When Michael J. Fox left his hit TV show three years ago because of Parkinson’s disease, it looked like he was retiring. But Michael J. Fox doesn’t quit. He didn’t quit making movies, television, or even children. His best-selling memoir will need some updates. He talks with Jane Pauley in her last interview at “Dateline.”
Michael J. Fox has to keep an eye on the clock. Today, he has 3 meetings, a photo shoot, and it’s his turn to pick up the kids.
Pauley: “Do you have an acute sense of time that you didn’t used to have, how long an hour is, how long 15 minutes is or—
Fox: “In a way, especially when I’m waiting, because I spend a lot of time waiting.”
Pauley: “For what?”
Fox: “For pills to kick in or to be able to do something I want to do. Simple as read a paper, because I wake up, I can’t read a paper because I can’t hold it. So how long, there’s like, eight, 10, 12, 15 minutes waiting to be able to read the paper. So, then what do I do with that time? So, then I’m thinking about other things. I’m thinking about oh, this other thing. And okay, now I can read the paper. So, now I read the paper. And then I finish reading the paper. And I say, ‘And what was I thinking about while I was waiting to read the paper? I was thinking about this other thing.’ And then I’ll do that.”
Pauley: “I know that stress exacerbates your symptoms. If it was me, I’d be relaxing all the time. I would be conserving energy. I would be avoiding stress. But you, you dive into things.”
Fox: “Well, but you just said the key word. You said conserving energy. So, conserving it for what? Conserving it to be able to use it when you need to use it. So, I mean, I do. I conserve energy a lot. But there are things that I want to do.”
Michael writes in his memoir “Lucky Man,” a typical day with Parkinson’s disease is fraught with harrowing extremes.
Fox: “Three or four times a day, I go through the transitions between the two poles, navigating the tricky passage from the land of ‘off’ to ‘on.’”
Pauley: “What does being ‘off’ mean for you?”
Fox: “Well, ‘off’ is unmedicated. At my stage, it can get to where I can’t really speak that well and I can’t inflect. I can’t really use my face. I’ll be shaking. And that’s ‘off.’ And then ‘on’ is a version of this, which is when the medication’s working. I have ‘on’ plus, because I have a little bit of dyskinesia, which is a function of the medication and a sense of ‘moment.’ Even though you don’t make me nervous, I mean, it’s actually a funny thing, too. My mind is not nervous at all. But my brain goes, ‘Well, and there’s lights on and there’s people all around and what’s going on, you know, where’s the door?’”
Two years ago, Michael agreed to let a “Dateline” crew follow him around. Keeping up hasn’t been easy. In addition to that best selling book, he’s also voiced two animated movies. Fox is not in denial. He’s in a hurry because he knows the facts. Parkinson’s disease happens when certain brain cells, ones that control motor function, begin to die. The cause is unknown, but the prognosis is a slow sequence that begins with shakiness and leads eventually to paralysis.
He’s not waiting around for the cure. He’s too busy looking for one. A year ago, Michael made his third trip to Capitol Hill, asking for more federal spending for Parkinson’s research. Lobbying Congress, it helps to have a heavyweight in your corner.
Fox: “It doesn’t matter how famous you are. If you ever want to be anonymous, walk into a room with Muhammad Ali. Because you will disappear.”
Pauley: “You and Muhammad Ali, you seem to have an interesting relationship, an actual relationship. Can you describe what that’s about?”
Fox: “Yeah, you know, it’s hard, because so much of it is unspoken. He and I have this look that we just give to each other that I know we’re both thinking, ‘You know, we’re badasses and we know we’re badasses. And we know there’s a reason we’re doing what we’re doing.’”
But Michael J. Fox is learning how to throw his own weight around, too.
Fox: “I don’t mean this to sound harsh. And I really hope it’s not taken in this way. But a lot of times, there might be people in an ideological group that you may not think would be receptive to our ideas. And then you find out they’re big supporters. And you can almost always go, ‘Who’s sick? Who do they love that’s affected?’ And you can always find that person.”
But when it came time for Michael to deliver his message, the toughest opponent in the room was himself. With the medication wearing off he had trouble, of all things, reading his lines. But what he did spoke volumes.
