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Michael J. Fox Unwinds

After a busy ’86, the actor takes a break and looks to the future

Actor, Michael J. Fox, Emmy

Michael J. Fox attends the 38th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Pasadena, California, on September 21st, 1986.

Ron Galella/Wireimage/Getty

It’s another magical day in a land called Hanalei. Menacing gray clouds hover over emerald peaks on one side of the bay. Tranquilizing tropical rays beat down from the blue Hawaiian sky on the other. And the perfect arc of a rainbow disappears into the ripples of the sea.

“Time flies when you’re having sun,” says Michael J. Fox. After a week on Kauai, the Garden Isle, his face is lightly freckled and his back is fried. Perhaps Canadians don’t have what it takes to tan, but Fox has been doing what he came here to do: Nothing.

“This is as relaxed as I get,” he says, sprawled amid the overflowing ashtrays, empty Diet Pepsi cans and half-read magazines strewn about the cliffside condo he has rented for the New Year’s holiday. Having spent the morning at the beach, he has been lounging around in faded black sweats all afternoon, moving only for important things –– like jumping up to root for Miami in the Fiesta Bowl or fetching another Corona, his current beer of choice, from the refrigerator.

“Top Forty alert!” Fox shouts, as he zaps a Sheila E. video with the remote control. He flips channels as frequently as the surf rolls to shore outside his window, and the electronic drone of the television takes on a rhythm of its own. By now, he knows every local commercial by heart. He can give you the whole spiel about helicopter rides and boat trips and can impersonate Charo coaxing tourists to her restaurant. But he hasn’t had time to do any of these things himself. He’s been too busy vegging out.

The actor flew here straight from Vancouver. He got to spend a week in his home town, Burnaby, at the new four-bedroom house he helped his folks buy. “It has two bathrooms,” he says. “I still can’t get over having two bathrooms.” And now, retired Canadian army sergeant Bill Fox and his wife, Phyllis, also have a pool table, which their son the actor gave them for Christmas. The entire family was assembled –– older sisters Jackie and Karen and their kids; big brother Steve, a construction superintendent, and his kids; and younger sister Kelli, the only other thespian in the family. They have yet to miss a Christmas together.

In both Burnaby and Kauai, Michael J. Fox spent his first three days catching up on his sleep. And now he finally admits it: last year, the Kick-Ass Kid, the Boss of Bounce, “saw the night at the end of the tunnel.” He doesn’t ever want to let his life get that crazy again.

Not that he’s complaining. He wanted to take on two films during his annual four-month hiatus from television. He knew it meant finishing his fourth season as Young Republican Alex Keaton on Family Ties in March, then flying to Chicago the next day to start rehearsals for Paul Schrader’s gritty family drama Light of Day. So what if he had to wrap that film in late May and be in New York the next day to star in Herb Ross’s romantic comedy The Secret of My Success. Not to mention arriving back on the Family Ties set in July to start the show’s fifth season two days later than everyone else, without ever having had any time off.

But it’s no secret that Fox is a driven character –– he’s the first to admit how much he demands of himself. Anyone would have thought he’d proved his potential the year before with the one-two box-office punch of Back to the Future and Teen Wolf. Anyone but Fox. “I didn’t get it,” he says. “Maybe everyone else understood something I didn’t.” So last year, he had to find out for himself.

And he paid the price. “I was real tired last year,” he says. “I did it and I’m proud of it. But as I go on, I want to have a wife, I want to have a family, and I don’t want to get done at the end of a workday and not have anything left. Right now I don’t have that, so it’s time for me to take it as far as I can, see what my limits are. I just don’t want to get that tired again.”

A New Year’s resolution? Not exactly. But at twenty-five, Fox is learning from experience and has already lost his baby fat. No longer is he as cute as a Smurf. “In England, they called me Wimpo when Back to the Future beat Rambo at the box office,” he says. Today –– a ten-year veteran of his profession –– he looks harder and handsomer than ever before. Though it was in 1985 he got hot, it was in 1986 he got hip –– hanging out with Whoopi, politicking with Jane Fonda and the Brat Pack elite on the toxic-waste bus tour up the California coast, accepting the Emmy for Best Actor in a Comedy with the wisecrack “I feel four feet tall!” (He’s five feet four.)

Bruce Willis, Fox’s pal and comrade in cool, says, “The image Michael portrays on television and in Back to the Future belies the kind of man Michael is. He’s a very savvy, street-smart character. He certainly knows his way around this town. I think some of the deals he’s been able to put together for himself prove that.”

Fox is in Hawaii to stop and smell the plumerias before making his next move. “I want to spit a lot of useless information on the sands of Kauai,” he says, “before going back to the roller coaster.”

