Michael J. Fox Reflects On Life With Parkinson's In 'No Time Like The Future'
The "Family Ties" star was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease in 1991. He says that if he doesn't know if he can do something, he fakes it — a strategy that works 80 percent of the time.
Actor Michael J. Fox, has written a new memoir that's about his recent life years after he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease back in 1991 when he was 29. Parkinson's is a progressive neurological disorder which results in tremors, muscle spasms, balance and coordination problems, diminishment of movement and can also affect mood, sleep and lead to fatigue.
Fox became famous in his 20s, before Parkinson's, for his role on the hit sitcom "Family Ties" as a young conservative who went in the opposite direction of his liberal parents and idolized President Ronald Reagan.
"Family Ties" ran from 1982 to '89. In the middle of its run, in 1985, Fox starred in the international hit "Back To The Future." In the second half of the '90s, he starred in the TV sitcom "Spin City," playing the deputy mayor of New York. His other films include "The Secret Of My Success," "Doc Hollywood," "Casualties Of War" and "The American President."
He's played characters with Parkinson's or other similar conditions on such shows as "Rescue Me," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Good Wife." He's won five Emmys, four Golden Globes, one Grammy and two Screen Actors Guild Awards. He also founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, which has raised over $1 billion. His new memoir is called "No Time Like The Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality."
On FRESH AIR, he talks with host Terry Gross.
GROSS: Michael J. Fox, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your book. It's a pleasure to have you back on the show.
FOX: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: The pandemic started just in time for you to write your epilogue. And you write that now everyone is experiencing something you've experienced, which is protecting other people from yourself. Can you explain how that applies to you?
FOX: One, in a really basic level, I'm not in complete control of my movement, so at various times, especially if I'm slightly overmedicated, which can happen, my movements can get quite out of control, and I can - you know, I say in the book, I love my mother too much to give her a hug. My 90-year-old mother - I'm cautious approaching her because I move furtively and quickly and sometimes quite violently, almost, in a way, and I could knock her over. So I'm careful when I'm around people and aware of the spacing between me and them.
And so that also relates to what was happening during the pandemic. People are aware of their spacing. I've been aware of my spacing for years now because of that. So when you have Parkinson's or you have a condition like this - chronic condition - you're always doing the math on how it factors into what your present situation is. So you're always careful and always calculating in a way that we've all learned to be in reaction to this crisis.
GROSS: I - so I think also, like, there's a sense of vulnerability that you've probably felt that everybody is feeling now.
FOX: One of the most interesting things about - on a personal level about that, about what was unfolding with this virus is, when it first happened and people were going to quarantine, I called my publisher and said, hey, how am I going to write this book? This world is shutting down. And he in his wisdom said, well, that's perfect time for you to write the book - when the world is shut down and you can just concentrate on it. There was something to that. But at the same time, as I say in the epilogue, I'm looking at my life with a dental mirror, going in every facet of me, and meanwhile, the world is falling apart. It felt kind of strange. So I felt compelled to write that epilogue to - I always say to people, read the epilogue first.
GROSS: Right. You know, what are the limitations you face now physically?
FOX: Because of the back - the complication of the back surgery, I have a loss of strength in - less strength in my legs and my limbs and my trunk and my core. So you add that to the spasticity of the Parkinson's, and it makes for a kind of marionette-ish beginning to every day. I'm kind of all akimbo and not very steady on my feet. So I have to - it takes about an hour for me to get functional in the morning so I can go out. And I - my office is in the same building as my apartment, but I have to go outside because of the unique thing (ph). So the building is not connected. There's no contiguous way to get from the building into the - into my office. I have to go outside and walk around the corner, which, when I first bought this apartment, was a very small trip, but now it's a hell of a commute.
GROSS: What about speech?
