Single Copies

A Conversation With Michael J. Fox

By Brennen Matthews

Photographs courtesy of Mark Seliger

Famously upbeat and funny, iconic actor Michael J. Fox spends some time with ROUTE and takes us through his journey from Canada to Hollywood, his leap from Family Ties to the Big Screen, and his true passion: his role as a husband and father. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at a young age, Michael has refused to let it define his life, and has authored his fourth memoir, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality. Undeniably, Michael’s journey is both inspiring and an encouragement to us all.

You grew up in a household with four siblings. How early on in your life did you know that you wanted to become an actor?

It’s funny, it’s hard to pinpoint acting per se. My dad was in the Army, so life was pretty straightforward. But I had a [strong] fantasy life. So, as I got older, I drew a lot, I painted, I wrote stories, I played in bands—I was always doing that kind of thing.

In junior high school, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation wanted a kid for a TV show, and I went down on a lark. I went in on a lark because it was kind of silly, but at the same time I totally knew that [I’d] get it. I didn’t tie into the fact that there were 20 other kids reading. I was just so into acting. I was doing theater at night, I was doing a TV series or limited TV series, and guest shots on different shows and commercials.

I left school and went to the [United] States in April of ’79, when I was 17. I got some auditions and got a job, came back on my birthday, which is [in] June, when I turned 18, and I was on my own until I got married.

What was your journey like on an emotional, but also practical level, when you made that big move from the safety of the smaller Canadian industry to competitive Hollywood?

The key thing to me was my parents’ involvement. I went to them and said, “I want to do this.” And I was expecting them to just go nuts, but my father’s a very practical man, and as much as he thought acting was crazy, and it was run by hippies and their subversive plot to destroy the world, he thought that it was great that I had a job and I was making a living, and I had prospects for more work. He could get his head around that.

My mom was, at the end of the day, whatever made me happy. They expressed their reservations but were supportive. My father actually drove me down in April of ’79 to find an agent, and I went on a couple auditions while I was there. These agents would put me up for auditions as a way of trying to sign me. And I was flattered, because I knew that it was the reverse for most people, that they would go in and have a hard time getting an agent. I was happy when I ended up with Bob Gersh, and my father was really impressed when I told him that he was also Bogie’s [Humphrey Bogart] agent. (Laughs)


And so that was it. I had an agent, I came back in January, and then, at that point, my family’s involvement ceased. They didn’t have money to send me, so I was on my own to make a living. There were times when I was eating plain macaroni, mooching from other people, and I was going to parties. I had some friends who were frat brothers in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at UCLA. I used to go to their parties and drink their beer, date their girlfriends. So that was it. It was a really interesting time. I got work right away on a show for CBS with Alex Haley and Norman Lear as producers, and I did a couple of commercials. Things were pretty hard scrabble, but it turned out great.

Things were tough enough that just before Family Ties, you were down to selling pieces of furniture to actually pay your bills.

Before Family Ties, I was destitute. I was really in it. I had this landlord that would come by every day and I’d be playing ‘duck the landlord.’ I didn’t have a phone anymore. I had this furniture and there was an actor named Lance Guest, who did a movie called The Last Starfighter, and he bought my furniture from me. He’d come by my house and ... I sold my couch section by section. And he’d come back next week and say, “Can I have the next section?” And I’d say, “Unfortunately, yeah.” (Laughs)

The thing about it was that it was a rental sofa. (Laughs) So, I didn’t even own it. But it got really desperate, and I owed the IRS a lot of money. I was just out of prospects and it was really rough. But then I got this audition for Family Ties and I didn’t want to do comedy. Only a 19-year-old could have that audacity; I thought that I’d save myself for film roles and I wouldn’t do a sitcom. My friends said, “You’re eating paper. You need to get a job.” (Laughs)

So, I went and read for it and I liked that. I thought it was really funny. I was the first person they saw. They wanted Matthew Broderick, but he turned them down, so they saw me first. Lloyd Garver, who was one of the writers—I love him, I still talk to him to this day—he told me that his reaction after I read was, “I liked him.” He was done, but Gary [Goldberg] didn’t like me. Judith Weiner, the casting director, liked me a lot and said to Gary, “You should see him again.” Gary said, “I don’t want to see him again. I’m a grown man. I know what I like, I know what I don’t like. I didn’t like him.” So, after about a month, Judith got me back in. All this time, I’m starving—eating bugs and grubs and stuff. I got back in and I had lost weight by that point, because I truly [was in] poverty, but I looked better and I was leaner, and I got the job.