EVERYONE CALLED IT “A STRETCH”: IN ‘LIGHT OF DAY’ Michael J. Fox tackled the role of Joe Rasnick, a confused middle-class kid who works in a factory by day, plays in a bar band at night and spends most of his time keeping a manipulative mother (Gena Rowlands) and a renegade sister (Joan Jett) from destroying each other. Sort of Saturday Night Fever meets Eugene O’Neill. But the real stretch for Fox came off camera.

“There were days when I didn’t want him to be so goddamn likable,” says writer-director Paul Schrader. “Bystanders always wanted his attention –– they wanted him to be Alex Keaton, to give them smiles and autographs. He’s always so eager to please. But he realized that you’re sitting there in your trailer, you’ve got a five-minute walk to the set, you know you’re ready to do it and if you glad-hand your way to the set, by the time you get there you will have lost all the work you did and have to start over again. So you have to walk past all those people and snub them.”

Three thousand miles away from it all, Fox remembers how that hurt. “I found myself saying [to Schrader] at one point, ‘If you don’t want this to be a factor, you enforce it. Put me in a place that you can control. But if you let people who perceive me as their friend be in a position where I have to be rude to them to do what I have to do, that’s wrong. I can’t do it. And maybe that makes me not as good an actor as I should be, maybe I should be able to focus so much that I can tell people to fuck off all the way down the street because I’m in character. But I just can’t operate that way.’ One day he told me, ‘I don’t think you should be that nice.’ But it’s not like I stay up at night and make nice notes. It’s the way I live my life.”

Everyone likes Mike. You can see it in Kauai. A young Hawaiian boy on the beach tells his dad, “I knew it! Michaeljayfox. I could see his face!” A Japanese boy in wet swim trunks shoves a T-shirt and a pen in the actor’s face and says, “Sign this!” A honeymooning couple want an autograph but have no paper on them, so could he please come to their room, which is just down the hall? A restaurant owner’s moonstruck preteenage daughter shows up at his dinner table in her pajamas to ask for a photograph.

Fox shuns no one and always says thank you. A master politician, he charms and disarms with the best of them. But he sees that as a responsibility –– he’s not in it for the votes. Which is why he once turned down an offer of $100,000 just to appear at a Florida park for two days. “When Back to the Future hit, there was a definite shift out of actor into pop icon,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s not really what I had in mind.’ There’s a lot of room to misuse this, and I just thought it better to sit back and work hard. The first time somebody said, ‘Would you like to throw out the ball at the start of the ball game?’ I said, ‘Jeez, no, I really wouldn’t.’ It comes out of not wanting to misuse the good will of the audience and also fear of getting pelted –– fear of everyone saying en masse, ‘No more!’ “

The way Fox handles himself, that is unlikely ever to happen. And because he’s such a regular guy, bet-hedging studio executives wouldn’t lose sleep over casting him in a potentially repellent role –– one reason he’s become a front-runner to play the coked-out hero in the movie version of Bright Lights, Big City, a role long associated with Tom Cruise. So even with longer, darker hair and a pierced ear, Fox is still the light of Light of Day.

He just can’t help it. “When I first started doing the film,” Fox says, “we were talking about wardrobe, and Paul said, ‘I want you to wear boots.’ I said, ‘Why boots? Does it have something to do with his height and he’s insecure about it or something like that?’ And he said, ‘No, I just want to ground you.’ I said, ‘Ground me?’ And he said, ‘You don’t walk –– you bounce. I just don’t want Joe to bounce.'” Neither did Fox.

Granted, the actor was practically born bouncing. And he’s always been able to use that bounciness to his advantage. It’s what helped him win friends automatically every time his family moved to another army base somewhere around Canada when he was growing up. It’s what propelled him out of the ordered military world and into athletics and the arts –– arenas in which he could express himself. And it’s what made people pay attention. His brother, Steve, says, “I don’t know if his personality is a product of out moving around so much as kids, or if it’s because of his size, or maybe it’s just Mike. He’s always been a go-getter.”

