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Q&A: Michael J. Fox

A conversation on the past, present and “Back to the Future”

Michael J. Fox, Family Ties

Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, his character on tv show Family Ties.

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

Michael J. Fox, the star of NBC’s top rated Family Ties and the summer box-office hit Back to the Future, is speeding to Kennedy Airport in a black stretch limo. He decides he’d like some air and sticks his head out through the sun roof. A large, redfaced man driving a tanker in the next lane gives him a look. “It must be nice,” he shouts. Fox smiles shyly, asks what’s in the truck. “Milk,” the man says, pulling away.

Fox turns to a middle-class family driving up in a maroon Ford on the other side of the limo. One by one, their faces light up as if they’d just caught a moonbeam. The younger son starts jumping up and down in his seat with excitement. Fox zips down through the roof, rips a sheet of paper from his notebook, and scribbles his autograph and passes it out the window to an outstretched hand. After the limo drops Fox off, I turn to his driver and bodyguard of four days and say, “What a good kid.” “He’s not a kid,” the driver replies. “Lots of people misunderstand because of the roles he plays. He’s a good person.”

For three years, Michael J. Fox, 24, has been best known as Alex Keaton, the comical, reactionary son of two former flower children in NBC’s Family Ties. Now, the diminutive (five-foot-four-inch) Canadian, whose perky smile and chiseled face are at once elfish and worldly, has been thrust onto the silver screen in Back to the Future–a smart, sweet movie in which his character, Marty McFly, travels in time and encounters his parents as high-school students, with near disastrous results for all.

An army brat and the fourth of five children, Fox appears years younger than his age. In fact, his first professional acting job, at 15, was a TV series role written for a 10-year-old. After two years on that show–a Canadian Broadcasting Company series called Leo and Me–Fox dropped out of high school and worked for another year around Vancouver before moving to Hollywood.

He soon got work on the Disney feature Midnight Madness, and over the next few years made guest appearances on such shows as Trapper John, MD., Lou Grant and Family. Fox was cast as Marty McFly six weeks into filming, after Eric Stoltz was fired from the role. (Executive producer Steven Spielberg and director-cowriter Robert Zemeckis had wanted Fox from the beginning, but the producer of Family Ties wouldn’t let him go with a full production season ahead.) Fox still had seven more episodes of the sitcom to tape, so he worked double time.

After a full day on the TV show, he’d report immediately to the Universal lot to work into the early morning hours on Back to the Future. Fox recently turned down a role in the upcoming John Hughes film, Pretty in Pink, because the network still wouldn’t give him time off from Family Ties.

Unfazed, and grateful to the show that he feels made all the rest possible, Fox looks forward to playing Alex this season. “I worked my brains out last year,” he says. “This year I’m going to take it easy, do Family Ties and then maybe do a project next year. I’m keeping Spencer Tracy’s words in mind: ‘Just know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.'”

If you could travel anywhere in time, where would you go?
At one point in my life, I read everything I could about North American Indians. I often wondered what it would be like to be dumped in the middle of an Indian culture–a world without corners–and experience that. Then, when I was in England [filming this year’s season opener of Family Ties], I spent some time in a pub that dated back to the time of Elizabeth I. I wondered what it would be like to sit around and talk with the highwaymen who frequented the place then. But I think I’d like to do what Marty did in Back to the Future: just go and deal with it.

Is there a historical event that has always fascinated you?
I’m a fan of history, but I’m not a student of it. When I read history, I do it for the entertainment value. The birth of Christ would be a pretty cool thing to check out. So would the discovery of fire, the day someone dropped a rock and it sparked, and they said, “Oh, that’s pretty,” and then they dropped the rock again and the spark ignited a little pile of leaves. Then I could walk up and say, “This part isn’t burning,” and flick my Bic.

Always the entertainer.
Yeah, vaudeville circa 10,000 B.C. I love making people laugh. I remember when I was really young, my mother was expecting company and she told me to go upstairs and put on another pair of pants. So I went up and came down in my underpants, and I said, “These are the only pants I could find.” What a stupid thing to do! But everybody got a charge out of it. I think that was my own little prehistoric discovery.

Do you think you’ll ever regret leaving high school and not going to college?
I don’t care about not finishing. They did nothing there but hold me back. The kicker was I failed drama. I was in the biggest equity hit in Vancouver [The Shadow Box] and I had a television series [Leo and Me], but I failed drama because I wasn’t there one day to put a bag over my head and crawl across the room backward, humming. Seriously. But I think I would like to go to college someday. I’ve always felt I had a writer’s mentality, but between my brain and my hand are routes that haven’t been completely charted yet. I’d like to go to school to begin developing those paths.