Pauley: “You had to cut your speech short.”
Fox: “Yeah, which is another thing about the gift of Parkinson’s, in that it was too long anyway.”
Pauley: “I can tell, you are, by nature, an optimist.”
Fox: “Sure, I don’t want to be totally pollyannaish about it. I mean, it sucks. It’s a drag. And one of the hardest parts about it is the aloneness. Not really the loneliness as much as aloneness. And that you’re experiencing something at any given time that no one else that’s with you is experiencing. But then when you meet other people in the community with Parkinson’s, and they’ll do something, you don’t have to have a conversation. It’s like, ‘I know.’ And then when you can top that ‘I know’ with ‘and we’re doing something,’ it’s a great feeling. And that’s all I really want from this.”
Michael J. Fox has not let Parkinson’s get in the way of his advocacy, or his book, or the two movies or a new TV pilot. Now behind the camera, Michael has written and produced a situation comedy, a situation, being much like his own.
Pauley: “So, what’s so funny about, you know, your life?”
Fox: “You come into a situation where you’d been working a lot, and you have kids. And then when I came back into my world I was amazed at how weird it all was. And how many things just baffled me, how many times my solution or my approach to something was just so antithetical to anything that made sense. And so, that’s really what I wrote the show about.”
“Hench at Home” is about a sidelined hockey player, played by Craig Bierko, who finds he’s no superstar around the house. And in a unique case of art imitating life, the on-screen mom is Michael’s off-screen wife, actress Tracy Pollan.
Pauley: “How much of the Tracey Pollan character would you say is Tracey Pollan?”
Fox: “A lot. You know, Tracey has this quiet wisdom. It’s kind of like that thing of, like, you see someone running toward a Plexiglas door that they don’t think is there. And you’re kind of torn, because you think, ‘I should let them know that they’re running full speed into this Plexiglas door.’ And on the other hand, it’ll be really funny when they hit it, you know. And I think Tracey’s just one of those people that always knows the right time to stop you or let you hit the door. And she’s done that for me a lot in my life.”
They met on a TV sitcom, back in 1985, when Michael simultaneously had the number one movie and the number two TV show.
Pollan: “When I did the show, I guess ‘Back to the Future’ had just come out. And I mean he had become a huge, huge star in the course of the first couple of weeks that I started doing the show. So it was like a whirlwind of activity around him.”
Fox: “I could basically do no wrong, and nobody was correcting me. It was like the emperor with no clothes. And so Tracy came back from lunch one day, and I guess she went to an Italian restaurant. So I was just joking around and I said actually kind of a rude thing. I said, ‘Well, did you have scampi for lunch or what?’ And she just kind of didn’t say anything. And then we stepped backstage to go to do the next scene, and she said, ‘That was the rudest thing anyone ever said to me, and you’re a rude SOB and —’ I have to censor it.”
Pollan: “You know, I called him a name.”
Fox: “Yeah. [laughter] And I just went, ‘Wow! How cool!’ You know? And so I had a crush from that point on. I mean, look at her. She’s beautiful. And had the balls to tell the emperor that he was naked. You know? Which is pretty cool.”
After 15 years of marriage, a teenage son and twin daughters, Tracy and Michael felt their lives weren’t full enough. Something was missing.
Pollan: “And we from the beginning said we’d like to have four kids if it worked out.”
With the birth of Esme 18 months ago, everyone was present and accounted for.
Fox: “With Esme, we kind of felt like it wasn’t a decision. It was her decision. She was just going to show up.”
Michael J. Fox is a family man, a man who doesn’t waste a second of his precious time. He treasures it.
Fox: “When you have kids, as you know, I mean, that’s the big time thing. Your kids grow. And that’s how I measure time. Not by the second, or by the minute, but really by the inch, by the word, by the concept, by the idea. I mean, with Parkinson’s, the right-now, this is it. And so, I can give it all the room that it needs. But I can’t give it all the room that it asks for. I’m not prepared to do that. I’ll give it as much room as I absolutely have to give it. And then I’ll go on with my life.”