As far as the network goes, they were really adamant ... Gary, at first, he didn’t like me, as I said, then I went back and read for him and he became my champion. He went to the network and they said, “We don’t want him.” And Gary said, “Why?” They said, “Look at the father. They can’t be from the same family. And besides, can you see this kid’s picture on a lunchbox?” Gary said, “I didn’t know that was the criterion, that he’d be on a lunchbox.” He said, “I just know that I give him three jokes and he gets four laughs.” So, they let me stay.

Did you know at the time that it was going to be such a big hit?

I knew when I did the pilot ... we shot the pilot in front of an audience, and it was just really clear that they liked what I was doing. I didn’t internalize that as, “Oh, I’m great.” I was just like, “Wow, this is good. I like this. I like this feeling and this approbation, and this ease with which these other adults deal with me.” I mean, I wasn’t an adult myself, but I was living as an adult. But [to] get this acceptance from these talented people as a coworker, as someone they asked, “What do you think about this? What do you think about this beat?” I would say, “Ah, I should actually swing over here in the chair and jump up and get the phone and get orange juice,” and then we would just go. It just was a great feeling to me.

Do you think that you were ready at that time for the fame and success that Family Ties brought you?

There’s no way to be ready for it. Even if there is ... I think a Royal is ready for it. Charlie is, or William, or whoever is told at a very young age, this is what you have to grow into. It’s what you have to take on and you have to handle it in this way, you have to deal with it, and they still f**k it up.


So, as a kid from Canada who liked to drink beer and smoke cigarettes and drive too fast and chase after girls and be an idiot, well, when that opportunity opened up for me, I seized it by the horns and just went for it.

Did the main cast members get on well together?

I’ll tell you the truth, for the first couple of years ... Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter were wonderful about it, they were really great about it, but they really felt like, “What happened? This was a show about us and then there’s this kid.”

I got that and I tried not to make their lives miserable because, as much as they liked me, wanted to be kind to me, and wanted to work well with me, I knew that they thought that. So, I could take it one of two ways. I could go, “Screw you” or I could just go, “I get it. I’m not trying to rub your nose in it. I can’t help that other people are paying me the attention that you may want to get. I can’t control that. And, when they turn on me with pitchforks and come to my house and burn my yard down, I can’t control that either.”

It was really lovely. Justine [Bateman] and I keep in touch to this day, Michael and Meredith and I get in touch every now and then. Something brings us together and we’re really happy to see each other.

I took my 12-year-old son to the drive-in the other night, his first time, and Back to the Future was showing. Even after all these years, it’s still a great movie. Is it true that you turned it down initially?

No, I didn’t turn it down, but it got turned down for me. Gary Goldberg and Steven Spielberg were really good friends. They started to do the early pre-production for Back to the Future. At that time, Steven had gone to Gary with Bob Zemeckis and he said, “We would like Michael Fox to be in this movie.” And Gary said, “We’re finally a hit, we’re finally getting some ratings, and I can’t let this kid go for the whole season. I’ll lose my show.” They said, “We get it.” So, they cast Eric [Stoltz], great casting, he’s a great actor, and they didn’t tell me about it. And why should they? It would just break my heart.

They start shooting with Eric and it just wasn’t happening the way they wanted it to. So, they went back to Gary and he said no [again], but we shot for a few weeks and Meredith or Justine was pregnant ... things had been thrown into chaos, and Gary called me into his office. I didn’t know if he was going to fire me. I’d done this werewolf movie and maybe word had gotten back. He called me in, there’s a manila envelope, and he said Bob Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg and Bob Gale were making this movie, and he told me the story of what had happened. He said, “I hope you’re not upset with me.” I said, “No, I get what your thinking was, but now you’re telling me I can do it, right?” He said, “Yeah, you can do it. Read the script and tell them what you’re thinking.”

He handed me the manila envelope, and I picked it up and went, “Love it. It’s great. Let’s go.” A week later, I was sitting in a parking lot with flames running between my legs.

When you were coming up, were there ever issues of not being tall ‘enough’? I am thinking of the stereotypes in Hollywood around leading men.

When I was a struggling actor, that was a problem. I couldn’t get people to look past how tall I was or whatever perception they had about me being Canadian. Whatever it was, I had to focus on what I did and what I could do and hope in some way that if I had talent, the talent would come out and then I would just be recognized for what I could do.

Family Ties offered a very unique thing because there was this character that had this set of attributes or this set of personality quirks. And I found a way to absorb those and let them out in as natural a way as possible, to not make it forced and not make it caricature-y, but to have those behaviors inhabit the body of an actual person, a kid too short, too smart, too self- aware, just all of his foibles. And then it clicked.