FOX: Well, speech is clearly - I'm - I can be halting. It can be like right now; it's fairly clear and robust. But it's - words come to me faster than I can speak them. I'll go to say something, and before I arrive at the right word, I'll arrive at a word that's not quite what I want to say, but that won't be loaded up and ready to go. So I'll put that one out, and then I'll have to follow up quickly with the one I meant to say. And that can get you into trouble sometimes.
GROSS: What's the process been like for you of trying to, you know, over the years come to terms with the fact that you have a condition that is progressive, that - you're not going to heal from it and suddenly not have it anymore?
FOX: Well, that's the crux of the book, is that with Parkinson's, I kind of, after 30 years, had - have established kind of a detente - like, an agreement. It takes up the space it takes up - and then allowing that it gradually was increasing over time in its dominance or its majority over my situation. But Parkinson's itself, I had figured it out. I'd found a way to let it take up the space it took up and to use the other space to drive in and to do other things and to live my life. And although it wasn't ideal, it was working.
And in that, I gained a certain amount of optimism, and comfort, and security and confidence because I was doing well. And then I had this accident with - when I had the spinal cord - I had a tumor on my spinal cord, had that operated on. And it had to - I had to do it in order to avoid paralysis, which was certain without surgery.
GROSS: Let me just stop you for a second, you know, for our listeners who haven't read the book. You had a tumor wrapped around your spinal cord that was choking your spinal cord. And unless you got that tumor removed, you would've been paralyzed because it would have just kept strangling the spinal cord. And it was an incredibly complicated, delicate surgery. And it took a long time to recover from that, requiring a lot of physical therapy, relearning how to walk. And then you're finally done with the main part of the physical therapy. You're able to walk again. And then you fell. It was a day your - most of your family was out on Long Island in...
FOX: Martha's Vineyard.
GROSS: Yeah. They were in Martha's Vineyard, and you were home. And one of your daughters had come with you, but you basically sent her back to her home and said, I'm good; I can do this by myself. And then you fell, and no one was there, and it was a really bad fall.
FOX: It was a low point. When it happened - so as you say, my daughter came back with me from Martha's Vineyard. The rest of the family stayed there. She had to go to work the next day, so she asked me if she could stay and get me off to - I was going to do a cameo the next day on a film, on a Stefon Bristol film for Spike Lee on Netflix. And I was just going to do a one-day cameo, which I was really chuffed about. I was really happy about it - that, again, another symbol of independence and reclaiming my identity from this onslaught.
I told you that I was fine. I'd done it a thousand times. It was no problem. I woke up the next morning and strolled into the kitchen like a normal person. I stepped wrong, slipped on the tile and shattered my humerus, my left arm. And I crawled over to the phone. I summoned my assistant, who called an ambulance. And as I waited for the ambulance and I waited for my assistant to show up, I lie crumpled on the kitchen floor, just excoriating myself for being such a jerk.
And I felt for my daughter. I felt for - I knew what she was going to feel like. She was going to feel a tremendous amount of guilt for not having convinced me to let her stay. I felt bad for the surgeons who had done so much work, and I might possibly have undone it. I felt bad for my family who had treated me so well and cared for me so much while I was going to through this rehabilitation. And it just was - it was a time when I all of a sudden really - I said, you know, put a shiny face on this. Make this happy. Make this - where's the optimism here of this? These lemons you can't - I'm out of the lemonade business. I can't make this anything better than what it is, which was just terrible. And it was a real low point for me. And I - it put me on a quest to get back to a place where I feel I am now and where I was before, where I tend to see the better side of circumstances.
GROSS: Well, you know, you write at some point, you started to question the optimism that you tried to maintain over the years and the optimism you tried to convey to others and realized that you hadn't given equal weight to your failures. What do you mean by that?
FOX: Well, I think I was so concentrated on what was going right that I hadn't - not that my failures were overwhelming but to just admit that there's another side to things that as much as I always say, see the positive side of everything, I had to learn how to become a realist and an optimist at the same time. To be a realist is not to say that you can't be an optimist, but you have to confront reality in order to really understand. So I liked to reflexively say, oh, it's going to be OK. It's going to be fine. Well, maybe it isn't. And maybe because I have such a platform and I have so many people that pay attention to what I say, I mean, am I responsible for, like, offering an optimisms panacea and the glig (ph) when - you know, it's one thing for me to talk about my situation. But to encourage people to compare it to theirs, come out with the same outlook that I have, maybe that was commodifying hope.
