Michael J. Fox’s descent from his trademark optimism began on the tiles of his kitchen floor. He was in too much pain for an immediate existential crisis, but soon that positivity – he titled his first memoir Lucky Man, after all – began to waver. It wasn’t just the early-onset Parkinson’s disease – diagnosed at 29 when he was at the top of his Hollywood game – that had led to the disastrous tumble in his Manhattan apartment. But another, unrelated grave medical issue: a tumour on his spine. Its removal earlier that year had been extremely complex; his recovery long and arduous. Through months of rehabilitation, one explicit instruction was emphasized: Just don’t fall.
There in his kitchen, alone and with a badly broken arm – which he knew would have severe consequences – he hit a low point in more ways than one.
“I sold optimism as a panacea,” he said during a recent interview from his Upper East Side home in New York, taking me through what had happened there that morning of Monday, August 13, 2018. He started to wonder: “What the hell was I thinking?” His usual impulse – to make lemonade out of lemons – was suddenly beyond reach. “I’m kind of well-known for that, that I don’t often despair. But I was really near despair at that point.”
For the Canadian-born-and-raised actor, 2018 had been a horrific year. It started in January: The annual family vacation to Turks and Caicos was cut short, the family flying home four days early on New Year’s Day. Fox was feeling unwell and on New Year’s Eve, as he chatted with Keith Richards at the bar (Richards calls him “Foxy”), Fox realized things were very bad. At midnight, as the place went wild, he had a revelation. “Oh God, Keith Richards looks better than I feel.” They returned to New York the next day to seek answers.
It turned out to be very serious: a benign tumour, after remaining essentially static for years, had accelerated its growth – it was massive and intramedullary – meaning within Fox’s spinal cord. An MRI also revealed a slight bleed in the cyst. Something needed to be done – otherwise, Fox would soon be unable to walk. But operating would be extremely risky. Several neurosurgeons declined. As the surgeon who ended up taking on the procedure said to Fox and his wife, Tracy Pollan, during their first meeting at Johns Hopkins: “I mean, who wants to be the guy who paralyzes Michael J. Fox?”
The story is recounted in Fox’s new memoir, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality. The book charts Fox’s recent medical and spiritual travails – the fall from optimism and (spoiler alert) the return. If you’re looking for something to give you a little perspective on your own woes at the moment this book might do it for you.
“I’m doing fine. I’m working out a lot, doing a lot of physical therapy and I’m walking a lot better,” he tells me over the phone. “I’m doing great and my family’s great; that’s the best part.”
Fox, 59, was born in Edmonton and settled with his family in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby in 1971. He famously left high school before graduating (he earned his GED years later) to give acting a try in Los Angeles. He landed the role of Alex P. Keaton on the sitcom Family Ties and then, as the skateboarding, time-travelling Marty McFly in the 1985 film Back to the Future, he became a major movie star.
In 1991, Fox was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease. He kept the news private and continued to act, finally stepping away from the sitcom Spin City in 2000. That same year he launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research – which has become the world’s largest non-profit funder of Parkinson’s drug development, according to the foundation.
When he started writing it before these new health problems arose, this book, Fox’s fourth, was originally going to be about golf – how the game had saved him from the doldrums and his couch. To take up golf in his forties was ambitious, he writes; “to do so with Parkinson’s disease was delusional.” And yet. He regularly hit the links with political commentator and former Democratic staffer George Stephanopoulos and bestselling author Harlan Coben (Jimmy Fallon and Bill Murray too) – and learned.
But there wasn’t enough there for an entire book and, anyway, having a tumour scraped away from his spine trumped the healing properties of golf in terms of subject matter.
The memoir, out Nov. 17, charts Fox’s months-long, gruelling recovery – he basically has to relearn how to walk and perform other everyday tasks like putting on his socks. And then, that fall in the kitchen breaks his arm. This is devastating for Fox, who already has trouble with walking and balance and fears the months of literal blood, sweat and tears have been erased. With a stainless steel plate and 19 screws in his arm, he must go back into rehab – and he falls into a dark place.
