You know him as the inquisitive conservative brother Alex P. Keaton on "Family Ties," the dedicated Deputy Mayor of New York, Mike Flaherty, on "Spin City," the voice of the adventurous mouse in "Stuart Little," the hardy Marty McFly in the "Back to the Future" trilogy and, most recently, the probing attorney on “The Good Wife.”
On Friday night, May 13, Michael J. Fox earned a new title: the 2011 Mary and Louis Fusco Distinguished Lecture Series speaker at Southern Connecticut State University and he entered the sold-out Lyman Auditorium to a standing ovation greeting. His inspirational talk "Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist," named for his second of three books, provided insights on his journey of self-discovery and reinvention, even though he disclaimed it as a lecture.
With an acting career that began at age 15 in his homeland of Canada, he credits the faith and support of his grandmother Nana who predicted he would be famous as well as the help of his dad, a military man, who drove him to Hollywood for his big chance. He described his father as “the first person you want to call but the last one you want to speak to.”
Fox also paid homage to his high school drama teacher who advised him “we’re all here because we’re not all there.” When he wanted to quit high school, another teacher confided to him “Fox, you’re not going to be cute forever,” recommending he stay in school.
His first big break came with a callback after an audition for “Family Ties,” a call which he took in his “office” at a nearby chicken restaurant, at a time when he couldn’t afford the fast food’s $1.99 special. He confesses, “I was living in an apartment so small I had to wash my dirty dishes in the shower.”
Getting success that quickly, believe it or not, can be a problem. “I lived ‘Entourage’…It’s like throwing Miracle Gro on all your defects.” He met his future wife Tracy Pollan on “Family Ties.” She played his girlfriend and their relationship started with an insult (he remarked about her garlic breath after a lunch at an Italian restaurant) and ended with love (they married in 1988 and have four children).
The day Fox woke up with a tremor in his pinky finger that wouldn’t stop was the day he realized “the script of my life was not written.” He had learned while filming the movies “Back to the Future” the important life lesson “don’t play the result. You don’t know what’s coming. There are lots of possibilities.” At age 29, neurologists confirmed that shaking finger was an indication of Parkinson’s disease. One doctor tried to comfort him with the prediction “you have a good ten years of acting left.”
Again he told himself that in getting diagnosed he shouldn’t “play the results.” After denial and the five stages of grief, he started to work compulsively, taking every project that was offered. When he realized he really wanted to be with his family, he stopped the merry-go-round and elected to go public with his secret. He describes himself as a “cranky jerk” on set and felt he had to “own up and tell the public. I didn’t think I could play to the audience the results.” Exhausted by keeping his Parkinson’s private, he did interviews with Barbara Walters and People Magazine around Thanksgiving 1998.
The announcement was “a much bigger story than I thought. But then a wonderful thing happened. The story stopped being about me and began being about Parkinson’s.” This “awakening” led Fox to create the Michael J. Fox Foundation to “seed the clouds to find the cures for the disease.”
He describes his physical condition as a “human whirligig,” often being unable, even with medication, to control the shaking or stiffness in his limbs. “Parkinson’s is a gift, the gift that keeps on taking.” The disease is specific to each patient with no two the same, like a “snowflake.” He encourages patients to have a good circle of advisers, including a movement disorder specialist and calls stem cell research “a road we can’t afford not to go down.”
Michael J. fox, who claims the J. stands for “genius and genuine,” advises “don’t let someone else define your situation. Accept the truth of your own struggle. Until I accepted my loss, I couldn’t accept my gain. Acknowledge it. Then move on to the next right thing.”
Clearly Michael J. Fox has moved on to many right things, like being the official spokesman for Parkinson’s disease, creating a research foundation to fund cures and being an inspiration and hope for the more than 1.5 million Americans with this degenerative neurological disorder. What else would you expect from a man whose middle name stands for “genius and genuine.”