GROSS: So if you're trying to adjust your optimism to recognize failure as well and not paint an unrealistic - an unrealistically rosy present or future, where does that leave - like, what's the narrative in your head now that you tell yourself?
FOX: Well, it kind of put together over events that transpired afterwards and also events prior - episodes in my life - culminating in the passing of my father-in-law, Stephen Pollan. He was a very important mentor to me and an important person in my life and in the lives of a lot of people. He was someone who was full of gratitude and positivity. And I would meet, and I would talk with him. I talk in the book about the time I had a conversation with him about my feelings of guilt as relates to Tracy, my wife, and what she had - she hadn't bargained for this, that I was going to have this chronic illness so soon in our marriage. So I'd go to him and talk to him about it. And he'd always say, listen, kiddo, it gets better. It gets better. And I always take that with me. It gets better. What his secret was - was he found gratitude in everything. He found gratitude - in every situation, he found something to be grateful for. And I realized, as I was writing and making notes and going through this experience, that gratitude makes optimism sustainable. With gratitude, you can find a way to be optimistic. If you have no gratitude, you can't recognize the hope in the circumstance.
GROSS: You like taking risks. And you write, risk is part of who I am. It's encoded in my DNA. And when you were young, you wanted to prove that just because you were short, it didn't mean that you didn't have strength and fortitude. So that - you were game for doing anything. So what are some of the more, like, reckless activities that you engaged in as a young man or as a teenager?
FOX: Well, just by virtue of my size, I - playing any organized team sport in Canada - which for this peaceful, passive, lovely country that everybody imagines it to be, really engaged in some violent blood sports, including hockey and lacrosse. So I played both of those. And I was always easily by a foot the shortest on any team I played on. And then I - and I was good, so my curse was that I was pretty good. So they put me with the best players who were all, like, when I was 13, were shaving and, you know, like, had wives. A couple of them had wives. They were, like, grown-up men. And so I just got battered. I said to my mother one day - she said, how are you doing with the lacrosse? It's a little rough. Are you OK? I said, yeah, I'm fine. I'm having a great time. What concerns you? And she said, I can't get the blood out of your uniform.
FOX: And it was just always things like that. I think we were just reckless. You know, in the wintertime, we'd grab on to the bumpers of cars driving in the snow and ski along behind them, much the same as Marty McFly did in "Back To The Future" with his skateboard. We'd just - always taking risks. And I don't know what it was, whether it was boredom with our working-class Canadian lives or whether it was just me particularly. But it culminated in me leaving high school early and then going to Los Angeles to be an actor, which was probably the riskiest thing of all.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael J. Fox. His new memoir is called "No Time Like The Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Michael J. Fox. His new memoir is called "No Time Like The Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality."
So your wife, Tracy Pollan - she was also on "Family Ties." She played your girlfriend. Did playing boyfriend and girlfriend on TV lead to being real boyfriend and girlfriend lead to being husband and wife?
FOX: I developed a crush on her right away. When she left the show - the day she left the show, we were in the parking lot getting into our respective cars. She was getting into a rented Volkswagen, and I was getting into my Ferrari. And she called me over and said she wanted to play me a song. She played me a James Taylor song called "That's Why I'm Here," which was ostensibly about John Belushi. And one of the lines was, John's gone, found dead, died high. He's brown bread, later said to have drowned in his bed. After the laughter, the wave of dread, it hits us like a ton of lead. That's why we're here. And I instantly knew what she meant. She had only known me for a short time, but I was partying too hard. And I was really on a crash course to something bad happening. And as I got back in my Ferrari and got on my cellphone and turned on my quadraphonic stereo, I realized she was right. I was going down the wrong road. And I ran into her a year later. She auditioned for a film I made called "Bright Lights, Big City." And I said, how's so-and-so, your boyfriend? And she said, we're not going out anymore. And I said, you want to have lunch? And within two years, we were married.