I kept that going on through my career, saying, “I’m not working with a detriment with these things, being shorter or looking at things differently than other people. Maybe they’re assets, they’re tools that I can use.”


Then with success, the problem becomes the other way, which is that people will let you do anything behaviorally, socially and professionally. They’ll let you do anything. “You wanna do Casualties of War? Great.” Then you find yourself in the jungle—at night, pouring rain, bombs going off near you, Sean Penn yelling at you, and you’re like, “What did I do? Why am I here?” (Laughs)

So, you know, life, it gets very out of control. I mean, not out of control, but it’s very heady. I mean, I was 23, I had a Ferrari, a Mercedes, and a Range Rover. And then when I go out in the morning and say, “What car am I gonna drive to Paramount today?” It was an interesting time.

You guys did a big trip in the 90s that took you to some of Route 66.

It was the second year of Spin City (1997).

It was my son, Sam, and I, and a friend of mine and his two kids. I roughly bracketed Sam’s age, one a year younger, one a year older. We set out from Manhattan. We lived in Manhattan on the East Side and I got a Suburban and—this is how old this was—I outfitted it with video screens, but they didn’t exist as an option. It was like a big thing that I had these video screens. There were no snaky cables in it. I had a, it might’ve been tapes, but I think it was a DVD player.

The first night, we made [it] down to Hershey, Pennsylvania. Stayed there a couple of days, we did the park and saw a re-enactment of some Civil War battles. We went down through West Virginia and Ohio. In Ohio, we stopped at the Jack Hanna Zoo, because I knew Jack Hanna from The Tonight Show and David Letterman. He opened his zoo to us and let us see all the animals. There was something every step of the way. I really planned this thing out. I knew that it was one of the last times that I’d ever be able to do this because of the disease’s progression. I knew this was my window.

Then we drove through the Midwest—Wisconsin, Minnesota, along through the Dakotas, Mount Rushmore. We did the whole package with the Badlands. We got into the Rockies and we went down through Durango, did the train there, whitewater rafting and went up in the mesas, cliff dwellings, and we went to New Mexico, Arizona, and then we went to the Grand Canyon.

One of the stops on the way was in Las Vegas. I made reservations that weekend for the Tyson-Holyfield fight where Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear off. We went there and I had tickets, and we got babysitters for the kids. Sam wanted to go to the fight. I said, “You can’t go to the fight.” But I said, “One of the cool things about this fight is that it’s essentially a good guy against a bad guy.” You don’t always get that in fights, where there’s a real good guy and a real bad guy. Tyson at the time was a bad guy, Holyfield was a minister and a sort of straight guy.

The next day we see the fight, Tyson bites Holyfield’s ear off. I remember that being cool because in the guest room, the guests were all these comics, tons of comics, Kevin Pollock, and Chris Rock and Roseanne Barr. It was an amazing group of people, and they were immediately making jokes and crafting routines minutes after this happened. They were like, “Where’s his ear now? It’s in his colon.” Just flying with this stuff. And it was totally amazing.

So, the next day, Sam asked, “Who won?” I said, “Remember how I said there was a good guy and a bad guy? It turns out the bad guy was really bad.”

So, we get to L.A. and we’re staying at this house. We were staying at Bruce Willis’ house, actually, in Malibu. We get there and a couple days later I had to do The Tonight Show and Holyfield was on. So, Sam got to see the piece of his ear missing.

But that was the end of [the] trip. Anywhere along the way, there’s a thousand stories. It was a great trip.

What stood out to you when you were on Route 66 in the southwest?

[It’s] just that it is what it is. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a good way. People are straight shooters and it’s just that there’s no guile to anybody. There’s no fast city sh*t. It’s just like, “You want a cake? Want a gelato? Want a margarita? Want a beer? Want a cool place? Want to sit in this shade?” It’s cool. It’s too hot to be pretentious or to be any other energy. I mean, you can see that’s what it is.

Did you stay at the Hotel Monte Vista when you were shooting in Flagstaff?

Yeah, I stayed at the Monte Vista, and I can’t remember the other place. But I went there a few times, because we had to go back and pick up scenes, and it was great, I loved it.

You knew they named a room after you?

Yeah. There’s a dollar bill tucked underneath the rug in the corner.

It sounds like it was a real father-son bonding trip.

It was so great for that. I think the other thing was that at first it was like, “What kind of souvenir can I get? What kind of book can I buy from the gift shop?” And it just drove me crazy. I was like, “It’s not in here, it’s out there. There’s nothing in the shop you can find that’s as good as what’s out there.” And that kind of sunk in over the course of the trip. It was an amazing time.

