Michael J. Fox: The Toughest Man on TV

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The following evening, cast and crew relocate to an indoor ice-hockey rink on the Manhattan waterfront for a well-timed location shoot. It's one of the hottest days of the year, with temperatures still in the nineties even as the sun dips beyond the docks in a flamboyant purple-orange swirl. But in here, it's downright chilly. The production has commandeered the rink to shoot a sequence where Fox and a bunch of other dads end up playing hockey in place of their kids' teams. The action is sufficiently complex that they're working from a storyboard, with a good 50 action shots sketched out in little panels and tacked to a felt board, complete with captions ("Mike skates into frame," "Mike taunts Coach Greg").

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As the extras playing the kids' team clear off the ice, Fox sits in the bleachers, hockey stick in one hand, script in the other. He's a lifelong hockey fanatic, and he's itching to get out there. Soon enough, with the excuse of "practice," he's got his skates on, and steps out onto the rink, in a gray T-shirt, jeans and no head protection. He begins to skate in earnest, and heads around the room turn to watch in awed silence. He's moving with grace and ease, tracing a semicircle around the lights and camera blocking a corner of the rink. His comfort on the ice is a mere neurological quirk – the continuous motion makes it less taxing for his brain than walking or putting on a button-down shirt. But for a moment, as he glides, picking up speed, it looks more like some species of miracle, a sight as beautiful as the sun setting outside on the Hudson.

Then Fox takes too sharp a turn, and falls hard, landing on his back. There's a millisecond of collective terror before he clambers up, unhurt ("My ass took the blow," he says later). Everyone decorously ignores the moment, except for a two-man Greek chorus of bald, heavyset, Queens-accented teamsters watching rinkside. "Jesus Christ, Michael," one says. "Put a fucking helmet on!"

"I can't watch this," says the other. "I just saw my paycheck going down."

Fox skates on, now pushing a puck around. After two tries, he slams it hard into the center of the net. "I missed twice," he says, genuinely aggrieved, as he steps off. Fox doesn't cut himself breaks, and he enjoys confounding people's expectations. Not long ago, at a summit hosted by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Fox tried skeet shooting. "One of the greatest moments in my life," he says with a grin, "was me with a cocked shotgun and a group of people looking at me going, 'What the fuck?' I knew that when I pulled the skeet I'd be still and shoot it, and I did. I blew it out of the sky on the first shot."

Other than the incurable-affliction thing, Fox is in great shape – thanks to a Pilates practice, a careful diet (his brother-in-law is natural-food advocate Michael Pollan), frequent long walks with his Great Dane mix, Gus, and a golf habit acquired in the past six or seven years, after Alice Cooper convinced him it was cool. (Sex, he says, isn't a problem, although "it's always up in the air who will be the agent of motion.") "After the initial brain-fuck of the diagnosis," he says, "I realized that I had to watch my health. I know that I got a tiger by the tail and, if I don't pay attention, it will eat me. So I have to be vigilant – I've seen people go south of this disease because they just give up. And though I don't have any experience with it, I can visualize what would happen if I just let myself fold inward. Because when symptoms start, if I want to make them less prevalent, I kinda tuck in and get smaller, and that's what it would be like to give up. As much as Parkinson's is about movement, the end stage is being frozen. So the more I let that happen, the more I'm gonna be stuck within that and unable to reverse it."

Some bad habits were harder to quit than others. As the wait between takes drags on, Fox hangs by monitors at the side of the bleachers, pining for his old method of killing time. "This is why I used to smoke," he says with a sigh. On Back to the Future, the prop department made him an ashtray stand so he could light up as soon as each take finished; on Family Ties, his entrance to the family kitchen was littered with hundreds of cigarette butts. Parkinson's forced him to quit for a while in the Nineties, but initially it wasn't for health reasons: "A couple of times at home," recalls Leary, a fellow tobacco addict, "the cigarettes just flew out of his hands when his arms went crazy, and so not only was a lit cigarette somewhere, but he didn't know where it was." After Fox got better control of his symptoms, Leary remembers him showing up at a party in 2001: "Mike walks over," Leary recalls, "he slams down a pack of Marlboros and he goes, 'I'm back! I can smoke again.'" Fox eventually quit for good, though he still chews Nicorette.

Any alcohol cravings, on the other hand, left him long ago. "I have times when I'm off-balance," he says. "I have times when I slur my words. I have times when I walk into walls. I have times when I can't remember somebody's name. So why would I want to manufacture that state?"

Fox inherited his dressing room at Silvercup from Alec Baldwin – the new show occupies the same studio space that 30 Rock used for seven seasons. Howard Stern used it, too, when he filmed Private Parts, which might explain the hairdresser-style shampoo sink in the bathroom. "So this room has great energy," says Fox, sitting in front of a big-screen TV tuned to SportsCenter. It's a couple of weeks later, and Fox spent a week off at the beach with his two daughters – along with Juliette Goglia, who plays his daughter on the show. A vacation snapshot is one of the few personal effects in the room, which is decorated with generic black-and-white photographs. "Howard Stern and Alec Baldwin – it's intense just walking in the room."

Over 30 years of fame, Fox has managed to avoid anything even vaguely like a public tantrum. But he does have a temper, he does occasionally run out of patience – if a cabdriver is rude to Tracy, for instance, he's been known to lose it. When, in 2006, Rush Limbaugh made the deranged claim that Fox was exaggerating his symptoms while campaigning for pro-stem-cell research candidates, Fox's response was diplomatic in public but less so with friends. "The flip side to his public persona does sometimes get flashed," says Leary. "In private, he was brutally fuckin' darkly funny about Limbaugh, but he wanted to hold off on letting the public see that. But that part of him is there, as well as the frustration of the disease, no matter how well he handles it. Mike has always had a dark side. It's one of the things that makes him so funny. And those ghosts and those demons are part of what he overcame in getting sober and turning himself into an even bigger saint than he was in America's eyes."

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When Fox started his foundation in 2000, he repeatedly said that a cure for Parkinson's could be discovered within a decade. "It wasn't optimism," says Debi Brooks, the foundation's co-founder. "Scientists were regularly saying it was possible." But the treatments that showed the most promise at the time haven't yet panned out, and Fox's foundation has been pushing to accelerate research pathways for other possible methods. "This was never about curing him," Brooks says, pointing out that Fox encouraged them to fund theoretical research that might not yield treatments for years. "It's never been, 'Oh, well, that'd be good. But that doesn't save my life.'"

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