The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Michael J. Fox
For many, Michael J. Fox is the epitome of youthful energy. As Marty McFly in the 1985 time travel adventure comedy "Back to the Future" and its sequels, he was immortalized as one of the coolest kids on the block, as befits the man behind a character who drives an awesome, time-traveling DeLorean and accidentally invents rock ‘n’ roll music. Of course, the reason that Fox has been able to maintain his glowing reputation is that he also happens to be a famously pleasant individual. Esteemed outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times have gone out of their way to point out what a nice guy Fox is, and his colleagues aren’t exactly arguing against this sentiment. "It’s a thrill whenever we get together. He has just such a loving, wonderful sense of himself in his situation in time," Fox’s "Back to the Future" co-star Christopher Lloyd told Looper in an exclusive interview.
Still, just because Fox has had a pretty great career and maintained a positive outlook in life doesn’t mean that the actor has necessarily led an easy life. On the contrary, as you’re about to find out, his personal and professional history have both involved a number of devastating hurdles that could very well have taken a lesser person down many times over. Let’s take a look at the tragic real-life story of Michael J. Fox.
Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease
In any discussion about Michael J. Fox’s misfortunes, one can hardly avoid mentioning Parkinson’s disease. As CBS News reports, Fox was at the height of his fame and personal glory in 1991 when he was diagnosed with the degenerative condition. At the time, the 29-year-old was a massively famous star who had just married his "Family Ties" co-star, Tracy Pollan. As you’d probably expect, the news was devastating, and during the seven years Fox chose to keep his situation out of the limelight, he sought treatments that included drugs and surgery (per CNN).
Initially, Fox kept a pretty tight lip on his situation. He also felt bad about Pollan, feeling that the diagnosis was an unfairly heavy load for her to bear, as well. "So very early in the marriage she got this dumped on her," Fox described the initial impact of the news in 2021 — but he also noted that the pair immediately resolved to get on with things the best they can. "And the moment that I told her I was realizing was the last time we cried about it together. We haven’t cried about Parkinson’s since. We’ve just dealt with it and lived our lives. But we cried about it that first time."
Since revealing his diagnosis in 1998, Fox has set up the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research, and while he doesn’t make light of the horrors of the condition, he remains a self-professed optimist.
Michael J. Fox struggled with substance abuse
Life was difficult for Michael J. Fox after he received his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in 1991. According to People, this led him down some fairly dark roads for a while. Before getting married, Fox suffered from self-described rock star tendencies, and as he told The New York Times Magazine in 2019, his younger self was known to pull stunts like "riding in a limo with my head out the sunroof and a beer in each hand."
Fox said goodbye to his more hard-drinking ways when he married Tracy Pollan in 1988, but the diagnosis soon caused him to start again in an effort to cope with the situation. This went on until 1992, when Pollan found him passed out in their living room after a night of drinking. Fox found out there and then just how fed up she was with his alcohol abuse. "I did a slow scan up from her feet to her face, expecting to find her really angry," Fox describes the moment she faced off with him. "She wasn’t. She was just bored." After this, Pollan simply asked him, "Is this what you want? Is this what you want to be?"
Fox stopped drinking there and then and turned to therapy as a far healthier coping mechanism.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Michael J. Fox almost missed his shot at fame … twice
Michael J. Fox has made many of his roles outright iconic, which makes it all the more surprising to hear that he came close to missing his first major role in "Family Matters." According to producer Gary David Goldberg (via The Interviews), he initially didn’t like Fox due to a flubbed audition in which the actor had made the character of Alex P. Keaton too dark. As such, Goldberg pushed for Matthew Broderick to get the role instead.
When Broderick ultimately declined, a persistent casting director convinced Goldberg to begrudgingly allow Fox a second audition round, and fortunately, the young actor nailed it. This must’ve been a pretty important moment for him, because in an interview with the New York Post (via Entertainment), Fox revealed that Broderick used to be something of an accidental professional nemesis to him. "He’d usually go in first for auditions, and you’d hear hands shaking," Fox remembered. "I was always losing jobs to Matthew Broderick."
