Michael J. Fox on Muhammad Ali: 'He Made No Apologies, But Understood Kindness'

"The whole world projected their fears for him onto him," actor says. "And he took it all with love, confidence and humor"

Michael J. Fox describes how his childhood hero Muhammad Ali became a confidante in the face of Parkinson's disease. Credit: Zuma

Emmy-winning actor Michael J. Fox received a life-altering diagnosis for Parkinson's disease in 1991 at the age of 29. Doctors predicted he had less than 10 years of work left in his career. But Fox, who turns 55 this week, remains active in both the industry and his nonprofit work.

The actor credits his perseverance and remarkable optimism to Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer – his own childhood hero – who shared his disease and died at age 74 on Friday. In 2000, Ali called Fox to discuss the disease, leading to Fox's launch of the world's largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson's disease research in the world. (More than $450 million has been invested in research in the last 16 years.) Fox spoke to Rolling Stone about his idol and the inspiring grace, levity and generosity Ali embodied throughout his life. 

I was always Ali, and my brother was always Frazier. We used to watch them box [on television], and then go down to the basement. I'd take my hockey elbow pads and gloves, he'd take my lacrosse kneepads, put them on our fists, and we'd beat the shit out of each other.

When I grew up in the Sixties, Muhammad Ali was one of those giants that lived in the world. I looked up to him and admired him. As I grew older, I understood the depth of his convictions and the things he stood for and I admired him even more.

The first time I talked to Muhammad was after I was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. [Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1984]. He reached out to me, but it took me two or three days before I could answer his call because I was so nervous. Finally, I called from from the bathroom phone so I wouldn't be interrupted. One foot was up on the toilet lid, and the phone was up to my ear. You could tell on the phone he was very quiet at first, and you could hear him breathing. I'm thinking, "That is Muhammad Ali breathing, and that's his phone." Very quietly, he said, "I'm sorry you have this [disease], but with you in the fight, we have a better chance of winning."

"He communicated with his eyes in the most amazing way."

Everybody talks about when Ali lost most of his power to communicate vocally. But even in the later days when he was physically diminished, mentally, he was as sharp as a tack. He was fiercely intelligent and I wouldn't want to get into a battle of wits with him. He communicated with his eyes in the most amazing way. He would make you laugh at what he didn't say. 

Nobody knows the full extent of what anybody's health situation is. We have names for diseases and conditions that don't cover the full extent of how we experience what's wrong with us, and the feeling of what's wrong with us. There is a perceived shame in illness. I wish there wasn't, but people look for fear in your eyes. A lot of times they see their own fear reflected back at them. They're afraid: If you have it, then they may have it.

It's very tough to keep an even keel, but it's something that you have to do to go forward and enjoy life. You can't stomach other people's projections of what you should be feeling. Muhammad was a perfect example of that. I mean, the whole world projected their fears for him onto him. And he took it all with love, with confidence and with humor.

When we were shooting our commercial [for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Disease] in Arizona, I realized that no matter how famous you are, no matter how big a TV star you are – or whatever flimsy kinds of fame I had – you're invisible when you're with Muhammad Ali. You're anonymous. He attracts people like honey attracts bears. People come out of nowhere, to touch him and say hello to him. He was global. He reached every corner of the Earth. Every village, every household, certainly every television set and everybody in the Western world — but also the Third World and some places that had nothing — understood what he was and what he stood for; that he was a great boxer, sure, but that he was a great man. He was principled until the end of his days. He made no apologies, no excuses, but he understood kindness and honorability and generosity to people.

The thing I remember most of our first [meeting at at the Philadelphia Convention center in 2000] was that he'd do this magic trick over and over again. He pulled a red scarf out of thin air. After about five or six times, you'd realize he was pulling it out of a fake thumb. He knew you knew – he just liked that you didn't say anything about it. He did this trick over and over again. It was him reminding you that he was still magic.

As told to Sarah Grant

We remember Muhammad Ali in his own words of wisdom and bravado. Watch here.