Michael J. Fox (born June 9, 1961) is a Canadian actor, author and
voice over artist. His most famous roles include Marty McFly from the Back to
the Future trilogy (1985–1990); Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties (1982–1989), for
which he won three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe Award; and Mike Flaherty from
Spin City (1996–2000), for which he won an Emmy, three Golden Globes, and two
Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Michael was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1991, and disclosed his condition to the public in 1998. Michael semi-retired from acting in 2000 as the symptoms of his disease worsened. He has since become an advocate for research towards finding a cure.
In recent years, he has guest starred on various television shows and appeared as himself in his prime time special Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist (A Personal Journey of Hope) in May 2009.
Michael was born Michael Andrew Michael in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, the son of Phyllis, an actress and payroll clerk, and William Fox, a police officer and member of the Canadian Forces. Fox's family lived in various cities and towns across Canada because of his father's career. The family finally settled in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, British Columbia, when his father retired in 1971. Michael attended Burnaby Central Senior Secondary, and currently has a theatre named after him in Burnaby South Secondary.
In addition to commercials such as Tilex and McDonald's, Michael co-starred in the Canadian television series Leo and Me (at age fifteen), and in 1979, at eighteen, moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. He was "discovered" by producer Ronald Shedlo and made his American television debut in the television movie Letters from Frank, credited under the name "Michael Fox". He intended to continue to use the name, but when he registered with the Screen Actors Guild, which does not allow duplicate registration names to avoid credit ambiguities, he discovered that Michael Fox, a veteran character actor, was already registered under the name. As he explained in his autobiography, Lucky Man, and in interviews, he needed to come up with a different name. He did not like the sound of "Andrew" or "Andy" Fox. He decided against using his middle initial because he didn't want to fit into a Canadian stereotype, as in Michael "Eh?" Fox, and because he did not want teen fan magazines referring to him as "Michael, A Fox!" He decided to adopt a new middle initial and settled on "J", in reference to actor Michael J. Pollard. Sometimes he jokes that the J stands for "Jenius" or "Jenuine".
Fox's first important role was as "Young Republican" Alex P. Keaton in the show Family Ties which aired on NBC for seven seasons, from 1982 to 1989. It had been sold to the network using the pitch "hip parents, square kids," and the parents were originally intended to be the main characters. However, the audience reacted so positively to Fox's character Alex P. Keaton during the taping of the fourth episode that he became the focus on the show. This happened despite the fact that Michael received the role only after Matthew Broderick turned it down.
Brandon Tartikoff, one of the show's producers, felt that Michael was too short relative to the actors playing his parents, and tried to have him replaced. Tartikoff reportedly said that "this is not the kind of face you'll ever find on a lunchbox." After his later successes, Michael presented Tartikoff with a custom-made lunchbox with the inscription "To Brandon, this is for you to put your crow in. Love and Kisses, Michael J.Fox." Tartikoff kept the lunchbox in his office for the rest of his NBC career.
Although Michael played a younger role, he was 20–28 years old during the show's run. Michael met Tracy Pollan on the show when she portrayed his girlfriend, Ellen. They later married. When Michael left his next series Spin City his final episodes (Goodbye: Part 1 & 2, Season 4, Episodes 25 and 26) made numerous allusions to Family Ties. Michael Gross (Alex's father Steven) portrays Michael Patrick Flaherty's (Fox) therapist and there is a reference to an off-screen character named "Mallory." After Flaherty becomes an environmental lobbyist in Washington D.C., he meets a conservative senator from Ohio named Alex P. Keaton.
A few years into Family Ties, Gary David Goldberg was approached and asked to let Michael star in a Steven Spielberg produced film about a time-travelling teenager. At first, Goldberg did not inform Michael about the offer, not wanting to lose Michael to film stardom. Months later, Goldberg was again asked about Michael because Eric Stoltz, who had been chosen for the part after Goldberg stated that Michael wasn't available, was reportedly not giving the energetic performance that Robert Zemeckis, the director, was looking for. Goldberg finally told Michael about the offer and he quickly agreed to play the role of Marty McFly in the film Back to the Future. Michael would rehearse for Family Ties from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. After he was done, he would be rushed to the Back to the Future set where he would rehearse and shoot until 2:30 A.M. This schedule lasted for two full months. On July 4, 1985 Back to the Future was number one at the box office. The film was number one for 11 consecutive weeks and eventually earned a worldwide total of $381.11 million.
