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Happy Birthday, Michael J. Fox, Actor and Parkinson’s Disease Advocate

June 09, 2010
by Liz Colville
Michael J. Fox is the rare actor who had success as a child, adolescent and adult, then channeled his ambition into seeking a cure for Parkinson’s after being diagnosed with the degenerative disease at age 30.

Michael J. Fox’s Early Days

Michael J. Fox was born to a Canadian military career officer in Edmonton, Alberta, on June 9, 1961. Making his acting debut on Vancouver television at the age of 15, Fox moved to the United States in 1979 at the age of 18 and lived “the clichéd life of a starving actor,” he has said.

He lived “in spartan conditions until he was able to get his green card,” writes Hal Erickson for AllMovie. At a height of 5’4”, Fox was able to land young roles, but was also turned away from roles for being too short. At the age of 19, he earned a role on both the weekly show “Palmerstown, U.S.A.” and a supporting role in the film “Midnight Madness.”

Fox’s Acting Career

Fox continued to live in relative squalor as he tried to make it as an actor, selling off parts of his couch to get by. He received his break in 1982 when he was cast on the sitcom “Family Ties” as Alex P. Keaton, the conservative son of two former hippies.

“He was the Fonzie of the ‘80s,” says Michael Gross, who played the Keaton father. “You know it was the Reagan Revolution, it was this new conservatism, and Michael took advantage of that.”

Fox “burst to stratospheric fame,” wrote People magazine; “Without this show, I'd be digging ditches in Vancouver. It was a complete economic and emotional godsend,” Fox remarked.

He won three Emmys for his role, including one for “an unforgettable ‘one-man show’ in which his character soliloquized over the suicide of a close friend,” Erickson reports.

Fox made his mark on the big screen when he replaced actor Eric Stolz as Marty McFly, the lead in “Back to the Future,” an huge hit that had two sequels. Reflecting on the trilogy in 2009, Monte Williams writes for PopMatters, “Michael J. Fox is one of the most selfless and underrated comic actors of the last 30 years. … The first film tries so hard to make Marty McFly cool … Yet Fox cheerfully, consistently undermines his own cool momentum with a series of disarmingly baffled facial expressions and graceless slapstick pratfalls; Fox boasts the rare ability to make falling down seem truly funny.”

He then went on to star in “The Secret of My Success” and “Casualties of War,” movies that expanded his range and demonstrated his comfort as a lead actor and as a comic actor. Fox was prolific as a film actor during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but returned to television as the star of the sitcom “Spin City” where he played the deputy mayor of New York City.

Fox’s Battle With Parkinson’s

Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease that is so far incurable, at the age of 30. Fox noticed a “twitch” in one of his fingers back in 1991 when he was working on the film “Doc Hollywood,” according to MedicineNet. Symptoms include “tremors, stiffness of the limbs, a mask-like face, gait disturbance (difficulty walking), depression and, late in the disease, dementia.”

Nearly a decade after his diagnosis, Fox made the illness public knowledge in 1998 and left “Spin City” in 2000. He was open and encouraging about the condition and quickly got to work looking for a cure. He founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, published his memoir, “Lucky Man,” and continues to spread optimism about the disease.

Fox is a hard-working stem-cell activist. In a 2004 interview with BusinessWeek, he confronted skeptics about stem cell research and attempted to refashion the contentious issue as a “potential breakthrough.” But the actor and activist retains his sense of humor.

“We don't want to create Frankenstein or clone our Uncle Charlie so we can play poker with him again.” While he thinks stem cells can help uncover a “genetic marker” for Parkinson’s, Fox also says that people “have to be open-minded and broaden our approach beyond stem cells.”

In an April 2009 interview with Larry King, Fox discussed his recent work with his foundation and talked about his most recently published book, “Always Looking Up.” He was optimistic even about his public debate with Rush Limbaugh over Parkinson’s because, he said, Limbaugh helped bring the stem cell debate to a wider audience.

Fox is married to Tracy Pollan, who played his childhood sweetheart on “Family Ties.” The couple has four children and have been married since 1988, a year before “Family Ties” had its finale. Pollan is the sister of the author Michael Pollan who has written bestsellers such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.”

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