Michael J. Fox: The Toughest Man on TV

He's staging an astonishing comeback. Just don't ever feel sorry for him

September 26, 2013 1:20 PM ET
Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

He's a short guy, even smaller than he looks onscreen, and his legs have some trouble communicating with his brain these days, but at age 52, Michael J. Fox still manages to walk a whole lot faster than most people. One bright early-summer Friday on Manhattan's Upper East Side, a friendly, sunburned blur of Fox-ness rolls into the modest office suite he keeps in his apartment building. "Hey! How's it going?" Fox says, in that mildly squeaky, crazily familiar, "You-built-a-time-machine-out-of-a-De­Lorean?" voice of his. He just woke up, and he's wearing a slate-blue T-shirt over slim, laudably un-dad-ish dark jeans and gray slip-on Vans.

Watch Michael J. Fox Talk About His Return to TV

He zooms into the next room and tosses himself onto a brown leather couch, near a new-looking Fender Strat and Twin Reverb amp, still with tags attached, in the corner. Framed photographs of Fox jamming with Bruce Springsteen and the Who ("The secret is knowing when to turn your amp down," he says) sit on white wooden bookshelves stuffed with a smorgasbord of showbiz-award statuettes – even a Grammy, for the audio version of one of his books. Over the past decade, he wrote (or at least dictated) his two bestselling memoirs in this room, pacing the carpet until it wore out as he chronicled his career, family life and the substantial wisdom he's acquired from his 22-year battle with Parkinson's disease. (His wife, the actress Tracy Pollan – who played his girlfriend on Family Ties – enjoys recounting the moment when Fox moaned, "I'm never going to finish my book about optimism!")

Thirteen years ago, Fox quit his starring role on the ABC sitcom Spin City, his last full-time job, largely because he felt his symptoms were starting to interfere with his performances. He had made his Parkinson's diagnosis public just two years earlier, and a good chunk of America's population – 32.7 million people – watched an elegantly executed, very-special-episode send-off for his character, a cocky deputy mayor. It also felt very much like a funeral for a beloved actor's career. In the episode's last moments, a moist-eyed Fox stepped out of character to wave goodbye to the studio audience and the cameras, with palpable finality. He turned his attention to rearing his three (soon-to-be four) kids and to guiding the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which has so far raised more than $350 million toward accelerating the pace of research for a Parkinson's cure.

But now Fox is doing something altogether unexpected for someone who was diagnosed with an incurable, progressive brain disease back in 1991, when his doctor warned that he had no more than 10 years left of his acting career: He's going back to work. Beginning in 2004, Fox gradually eased back into television – popping up on Boston Legal, Rescue Me, The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm ("I thought I was the sickest guy on this block, but you're the new champ," Fox tells Larry David). Fox is in the first weeks of a 22-episode shoot for The Michael J. Fox Show, the third network sitcom of his career. Last night, he worked past 1 a.m. – a 14-hour day. "I just don't tell myself that I can't do it," he says. "Then I just do it. A show is easier to regulate than life. There's no surprises, really. You know what you have to do in a given day, and you rest and medicate accordingly. I'm shocked at how much easier this is than I thought it would be."

The show is a straight family sitcom, with Fox playing a much-loved TV-news anchor who happens to have Parkinson's, and is undertaking his own un-retirement, heading back on the air. "People said, 'Are you sure you can handle this?'" Fox recalls. "'Are you sure you can take it on? Are you sure you can deal with it?' And I said, 'No, I'm not sure I can, but I want to and I have an opportunity to.' And another side of it, that I don't deal with every day but is certainly present, is that on some level it might be empowering for people. The point is, we all have our bag of hammers. We all have our own shit. It's like the parable about this circle of people and everyone takes their worst problem and puts it in the middle and they all get to choose one to take back – and they all end up choosing their own. And that's kind of it. You'd always take your own problems back over someone else's."

In addition to his uncanny ability to summon up these wise-man allegories – friends jokingly call him Gandhi – Fox is something of a medical anomaly. After a decade or so, most Parkinson's patients become less responsive to the synthetic dopamine that can help regulate the condition's characteristic tremors, which are paradoxically paired with a paralytic sensation of stiffness. But he's still highly responsive to the medicine, and he's also found a particular mix of drugs that has him feeling much better than he did 10 years ago. He looks good, too, for what it's worth, even with the inevitable loss of some of his youthful supercuteness – his features have taken on enough of a harder edge that, from some angles, he resembles his Spin City replacement, Charlie Sheen – Fox blames "a square jaw and a well-traveled look in the eyes."

All that said, at the moment, here in his office, Fox isn't doing so great. His face has stilled into a blank mask; his speech is slurring. He's propped his right leg up on a coffee table, where it isn't so much shaking as it is vibrating, like he's tapping his foot to a Ramones song played double time. Though it's hard to tell from the outside, he's also experiencing "cognitive misfiring," an extreme version of pre-coffee morning grogginess. When I admire his guitar amp, he finds himself unable to come up with its name.

Read Rob Sheffield's Picks for the 10 Best New TV Shows

Without a word, Fox bolts from the couch and lurches toward a side room, emerging a second later with a grasshopper-size pill in his mouth, which he washes down with a practiced swig of Poland Spring. He has the day off from the show, and thought he might be able to save his medication for the golf game he's playing later. Too high a dosage has its own pitfalls, so it was a trade-off worth attempting. "I was pretty still and calm," he says, "and I thought, 'Can I have a conversation like this?' Like, 'Is it Rolling Stone or the golf course?' Which one am I going to get my shit together for? So I thought I'd try to do this straight-edge."

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