GROSS: You were diagnosed with Parkinson's two years after you got married. Were you worried it would break up the marriage, that everything - like, all of the givens that you got married under were no longer givens?
FOX: It was shocking when I was diagnosed. I was diagnosed completely out of the blue, unexpectedly. I thought I had a sports injury, and I saw a neurologist at the recommendation of my physical therapist. And he very quickly and without much emotion pronounced I had Parkinson's and that I would - not to worry, I'd still be able to work for about 10 more years. And I was just - you said I was 29, so that was pretty shocking.
And I had made my way shellshocked back to the apartment and met Tracy and told her, admittedly somewhat tearfully, this had been pronounced. And she didn't blink. I could tell right away she was with me, and she was with me through whatever happened. And, you know, what was tough about it was, with Parkinson's, you don't know what to expect because it was a twitching pinkie and a sore shoulder that brought me in there, and that was the basis of the diagnosis.
GROSS: Were you afraid that she wouldn't stick with you after that, that she'd kind of cut out because your life was going to change, and you were going to need help?
FOX: Well, I didn't know - we didn't know what we'd - what I'd need. It was like a truck coming down the street, and I knew it was going to hit me, but I didn't know how fast and how soon. I knew the symptoms would get worse. And I didn't know - I didn't expect her to stick around for that. I thought she had every right to say, I can't - it's too much for me, and we have a young son, and I can't take that on, and I - and she'd already given up her career to a certain extent to get married and to have Sam. And it was just too much to ask of her. And I would've expected - I would have been completely fine if she said no. I would have understood. But she didn't blink. She stayed with me.
GROSS: But you say it was your drinking that really threatened the marriage because you were drinking a lot even at that time when you were diagnosed. So how was that threatening the marriage?
FOX: I mean, it was silly. I was a cliche cartoon of a 25-year-old with success in Hollywood. I had a Ferrari. I had a house in Laurel Canyon. I had all of the trappings. And then I met Tracy, who convinced me that it was all going to be the end of me, and I should calm down. And so I calmed down my behaviors, but I still drank. And then I get diagnosed. I had no way to meet it. I had no way to cope with it. So I just doubled down on my drinking. And that very quickly put pressure on the marriage in a way that Parkinson's hadn't 'cause Parkinson's was not something I - it was not bidden; it was not created by me, and Tracy understood that. It was just something that happened. But the drinking was a choice.
And to make a long story short, she came upon me one morning lying on the couch, sleeping off a hangover with a spilled beer on the carpet beside me and my son crawling all over me. And she was on her way to the theater. She had a play to do, a matinee. And she just looked at me and said, is this what you want? The boredom in her voice shocked me and scared me more than anger would've. And I immediately knew that moment had changed my life. And I knew (ph) that - never had another drink, and it's been 28 years.
GROSS: You know, one of the things you say about your wife, Tracy, is that - you say, it's not that she feels my pain; it's that she acknowledges my pain and would do anything to relieve it. I think that's such a nice distinction. Can you talk about that a little bit?
FOX: Well, Tracy knows - she knows from being with me that she can't assume she knows everything I feel. She doesn't know everything. She might know 90% of what I feel, like, in ways that no one else can understand what I'm going through and what I'm feeling. But she knows she can never - in the same way that I can meet with the world's foremost neurologist or neuroscientist or neuroresearcher or neurosurgeon, and I know more about Parkinson's than he does because I have it. I mean, I'll always have the edge, if you will.
