Illustration by Hanoch Piven
If there’s one thing you should know about Michael J. Fox, it’s that he’s an optimist. But when he calls one cool September morning to talk about his new book, No Time Like the Future (Flatiron), he’s worried. His 12-year-old, 110-pound “Great Dane-ish” dog, Gus, is supposed to be released from the vet today, after complications arising from the removal of a tumor from his spleen. Fox, who’s 59 but retains a Marty McFly boyishness, loves this dog—so much that for his 54th birthday, his wife, Tracy Pollan, had a bench in New York’s Central Park, where they go for morning walks, dedicated to “Mike Fox and Gus, True New Yorkers.” “I’m realizing that however short our time is here, my dog’s time is shorter,” he says. “It just seems so unfair.”
It would be easy to argue that Fox hasn’t been dealt a fair hand either. In 2018, he also had a tumor removed (from his spine), and after the dangerous, complicated surgery he had to relearn how to walk—a basic act that’s already a challenge due to the Parkinson’s disease he has lived with for nearly 30 years. When he finally recovered, after months of physical therapy, he fell and shattered his left arm, and had to start again from scratch. The experience tested Fox’s trademark positivity (see his first two books, Lucky Man and Always Looking Up), but he emerged stronger than ever and full of gratitude—for his family, his acting career, the impact of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and for good ol’ Gus. So he wrote a book about it.
The Hemi Q&A
The subtitle of your book is “An Optimist Considers Mortality.” But you note that some day you’ll survive yourself in reruns, so I suppose you have some level of immortality. Does this make you happy?
I don’t know if it makes me happy. It doesn’t make me unhappy [laughs]. I don’t think that’s important to me, but I like that our footprints remain. And in time, no matter how high up on the beach those footprints are, the tide will eventually reach them. When Flatiron and I first started talking about my ideas for this book, I was talking about fear and loss and all this stuff. And they said to me, “Like mortality? ” And I thought, it does all tie into mortality. It ties into this experience we’re living now—we know it’s finite, and we want to get everything we can out of it and be our truest self. So I started taking a few notes and exploring a little bit. I can’t type and I can’t write reliably anymore, so I dictate to Nelle [Fortenberry], my producing partner, and she writes it. But very quickly this thing happened—this, this…
Yeah, pandemic. And so we were doing FaceTime. And I’m writing about my life and my experiences, and I’m quarantining with my family. It’s this whole dystopian world, but on our level we’re having a celebration, an affirmation of family. And then there are pictures of people with their faces pressed up against the glass trying to see their loved ones who are expiring on the other side, and they can’t get at them. And that’s the most intense, searing pain that can happen. And you say, “How can these two things exist at the same time? How can they both be the result of the same agent? ” I didn’t want to jump ahead to that in the book, because it wasn’t a part of the story. But I did an epilogue where I talked about that. It’s the same feeling—we all feel like our lives have been altered by something we didn’t do, something unexpected and completely inexplicable. Yet we adjust and hopefully we’ll get to the point where we think the needle is more on the plus side than the negative side.
Your book is shaped by your own health problems over the past couple of years. But somehow you manage to stay upbeat. Where does your optimism stem from?
I always kind of homed in on my grandmother, who was Irish, from Belfast. She always believed in me. I was a small kid, odd and strange and into writing and drawing and all this stuff that most of the kids in my family weren’t into. And people would worry about me and say, “What’s going to happen to Mike? ” and she’d say [adopts an old lady voice], “Oh don’t you worry about Michael, he’ll be fine. He’ll be famous.” She didn’t want me to be called Mike; she wanted me to be Michael. “He’ll be famous and everyone will know him as Michael.” We always put a lot of stock in her as a psychic, and she predicted all of these things to happen, and they came to pass. That was always stunning to me: that she believed in me to the extent that she could say I was going to do something that would be in the public eye and people would know me as Michael. So I’ve just always been a self-identified optimist.
But it’s one thing to say you’re an optimist and another thing to live it.
What was weird about this sort of crisis period that I went through is that that really came into question, and it was such a fundamental part of who I was, a fundamental part of how I presented myself to people and how I persuaded other people to adopt that point of view in dealing with something very difficult. And all of a sudden I felt this tremendous responsibility. I had presented myself as this thing, and then when push comes to shove… I was facing problems that were certainly arduous, but on the misery index not going near what some people experience—loss of children or lung cancer or just awful things. Although, it was bad. I mean, it was losing my ability to walk and altering my lifestyle drastically. But it just became this period of time where I went, “Who am I to say optimism is an answer for everything?” And then I tried to observe my life, and what did make me optimistic? And I realized it was my gratitude that made me optimistic. With gratitude, optimism is sustainable. If you have gratitude, you have things to be positive about.
I remember one day a couple of years ago coming into my building and saying, “How are you? ” to a temp worker at the front desk. Instead of just saying “good,” he said, “I’m grateful.” And that had a profound effect on me.
Yeah: “How are you?” “I’m getting more than I’m putting out.” I’ve always felt that way. So when I got into that place where I didn’t feel that way—where I felt like there was more being taken from me than I was giving back—that was odd for me. My whole balance, the things that kept me floating, kept me positive, were slipping away, and I had to find them again. I was thinking this morning that with illness and affliction, they always want you to be the patient first and not yourself first. So it’s kind of a battle between who you are and what these imposed maladies want you to be. And I was struggling to stay on the me side of the ledger.
