He may be a 24-year-old comer with a winsome smile and a hefty bank account, but don’t mistake Michael J. Fox for another member of the Brat Pack. While Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez and Rob Lowe are busy posturing in St. Elmo’s Fire, Fox is becoming the hottest kid on the Hollywood block. His face looms on two Sunset Boulevard billboards—one for the low budget comedy Teen Wolf and another for Back to the Future, which hit pay dirt faster than the film’s plutonium-powered DeLorean takes its hero from here to 1955. Meanwhile, Family Ties, the NBC series he has starred in since 1982, is among the summer’s top 10 shows. For all of that, Fox has yet to deck a single photographer: In his spare time he works for charity or takes in hockey games with his steady, Nancy (The Facts of Life) McKeon, 19.
Not that Fox doesn’t relish his success; he’s just so modest. “Having a billboard isn’t a serious goal,” he says. “But it’s something every actor thinks about. It’s in the back of your mind every time you drive down Sunset.”
With Family Ties shooting its season opener in London, Fox, who reportedly earns $15,000 per episode, missed Future’s July debut, and only recently did he tool his $20,000 Nissan 300ZX Turbo down Sunset to blush over his own 14′ by 48′ image. Still, he isn’t complaining; this year’s schedule seems positively sane compared to the seven-week siege of killer workdays last year, when he was alternately Family’s Alex P. Kea-ton and Future’s Marty McFly.
At 9:15 a driver would pick up Michael at his Brentwood digs and take him to the TV studio, where he was the archconservative Alex until 6 p.m. Then he would be transported to the movie set, where he’d labor until 2:30 a.m. as McFly—a hip high-schooler who smashes the time barrier and encounters his parents in their pimples-and-bobby-sox phase.
“After about a week and a half,” says Fox, “the driver would be waking me up in the morning. It became very tough. I found myself dealing with three personalities, and mine got the worst of it.”
Added to that was the problem of joining the shoot as a replacement for Eric (Mask) Stoltz, whom Future executive producer Steven Spielberg had deemed too intense for the comedy. Stoltz had shot dozens of scenes in his five weeks of filming, and Fox had to re-play them standing in precisely the same spots. “That was a little uncomfortable. The camera operator would tell the director, ‘Well, the last time I did that…’ [but] I didn’t have time to develop a complex.”
Robert Zemeckis, the movie’s director and co-scriptwriter, was delighted with Fox’s performance: “For such a young actor, he’s got really well-timed comic ability. He has the perfect blend of traditional leading-man qualities.” The optimism that carried Fox through that schizoid interlude helped him through a near collapse of his career. In 1979 he moved to L.A. from Vancouver—where his family had settled after his father retired from the Canadian signal corps—and, by 1981, he had racked up TV credits (including a short-lived series called Palmerstown, USA) and starred in a Disney comedy, Midnight Madness.
“Then,” he says, “my phone suddenly stopped ringing. I’m sure it happens to every actor, but I’d never planned for it. I didn’t understand credit or the tax situation. If I wanted something I just went out and bought it.” At 20, Fox was out of work and $30,000 in debt. He lost 20 pounds on a macaroni-based diet, and when his telephone was disconnected, he set up shop in a phone booth near a Pioneer Chicken store. It was in that booth that Michael heard about the Family Ties audition. “I was on the phone with my agent, saying it had to be so many thousand per week, wishing I just had $1.99 to go in and buy chicken and biscuits,” he says.
Just where did he acquire such survival skills? Michael says his peripatetic upbringing helped. Born in Edmonton, Alberta as Michael Andrew Fox (he later changed his middle initial to avoid fan magazine headlines like “Michael, A Fox”), he lived with his family on a series of Canadian military bases. “I learned to make friends quickly,” he says. “Being short [5’4″] helped—because of my size, I always get the attention.” Still, his spotlight fever didn’t emerge until he took a 10th-grade acting course in the hope of meeting girls. His parents never saw any displays of actorly temperament, and even now, he says, “If I went home and started any of that, there would be a lawn mower in front of me before you could blink.”
And while some of his pretty-boy cohorts are securing their status as studs, Fox says he has no interest in doing the same. “I’d rather make people laugh,” he says. He marvels over his romance with McKeon saying, “We’re still together—I really can’t believe it.” They worked together on a TV movie (Poison Ivy) last year, but assignments often keep them apart, and Michael says matrimony isn’t in the offing: “Neither of us is going crazy—we work hard to be good actors.”
Of course, it’s too early to tell whether success will spoil this buoyant boy wonder. Family Ties creator Gary Goldberg, who lauds Michael’s down-to-earth values, predicts that it won’t. “I don’t think Michael even knows what the Brat Pack is,” he says. For the nonce, this prodigy is proving the cynics wrong: Nice guys, it seems, can finish first, even if they have to go back in time to do it.