Michael J. Fox Reveals He's Struggling with Memorization Skills Crucial for Acting

"My short-term memory is shot," says Michael J. Fox, who went public with his Parkinson's fight in 1998

Michael J. Fox is opening up about how his decades-long battle with Parkinson’s has affected his memorization — a skill that has been crucial to his career as an actor.

The Family Ties star was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a long-term degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, in 1991. After going public with his diagnosis in 1998, he continued acting, notably starring in Spin City from 1996-2001 and appearing as a recurring guest star on The Good Wife from 2010-16.

Now, 22 years after disclosing his health battle, Fox says that the disease has taken a toll beyond the most obvious symptoms of tremors and rigidity.

His word recall is not what it once was. “My short-term memory is shot,” Fox, 59, tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story.

Michael J Fox
Michael J. Fox on Family Ties. Everett
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"I always had a real proficiency for lines and memorization. And I had some extreme situations where the last couple of jobs I did were actually really word-heavy parts. I struggled during both of them," he admits.

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Michael J. Fox on Spin City. Everett Collection
Michael J Fox
Michael J. Fox on The Good Wife. CBS

The effect of Parkinson’s on his speech means that he now practices shouting tongue twisters to improve his projection and diction.

Though memorization has become more difficult over time, Fox is dedicating his talents to another arena that he enjoys: writing. His fourth memoir, No Time Like the Future, hits shelves Nov. 17.

“I’m down to this,” he says of writing becoming his primary creative outlet. “My guitar playing is no good. My sketching is no good anymore, my dancing never was good, and acting is getting tougher to do. So it’s down to writing. Luckily, I really enjoy it.”

Michael J Fox
Michael J. Fox. MJF Foundation

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Michael J. Fox streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

Throughout the past two years, Fox has learned the power — and importance — of gratitude.

In 2018, an unrelated health issue brought him to a crisis point. A noncancerous tumor on Fox’s spine was growing rapidly and causing horrible pain throughout his body. After undergoing a successful operation, Fox began a four-month process in which he had to learn to walk again.

But not long after, Fox had a bad fall — a moment he says "was definitely my darkest moment."

In the time that it took to heal physically, Fox came to understand that “optimism is really rooted in gratitude,” he says.

“Optimism is sustainable when you keep coming back to gratitude, and what follows from that is acceptance," says Fox. "Accepting that this thing has happened, and you accept it for what it is. It doesn’t mean that you can’t endeavor to change. It doesn’t mean you have to accept it as a punishment or a penance, but just put it in its proper place. Then see how much the rest of your life you have to thrive in, and then you can move on.”

Michael J Fox

Fox, who will turn 60 next June, says that he now has a “60-year-old man’s optimism” and is focusing on time with his wife, Tracy Pollan, and children. The couple shares son Sam, 31, twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, both 25, and daughter Esmé, 19.

“It’s not that I wasn’t sincere before, but my gratitude is deeper now, from having gotten through the darkest times,” he adds.

And while a return to acting is still a question mark, Fox remains resolute.

"So the last couple couple of years have been trickier than most," he says. "But I have things that I've been blessed with that are just incredible. Life is rich. Life is good."

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