Little Big Man
Michael J. Fox, who at 5’4″ and 120 lbs. worries more about being overweight than undersize, is poking at a salad and trying to explain why so many actors are short. We are in the Paramount commissary, seated in the fancy waitress-service wing the Family Ties star calls “the big people’s commissary,” where the grown-ups eat.
“Actors are outcasts,” he explains, “just like people considered small often become. If you want to be socially accepted, have people respond to you in normal ways, you don’t choose to be short and you don’t decide to be an actor.”
Fox, who loves any sort of intellectual challenge as long as it isn’t math, is warming to this psychology session, analyzing people like Dustin Hoffman and himself. He is beginning a discourse on the “underdog attitude” of short people when he notices Al Pacino, 5’7″, sitting nearby.
“This is a golden opportunity for me,” Fox says.
I figure we’re about to convene a panel discussion on shortness, but this isn’t what he means. Fox, whose new comedy, The Secret of My Success, has just opened, is already thinking ahead to his next film, Bright Lights, Big City. He will play a cocaine-snorting journalist, and now he is wondering, “What do actors put up their noses?” He means in place of the real thing. He decides to ask Pacino, who seemed to inhale half of Colombia in Scarface.
Fox starts to get up. He sits down.
“No, he’s having lunch,” he says.
He plays with the salad, sneaks peeks at Pacino. Can he just walk up to a star?
“Okay,” he decides, “I’ll do it.”
He doesn’t do it.
By now, Pacino has finished lunch. As he walks by our table, Fox stands up, diffidently introduces himself and says, “May I ask you a question?”
He sounds like someone about to ask for an autograph.
They have a very nice conversation on the inhalation of cinematic cocaine substitutes. Pacino tells him to be careful because the stuff goes up your nose and stays there. As Pacino starts to leave, I slip in a question, ask him why so many actors are short.
“It has to do with their mothers and their fathers,” Pacino says.
Fox was born in Canada, the son of William (5’6″) and Phyllis (5′) Fox. He says he looks just like his mother, which is not particularly kind, considering the punishment his face has taken in 25 years. He grew up wanting to be a hockey player, the same as most Canadian kids. Fifty-six facial stitches later, he still wishes he were a hockey player, preferably a center for the Boston Bruins.
To be fair, not all his lacerations were ice hockey induced. He cracked a tooth playing roller hockey, slashed his face falling from some rocks in Mexico, ripped his nose open toppling from his bunk bed at 10. Up close, his face lacks movie star gloss. His only cosmetic improvement has been the repair of two chipped teeth, and he says he threatened his dentist: “If I come out of here with Erik Estrada’s smile, you’re dead.”
In The Secret of My Success Fox plays an apparently innocent but extremely ambitious young fellow named Brantley Foster, a character not unlike himself. Foster is from Kansas, which isn’t all that different from Canada except the hockey teams are worse. Foster works hard, talks a lot, likes everyone and has trouble getting the girl. Phyllis Fox says that when her son was growing up he was always with girls, but whenever she’d ask if this was a girlfriend, he’d answer, “She’s not my girlfriend; she’s a friend who happens to be a girl.” Fox, figuring that art imitates life, decided he would pursue an acting career playing the leading man’s best friend—”you know, the one who never gets a date.” He says he has no idea how that plan went astray and he became the subject of female hysteria. “There are no answers to that that make any sense to me.” The word most often used by women to describe him is “adorable,” which he finds acceptable, though it is a word also used to describe small children and perky animals. “As long as they don’t call me a ruthless little bastard,” he says.
