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- Canadian-American actor, comedian, author, film producer, and activist with a film and television career
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The actor said he stays optimistic about his future, despite the lack of a cure for Parkinson's.
Fox reveals he had a benign tumor removed from his spine in 2018 and had a bad fall after, leaving him with a broken arm.
Fans of Michael J. Fox know him as the lighthearted, funny, and talented actor behind beloved characters like Marty McFly and Mike Flaherty. Now, in a new interview with AARP Magazine, the actor opens up about how his Parkinson’s diagnosis has forced him to end acting for good, how he stays positive, and the impact the diagnosis has had on his everyday life.
The Back to the Future star was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease 30 years ago but has fought hard to continue his acting career. And, it wasn't until recently, when Fox found it was impacting his memory and speech, that the star decided it was time to step back from taking roles.
“The doctor who diagnosed me in 1991 told me I had 10 years left to work,” the 60-year-old said. Despite this, he continued to act for almost 30 years after his diagnosis, even using his Parkinson’s symptoms to elevate characters like Louis Canning, a lawyer in The Good Wife who uses his Parkinson’s symptoms to sway court decisions. But, eventually, his speech became unreliable and he was forced to end his acting career last year.
Parkinson’s Disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that impacts the neurons in the brain. The disease develops slowly over many years and symptoms may include tremors, balance problems, slowed movements, and stiffness in the limbs, according to the Parkinson’s Institute. These symptoms progress over years, and there is currently no cure. Though Parkinson’s itself is not fatal, the disease causes many complications, and research has found that the death rate for the disease is rising.
Fox has taken the diagnosis with optimism and grace. When asked in the interview how he was feeling, Fox responded, “Above average, for a brain-damaged man.”
He also doesn’t take for granted how privileged he has been to be able to continue acting for 30 years with his diagnosis, even if some days are better than others. “I’m kind of a freak. It’s weird that I’ve done as well as I have for as long as I have,” he said. “People often think of Parkinson’s as a visual thing, but the visuals of it are nothing. On any given day, my hands could be barely shaking or they could be …” He flailed his hands around. “It’s what you can’t see—the lack of an inner gyroscope, of a sense of balance, of peripheral perception. I mean, I’m sailing a ship on stormy seas on the brightest of days.”
His family and friends have even commented on his unimaginable positivity despite the disease's trying side effects. “I sometimes underestimate the power of his optimism,” Fox’s wife Tracy Pollan said in the AARP interview. “But time and again, I’ve seen him use it to blast his way back.” In fact, Fox even wrote the book on optimism. His recent release of No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality hit bookshelves just weeks ago.
“His stamina is phenomenal,” Fox’s longtime producer who helped him work on the book, Nelle Fortenberry, said. “Even though Parkinson’s is progressive and diminishes what you’re physically able to do, he’s found ways to shift the focus to what he has rather than what he doesn’t have. That’s how he’s managed to bring new things into his life—writing, golf—to fill in for what he’s lost along the way. And these things don’t take energy. They generate it.”
But the Family Ties actor isn’t always overwhelmingly positive. Parkinson’s has taken a toll on his life and career—in the last 30 years, he’s seen his physical being decline in more ways than one.
In 2018 he had a benign tumor removed from his spinal cord, leaving him to relearn how to walk. Then, he had a bad fall at home just four months later, leaving his left arm broken. Doctors used a metal plate and 19 screws to stabilize his arm and ultimately he recovered. Fox shared that this setback left him feeling helpless and he started to question his optimism, how realistic his expectations were, and how much work was necessary to be the man audiences love.
“As I wrote in my latest book, I’m now out of the lemonade business,” he said. “I’m really blunt with people about cures. When they ask me if I will be relieved of Parkinson’s in my lifetime, I say, ‘I’m 60 years old, and science is hard. So, no.’ ”
Despite many setbacks, Fox maintains that he’s been lucky throughout his life and career. “It’s hard to explain to people how lucky I am because I also have Parkinson’s. Some days are a struggle. Some days are more difficult than others,” he said. “But the disease is this thing that’s attached to my life—it isn’t the driver. And because I have assets, I have access to things others don’t. I wouldn’t begin to compare my experience to that of a working guy who gets Parkinson’s and has to quit his job and find a new way to live. So, I’m really lucky.”
For Fox’s fans living with Parkinson’s or caring for a loved one who is battling the disease, he said, “Have an active life and do not let yourself get isolated and marginalized. You can live with it...You need to exercise and be in shape and eat well. If you can’t drive, find a way to get around. Maintain friendships.”
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