"Maybe someone will stumble on me when they're in a fugue state and binge on my shows," the Spin City and Family Ties star tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story

While recovering from bad fall two years ago, Michael J. Fox passed the time like many of us do: by binge-watching TV.

During his recovery season, the actor, 59, particularly took a liking to '70s game shows.

"I asked myself, why was I binge-watching old shows with dead people on them? People winning cars that have since been junked?" Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1991, tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story.

That caused Fox — a TV star himself, thanks to hit shows like Family Ties and Spin City — to think about his own legacy.

  • For more from Michael J. Fox, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now, or subscribe here
Michael J Fox

"It started pointing to mortality, and I realized that I’m out there in reruns, too, and my reruns are going to survive me," says the father of four, who shares son Sam, 31, twins Aquinnah and Schuyler, both 25, and daughter Esmé, 19, with wife Tracy Pollan.

"And maybe someone will stumble on me when they’re in a fugue state and binge on my shows," he says. "It all kind of contributed to this circle, where I just realized that we roll on."

In 2018, a noncancerous tumor on Fox’s spine was growing rapidly and causing horrible pain throughout his body. “I was heading for paralysis if I didn’t get it operated on,” he explains.

However, the surgery to remove it was risky. The tumor “was constricting the [spinal] cord, so they had to be very careful in removing it so they wouldn’t do further damage,” he says.

Michael J Fox
Michael J. Fox on Family Ties
| Credit: Everett

The operation was successful and Fox began a four-month process in which he had to learn to walk again. Thinking the worst was behind him, he vacationed with his family on Martha’s Vineyard and returned to their New York City apartment alone so he could film a cameo in a Spike Lee movie the next day.

But on the morning of the shoot, Fox fell in the kitchen and badly broke his arm. “That was definitely my darkest moment,” says Fox, who details the story in his upcoming fourth memoir, No Time Like the Future.

“I just snapped. I was leaning against the wall in my kitchen, waiting for the ambulance to come, and I felt like, ‘This is as low as it gets for me.’ It was when I questioned everything. Like, 'I can't put a shiny face on this. There's no bright side to this, no upside. This is just all regret and pain.' "

Michael J Fox book cover
No Time

Fox was frighteningly unable to tap into the optimism that had long buoyed him. He even feared he had never been qualified to offer hope to others in the first place.

“Parkinson’s, my back, my arm … it still didn’t add up to moving the needle on the misery index compared to what some people go through,” he continues. “I thought, ‘How can I tell these people, “Chin up. Look at the bright side. Things are going to be great”?’ ”

Michael J Fox
Michael J. Fox on Spin City
| Credit: Everett Collection

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.

For Fox, watching the TV reruns helped change his outlook. From there, Fox says, he found the key to reclaiming his positive perspective.

"Optimism is really rooted in gratitude," he says.

Adds Fox: "Optimism is sustainable when you keep coming back to gratitude, and what follows from that is acceptance. 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."