His ambition to become a ruthless little hockey player ceased when he was about 14, around the time he stopped growing and his teammates did not. His next love was the guitar, but he admits, ruefully and truthfully, that he played barely well enough to get work in bad bars. His parents remember him playing in a local band named the Helix, even making a few dollars. “We never took it too seriously,” says his mother. “Of course, when Michael said he was trying out for an acting part with the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Company], we didn’t take that too seriously, either.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Fox decided to become an actor, but his mother recalls him announcing that he was joining a high school drama group in order to meet girls. Obviously, the plan worked, since he’s subsequently been linked to an assortment of women, from Nancy McKeon of The Facts of Life to Helen Slater, his co-star in The Secret of My Success. He is quite aware that most of the women he sees might have been totally uninterested in him a few years ago, when he was a chunky Canadian kid, but he says, “I’m having too much fun to color it with suspicion.” He refuses to either confirm or deny rumors of entanglements, figuring that whatever woman he meets is going to have enough problems dealing with his popularity without his making it worse. “You meet someone, you have to say to her, ‘By the way, your picture is going to be in 90 magazines and people are going to come up to you and ask you what you’re eating.’ ”
Although his dating activities appear prodigious, based on weekly tabloid stories, he doesn’t seem well suited to the life. His secretary, Erica Lawson, says he is most content when he’s in bed with his two dogs, Burnaby, a pit bullterrier, and Bosco, a Dalmatian. “The dogs sleep with him under the covers,” she confides. He and his dogs understand one another: Bosco obediently sits after nine commands and Fox rewards him, saying, “Good boy, you know what you get for that—one of these cheap, fake butter crackers.” While the bedroom in his one-story, cedar-shingled, Studio City house is designed to encourage familiarity—it has a whirlpool bath, a fireplace, a retracting skylight and a couch—the seductivity factor is greatly diminished by the sneakers lying around, the closets and dresser drawers left open, the TV turned on all the time, the copy of Hockey Brawls #l in the video library.
“I’m definitely ready,” he says. “I don’t think there will be any long courtships for me. I think it will be boom and I’ll be married.”
So who’s the woman?
“I’m going to marry a Jewish woman. I’m sure of it.”
You’re going to marry a Jewish woman you haven’t met?
“At the risk of generalizing, I have yet to meet one I haven’t liked. I like the food. I like the idea of getting up Saturday morning and going to the deli. And the kids have great birthday parties when they’re 13.”
“I like women who are funny, independent, optimistic, hard-working and definitely the family type. I want three or four kids. I know it’s easy for the guy to say and if I could have a couple of them for her, I would.”
His parents, informed that their Anglican son has announced his intentions of marrying a Jewish woman, are delighted. “All his friends are Jewish,” his mother says, “and he has our blessings, whatever he does.”
The woman whose name is most often linked with his in newspaper reports is Meredith Baxter Birney, with whom he is definitely not intimately involved. She plays Elyse Keaton, the mother, on Family Ties; he plays Alex Keaton, the right-wing son with a heart as big as the Federal Reserve Bank. She was supposed to be the star; he is. Gary Goldberg, the show’s creator, says there was no conscious decision to reduce her role, but “the moments when Michael was out there were like a white light, something awesome.”
This is understandably beginning to wear on Baxter Birney. On the set of Family Ties she is taciturn and he is outgoing. It is easy to read disgruntlement into that. During the taping of one scene, the director was discussing the best way of getting Baxter Birney from the bed to the bedroom door when Fox grabbed her around the neck and pulled her down on the bed, yelling, “I’ve been trying to find a way to get her into the bed.” She never smiled. Deadpan, she looked up at him and said, “It would probably be easier to get me out.” To anyone in search of tension between the two that little episode seemed satisfactory, but Fox denied that it had any significance.
Reports that an envious, bored and stagnating Baxter Birney is leaving the show after this season are quickly denied. She has one year left on her contract, and her publicist, David Kramer, says, “Meredith is absolutely coming back. And there are no personal problems between her and Michael either.”
Fox recalls that when he got the role of Alex, he was sharing a one-room apartment in Los Angeles and couldn’t afford a car. Each morning, on her way to Paramount, Baxter Birney stopped to pick him up. He says, “My roommate saw this beautiful blonde in a Mercedes with a sunroof picking me up every day and figured I had it made.” He says she has never directed any displeasure at him, has never resented his success. As for him, he feels warmth toward her going back to those first days when she was so kind.
Fox is so good as Alex Keaton, so secure in the public’s affection, that he can make a film as badly received as the flop musical-drama Light of Day and emerge with his image and earning power(now around $2 million a picture) unaffected. It’s likely that no actor has enjoyed this kind of invulnerability since Alan Alda was simultaneously doing M*A*S*H and movies. He has two seasons left on his TV contract and seems content to remain with the show, even though he could earn more and work less doing movies. To those who don’t understand his sustaining interest in Family Ties, he quotes Goldberg, who once said, “People in films think this is what we do while we’re waiting for a break.”
Fox has starred in one enormous hit, 1985’s Back to the Future, which grossed more than $200 million and guaranteed him, as he puts it, “a few more times at bat.” He realizes that he cannot go on indefinitely making commercial failures like Light of Day, no matter how much he enjoys backing up Joan Jett, because one day the game will be over. “I know that if I get down to my last strike, I’m definitely going to go for Ghostbusters 9,” he says.