During the year of 1985, Michael was filming teen comedy film, Teen Wolf, before filming Back to the Future, but Back to the Future eventually was released a month before.
He then starred in "Light of Day" (1987), The Secret of My Succe$s (1987), Bright Lights, Big City (1988) and Casualties of War, (1989). In The Secret of My Success, Michael played a graduate student from Kansas State University who moves to New York City where he has landed a job as a financier. During the shooting of Bright Lights, Big City, Michael was reunited with one time on screen girlfriend Tracy Pollan. Pollan had played Ellen Reed on Family Ties, a dance major at Leland college with whom Alex became involved. Pollan had played Ellen Reed for only one year on the show. Michael then starred in Casualties of War, a war drama about the Vietnam War, starring Michael along with Sean Penn.
After Family Ties ended, he continued with the Back to the Future trilogy with part II and III. Casualties of War was not a box office hit, but Fox, playing a Private serving in Vietnam, received good reviews for his performance. In 1991, he starred in two films, Doc Hollywood, a romantic comedy about a talented medical doctor who decides to become a plastic surgeon, relocating from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, California and The Hard Way, playing a famous actor, who is known for his action film. Between 1992 and 1996, he continued making several films, such as For Love or Money (1993) or The Concierge in some countries , Life With Mikey (1993), Greedy (1994), The American President (1995), and Mars Attacks! (1996). His last major film role was in The Frighteners (1996).
He has also done voice work providing the voice of Stuart Little in the movie of the same name and its sequel, both of which were based on the popular book by E. B. White. He also voiced the bulldog Chance in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and its sequel Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco as well as Milo Thatch in Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Michael had decided to return to television during his shoot for The Frighteners which was filmed in New Zealand. His twin daughters had just been born and he was halfway across the world. While filming the movie in New Zealand, he would watch videotapes of American television shows, such as Seinfeld, Friends, Ellen and more. He saw what good things were going on in television and wanted to return. Also, television meant a more regular schedule and it would allow much more time to spend with his family.
Spin City aired to critical acclaim and high ratings. The show ran from 1996 to 2002 on ABC, based on a fictional local government running New York City, originally starring Michael as Mike Flaherty, the Deputy Mayor of New York. During the third season of Spin City Michael made the announcement to the cast and crew of the show that he had Parkinson's Disease. During the fourth season of Spin City, Michael decided to retire from the show and focus on spending more time with his family. He announced that he planned to continue to act and would make guest appearances on Spin City. After leaving the show, he was replaced by Charlie Sheen, who portrayed the character Charlie Crawford. Altogether 145 episodes were made (see list of episodes). Michael also served as executive producer during his time on the show, alongside co-creators Bill Lawrence and Gary David Goldberg, and continued to be credited as executive consultant after he left.
In 2004, Michael guest starred in the comedy-drama Scrubs as Dr. Kevin Casey, who suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder. In 2006, he appeared in four episodes of Boston Legal as a lung cancer patient who used his influence in an experimental drug test to ensure he received the real drug instead of a placebo. The producers brought him back in a recurring role for Season 3, beginning with the season premiere. Though his character did not survive the season, Michael was nominated for an Emmy Award for best guest appearance. Also in 2006, E! True Hollywood Story profiled Michael in a two-hour episode about his life which continues to re-air on the network. In 2009, he has been appearing in episodes of the television series Rescue Me. He was also a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on April 28, 2009 (airing past midnight in some time zones). Additionally, his prime time special based on the New York Times Bestseller Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist aired on ABC on May 7, 2009.
Michael married actress Tracy Pollan on July 16, 1988, at West Mountain Inn in Arlington, VT. The couple have four children: Sam Michael Michael (born May 30, 1989), twins Aquinnah Kathleen and Schuyler Frances (born February 15, 1995), and Esmé Annabelle (born November 3, 2001). Michael holds dual Canadian-U.S. citizenship.
Michael started displaying symptoms of early-onset Parkinson's disease in 1990 while shooting the movie Doc Hollywood, though he wasn't properly diagnosed until the next year. In 1998, he decided to go public with his condition, and since then he has been a strong advocate of Parkinson's disease research. His foundation, The Michael J. Fox Foundation, was created to help advance every promising research path to a Parkinson's disease cure.