And in the relationship, it's really important, I say, that the person who's the healthy part of the equation realizes that it's not a choice I'm making. It's the experience I'm having. And then she's so natural at just being a part of that experience and not trying to effect it or change it but just to understand it and to cope with it and to make me feel OK with it.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael J. Fox. His new memoir is called "No Time Like The Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Michael J. Fox. His new memoir is called "No Time Like The Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality." It's about his recent life and the impact of Parkinson's disease, which he was diagnosed with back in 1991 when he was 29. Fox starred in the '80s hit sitcom "Family Ties" and the '90s hit sitcom "Spin City." He starred in the 1985 blockbuster film "Back To The Future." His other films include "The Secret Of My Success," "Doc Hollywood," "Casualties Of War" and "The American President." After his Parkinson's symptoms progressed, he took roles on TV shows portraying characters who had Parkinson's or conditions with similar symptoms.
So you say you had to learn to stop covering up, that you had Parkinson's. Were you diagnosed before or during your starring role on "Spin City," the TV series?
FOX: "Spin City" was when I - I had had Parkinson's for seven years and told very few people about it, except my family. And I was traveling around doing films early on in my diagnosis and was away from my family. And it was putting stress on the family in a way that we just worked our way through it to revisit it again during my (unintelligible) which was tough. So I said, I'm going to go back to New York and I'm going to work in New York. And so I did "Spin City" in New York and I'd started in '96. By '98, I was having trouble hiding my symptoms on the show. And so I went public with it. And that caused another whole cataclysmic change because now the public knew I had Parkinson's. They put me in a different position in the community and I found myself all of a sudden the spokesperson for the community and changed my life.
GROSS: Had you hidden Parkinson's from the people who you worked with on "Spin City," including the creator, Gary David Goldberg?
FOX: No, I shared with Gary - at that point, I was very comfortable. I could hide symptoms in a number of ways that I developed. So I felt confident that I could do it. And he said he would know - if I hadn't told him, he wouldn't have known that I had it. It was still very - I was a little stiffer, a little slower, a little less facial expression but still a viable version of Michael Fox that could be put to work. And so we really began to do (ph) the show with confidence that I'd be OK. And I really was OK when I left the show. It was more - in 2000 when I left the show. It was more just a feeling that I was - I had another purpose, that I wanted to start this foundation and ramp up spending on neurological research. And so it just was a pull. So it was quite a journey that I went through in the '90s.
GROSS: So in the '80s on "Family Ties," you played, you know, a young man who is very conservative, idolizes President Reagan. You were very different than your parents, who are very liberal. Your father, in fact, ran a public TV station on the show. That was always fun for me (laughter) to see. Your politics are very different than that. They were then, I think, and they certainly are now. Something you say in the book makes me think Nancy Reagan either donated to your foundation or loaned her name to it. What was her relationship to it?
FOX: She - based on her experience as the spouse of a person with Alzheimer's, she saw the value in exploring stem cell research. And so while most conservative Republicans opposed stem cell research and President Bush was very active in trying to shut it down, she came on to our side and stood side by side with us in support of it. So it was real surprising. And I was really proud of her for doing it.
GROSS: What was it like for you to work with her after having, when you were younger, played somebody who, you know, idolized her husband but that's not the way you felt in real life?
FOX: So there are things that I had disagreements with that I just didn't relate to. But I played this guy who loved him, and so I had to find the lovability in him and he loved the show. And he - I say in the book, he - actually his office put forward the idea that he appear on the show. And our hugely liberal producing staff and writers said he could be on the show if he showed up for every day of rehearsal, every day of camera blocking, every bit of research, every bit of pick-ups of a scene that went wrong, he had to appear in front of the studio audience - all this list of impossible demands. And of course, he didn't do it. But then "Back To The Future" came out and there were references to him in "Back To The Future." And so he started to associate me with this positive feeling toward him and he invited me to the White House and I had a kind of a conundrum there. I had a dilemma for a while whether I was going to go. And then I thought, well, I respect the office and I respect the rare nature of the invitation. And so I took him up on it and he was genial host. And so I had to separate the Alex Keaton relationship to Reagan, my relationship to Reagan as a political person and my reaction to Reagan as - he was grandfatherly and nice and very sweet to me.
