Michael J. Fox’s First Act Wasn’t as Important as His Second

Many young stars fade away because of bad choices or bad habits. But for the ‘Back to the Future’ heartthrob, Parkinson’s forced a career pivot and, more significantly, a new perspective — both for him and his audience.

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Imagine being Michael J. Fox on Labor Day weekend 1985. His brand new movie Teen Wolf, a story about a teenager who becomes a werewolf (and, also, really good at basketball), was the No. 2 film in the country — and the only reason it wasn’t No. 1 was because his other hit, Back to the Future (which had come out almost two months earlier), was currently sitting in the top spot. Meanwhile, his long-running sitcom Family Ties was second in the Nielsen ratings, behind only the comedy colossus The Cosby Show. Fox had just recently turned 24 — close to the exact age Timothée Chalamet is right now, or about a year older than Leonardo DiCaprio was when Titanic came out. That’s a hell of a life, especially for someone so young. 

“By 21, I was earning six figures a week,” he later said. “By 23, I had a Ferrari. It was nuts. I never stopped to figure that out.”

We don’t necessarily think of Fox in that same matinee-idol role as those other actors — at least not anymore — but you could make the argument that he was just as big. As both Marty McFly and Alex P. Keaton, he exuded a smart-ass charisma without coming across as insufferably smug or cutesy. Part of his appeal in both roles was that he was a young hotshot with a sweet spirit — the heartthrob you could take home to mom and dad. 

And that incredible 1985 carried over into several more incredible years. He appeared in two Back to the Future sequels. He made movies with respected auteurs like Paul Schrader (Light of Day) and Brian De Palma (Casualties of War, alongside Sean Penn). He challenged fans to see him as more than just Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly by tackling serious parts. “In a comedic film, I may be taking my pride and putting it out there, but not my guts,” he told an interviewer in 1989. “If I just do comedies, I will have blown it for myself.” 

Maybe not all those moves worked, but his willingness to take risks was admirable.

For years, the story of what happened next to Fox seemed depressingly familiar. It appeared that he had crossed that dangerous Rubicon from “young actor” to “adult actor,” a line where we as an audience can’t quite wrap our brains around the idea that this human being we’ve seen for years is no longer a kid. This seemingly explained Fox’s string of mostly bad films in the 1990s, which found him struggling to adapt to being an onscreen grownup. Seriously, does anyone remember Life With Mikey, For Love or Money or Greedy

Those duds effectively killed off his chances of being an A-list actor who could “open” a film. Soon, he was stuck doing supporting roles, like in Mars Attacks!, and returning to TV with Spin City. Movie stardom didn’t last for Fox — maybe he just always was meant for the small screen. These things happen.

It can be tempting to apply that simplistic shorthand to actors’ careers: He was big, then he wasn’t, he must have screwed up. But the truth, as it often is, was a lot more complicated. And Fox is a reminder that we as an audience ought to have more sensitivity to all the unknown personal stuff that informs an actor’s professional life. Yes, Fox made some bad career choices. But you can’t say he didn’t have sufficient extenuating circumstances.

In the fall of 1990, when Fox was still riding high, hanging out in Florida filming his breezy fish-out-of-water romantic comedy Doc Hollywood, he woke up to a weird sensation, wondering if he was just hungover. (He and co-star Woody Harrelson were drinking buddies during the shoot.) But as he went to swat a bug, he realized there was something strange about his hand.

“That’s when I noticed my pinkie,” he wrote in his memoir Lucky Man. “It was trembling, twitching, auto-animated. How long this had been going on I wasn’t exactly sure. But now that I noticed it, I was surprised to discover that I couldn’t stop it.” The following year, he was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease. He panicked, in two ways. He took on as many film jobs he could, and he drank.

“My decision making was ridiculous. … I was so scared,” Fox told The New York Times last year about that cavalcade of bad early-1990s comedies. “I was so unfamiliar with Parkinson’s. Someone is saying your life is going to be completely changed. Yeah? When? I’m fine now but back then I wasn’t in the ‘I’m fine now.’ I was in the ‘I’m going to be bad.’ That thinking didn’t allow me to trust that I could make a decision without worrying about time restrictions or financial pressures — which were inflated in my head. If I’d had any imperative to accomplish anything with movies, it shouldn’t have been to do as many quick successful ones as I could. It should’ve been to do as many good ones as I could. To do one good one. To find something that meant something to me.” 

Alcoholism or drug addiction has ruined plenty of promising careers, but for Fox drinking was his way of coping with the diagnosis. It could have ruined him, but thankfully the turning point occurred in 1992, when he passed out drunk on the couch after partying with friends. His wife Tracy Pollan and young son found him there in the morning, a spilled beer on the ground beside him. “I did a slow scan up from her feet to her face, expecting to find her really angry,” he said later. “She wasn’t. She was just bored.”

Getting sober and accepting that he could live with Parkinson’s were important steps for him personally — he credits that shift for saving his marriage — but for most of the rest of the decade, the outside world had no idea about his condition. It wasn’t until the fall of 1998, deep into Spin City’s successful run, that he publicly revealed he had Parkinson’s, vowing to continue starring on the show as island-of-sanity Deputy New York City Mayor Mike Flaherty. (The series was co-created by Gary David Goldberg, who had also launched Family Ties.) But two years later, he decided to bow out. “Certainly it is a progressive disease, it doesn’t get better,” Fox said at the time. “But it hasn’t debilitated me. So I thought, ‘If that time comes, if it comes when my ability to do things is severely impaired more than it is now, if I’m in the middle of a show or a season then I have no choices.”’