But during the summer of 1985, the actor began to wonder if he wasn’t bouncing too much. At an industry award show where he was named Male Star of the Year, he was handed a trophy and lauded appropriately. “Each [award] was unique to whoever won it,” he says. “Alan Alda won one, and it was for his sensitivity. On mine, the key word –– I can’t remember any other word –– was ‘histrionics.’ I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of neat, but jeez, histrionics. It’s like I’m one of the birds at the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland.’ “

So he was especially eager to jump into Joe Rasnick’s boots –– “to take the showbiz out of what I do” –– and save the histrionics for the music. And the Barbusters –– Joe’s band, featuring Fox, Jett and Michael McKean of This is Spinal Tap –– were as close to the real thing as he’d ever dreamed. He even got to back up Jett on the movie’s title song, which was written by Bruce Springsteen. What’s more, before filming started, the band played two unannounced gigs around Chicago –– just to test their credibility. They’d had two months of rehearsals and were about as good as they were going to get. “When we came out to play, people said, ‘God, that looks like Joan Jett. And they were so busy deciding if it was Joan Jett they didn’t notice the guitar player lurking in the dark. It was a strange kind of anonymity, because it was so public.”

But others noticed. “I was surprised at how excellent a guitar player he is,” says McKean. “I was sort of warned going in that Michael and Joan aren’t going to want to jam a lot. Well, I don’t know whose idea that was. Michael, at least, couldn’t wait to jam. He has no problem holding his own as a guitarist.”

Fox even managed to hold his own as a songwriter. In one of the film’s most charming moments, Joe and his five-year-old nephew, Benji (Billy Sullivan), collaborate on a song, taking its title from the first line of dialogue they hear after turning on the TV – Barnaby Jones busting some bad guys, warning, “You got no place to go.” During filming, Fox asked Schrader if he could supply the actual tune. He co-wrote the lyrics and put them to music, and he sings the song on the soundtrack album. “That was a big mistake,” he says. “Singing is not my area. Singing anything, even ‘Happy Birthday.’ I sound like Bobby Fuller on tranquilizers.”

Still, you can’t blame the guy for trying. “I think he accomplished everything he wanted to,” says Schrader. “It’s a chance to establish himself as an actor who plays a diversity of roles and to escape from the teen ghetto. And he did. After one screening, he was saying how happy he was with what he’d done. I had to remind him that we haven’t exactly climbed the mountain yet –– we’ve just gotten a good look at it.”

AFTER A TOUGH DAY AT THE BEACH, FOX is on the phone. His spirits are high. His voice crackles with infatuation. When he finally gets off, he says matter-of-factly, “That was a girl I’m seeing.”

Of course, he doesn’t say who she is. He has an ironclad rule about that sort of thing. “Who you’re sleeping with and how much money you’re making is nobody’s business unless you choose to make it public,” he says. “And that’s got to be a very mutual, very premeditated, very secure situation. Nothing will get me to say, ‘This is who I love,’ till it’s real solid. I think the first time people will hear details of my personal life is when they’ll hear, ‘Michael Fox was married today in a quiet ceremony in Reno.’ And then I’ll talk my brains out.”

In the meantime, to protect his privacy –– and any potential significant other –– from the press, he doesn’t even reveal whom he’s dating to his close friends. “I’m used to it, and I understand it to a certain extent,” he says, “but I’m not going to throw pearls before swine.” Of course, the scandal sheets have no problem inventing girlfriends for him: Helen Slater (they just worked together in The Secret of My Success), Bonnie Bedelia (they campaigned together against toxic waste), Sarah Jessica Parker (they have the same publicist).

Usually, he can play their game, treating the corny headlines as comic relief. “I’ll give you $500 if you ever hear me say, ‘I feel like I’ve never felt before. I’m walking on air! This is it for me! This is it for me!'” Sometimes, he’ll have them play his game –– like when he and Whoopi Goldberg decided to go to the Oscars together. “Slime baiting” he call it. “It was like saying, ‘You figure it out.'”

But then there are the times when the heat becomes suffocating. “With Nance [Nancy McKeon, one of the stars of TV’s Facts of Life], the presumptions and packaging of real emotions hurt her. I’m not going to put my real emotions about the most precious things, which I think are love and relationships, into a neat little box. I have a real hard time with it. I read in the paper like everyone else about ‘new two to you’ and then ‘Splitsville.’ It means more to me than that.”

That may sound pretty high-minded –– one more way for Fox to place demands upon himself. But he says his mother and father taught him by example how a relationship should be conducted. “My parents are their best friends in the world,” he says. “That always meant so much to me when I was a kid and my friend so-and-so lived with his mom and saw his dad on weekends. My parents were always together –– an unmovable force –– and it remains that way. The family is so precious and important.” He stops and clears his throat, harnessing deeper emotions. “I hope that when I find a woman, that will be the be-all and end-all, the best friendship I ever have –– the ideal team.”

Okay, so he is high-minded. But don’t get the wrong idea –– Fox does not live in a monastery. “I most definitely have a healthy, active, sexual past and present,” he says. “I’m doing great! But it’s not picking up screaming girls outside the studio, and it’s not going to bars and latching on to social climbers and stargazers.” Not that he doesn’t ever think about it. And not that he hasn’t been there.