GROSS: How closely have you been following politics now and the Trump presidency?
FOX: Too close.
GROSS: What was your reaction when he kind of mimicked and mocked the journalist who had - I can't remember what his condition was, but he had a lot of tremors and coordination issues.
FOX: It was a gut punch. But at that time, his cruelty toward other people and other groups was already established. I mean, from the minute he said Mexicans are rapists and just this litany of garbage that came out of his mouth, by the time he got around to mocking disabled people, you think I would be inured to it, but it really pissed me off. And then you just go to people's acceptance of it. And it was an arrogance that I don't deal with on a day-to-day basis. I mean, no one in my life other than my president had been that mocking of a condition. I mean, even though we don't share the same condition, but the symptoms are close enough that I took it personally. And it presented (ph) another part of our whole community, the whole disabled community. It was just shocking for someone who's supposed to be the paragon of morality and humanity and empathy to be that far from the mark.
GROSS: The subtitle of your new memoir is "An Optimist Considers Mortality," and I'm wondering what your thoughts are when you think about death, which is hopefully a long ways away, you're only 59. But, you know, the title of your book is about mortality. What are the things that most worry you or that other people worry about that you don't when you think about mortality?
FOX: Well, other people worry about - as relates to me, they worry about the sharp, sudden falling and hitting my head or do something that's going to result from my Parkinson's, not the kind of associated decline into just nothingness and dementia and expiring, which is also a possibility. But I just think about, like - when I consider mortality, you can boil it down to one thing for me. The last thing that we run out of is future. It's the future. I mean, this is the last thing to go. Everything goes and then our future goes because once we're gone, we have no future. So to try to get anything more from that, to try to understand it beyond that, I don't have the energy to. I'm trying to just get by every day and do what I need to do to - I mean, my wife worries about me stepping off a curb in front of a truck or something just in a spasm of movement. My day-to-day existence is so unpredictable, I guess what I'm saying, that I can't - I don't have any energy left to predict the future. And I just exist in this kind of appreciation for what I have and this gratitude.
I write in the book about being at a concert with my wife, and the whole concert, she danced. She danced to the music. And I just watched her dance, and I just realized that's it. And then the band was Vampire Weekend, and they're singing a song - the lyric goes I don't want to live like this, but I don't want to die. And I thought about how many times I said, I don't want to live like this. And I didn't mean it in a way like I don't want to live like this. I don't want to live like this. I don't want to live under these conditions. But I don't want to die. In other words, this is good. I mean, this is - compared to the alternative, this is great. And for every bad thing that happens, good things happen. For every tumble I take, I get to see my wife shake her ass at the concert and be with my daughters who were there and wearing silly Vampire Weekend bucket hats and just enjoying that I got a wheelchair ride to my chair so I didn't have to work through the crowds and that I was OK with being in a wheelchair, which took me a long time to get used to and I use occasionally. And it just - life is just better than the alternative.
GROSS: You know, you say that the last thing to go is the future, but some people believe that there is a future after death, that there's an afterlife. Do you and did you ever believe that?
FOX: If I get to the bottom of the Cracker Jack box, then there's a prize, I'm happy. But if there isn't, I just enjoy the Cracker Jack. My happiness here doesn't depend on something that it's awaiting me after it. I don't have a complex orthodoxy. I have a vague spiritualism that tells me if I live a good life, good things will happen. But I don't have any expected reward or expected afterlife or anything like that. I just want to make the most of this life and make as positive of an impact I can on people around me and be grateful for their love and attention and try to do something, you know, worthwhile and not counting on getting a do-over.
GROSS: Michael J. Fox, thank you so much for talking with us and thank you for being so generous with your time.
FOX: My great pleasure.
GROSS: Michael J. Fox's new memoir is called "No Time Like The Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a newly reprinted novel from 1948 by Betty Smith, who also wrote "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn." This is FRESH AIR.
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