Monday, July 20, 2009

Michael J. Fox's Missing Years

"It has been so long since Michael J Fox was a movie star", Emma Brockes notes in the Guardian, "that he's not sure his youngest children even know that's what he was, nor what he does for a living now." Fox and Tracy Pollan, his wife wife of twenty-one years, have four kids: nineteen-year-old Sam; twin fourteen-year-old girls, Aquinnah and Schuyler, and eight-year-old Esme, is eight. "I don't know that they've ever seen Back To The Future all the way through. Just as Parkinson's isn't a big topic of conversation in my house, neither is my career. I go down to my office every day and they say, 'Dad's going to work.'" Fox was first diagnosed with Parkinson's seventeen years ago, a year after he "woke up one morning in 1990 and noticed his little finger shaking," which he took for "a side effect of a hangover." At the time, Fox was already in a strange place mentally, trying to navigate a career path from Back to the Future's 24-year-old teen idol to success in more mature, or at least grown-up, roles. In his new book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures Of An Incurable Optimist, Fox recalls that period of his life as one spent in "the bubble", with fear as the dominant emotion. He was away from home a lot, and when he was at home, he drank at lot. The Parkinson's diagnosis did nothing to wean him off the bottle. "The alarm call came a year later, when he woke up on the sofa one morning, stinking of booze, with his baby son crawling on him and half a can of beer on the floor next to him. When he opened one eye to see his wife looking down at him, she didn't seem angry or disgusted, but, worse, indifferent."

Fox says that his first reaction to being diagnosed with Parkinson's was, "Hide." He was told that "if he was lucky he could keep acting for another decade", and that's about what happened: in 1996, Fox played his last starring, on-screen role in a movie in Peter Jackson's underrated The Frighteners and then jumped back to TV for the stability that a weekly series offered in Spin City. (He had practically auditioned for the sitcom role a year earlier with his supporting role in The American President.) He left the show in 2000, two years after going public with his condition. Of this milestone, he writes in the book, "I had been Mike the actor, then Mike the actor with PD. Now was I just Mike with PD."Since then he's done some voice work and short stints on Boston Public, Scrubs, and most recently, Rescue Me. Of that last gig, he says, "It felt good. I played a paraplegic, which is insane. It was nice to revisit [acting] again. But at the same time I didn't feel like, 'Aw, I'm home!' It was like visiting a place where you know the currency and the language, but you've moved on."

In his previous book, Lucky Man, Fox wrote about coming to terms with his ailment; in the new one, he describes his public evolution into a public advocate for stem-cell research at a time when the political powers that be didn't want to hear it. He cut a campaign commercial for a friendly candidate and wound up helping the country gauge the general level of Rush Limbaugh's loathsomeness. But after having a troubled reaction to seeing "a younger, healthier me" on TV one night, he managed to make a happier connection with Muhammad Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1984. "Fox rang Ali's wife, Lonnie, to ask about this particular thing, the horror of being confronted with the way you once were. 'I was thinking, What does he think when he sees himself on television as he was as Cassius Clay? Ducking and weaving and joking and spouting poetry. Does he feel sadness? A sense of loss?' Lonnie said, 'He loves it. He loves to see himself. He can't get enough of it.' 'And I got that,' says Fox. 'Because it's still him. Parkinson's doesn't take away anything of his identity.'"

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