When Fox first came to L.A. from Canada at eighteen, a high-school dropout with a few TV credits under his belt, he lived in Westwood Village, near UCLA. “I went crazy,” he says. “But that gets old quick. It’s about conquest. I’m sure people with drug problems find out it’s only fun for a little while and then your nose falls off.”

Fox learned fast from his own mistakes. At nineteen, he had a juvenile lead in the TV drama series Palmerstown U.S.A. “I probably made $60,000, and I completely blew it!” he says. “I got nailed with taxes. I bought clothes. I was living with a girl and said, ‘Sure, honey, whatever you want!’ I was an idiot, trying to paint this picture in my head of this young successful guy. When that went away and I got a second chance [at a series], I made rules for myself. If I’m going to be an actor and do good work, I’m not going to piss it away. I’m not going to miss a step because I’m looking back marveling at the one I just took.”

And he hasn’t since. If anything, he has become a determined overachiever. “We were worried when he first moved down there,” says brother Steve. “You worry about the Freddie Prinze syndrome. Mike’s had the opportunities to make a real mess of it –– and he hasn’t. He’s got a pretty good grasp on it. Once he may have been along for the ride, but now he’s the one who steers.”

Though Fox says that he could have used a few more days with nothing to do, his vacation ends on schedule. The limo to the airport is waiting. Fox looks up at the ceiling and says, “See ya, bud,” to the gecko, a white lizard, that has been haunting the condo. Despite its brevity, his trip has given him a clearer perspective. “I tried to relate to some of the people I met in Kauai who came here seventeen years ago and never went back,” he says. “It fascinates me. I remember a time when things weren’t that good and I found myself reading Joe McGinniss’s Going to Extremes, about people who took off to Alaska. I had escapist tendencies. I was anxious to see if I’d feel that way here. Before I left, I was kind of sick of my face, sick of my voice. I’m glad that passed. I want to go back.”

Back to the roller coaster.

HERE WE GO, TWENTY-FIVE, UP AND down, slow reps –– one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, exhale, eight, nine, ten and one, two, three. Feel the pump?”

Back home in L.A., Michael J. Fox is in agony. He gasps, grunts, groans. His face turns litmus red. His muscles scream. He’s ready to throw the fifteen-pound dumbbells in his leather-gloved hands through the mirror. The Bangles tantalize him on MTV, but his mind is fixed on winning this one for the coach –– in this case, his $200-a-half-hour fitness trainer, Pete Steinfeld, who drives him through this machine-gun-paced workout three times a week in high-voltage Brooklynese.

“C”mon, kick ’em out, five more, up and down, two, three, four, five. Check it out, good pump, man. . . .”

And when Fox finishes the relentless battery of curls, push-ups, lifts and lunges, he flexes into the mirror and almost seems surprised to see his body expand in all the right places. Ten pounds lighter than he was in Back to the Future, he doesn’t want a physique that looks like a road map. But he also doesn’t want to look like a sausage –– which is what he looked like before he started training a year and a half ago. For Light of Day, Steinfeld worked him out six days a week to make him tight, sinewy and Springsteen solid.

Here, in the privacy of his workout, Fox faces his toughest competition –– himself. And as usual, he will not settle for less than his best. “Pete’s the only one who ever sees me get really pissed off,” he says. “I was getting so frustrated [working out] that I’d kick things. Finally, Pete said to get a heavy bag. And next time I got pissed off, he said, ‘Take it out on the heavy bag.’ And I reached down and picked up this ninety-pound heavy bag and chucked it smack into my Jeep.”

Fox flips a switch on the wall, a retractable skylight slides open, and fresh canyon air whooshes in. The Bedroom That Mike Built is a state-of-the-art sanctuary more suited to Sonny Crockett than to Alex Keaton –– glass-brick windows to let the morning light in (and keep prying eyes out), a fireplace to relax by at night and a bathroom he facetiously calls “the aquatic fun center,” complete with a gang-size spa-tub, a steambath-shower, a recessed Proton TV and a built-in refrigerator.

“You’ve got to be nice to yourself,” says Fox, and he means it. He works hard and is not about to feel guilty for enjoying the Hollywood creature comforts of his Laurel Canyon home. “It’s not like I have a helicopter pad on my roof,” he says. “There are times, with all my forays into different things, when I get a little spaced-out and need to go back and get grounded. That’s why I like this room. I shut the door and it’s totally self-contained –– this little world.”