Marty McFly unwittingly interfered with the course of his parents’ lives. Would you change your parents if you could?
I like them the way they are. I can’t speak for them, but they seem to be pretty happy people. They’ve been very supportive. My dad could sometimes be scary, because he was in the army for 25 years and then a policeman for 15 more, and he tended to yell a lot.

My mother grew up in rural Canada, and sometimes I wonder what it would have been like for them if they’d had more opportunities, so there would have been a little more dimension in their growing up. But it’s not really fair to speculate. They’re good guys.

Would you change your childhood?
No. It was great. Want to know my theory of comedy? The oldest form of theater is the dinner table. It’s got five or six people, new show every night, new script, same players. Good ensemble; the people have worked together a lot. My brother was always the funniest guy at the table. So I wanted Alex [Fox’s character in Family Ties] to be the funniest guy at the table.

Back to the Future is also about the love of a boy and a wacky inventor. Do you have a mentor in the sense that Doc Brown was one to Marty McFly?
I’ve had a few of them. Gary Goldberg [the producer of Family Ties is one. I’d say that if I had one hero, he’s it. He’s also my boss, which makes it nice. But Bob [Zemeckis] is really Doc Brown. I felt the same way about Bob that Marty McFly felt about Doc. He was my motivator and constant companion.

What do you think about youth genre films?
I think they’re terrific. It’s about time, because so many of the so-called youth films of the past weren’t about real kids. I mean, Andy Hardy wasn’t a real person. Finally, young people are being recognized as human beings, and their stories are so appealing and attractive and such a revelation that the whole thing just exploded. Now I see a backlash with terms like “brat pack,” which really kind of annoys me. Back to the Future doesn’t address the issues of The Breakfast Club, but to me, because of its–”message of love” is going to come out of my mouth, and it tastes like a bad Pepsi, but that’s an important message. I love that.

You used to play the guitar, and it must have been sort of a dream come true to play it in the high-school-dance scene of Back to the Future.
Yeah, I worked really hard on getting it down. After seeing the first edit, Bob [Zemeckis] asked me what I thought of it, and I said. “You kept cutting to my face! I want to see my hands!” Can you imagine an actor yelling, “Don’t cut to my face?” But I wanted people to know I was really playing that stuff [the music actually heard on the soundtrack was played by session musicians]. I had a great guitar teacher named Paul Hanson, who used to talk normally, but after teaching a lot of L.A. kids, he started to talk like, “Hey, dude, it was way bitchin’. Man, you were all the way happenin’ on that riff.” We even got Bob saying it. I’d say, “It was bitchin’, Bob!” And he’d say (straight voices) “Yes, it was all the way bitching, Michael.”

One of the movie’s funnier scenes shows Marty, who has just arrived in the Fifties, being asked who the president is in 1985–and right down the street, Reagan’s Cattle Queen of Montana is up on the marquee of the town theater. What do you think of an actor being president?
I’m not going to say anything about American politics because I’m Canadian. But regardless of what people may think of Mr. Reagan, the only worthless criticism brought against him is that he was an actor. That’s so stupid. It’s like saying, “He has green shoes.” I say this because I want to be prime minister of Canada someday.

Is that true?
No, don’t be silly. I think if I were in politics, I’d be a diplomat and eat canapes.

What do you like to do when you’re home alone?
Little things, like watching sports, going to the fridge, opening it, looking around, not seeing anything to eat and closing it. You gotta understand I haven’t had much time to relax lately.

So what about your girlfriend, Nancy McKeon?
We’ve agreed not to talk about each other. She’ll kill me if she reads this, but it is a funny story. We did a TV movie together called High School USA. We’d get together and groan. We’d never–we didn’t really get together on the film, but we both kind of sensed it would happen. This all sounds mushy, but at the end of the movie, she was headed for New York and she asked me if there was anything she could bring back for me. I said, “Yeah, a six-pack of Schaefer,” because I like those ads on the New York Islanders games where they say, “Sitting pretty, all together in Schaefer City.” Then she asked, “Anything else?” and I said, “Oh, yes. Jane Pauley.” She told me later how crushed she was. It was really funny.

You were very mean.
It’s hard to explain. I’m sorry for divulging that. Now I’ve spilled it.

I’ll save you by sending you off into the future now. If you could go forward in time, who would you go with?
Someone predictable, so I could see how they react to something they could never prepare for.

So you would see it as an experiment of some sort?
Yeah, more entertainment!

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