One of the few people to know that Michael had Parkinson's Disease before 1998 was one of Michael's best friends, his stunt double Charles Croughwell on Doc Hollywood. In later years, he and Michael developed a system of hiding Michael's symptoms.
Fox, in a 2006 interview with Katie Couric, explained his political advocacy, "I'm in this situation with millions of other Americans... and we have a right, if there’re answers out there, to pursue those answers with the full support of our politicians".
Two years earlier, Michael had appeared in a television commercial for then-Republican Arlen Specter's 2004 Senate campaign. In the commercial, sponsored by Specter's re-election campaign, Michael comments that Specter "gets it" and Specter's voice is heard saying, "There is hope."
On July 18, 2006, Michael appeared in a taped interview on ABC's Good Morning America, defending a Senate bill (Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act) that would have expanded federal funding for stem cell research. The bill was not enacted, however, being vetoed by President George W. Bush.
For the November 2006 U.S. midterm elections, Michael endorsed candidates on the basis of their support of embryonic stem cell research, as different from adult stem cell research. He appeared at events for several candidates including New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, Iowa Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Chet Culver, Illinois congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth, Virginia senatorial candidate James Webb and Ohio senatorial candidate Congressman Sherrod Brown.
In late October 2006, Michael appeared in a television campaign commercial, endorsing Claire McCaskill, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri and opposing incumbent senator Jim Talent for his specific opposition to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Michael also made similar ads in Wisconsin (supporting Governor Jim Doyle) and in Maryland, endorsing senatorial candidate Congressman Ben Cardin. All three of the endorsed politicians won their respective elections.
Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh caused controversy by accusing Michael of exaggerating his Parkinson's-induced tremours (which were clearly evident in the commercials), claiming Michael was "either off his medication or he's acting." Limbaugh also mocked Michael by making exaggerated movements with his arms. Limbaugh later said he would apologize to Michael "if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act. . ." Elaine Richman, a neuroscientist in Baltimore who co-wrote Parkinson's Disease and the Family offered the opinion that "Anyone who knows the disease well would regard his movement as classic severe Parkinson's disease. Any other interpretation is misinformed." Doctors and commentators have noted that his movements in the commercial were not because he was "off his medication" but rather were actually a side effect of the treatment; the disease itself would have left Michael almost immobile.
Michael responded to Limbaugh's comments, "...it's difficult for people who don't have Parkinson's, or don't know about Parkinson's, to understand the symptoms and the way they work and the way medication works. You get what you get on any given day".
In his memoir, Lucky Man, Michael wrote that he did not take his medication prior to his testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee in 1998. "I had made a deliberate choice to appear before the subcommittee without medication. It seemed to me that this occasion demanded that my testimony about the effects of the disease, and the urgency we as a community were feeling, be seen as well as heard. For people who had never observed me in this kind of shape, the transformation must have been startling."
After years of L-DOPA treatment, new symptoms may develop called dyskinesia, which are different from that of PD. In an April 2002 NPR interview, Michael explained what he does when he becomes symptomatic during an interview:
“ Well, actually, I've been erring on the side of caution--I think 'erring' is actually the right word--in that I've been medicating perhaps too much, in the sense times the symptoms that people see in some of these interviews that have been on are actually dyskinesia, which is a reaction to the medication. Because if I were purely symptomatic with Parkinson's symptoms, a lot of times speaking is difficult. There's a kind of a cluttering of speech and it's very difficult to sit still, to sit in one place. You know, the symptoms are different, so I'd rather kind of suffer the symptoms of dyskinesia. . .this kind of weaving and this kind of continuous thing is much preferable, actually, than pure Parkinson's symptoms. So that's what I generally do...
...I haven't had any, you know, problems with pure Parkinson's symptoms in any of these interviews, because I'll tend to just make sure that I have enough Sinemet in my system and, in some cases, too much. But to me, it's preferable. It's not representative of what I'm like in my everyday life. I get a lot of people with Parkinson's coming up to me saying, 'You take too much medication.' I say, 'Well, you sit across from Larry King and see if you want to tempt it.'”
On March 31st, 2009, Michael appeared on The
Oprah Winfrey Show with Dr. Oz to
discuss his condition to the public, his recent book, his family and his prime
time special which aired May 7, 2009 (Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable
Michael participated in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in association with UCLA, Sunday, April 26, 2009. He shared a conversation with Mary McNamara, a Times reporter.
This Michael J. Fox Biography Page is Copyright © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub