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Michael J. Fox: The Toughest Man on TV

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Fox doesn't find his symptoms upsetting, but he's well aware that other people do. "People look at me," he says, "and have fear and sadness in their eyes, which they think they're seeing reflected back at them. They wouldn't see what I'm really feeling, which is, 'I'm OK!' But people are afraid. I did an interview with Larry King and it was a little more disjointed and fractured than usual, and I realized that it was the first time I'd talked to him since my diagnosis and that he was afraid. So I had to understand that before people deal with me they're going to deal with what they think I'm going through. Then time will pass and they'll realize that this is just my life, the stuff I was given to deal with."

How Parkinsons's Made Michael J. Fox a Better Actor

Over the next 30 minutes, the medicine visibly takes effect. Most strikingly, Fox's leg seems to speed up, before gradually slowing and almost stopping its movements, all with the inevitability of a high tide going out. He's smiling again, back to talking in the metaphor-studded mega-paragraphs that are his usual mode of expression. "It's just a feeling of settling," he says, trying to describe the symptoms and their relief. "Like, the suburbs, the outlying areas, aren't being served, and then it's just like the power starts to come on – the TV starts to hum again and the air conditioner is going and the lights come up and it's just all working and you get a little bit of extra motion. The bigger issue is the combination of freezing and being still and having less fluidity in your movements and then at the same time having this kinetic energy tremor – that's the toughest thing."

Fox thinks it's a mistake, however, to focus too much on his subjective experience of the disease. "There's a fascination with what it feels like to experience something like this," he says. "And I just find that the more interesting thing is what it's meant to me, and I'm much less in the physical part of it than I am in the kind of emotional part of it and the enlightening part of it. Things like the fog lifting and the extremities calming down, that doesn't change the driver I was five minutes ago. That just changes the car I'm in. I'm just in a better car now. And I can go places that I want to go as opposed to just a prescribed route – you know, like the Disney Autopia thing that's just on a track – so it's much more like a Ferrari on a freeway. Well, not a Ferrari. At least a Mustang."

The 1980s were good to Michael J. Fox, outlandishly so. "I went from girls not giving me the time of day to reading it off their bedside digital clocks," he recalls. "It was pretty cool." There were endless reasons to celebrate, which, for him, meant getting really drunk, over and over again. For a long time, that didn't pose a problem. "All of a sudden I was getting into all these clubs and the VIP room, which was a really ridiculous thing," he says. "'Because if you're in the VIP room, you're not in the club! You're in a little room upstairs. It's like, 'Wow, here I am in the VIP room. That's Dustin Hoffman. I'm not going home with him.'"

When Fox was 17, his straight-laced father, a retired Canadian army sergeant, unexpectedly allowed him to drop out of high school to pursue an acting career, even driving with his son 1,200 miles from suburban Vancouver to L.A. After three years of intermittent small roles, superstardom had not arrived, and Fox took to stuffing unpaid bills from creditors and the IRS into an increasingly overflowing cupboard. By the time he had his final audition to play Alex P. Keaton on a sitcom called Family Ties, he was selling off his furniture for food money, and his parents were urging him to return to Canada and get a real job.

Instead, he got the part, and pretty much everything else he wanted. He spent the fall of 1984 with layers of latex and yak hair glued to his face, shooting a cheap little indie comedy, Teen Wolf, during a Family Ties hiatus. On location one day in an oak-tree-lined Pasadena, California, neighborhood, a fully wolfed-up Fox was drinking his lunch milkshake through a straw ("I couldn't eat food because I would break the foam on the sides of my mouth," he recalls) when location scouts for another movie showed up. They were working on Back to the Future, a Steven Spielberg-­produced film, with Eric Stoltz in the lead role as Marty McFly, and Crispin Glover as his dad. "I knew Crispin, and I was like, 'Shit. Crispin gets this Spielberg movie,'" says Fox, "'and I'm out in Pasadena with werewolf makeup on, sucking a weak-ass shake through a straw.'" That winter, Stoltz was fired from Back to the Future, and Fox was pulled in to play Marty McFly on a few days' notice – it turned out he had been the filmmakers' first choice all along. For months, Fox shot Family Ties during the day and Back to the Future at night. He was convinced that he had been a disaster as Marty McFly, and he could barely remember any of it, anyway. The next summer, he found himself the star of the year's top movie – and Teen Wolf, released in its wake, became an unexpected hit.

As his streak of good fortune stretched on, Fox developed a never-articulated, ever-growing terror of his luck turning, of bills coming due, of the other shoe dropping. He had grown up working-class, and his new life sometimes didn't seem real. He had learned early on, though, that alcohol could help him ignore his insecurities. He had started drinking as a teenager in Canada, largely to get past his discomfort with his size. As a kid, he was athletic, charming and good-looking, but tiny: "I was a homunculus," he says with a laugh, noting that he wrestled at 98 pounds. Drugs were never a problem, though, then or later. "I smoked a bit of pot in high school," he says, "but I couldn't smoke pot and drink 'cause I'd get what I call the six-second warning where you have six seconds to find out where you want to sleep. But being Canadian, I never met a beer I didn't like."

See Michael J. Fox's 1986 Rolling Stone Cover

In the late Eighties, he attempted more serious roles (mulleted blue-collar rocker in Light of Day, cokehead fact-checker in Bright Lights, Big City, conscience-haunted soldier in Casualties of War), shot two Back to the Future sequels back-to-back, fell in love, got married at 27, and had a kid less than a year later.

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