On your 35th birthday, Tracy gave you a red ’67 Mustang convertible. What a beautiful car.

I would love to take that down to Route 66! I loved it. If I could take it on a flatbed down to like Missouri and then head west, that’d be awesome. It’s just a cool car. It’s like Springsteen—roll down the windows and let the wind blow back your hair. Imagine that on the road.

When you were 29, things were high flying for you at the time. A lot of great films, a lot of projects ... And then you got diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As a young man, did you have any comprehension at that point of what that really meant?

I had no idea what that meant, because Parkinson’s to me was a thing that ... I mean, on the young side, Muhammed Ali had it [but he was] in his fifties by then. But otherwise, it was just an old person’s disease. It was a concept more than it was a disease.


So, it took me a while. I was just going by people’s reactions. And I tell my family and I tell my friends, or I’d tell the very few people that I told, when I talked to doctors about it, the tones that they would speak in, and the attitudes that they would assume told me, oh, this is f**king serious.

Were you scared?

I was scared. I was more confused than scared, but I was scared. I had a sense of free-floating doom, but I had nothing to affix it to because, at that point, the worst thing that was happening was that my brain was gone a little bit, and my arm was sore. I had no idea [what] the extent [of it was]. I knew what the end picture was, but I didn’t know how long it took to get there, or what interventions or remedies I could apply during the process to make it easier. It also had very much to do with Tracy’s response to it, because we were just married.

Tracy seems like a pretty solid, levelheaded person. I suspect that her response must’ve been supportive?

She’s a very organized person. Honestly, it’s because of the school she went to. She tends to center and say, “Okay, this is the situation. This is what we’re gonna do.” But she was at a loss, because she had no idea what it was either.

You’ve long been pegged as being a nice guy and an incurable optimist. How difficult is it to actually be in a crappy mood and in a bad situation where you’re like, “I don’t want to smile, I don’t want to throw a good face on this thing? This sucks.”

I mean, if I felt like I didn’t want to smile, I didn’t want to be in a good mood, I wouldn’t be. It took me a while to get there, but it’s what I live by now. My first instinct tends to be my best instinct. If I need to protect myself at the moment and withdraw myself from the situation or lobby for myself to get what I need, I know that, like I said, my first instinct is my best instinct. So, I don’t question it.

In your new book No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, you share a story about a flight to Europe that you and Tracy were on. You had the window seat and Tracy had the aisle. Tracy is sleeping and you get up to go to the restroom and to stretch your legs. On coming back, not wanting to disturb her to get to your seat, you instead sit next to her, across the aisle. As you watch her sleep, the plane hits some turbulence and she wakes up, looks to her left and does not see you. You then elaborate, “In an instant, she had her blanket off, her seatbelt unlatched, and was on her feet in search of me, obviously worried ... It confirms for me that I’m someone she loves; but I’m also someone that she feels is vulnerable and needs protection.” Men are born with an innate need to feel strong, to protect and to take care of their family. From that excerpt, Parkinson’s, to some degree, seems to have robbed you of some of that opportunity.

That’s part of it. The full part of the story is that you recognize when that’s happening, but then you also recognize the other times. By letting that come in, or saying, “Yeah, I was being looked after there,” that’s happened all throughout my life. I’ve had people, Nina, my assistant, she takes care of me in everything I do, she knows what pills I take, when I went to the bathroom last, she knows stuff that she shouldn’t know. But that’s fine, because it puts relief in the other areas of my life. I mean, this house, you can’t see it, but it’s a nice house. We have a safe place to be during the pandemic, and I know that I’m responsible for a lot of that, [or at least] partially responsible. So, in that way, I protect my family all the time. I talked to my kids about what they want to do in their lives and what they need and all those things. I mean, I’ll fall down on my way to the kitchen, but I’ll get back up and just do what I’m doing, and I don’t say that I don’t deserve to be in the kitchen because I fell down on the way.

It’s just what today’s reality [is].

You and Tracy have been married for over 32 years now? In today’s world, that’s a lifetime!

Yeah, it’s like 99 and done. It’s great.

What do you attribute that to? For you guys, what has been the key to a really sustainable relationship and marriage?

You know, the standard stuff that makes a good marriage. We just really like each other, and we trust each other. Like Tracy always says, we give each other the benefit of the doubt. If you think you’ve heard something that you don’t like, or you think you heard something that was mean, chances are it wasn’t meant that way. Just ask a question before you get angry. Life is too long to get involved in stuff like that. You’re going to have that battle over and over and over and over again if you don’t resolve the fact that nobody really intends there to be bad feelings. The person I live with every day of my life, why would I want to hurt them? I don’t. So, beyond having a raging love life or exotic travels or whatever, it’s just being there on a day-to-day basis. Someone’s got your back.