He kept himself in the game by voicing the title character in the Stuart Little movies, but he’s largely focused on television since going back in front of the camera. (That decision, in part, was because films required him to be away from his family, which now consists of four kids, for too long.) In that same Times interview, he talked about the experience of being on set again, loving the environment but realizing he had to become a different actor:

“For so long — and I make no apologies for it because it served me well — I used a lot of high-level mugger. I could pull a face; I could do a double take. And one of the reasons I left Spin City was that I felt my face hardening. My movements were constricted. If you watch episodes from the last couple of seasons, you’ll see I would anchor myself against a desk or the wall. Eventually it was too burdensome. So I left. … [When I started doing] Boston Legal — I remember the smell of the arclight while we shot. Something about that smell made me think, ‘Acting is what I do.’ And I needed to find a way to do it with my new instrument. Ultimately I found that the ‘less is more’ philosophy works for me. Which is convenient because I have less. If more is more — I’d be out of business.”

Many young actors have to reinvent themselves as adults. Think of how DeCaprio transformed by becoming Martin Scorsese’s muse — or the awkward but fascinating turn Shia LaBeouf has undergone to be a serious artist after years of Transformers movies. In his early 20s, Fox capitalized on his bulletproof charm and knack for mainstream comedy. But when he returned to television after his diagnosis, it was hard to miss the tremor — or forget the condition he was battling in real life — as he played a terminally ill character on Boston Legal. He wasn’t just looking for cheap sympathy, though: In The Good Wife, he slyly portrayed manipulative lawyer Louis Canning, who knew how to turn his tardive dyskinesia into a weapon to get his way in court. 

This was a different, and more interesting, Fox. In these later dramatic roles, it wasn’t simply that Fox was older than he was as Marty or Alex — it’s that his whole onscreen demeanor had changed, acknowledging his condition but also sometimes finding a way to skewer our pitying of him. As much as he’s been vocal about raising awareness for Parkinson’s research — not to mention money, with the Michael J. Fox Foundation reportedly raising $800 million in the last 20 years — he’s resisted being seen as a saint or a hero simply because he’s been public about his condition.

“I am aware that it is empowering for people to see what I do,” Fox said in 2013. “And, for the most part, people in the Parkinson’s community are just really happy that Parkinson’s is getting mentioned, and not in a pitying way. … [N]obody pities me, and that’s great. I couldn’t stand it.”

Judged solely on the merits of his acting talent, Michael J. Fox will never be considered an artist of breathtaking depth. But Back to the Future is as appealing as any 1980s blockbuster you can name, and that has a lot to do with Fox. Still, it’s his second act — the time after he stopped being a movie star — that may end up being the one he’s better remembered for. “I grew up admiring rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page,” he told The Times last year. “I wanted to be a rock star. That’s what I thought being famous was. But I wasn’t a rock star. I was kind of an idiot.” 

Many actors face obstacles that hinder their career. But few have been handed something as potentially devastating as Fox has — fewer still would have been capable of navigating it as gracefully.

Further Viewing

Fox has probably left a bigger mark on television than the silver screen, but if you want to see his best film work, here are three key movies from his post-Back to the Future career…

Casualties of War (1989). Quentin Tarantino has called Casualties of War the “greatest film about the Vietnam War,” which starred Fox as the one soldier who pushes back against his regiment’s sadistic sergeant (Sean Penn) when he orders them to capture and rape a Vietnamese local. Penn famously made the experience hellish for his co-star. “Sean’s approach was that we played enemies so we shouldn’t have any contact,” Fox said. “But it was too difficult in Thailand for me to be a warrior all the time. Possibly to my detriment, I got up in the morning, put everything I was going to need that day as an actor into a ‘briefcase’ and went to work.” Fox shouldn’t have been so hard on himself: He’s haunting as a man with a conscience trapped in the middle of a moral hell.

The American President (1995). “I’m sure people will say Michael J. Fox is George Stephanopoulos, and all that. It really isn’t that,” American President screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said of Fox’s character Lewis Rothschild, a savvy advisor to Michael Douglas’ idealistic POTUS. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Fox and Stephanopoulos are longtime friends — he’s been on the Michael J. Fox Foundation board since 2014 — but the actor does a fine job delivering Sorkin’s very Sorkin-y dialogue, especially during Rothschild’s big, impassioned monologue in the Oval Office.

The Frighteners (1996). This horror-comedy is a forgotten curiosity in the career of director Peter Jackson, who made it after his critical success Heavenly Creatures and long before the Lord of the Rings films. It was also the last starring vehicle for Fox, who plays Frank, a widow who works with three ghosts on a scam: The ghouls infiltrate houses, and he sells his extermination services to the owners, promising to perform an exorcism to rid their home of evil spirits. The Frighteners found the beloved actor working in a darker comedic vein than normal, and although the movie was a commercial dud, it has its hardcore fans, who admire Jackson and Fox for making such a weird whatsit for a major studio.