Perhaps ironically, Fox’s commitment to "Family Ties" ended up nearly costing him the even more iconic part of Marty McFly in "Back to the Future," according to People. Goldberg guarded Fox so jealously that although the makers of the movie really wanted the actor to play Marty, they ultimately cast Eric Stoltz in the role … before realizing he was a bad fit, and promptly returning to unleash a charm arsenal on Goldberg until he agreed to allow Fox to portray Marty.
Michael J. Fox and life with Parkinson’s disease
The fact that Michael J. Fox has Parkinson’s disease may be a little abstract for those of us who aren’t familiar with the condition. In order to get a sense of the actor’s struggles, one only has to look at the things Fox has had to go through to keep things in check. According to People, the actor is reliant on his medication in order to keep his tremors under control, and per CNN, in early 1998 he went under the knife for a brain operation called a thalamotomy to help control the Parkinson’s tremors.
As The Irish Times notes, Fox’s lack of mobility means that he’s often confined to a wheelchair during his travels — a situation even the generally optimistic actor has come to detest. "Generally the person in control is a stranger, an airport or hotel employee," Fox describes traveling in a wheelchair. "I’m sure that if we could look each other in the eye, we’d recognize our mutual humanity. But often in the wheelchair, I’m luggage. I’m not expected to say much. Just sit still."
So, what would happen if Fox neglected to take his medication and allowed the condition to take over in full? As the actor has written in his book, "No Time Like the Future" (via The Irish Times), the answer is grim. "Absent a chemical intervention, Parkinson’s will render me frozen, immobile, stone-faced, and mute — entirely of the mercy of my environment," Fox writes.
Michael J. Fox had other health scares, too
Aside from just Parkinson’s disease, Michael J. Fox has also faced some other health troubles. In 2018, he had to go under the knife because an intensely painful tumor was growing on his spine, according to People. Left unoperated, it would have seriously risked his mobility … but removing it was incredibly difficult and dangerous because of its extreme proximity to the spinal cord. Regardless, there was no real choice but to operate. "I was heading for paralysis if I didn’t get it operated on," Fox described the situation. Even without that risk, he later told The New York Times Magazine that the situation was getting unbearable, as the tumor was killing the feeling in his legs, and he kept having difficulty staying on his feet.
The surgery was a success, as were the four months of physical therapy that helped him regain the use of his legs. Unfortunately, disaster soon struck again. When Fox was just about to work on a Spike Lee movie, he took a bad fall at home, and he broke his arm so badly that it needed "19 pins and a plate." This was ultimately the last straw for the usually affable actor, who says that he went to a pretty dark place for a while. "It was when I questioned everything," Fox later wrote. "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.’"
He was forced to retire from acting … twice
Despite his struggles with his health, Michael J. Fox has amassed a pretty amazing acting résumé, with an impressive 76 on-screen roles and a great number of other credits to his name (via IMDb). As befits both his long, hard road and his amazing tenacity, he bears the distinction of having retired from the industry not once, but twice.
Per Fox’s official website, the actor’s first official retirement came in 2000, when he left his role as "Spin City" main character Mike Flaherty after wrapping up his 100th episode. For years, he focused all his energies on patient advocacy and working with the Parkinson’s research foundation bearing his name. However, he eventually decided to return to acting after a decade away from the screen, and he even took on a number of starring and recurring roles in major productions like "The Good Wife."
According to ABC News, the second — and possibly final — retirement came in 2019, when the 60-year-old star revealed that his diminishing vocal talents had caused him to call it quits with acting. "I reached the point where I couldn’t rely on my ability to speak on any given day, which meant I couldn’t act comfortably at all anymore," he revealed in 2020. "So, last year I gave it up." As People reports, Fox has also named his increasingly ailing short-term memory as a major reason acting has been getting more and more difficult for him.
He lost much of his memory
Michael J. Fox’s decades-long experience with Parkinson’s disease has obviously not been an easy one, and as the actor revealed in a 2020 interview with People, it has taken a toll on him — and some of the things he’s lost are quite surprising. Unfortunately, they include one of the most important tools at an actor’s disposal: memory.
It’s very hard to act if you have no idea what your lines are, and this is particularly true for Fox, who has relied heavily on his great memory when he’s prepared for his roles. "I always had a real proficiency for lines and memorization," Fox said. "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."
Fox has also addressed the memory changes that can come with Parkinson’s disease on his official website. To educate people affected by the condition about the ways it may alter the ways a person remembers and thinks — and to offer ways to cope with the situation — Fox’s team has created a downloadable guide about the subject, called "Thinking, Memory and Parkinson’s Disease."
Michael J. Fox received criticism for his political activities
In 2006, Michael J. Fox became the target of conservative criticism for appearing in a campaign video for a Democratic candidate vying for a Senate seat in Missouri (via CBS News). Fox’s appearance in the ad was noticeably disheveled, as the tremors brought on by his Parkinson’s disease were plain to see. Influential and controversial conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh immediately targeted Fox, claiming that the actor was either deliberately off his medication or even playing up his symptoms.
Fox was quick to dismiss the claims, noting that his condition was far too severe to skip medication for effect. "At this point now, if I didn’t take medication I wouldn’t be able to speak," he said. He also revealed that while his appearance in the ad indeed showed him in a sorrier state than usual, the reason behind this was very different than what Limbaugh speculated. "The irony is that I was too medicated," Fox said. "I was dyskinesic. Because the thing about … being symptomatic is that it’s not comfortable. No one wants to be symptomatic; it’s like being hit with a hammer."
As Fox’s official website notes, dyskinesia is a condition that may affect those with Parkinson’s disease, and it can cause all sorts of uncomfortable, involuntary movements of the body. In other words, definitely not the kind of thing you’d invite upon yourself to earn sympathy points in a campaign ad. In all fairness, Limbaugh soon apologized.
Michael J. Fox had to get political despite not caring for politics
It’s easy to think of Michael J. Fox as a political actor. After all, his first famous role was Alex P. Keaton in "Family Ties" — a young Republican who constantly clashed with his flower power parents Steven and Elyse (played by Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter). Per CBS News, by the mid-2000s Fox was quite notable for his real-life political work, too, having publicly endorsed several political figures, to the point of appearing in campaign ads.
Interestingly, Fox’s personal beliefs have often appeared to lean toward those of Democrats, but the actor himself has been quick to note that he’s also supported and voted for Republican candidates. Ultimately, he says, he doesn’t much care for politics at all, but has been drawn in because of his personal advocacy. "I don’t really care about politics," Fox has said. He’s also noted that "disease is a non-partisan problem that requires a bipartisan solution."
Michael J. Fox has lost his creative outlets one by one
Michael J. Fox is a massively creative individual. You might know that he’s a talented actor, but as People notes, he’s also adept in a number of other areas, including sketching and music. According to Guitar World, in fact, Fox is a competent guitarist who played the guitar in the iconic "Johnny B. Goode" scene in "Back to the Future," which is extremely impressive when you take into account the fact that he also performed the signature stage moves of several real-life six-string legends in the scene (via Empire). He even played with Joan Jett as recently as 2018 (via The New York Times Magazine). In fact, historically, one of the few creative endeavors Fox has openly admitted to being bad at is dancing. "I dance like a duck," the actor has stated. "I can’t dance."
Unfortunately, Fox’s Parkinson’s disease has taken a number of these outlets from him, one by one. "My guitar playing is no good," he said in 2020. "My sketching is no good anymore, my dancing never was good, and acting is getting tougher to do." Fortunately, there’s still something he’s able to do. "So it’s down to writing. Luckily, I really enjoy it." And luckily for the rest of us, he’s quite good at it, too. According to Fox’s official website, he’s written no less than four books so far, three of which bear the proud words "New York Times bestseller" on the cover.