To most of us, Michael J. Fox will always be the time-traveling teenager Marty McFly from the Back to the Future movies. The Canadian-born actor got his Parkinson’s diagnosis at the height of his career in 1991.
Fox was 29 years old when he found out about his condition and the effects it would have on his physical abilities. Parkinson’s was not a well-known ailment at the time, and Fox spent 7-years trying to hide his condition from everyone except his closest friends.
Around the same time, up to seven other production members from Fox’s first sitcom Leo & Me, also began to show symptoms of the disease. Until now, experts consider this cluster is to be pure coincidence and not related to their working environment. As the years went by, Fox was unable to hide his condition anymore and made a public announcement about his diagnosis.
So, now you may want to know why Michael J. Fox kept his Parkinson’s diagnosis a secret for 7 years.
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There were a few celebrities that had brought the public’s attention to Parkinson’s before Fox, such as heavy-weight boxer Muhammad Ali. There is no cure for the degenerative condition, though there are various medications that help to reduce its visible effects.
In 1991 Fox was to begin working on a new film, The Hard Way with James Woods. Then, in the same year he made Doc Hollywood, he got his diagnosis. Doc Hollywood is still one of Fox’s best performances, but he was already feeling the onset of the disease.
After filming, the actor went to his doctor with complaints of sore shoulders and twitching fingers. The doctor would go on to inform Fox that his condition was degenerative and continuing with acting would be impossible after a few short years.
Not wanting to lose out on future projects, Fox altered his performance. He found ways to disguise some of the more visible ticks and tremors that are a side effect of the disease.
Michael was combating the disease and to accept that his acting career that he loved and fought so hard to achieve could be over. Depression hit, and with so many before him, alcohol became the solution to washing the problem away.
Alcohol was so good at numbing his mental and physical anguish, and it began to affect the direction of his life long before the symptoms of Parkinson’s. Alcohol abuse was an issue, and it put a major strain on his marriage to actress Tracy Pollan, a cast member from his time on Family Ties.
A year after the diagnosis, Fox was drinking to the extent that he would pass out in the living room after long nights out with friends. Even though he was never alone, he began isolating himself from his thoughts and, more importantly, his family.
The momentum of his earlier successes had waned, he was battling the demons from drinking, and he needed to repair his family life. Fox was becoming painfully aware that there was no stopping the progression of the symptoms, and he had an estimated 10 years of working life left.
His alcohol addiction was catching up with him- the late nights of drinking were getting worse. After one such night, Fox’s wife and his 3-year-old son came to the living room to see him sleeping next to a spilled beer.
Fox felt the great shame of having his wife and young son seeing him in such a sorry state. He began to seek help from a therapist as a better alternative to self-medication through alcohol. It was to be small steps at a time, with the first and most important step being to save his home-life.
He got help and gave up drinking from that day onwards. Even though alcohol was gone from his life, he was still battling an incurable disease and a troubled career. Saving his movie career was to be the next step.
The actor signed onto a three-movie deal, fearing that his condition would soon deter studios from hiring him. From 1993 to 1994, Fox starred in three movies that all failed at the box-office, though one did help to kickstart his future voice acting career.
Acting roles requiring running or long periods of sitting were still problematic, even with medication. Depression and memory loss are common in Parkinson’s patients, and Fox was in denial that the disease was affecting his work.
Unknown to the actor at the time, his medication had strong side-effects, like those of Parkinson’s. To compensate, Fox would often take more medication than he needed. This style of living was not sustainable but he thought it necessary to keep the work moving along.
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After a series of disappointments, Fox went on as a supporting cast member in a handful of box-office successes. He was trying to come to terms with a new way of living and the uncertainty of whether he could cope with the tight schedule of a large-scale movie.
The American President and the ground-breaking comedy Mars Attacks in 1996 were major hits. This was a turning point in his career, bolstered by the positive reception of The Frighteners in that same year.
Taking the lead role in big-screen blockbusters was proving to be a complex task. He was struggling to hide the symptoms over long filming schedules. Fox returned to sitcoms with Spin City, the energy was back on the small screen, and Michael proved that he was still a popular entertainer.
Michael was doing well in the world of entertainment, winning Golden Globes and Emmy Awards for best actor in Spin City between 1997 and 1998. Fox was, at the same time, suffering from the physical effort the disease was putting on his muscles.
Acting, in general, is a tough business, and now Michael was adjusting his position in the industry to be a voice actor. Fox had some experience with voice-overs in documentaries. Disney’s Homeward Bound, in 1993, gave the cloud hanging over his career some form of silver lining.
The symptoms were showing in his performance in Spin City as a nervous character in a tense environment drinking too much coffee. In truth, Fox was incorporating his involuntary movements from dyskinesia into his acting style.
For the most part, his twitches came over to the public as classic traits of his acting style. Though Fox knew – and he was finding it difficult to continue deceiving his audience and himself. One of the worst side-effects of the medication for Parkinson’s was the slurring of his speech.
Involuntary body movements were a challenge to hide, but it was possible. Speech is an actor’s greatest asset. Without a stable voice, and with no explanation for it, those around him would suspect other reasons.
Fox knew that he could reduce the slurring by reducing his medication, but this would also mean letting the tremors loose in public. There was little public knowledge on the disease during the late 90s, and there was a potential of Hollywood alienation’ due to having it.
In a desperate attempt to regain control, Fox went through a thalamotomy procedure in 1998. This is where brain surgeons try a risky procedure to destroy the grey matter, thalamus. The Thalamus connects the rest of the brain to the motor nerves and regulates sleep.
Despite the risks, the procedure went forward, and to a large extent, it was successful. The surgery helped to slow the digression – it gave Fox more time with his career and more time to help others.
It was a tough decision between choosing privacy or opening up to the world and trying to help others through their struggles with Parkinson’s. In 1998, Fox came clean so that he could create something positive from the whole experience.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation was born, a project to investigate all workable medical advancements that may lead to a cure for Parkinson’s. The foundation is a tremendous success, raising over one billion dollars to date for research and therapy.
In 1999, to raise awareness of the disease and his foundation, Fox made his testimony before the Senate Sub-Committee. He started his testimony moments after taking his medication to display his symptoms and the need for a better solution to them.
Parkinson’s was the key focus of The Michael J. Fox Show, but the show lasted a single season. Fox noted that there were issues with the script and maybe the studios were not ready for a subject so close to home, but that he was happy.
Until recently, Fox was acting both on and off the big screen, having found a way to incorporate his condition into stories and his characters. Though in November 2020, the actor said that Parkinson’s was making it difficult to remember his lines.
Coming to terms with his symptoms and as a family-orientated husband, Fox came to the realization that he did not have anything more to prove. The public had his films to enjoy, and he wanted to finish his career on a high.
Fox says that he will not be seeking out any future roles, feeling that he would not be able to do them justice. Some people do not understand the meaning of quitting. We hope he changes his mind so that we can continue to enjoy the talents of Michael Andrew Fox for many years to come.
Even if his acting career is over, the work he continues to do through his foundation is making a profound difference to more people than any of his films.
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