You write about how this dark period was fueled by fear. Was that period of time scarier than when you were initially diagnosed with Parkinson’s?
Yeah, because when I was initially diagnosed, it was just confusing. It’s like someone said, “You’re an aardvark.” OK, I’m an aardvark now, what does that mean? I eat ants and I’m gonna set out across the desert or plain or wherever aardvarks live? And so it was odd, and it took a while for Tracy and me to grow into it and see the disease slowly progress. I liken it to being stuck in the middle of Fifth Avenue and you hear a bus coming. You don’t know where it is and how fast it’s going and when it’s going to get there, but the bus is going to come one day and hit you. With the spinal thing I had removed, we knew it was there, but we were waiting for it to do something, which it did; it started to bleed and then we had to go into “go” mode and get rid of it. But the thing with the broken arm, while it was certainly the least serious of the three things, it was the most jarring in terms of its violence and its suddenness. It was just, bam! Everything I had labored through the first part of the year was gone, and I had to start all over again. And I was just a baby about it [laughs]. For the first time in my life, I really felt sorry for myself. It was discombobulating.
Growing up with a dad in the military, do you think that made you more stoic, more able to accept Parkinson’s and your other health issues?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s a real stoicism, like, “That’s all you got? I can take that.” Here’s a thing my dad would say, and take this the right way; it’s hyperbole, but it’s funny and shows his sense of humor. Like if you’re eating food and you say, “I don’t like it,” he’d say, “You don’t get hit for not liking it, you get hit for not eating it.” And he never hit me. But the idea is, it doesn’t concern me what your feeling is about it; it’s what you’re going to do. And you have to face things as they come.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Michael J. Fox Foundation. You’ve funded $1 billion in Parkinson’s research. What are you most proud of in regard to the foundation’s work?
One of the factors that caused me to start it and leave Spin City in the prime of my life—while I still had the energy and the strength to do it—was there’s an identification with Parkinson’s that it’s an older person’s disease, but there’s such a large percentage of patients that are young-onset. And I thought those people are still able to be dynamic in their age and their situation and what they can contribute and how they can participate. So [we created] a Parkinson’s community. And that was important to me, because it was a disease you could hide and not tell people about. I hid it for seven years. And a lot of people hide it because it’s so misunderstood and people have a natural aversion to movement disorders, and ignorant people imitate it. There’s a stigma. But we get people out and involved in the community. We have Team Fox—people run marathons, they climb mountains, they ride bikes, they do all this stuff to raise money, and it brings in the community; it makes them active participants in their own rescue. We’re the people who are going to raise a billion dollars to help ourselves.
How does it feel when people tell you you’re an inspiration?
Ahhhhh … I mean … It’s nice! I’m so lucky I found something that works for me. At the same time, it doesn’t make me feel any obligation, like, “Oh, I gotta do this for those folks.” I gotta do this, and if it inspires people, that’s great. I’m not like, “Win one for the Gipper,” you know? I want to win one for us.
I was really happy to see you return as the smarmy lawyer Louis Canning on The Good Fight this spring. Because everyone in the world loves you, are you drawn to characters like Canning or Dwight on Denis Leary’s Rescue Me or even the fictionalized version of yourself from Curb Your Enthusiasm because they’re unlikable?
It’s so nice for me to have the opportunity to play those kinds of characters. I love being Louis Canning a lot, and I loved to do that thing with Curb Your Enthusiasm. The thing with Denis was really fun. I don’t know what he was thinking hiring me—it’s such a stretch, such a different role for me. I wrote in the book, “Alex Keaton, we hardly knew ye,” because it was so different. We did the first scene, and Denis sees this guy in front of him who he thinks is Mike, and I’m this nasty, mean, drunk, stoned s *** head, and it just threw him. He didn’t come up to me between scenes because he said, “I didn’t know who you were!” [Laughs.] And it was just so fun. This [character] is a guy who was an extreme athlete and he had been at a hockey game with his brother, and driving back they got hit by a drunk driver, and his brother was killed and he was paralyzed. And he made a choice on some level to drown himself in drugs and sexual addiction and all that stuff, and I realized I could relate to that because that was a choice I didn’t make. I made a choice to go the other way, but the same forces were against me. For some reason I lucked out—and this is what I try to get across in the book: The force and the power of the people around me is what saved me.
I showed my 8-year-old son Back to the Future last week, and it blew his mind. If you could go back in time just to watch a moment from your life—not change it, because, as Doc says, we don’t want to mess with the space-time continuum—what would you pick?
There are ones that are seared in my mind: the first time I met Tracy, when I saw my children being born, the first audience taping of the pilot of Family Ties. But I don’t know if I want to go back and see those again, because they’re so etched in my brain. I think it would be some lost moment: on the bus coming home from skating on a Friday night with my friends in fifth grade. A moment in a hockey locker room when I was 12 and I’d scored a goal. Just one of those little lost moments. They may be informative or helpful or solve some mystery that that moment held, an answer to some question I didn’t know I had. Like Scrooge and the ghost, taking me where I need to go.