This business of being a movie star seems to have crept up on him unannounced. He likes being recognized at restaurants and swept off to the best table; he also likes going unrecognized and waiting in the street. He likes having a guy come to his home for a $200 workout session; he also likes pickup basketball games on the Paramount lot. The people who check to see how severely fame has changed him notice two things. First, his weight. He’s down from 140 pounds, lives mostly on cigarettes and vitamin pills, keeps glancing in mirrors to see if he’s developing a double chin and justifies it all by explaining, “I used to look like a pasta salesman.” Second, his schedule. “He’s a workaholic to death,” says his secretary.
While he seems refreshingly free of most of the usual West Coast vices, like greed and idiocy, Fox is nagged by guilt, an emotion more commonly associated with the East. He worries how deserving he is of his success, whether or not it was earned. “The roll I’ve been on, I’ve started to think, ‘Why me?'” His reaction to an accomplishment has always been to work harder in order to prove that it was justified. “God knows I don’t want to point out the drawbacks of being appreciated,” he says, “but there is a danger of losing your ability to grow. I’m afraid that if I slow down, don’t improve, somebody is going to come up and say it was all a mistake and give me the boot.” When Fox received an Emmy for Family Ties, says Goldberg, “I thought that would be the final thing, the validation, and he’d have nothing more to prove. He took it the other way, that he had to prove he was worthy of it.”
Fox has finally concluded that he will drive himself nuts if he keeps searching for answers to questions nobody is asking, questions about his own value as an actor. All that is accomplishing is frustrating him, preventing him from enjoying his success.
“You know,” he says, “when I don’t think things are going right, it doesn’t make me feel any better just because I’m getting into a Ferrari after work.” He pauses. “I suppose, realistically, I would feel worse getting into a bus.”
We are in the Ferrari now, a black Mondial convertible. He is dressed in faded jeans, a sleeveless T-shirt and a Denver Broncos cap. Ordinarily a man of simple tastes and complex feelings, he is for the moment a man of extravagant tastes and one simple feeling: He wants to go fast. He Andrettis his way down Gower Avenue, screams in consternation when he misshifts, vows to make up for it, ignores my assurance that no amends are necessary, hits the Hollywood Freeway at 85 mph, weaves around a Datsun, dials his car phone, lights a second cigarette, slams in a rock tape, gets happier all the time. We hit Ventura Boulevard, where there’s no room to pass, but he wants to, so he tailgates a Mercury, roars up alongside, careens into oncoming traffic when the Merc declines to let him by. God, he’s happy. I know we’re about to do an Indy highlight film, the kind where the car rolls over three times, but he’s downshifting, loving all of it, loving his Ferrari, screaming we’d be dust if we were in the Jeep, finding a crack in the traffic, braking, winding down, lighting another smoke, at least the 45th of the day.
“Definitely a bought thrill,” he sighs, patting his Ferrari.
Usually, he does not require the services of a $70,000 sports car to find happiness. Almost any childlike pleasure will do. He loves acting like a kid, and when asked if he has a favorite role, he mentions a home movie of himself at 5, riding his bike while holding a snake by the tail. “A quintessential kid’s moment,” he declares. He worries that adults overedit their behavior, and while he doesn’t want to escape into fantasy—”I don’t want to be Michael Jackson”—he loves to play. That’s why he’s locked in his dressing room on this final day of rehearsals, preparing his Family Ties siblings—Justine Bateman, 21, and Brian Bonsall, 5—for the climactic battle of the season against the production staff. The weapons are water guns.
It is fortunate that his army is small because his dressing room, which he cheerfully describes as “a shoebox with electricity,” is about what most stars demand for their valets. He says he’s not complaining, but he wants it known that Emmanuel Lewis has a dressing room consisting of nine Winnebagos lashed together. Fox is sorting through his enormous arsenal of motorized, battery-operated, long-range water weapons. The most cherished item in his collection, an M16-style water gun presented to him by Steven Spielberg, does not have sufficient firepower for this day’s work.
They move to a bathroom, load up. Fox heads for a catwalk with a box of water balloons. Little Brian is told to remain in reserve, because a lot of water will be spilled this day, and nobody wants him catching a cold. The technicians, trapped in a roofless office while Fox drops balloons and Bateman covers the door, come out spraying warm beer. It’s over quickly and both sides claim victory. When last I see him, Fox is feeling guilty about the mess he’s made, and he’s mopping the floor.