His black Ferrari Mondial convertible sits on his gated driveway like a pagan idol. “I love the Ferrari,” he says. “I consider it a work of art. An accomplishment. I didn’t buy it so I can sneer at Pintos. Besides, three days after I got it, I had two friends in it, and I was showing them how fast it can go, and I hit a bump in the road and knocked the oil pan out. I couldn’t drive it for four weeks. Boy, am I ever impressive!”

Whoopi Goldberg calls Fox “a neighborhood guy –– one of those guys you just know, whether he’s a blue-collar worker or a movie star, that this guy’s gonna be him no matter what.” She knows firsthand. After their shock-effect appearance at the Oscars, the duo seemed to disappear for the night. They didn’t show at the Board of Governors’ Ball or at the annual A-list bash at Spago. Word was that Whoopi was pissed off about losing the Best Actress award for The Color Purple.

When he is asked where they did go, Fox’s attention appears to evaporate. Only later, when Goldberg volunteers the details, does it become clear just how discreet he can be. “Did he tell you he took me to the hospital after the Oscars?” she says. “I had been sick during the show. By the time I got back to the hotel before we were going to make the rounds, I felt like I had acid in my system. And Michael physically, literally, carried me into the car and took me to Cedars-Sinai. Most people would panic and watch you go off in an ambulance and that’s it. It turned out I had ovarian cysts –– they’re not serious, but you don’t know that, because you don’t know what it is. I kept telling him to go on and have some good time. But he stayed all night. Michael is there for you.”

THESE DAYS, THE KID CAN DO NO wrong. Even when he goes off to Minneapolis to play on a celebrity hockey team with Michael Keaton and Richard Dean Anderson (the star of TV’s MacGyver), he winds up scoring a hat trick before 11,000 screaming fans. And when a reporter asks what strategy he uses, he answers playfully, “Duck –– and keep the puck moving.”

That was more or less how he got into his latest endeavor –– directing. He’d been talking about it for some time when he was invited to contribute a short movie to David Letterman’s annual celebrity film festival. He wrote, directed and starred in a larkish three-minute movie called The Iceman Hummeth. No sooner did it air than Steven Spielberg himself phoned and offered Fox a deal to direct a feature for Spielberg’s company, Amblin Entertainment. Spielberg called Fox’s first effort outrageous, clever, advanced. “Michael reminds me of what is so great about Terry Gilliam as a filmmaker,” he says. And who is Fox to argue?

“I was thinking about those guys who’ve been working at AFI [the American Film Institute] and doing short films since they were ten with money they earned by mowing lawns,” he says. “I respect them and encourage them, but it doesn’t make my ambitions any less real. Maybe I’m trying to prove something to myself, and maybe, in a way, I’m trying to prove something to other people, but it doesn’t come from a bad place. It’s not like someone’s kicked sand in my face and I’m going to pump up and go back to kick some ass.”

Or is it? The actor himself says, “I watched The Iceman Hummeth and said to a friend, ‘You know, I just realized something kind of weird, kind of “short syndrome” about this.’ I’ve always been the first to say [my height] is not really a problem for me. And it really isn’t. But in that film, I was beating up some pretty big guys, and I didn’t get hurt once. Maybe I would never entertain the notion, but when I create my own little fantasy and control everything involved in it . . . maybe it’s a way to assert one’s insecurities.”

Even so, don’t expect any groping introspection from Fox’s next try. It’s simply not his style, and he knows it. In his directorial debut, he will most likely stick with comedy. “There won’t be any food fights,” he says, “but I don’t have a grip on serious conflict –– how to understand real emotional damage. Right now, I’m not at the level of maturity to make an Ordinary People. I take a lot at face value. I don’t look for what’s wrong if I’m doing okay. And I don’t have the experience to know all the destructive games. That kind of desperation is something I may have to live a few years to do justice to.”

But, for now, Michaeljayfox is doing just fine. He’s gotten word about Bright Lights, Big City –– he got the part. (And his price, according to his agent, Peter Benedek, is “substantially higher” than the $1.5 million he was paid for Light of Day.) Shooting starts in April, with Joyce Chopra (Smooth Talk) directing. And surely someone is going to say it’s a stretch.

Yet as he heads for his Ferrari, it becomes apparent that he’s outgrown the bounce of boyhood and replaced it with new zoom. Hopping into his car, he half jokes that he is “pissed” because Bright Lights producer Sydney Pollack drives a racier-than-thou Ferrari Testarossa –– it seems the actor takes secret pleasure in owning the nicest car on the lot. And as he speeds off into the Hollywood Hills, you can’t help thinking that Michael J. Fox deserves it.

In This Article: Coverwall, Michael J. Fox


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