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Michael J. Fox: The Toughest Man on TV

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On a Tuesday morning in November 1990, just a few months after the release of Back to the Future Part III, Fox woke up in the presidential suite of a Gainesville, Florida, hotel and, through the haze of a hangover acquired via a long night out with Woody Harrelson, noticed something deeply strange: The pinkie finger of his left hand was twitching, and it wouldn't stop. He immediately saw a team of Florida neurologists, who assured him he was fine. Nearly a year would pass, and other symptoms would appear, before Fox learned the truth, including the 10-year time limit for his career.

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With Pollan and the new baby, Sam, Fox had left his prince-of-Hollywood lifestyle behind. "I didn't think that I could live my life that way," Pollan says now. "If that's what he wanted, that wouldn't have been something I was interested in." But in the wake of the diagnosis, Fox started drinking alone for the first time, lying about it, falling into full-blown alcoholism. "I was at a loss as to how to deal with it," he says. "The idea of, 'Did I suck this woman into a bum deal and have a kid right away and then fall into this situation?' It was much easier to have a buzz going and not deal with the reality of it."

Before long, Pollan gave him an implicit ultimatum – "The drinking he was doing was too much for me," she says – and he hit bottom, entering recovery. "It was like snapping to and saying, 'Holy shit. This isn't the preview. This is the movie. And I'm already well into the first big plot twist,' which is that I was going to lose all of this stuff," says Fox. "I had a great marriage and a great son, and I didn't want to blow that." He's been sober for 21 years: "My sobriety is old enough to drink."

The tools he acquired in the program – acknowledging lack of control over a disease, learning maxims like "My happiness goes in direct proportion to my acceptance and in inverse proportion to my expectations" – turned out to be equally suited to dealing with the inescapable realities of Parkinson's. "That's the source of all this wisdom that's attributed to me," says Fox. "It's like I just took an ass-kicking and remembered the boots were kicking me."

Around the same time, he went into therapy, where the biggest revelation was also the most obvious. When he told his therapist that his old fear – that the other shoe was about to drop – was plaguing him, she smiled. "Michael," she told him, "you have Parkinson's disease. The other shoe dropped a long time ago."

A week later, across the bridge at Queens' Silvercup Studios, Fox is standing in a fake kitchen in front of searing lights and a huge HD camera, trading scripted banter ("At least he knows his produce!") with fictional family members he's only known for weeks. He couldn't possibly feel more at home. "Doing a sitcom scene in a kitchen – it's tough to film, but it's great," he says, standing in the fake living room. "These scenes, where everyone intersects – it's such an echo of Family Ties for me."

There's a cool circle-of-TV-life thing here as well. "I like the idea of having started playing the son on a family show," he says. "Then an adult in a workplace, and now playing a middle-aged father at home. It's nice – it's a good arc."

Fox has been thinking a lot lately about his old show, especially after a recent visit to the former location of the Keatons' kitchen, Paramount Stage 24 in L.A., where he spoke at a memorial for Ties creator Gary David Goldberg, a key mentor who also worked with Fox on Spin City. "It was very Proustian," he says, "the smells of it and just the little corners of the backroom." Goldberg, who died in June at age 68, was a sitcom traditionalist who bristled at Fox's modest attempts to push the boundaries of the form on Spin City. But Fox knows he would've loved The Michael J. Fox Show. Other than the novelty of its lead character's disability, it's proudly old-fashioned: The rise and fall of the setups and punch lines are as inevitable as the 12-bar blues that Fox likes to play along with for hours on his guitar.

In the current kitchen scene, he and his TV wife (Betsy Brandt, a.k.a. Marie from Breaking Bad – who says shooting that show's final episodes left her quite ready to switch to comedy) are gently arguing about their kids' refusal to play sports, and (misunderstanding alert!) three different family members simultaneously show up with takeout dinners. "It's familiar stuff," Fox says. "But there's a reason it's familiar, and, if you execute it well, it's like stepping into a hug. The blues is a good analogy."

Shooting one bit, Fox draws laughs from the crew with his delivery of a single line: "What? Parkinson's!" He does it five times, bending the phrases like a blue note, sometimes adding a shrug, sometimes getting louder, sometimes trailing off. Even without any context, it's funny.

Fox hadn't tried drawing directly on his disease for comedy until his 2011 Curb Your Enthusiasm episode – which Larry David and his writing team outlined in full without checking with Fox. "What actually surprised me the most about him was not that he was game and willing," says David. "Because I thought he might be, but, you know, when I had seen him in the past, anything he's ever done, the lines had been written for him. But that's what surprised me the most, how sharp he was improvising. He came up with great lines on the spot, one after another. I could barely get through a scene with him." After the episode aired, Fox's longtime friend Denis Leary called him: "I said, 'You've got to do a fuckin' thing. You've got to do a comedy or somethin' about Parkinson's, 'cause it's sitting right there, you know?'"

The unpredictability of his symptoms, and the concomitant loss of control over his movements, have forced Fox to change his approach to acting. But he's convinced this has helped him be more present in scenes than ever before. "I used to be really nervous and sit in my dressing room and fret about a scene that was coming up and sweat it out and say, 'What am I going to do? You say "Action," and I have to do something. What am I going to do? And what's that actor going to do? And how do I respond to that?' And now it's just like, 'OK, what's happening?' And if something happens, I react to it and if nothing happens, I don't react. I don't worry about that bit I was going to do or the look I was gonna give because when I get there I may not be able to give that look or do that thing or move that glass."

His biggest acting challenge in recent years was on Rescue Me, where Leary cast him as a bitter, wheelchair-bound romantic rival. "He wanted to do something darker," says Leary. "His joke right off the bat about being in a wheelchair was, 'Great, thanks for writing a part where I have to be absolutely still.' And I said, 'You want to win a fuckin' Emmy or not?'" He kept still, and won the Emmy.

As Fox hangs around the video monitors, leaning on a row of director's chairs with The Michael J. Fox Show logo on the back, Brandt walks over to say hello. "You've become so graceful at leaning over to kiss me," he says. As with the other female lead on the show, Katie Finneran, who plays Fox's sister, Brandt towers over him – she wore heeled cowboy boots to her audition, and she half-jokes that she nearly walked out in instant defeat when they had to try a scene standing up.

"I told them it doesn't matter to me," says Fox. "And if it did matter to me, it wouldn't make me any taller! There's a story someone told me when I was doing Back to the Future: With a short actor, they stand on a box – with a short movie star, everyone else stands in a trench." He pauses. "So, I'm back on boxes!"

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Jack Gore, the redheaded eight-year-old who plays the family's archetypally adorable younger son, wanders by, carrying a "curse jar." A lot of people on set owe him money, he says, and he's donating all the swear-word proceeds to Parkinson's research. "Oh, shit," Fox snaps back, instantly. "What a great idea!"

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