’s character, Alex Keaton, got a girlfriend — opinionated art student Ellen Reed, played by actress Tracy Pollan, then 25. At the time, both Fox and Pollan were in other relationships. That soon changed.
One day about four weeks into the season, Tracy and I were rehearsing a scene when we broke for lunch. By now, we’d struck up a friendship and spent a lot of time on set talking, but we tended to go our own ways during the lunch break. That day, Tracy had spent hers in an Italian restaurant. After lunch, we picked up where we had left off, Alex answering a knock at the Keatons’ living room door, opening it to reveal Tracy. The moment she said her first line, I detected a hint of garlic, and sensed an opportunity to have a little fun at her expense.
“Whoa. A little scampi for lunch, babe?”
At first she said nothing. Her expression didn’t even change. But before long it became clear that my remark had surprised and hurt her. Here I was, a fellow actor whom she was just learning to trust, and maybe beginning to like, and I had ambushed her with my insensitivity. Looking me dead in the eye, she said slowly and evenly in a voice too quiet for anyone else to hear, “That was mean and rude, and you are a complete and total f—— a——.”
I was floored. Nobody talked to me that way; not lately anyway. This woman was completely unintimidated, unimpressed by whomever I thought I was, and even less by whom everyone else thought I was. I felt a rush of blood redden my face. I was overwhelmed by an emotion I was surprised to discover was something other than anger. I wasn’t p—– off; I was smitten.
At the end of the season Pollan left the show, and the two went their separate ways. They reconnected in 1987, when Pollan won a part alongside Fox in Bright Lights, Big City. That Christmas they were engaged, and on July 16, 1988, they wed in a quiet ceremony at a small country inn in Vermont. Soon Pollan became Fox’s anchor, and the first to force him to address something that had clearly become a problem.
(Tracy) was particularly disturbed by the amount of drinking I was doing, and was one of the first people I can remember ever suggesting to me, however tentatively, that alcohol was something to be careful with. We also talked about the pressure I felt not to let anyone down, to prove myself deserving of the opportunities that were coming my way, and to choose projects that would guarantee success after success, even if that meant cheating myself of opportunities to grow as an actor.
For some, drinking alcohol only one day a week would be no hardship at all. I had trouble maintaining this discipline. And there never seemed to be any major repercussions. Everybody knew who I was, how hard I worked — that’s Mike, just blowing off steam. “I was drunk at the time” became my all-purpose excuse for any indiscretion.
With my diagnosis in 1991 came another shift in my relationship with alcohol. The quantity of my drinking was still down from ’80s levels, but I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that my drinking was about filling a void, masking a need to be something more than I was. Now I craved alcohol as a direct response to the need I felt to escape my situation. Joyless and secretive, I drank to disassociate; drinking now was about isolation and self-medication.
At the end of the workday I’d drink a couple of beers in my trailer, having a couple more as my teamster driver shuttled me home. At dinner, I’d ask Tracy if she wanted wine. I’d select a bottle, pour us each a glass, then take the bottle back into the kitchen under the pretense of returning it to the refrigerator. In my other hand I’d be carrying my own wineglass. Once in the kitchen, I’d quickly polish off the bottle, throw it in the recycle bin and extract an identical bottle from the wine rack. I’d open it and swill enough to lower the level of liquid so it matched that of the first (bottle) when I’d left the living room. Returning from the kitchen, as if I’d spent the last five minutes checking on the pot roast, I’d ask Tracy if she wanted me to freshen up her glass, do so, and then refill my own once more.
By the end of dinner, my voice would be inappropriately loud and my words slurred. There were nights that I’d get out of bed after Tracy had fallen asleep and continue drinking. On those occasions when Tracy confronted me, I’d become angry and defensive. The distance that my behavior was opening up between me and my young family frightened me. But in June of 1992, in a moment of clarity, something I can now attribute only to grace, I’d decide to put a stop to it.
Excerpted from Lucky Man: A Memoir, by Michael J. Fox. Copyright (c) 2002 by Michael J. Fox. Published by Hyperion.