Michael J. Fox has been many things in his remarkable life: a “Family Ties” Young Republican, a “Back to the Future” time traveler and a “Spin City” political adviser. But he was never a pumpkin until Parkinson’s disease.
“Can you excuse me for a sec?” Fox asks, pausing during a Zoom call from his New York home. “I’m turning into a pumpkin.”
The actor explains that he came up with the phrase for moments like this when the uncontrollable tremors from the degenerative brain disease he was diagnosed with more than 30 years ago reach unacceptable levels.
“When it’s falling apart, it’s like I have two minutes before I become a full-on pumpkin on the side of the road here,” says Fox, 61, whose slight smile never leaves as he takes down a pill with a swig of bottled water. “That’s an expression people around me are very familiar with.”
It’s a world that a new audience will become familiar with through his powerful Apple TV+ documentary “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (now streaming), which brings Fox close up. “I let myself be seen in a way I never had before,” says Fox.
‘There’s no way out’:Michael J. Fox says he became an alcoholic, hid Parkinson’s diagnosis
How Michael J. Fox’s life was re-created in ‘Still’
“Still” director Davis Guggenheim relies on multiple ways to tell Fox’s full story − from struggling actor to global superstar and then unflagging Parkinson’s advocate after he publicly revealed the brain disorder in 1998.
Not only is Fox interviewed throughout, but actors re-create key portions of his life, and Guggenheim fills in his real life with ’80s clips – from his breakout role in “Family Ties” and movies like “Back to the Future” – that brilliantly mirror what the rising star was going through at the time.
“Michael J. Fox’s life is a wild ride, he was an icon of the ’80s,” says Guggenheim. “I thought, how much fun would it be to watch this movie and just feel like you’re watching an ’80s movie.”
Moments such as Fox meeting and falling in love with his wife of 34 years, Tracy Pollan, are depicted with scenes of the young actress appearing on “Family Ties,” where they met, and then from a romantic first date and kiss scene from 1988’s “Bright Lights, Big City.”
Wife Tracy Pollan vowed to be by Michael J. Fox’s side ‘in sickness and in health’
“I was astounded by how the narrative matched my life,” Fox says of the film moments. “What really blew me away was Tracy and I walking in Greenwich Village during the ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ stuff. I was literally falling in love with this woman as I fell in love with her on the screen. The way they did that still makes me cry when I see it.”
Fox’s own words, many taken from his 2002 “Lucky Man: A Memoir,” serve as a powerful voiceover. He explains how Pollan has been his rock since he was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s at age 29, the height of his worldwide popularity. Fox can still recall telling his wife the diagnosis he would keep from the world for nine years.
“I remember the exact moment, exactly where we were,” says Fox, gesturing to the bedroom hallway just off-camera where he heard Pollan respond with the powerful words, “In sickness and in health.”
“I knew instantly she was going to be there for me, ” says Fox, pausing, this time because of emotion. “And that was no small thing.”
The ‘Back to the Future’ star battled alcoholism and sobriety
Fox would need the support, not only for the disease but also overcoming alcoholism as he turned to heavy drinking to “disassociate” from his diagnosis. After not taking a drink for more than 30 years, Fox says the early days of sobriety were especially challenging.
“When battling alcoholism, there’s great treatment centers and 12-step programs, but ultimately it comes down to you and this part of your brain that wants to destroy you. You wake up every day and you go at it,” says Fox. “I had to wake up every day and say my biggest issue is not that I had Parkinson’s but that I had a problem with alcohol.”
In “Still,” Fox describes early sobriety as “a knife fight in a closet. “
“The reason I use that term is because it’s really dark, there’s no light that you move toward to be rid of your demons,” says Fox. “You have to get in there in this dark space and exchange blows and it’s sharp. It’s you and that part of yourself that wants to kill you, coming at each other with knives.”
But Fox never loses an irrepressible sense of humor, even when it comes to his struggles or dealing with Parkinson’s.
“My first response to everything is humor. My first take on the world is what’s funny about this, even something as dark as Parkinson’s disease,” says Fox, who knocks back any pity or concern for his condition. “I’m a cockroach. I will get through it somehow. But it helps to have people to lean on like Tracy.”
“Still” shows remarkable scenes of lightness as Fox happily relaxes with Tracy and their four children, Sam, 33, twins Aquinnah and Schuyler, 28, and Esmé, 21. His high-profile advocacy with the Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s Foundation has moved the needle in treating the disease, raising more than $1.75 billion.
Even if Fox is not hopeful for a cure in his lifetime, foundation-backed research recently revealed new biomarkers which promise to lead to earlier detection and vastly improved treatment.
The advocate takes even greater satisfaction in knowing the role he’s played shining the light on Parkinson’s.
“I am starting to take a certain level of joy that people used to view this as a stigma,” says Fox. “People with Parkinson’s couldn’t go to the store, they had to worry about cops looking at them thinking they were drunk. Now they can just live their lives. I can’t say I’m wholly responsible for that. But I think I’ve been able to spur some people on to live fuller lives. And I get great pleasure in that.”