Well, you got married as a young man, at an insane time, and you guys stayed together.

That was a crazy time, too, because, within a period of a couple of years, I finished Family Ties, I did the last two episodes of Back to the Future, my son was born, my father died, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and I quit drinking. It was all in that period of time. My life was just starting to come back together again, and I started to get a handle on it, I was getting a handle on the disease. I'd quit drinking for a couple of years at that point, four or five years.

I’d kind of reconciled myself with my father’s passing. It was too early, he was 61, just two years older than I am now. Things were coming together, and I thought, “Why am I doing this?” I love television. I had a great time on Family Ties. I only have so many years left before this disease takes over and I’m at the mercy of it. So, I thought, I’ll get in touch with Gary and do TV again, and that turned out to be a great success.

That’s how I kind of dealt with it. You should always just step back and take a breath and look and see where things are, instead of reacting to where you think they are. I think this is happening out here, so I’m just going to forestall it by doing this. Look at the window and see what it is, and then make a committed decision going forward.

You have four children and you’ve been a dad for a long time. I only have one and he’s amazing, but it has taught me a lot about myself and about how to be more humble, and how to take myself a little less seriously. You’ve gone through this now a number of times. What has being a dad to four kids taught you about yourself and how you live life?

It’s been the best part of my life. When you have a baby, you meet this person that you know from the ground up, and you reintroduce them all the way along the line as they develop new aspects of who they are. You can influence that, but they are in charge of that, who they become. So then when you have two kids, three kids, four kids, they become a little community and you see that community grow, those interpersonal relationships growing, and how your relationship with them affects their relationship with their siblings.

And then you see them grow outside of your bubble.

And how they grow in the outside world and how those relationships get formed, what they take from them, and what they do.

Were the lessons different between raising a son and raising daughters?

Oh, yeah.

First of all, a son is really complicated in that—in a good way, but it’s tied up in a lot of your self-image and who you think you are and what kind of son you raise and how that reflects on you and all that. But [you’ve got] to get over and get down to them and get caring about what they care about. There’s certainly a lot of conflict and a lot of mixed emotions and complicated stuff that goes on with fathers and sons.


[For] daughters, it’s just pure love. You just love them. They’re so mysterious. [In the book], I was talking about when my kids had gone to school and the place was empty. All of the girls’ shoes were left over to be thrown away. All we could really do was throw them away and think about how much they fought over those shoes and argued about who got to wear which ones, and when they got to wear them. You just keep looking at these shoes saying, “That’s it.” That’s what it comes down to. We’re left with shoes, and then they go away and they live their lives.

With that in mind, if you could go back now as a more enlightened Michael J. Fox and speak to the 19-year-old that was just starting to take off in his life and career, what advice would you give this young dude?

Every screw up, I learned from it. Every screw up, I got wiser and made a better decision the next time.

I mean, I wouldn’t change anything. I do wish ... I know how selfish I was sometimes. I know that I thought that what I was going through was more important than what you were going through, because there’s bigger terms and bigger things.

I consider myself a kind, thoughtful person. But, to me, you can always be kinder and more thoughtful. You can always be more giving and more accepting. And, to the extent that I was those things, I can always find places where I could have been more.

With Parkinson’s, does it help to keep busy and tap into your creativity?

If you don’t keep your mind going, you get lost in what you can’t do, and you don’t see things that open up for you. I’ve felt diminished movement and I wrote a lot about movement because it’s very important to me. But with diminished movement or limited movement or careful movement, it gives you time to think things through and look at things from a different angle. In some ways, my opportunities and my abilities are diminishing to a point, but that point can be very sharp.

You are so much more than Parkinson’s; you’re doing so much more than just fighting and working towards research and the cure for Parkinson’s. Do you ever get tired of being so connected to being sick?

Parkinson’s? I’d give it up in a second. I’d shake it off in a moment. But what you refer to, though, is an amazing thing, being tied to Parkinson’s. I wish I didn’t have it, but given that I do, I’m actually really grateful for the association that people make, because we have been able to raise a billion dollars towards research, and [we’re] really pushing the envelope in terms of that. The things we’re exploring genetically, the things we’re exploring in terms of finding a marker, finding a way to identify the disease before it’s evident, so that we can treat it and halt progression, and halt symptoms before they’re apparent. We’re getting close to those things.

To be put in a position where I can help affect that change, it’s the most humbling thing and the thing that I am most proud of.


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