The low point leads to some big questions. “What was the root of my misery? What was the cause of my malaise? My melancholy?” he recounted during the interview.
The answer he came up with was not, as you might think, his many medical misfortunes. “I discovered that it was that I wasn’t recognizing the people around me and what they were doing and how they were behaving toward me and each other. And how grateful I was for them and how grateful they were for me. And it just opened my eyes.”
This lesson really hit home when he thought about how the family reacted to the death of his beloved father-in-law, also in 2018. “There was sadness, but no despair. There was gratitude,” he says. “That’s what I arrived at after the long journey: With gratitude, optimism is sustainable.”
I asked Fox, who has been sober since 1992, if during the darkest times, he was ever tempted to drink.
“No, I don’t even think about it. [It would be like] if I drank a can of gasoline,” he said. “Much more the threat was what I was going to do to myself, I think – isolate. That’s what I wanted to fight, was isolating."
The book was completed during the COVID-19 lockdown. He, Pollan and their four children holed up at their Long Island home. He was completely aware of the tragedy unfolding – as they left the city, makeshift field hospitals were being set up outside their apartment – but it was a special time, nonetheless.
“Tracy made great meals, we did jigsaw puzzles, we [ate] ice cream. And every night after dinner we’d sit around the table for another hour just discussing what was happening in the world,” he says, referring to social-justice issues around the Black Lives Matter protests. “My now adult kids expressed fully formed and really reasonable, smart opinions over dessert. It was really sweet. Again all this is happening juxtaposed against terrible misery. ... It was a terrible time. And yet it was a wonderful time on a personal level.”
The day we speak, Fox says he’s having a “quiet day” as a result of his medication – and he is a little hard to understand at times – but he is thoughtful, smart, quick, kind and still funny as hell.
I ask him how he’s able to keep his sense of humour – the book is very funny – with all he has been through. “That’s my first fallback position on everything; there’s got to be something funny in there somewhere. Still working on Trump, but ...”
At some points as we talk, I can hear what sounds like doodling. Indeed, he is drawing – it’s like a Geiger counter, he says. “A seismology thing. I just put the pen down and the energy will go into it.”
He tells me that he was drawing a big Trump face when we discussed U.S. politics (he is not a fan), and a Canadian flag when we talked about home.
He hasn’t been back to Vancouver since last fall, when he surprised his mother for Canadian Thanksgiving ahead of her 90th birthday. They went to a favourite pizza joint in Burnaby and then bowled a couple of rounds of five-pin. His mother kicked his butt.
This year, they had their Thanksgiving dinner over Zoom.
When I tell him that I’m in Vancouver, he seems genuinely thrilled. (He had assumed I was in Toronto.) He tells me his mother and sister had recently gone up Grouse Mountain and taken in what he called the amazing views. “It made me very homesick,” he told me. “I miss Vancouver a lot.”
The night before the interview, I rewatched Back to the Future for the first time in years. I almost gasped at the opening shot: a close-up of Fox’s legs, walking into Doc’s apartment. Effortless steps that a rising superstar took for granted – that we all do.
For Fox, whose signature physicality was a part of his thespian charm, the significance of that loss was heightened while writing this book.
“I thought how much movement meant to me; the loss of it was something I really had to deal with. That doesn’t mean being in despair about it or getting sad about it,” Fox says. He knew he couldn’t fix it or even make it better. “I wanted to understand it. Part of it was understanding the loss of movement.”
These are difficult times – for the world, for Fox. I ask him if he has been able to maintain his perspective in part because of what his parents went through, coming of age during the Depression and war.
He says his parents were always pragmatic. “I now understand my dad in his boxer shorts and his T-shirt sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of bills he was going through with his little pocket calculator. Everything was attended to, everything was taken seriously,” he says. “So, I mean, yeah, it kind of made me pretty resilient, even pre-dating my medical issues.”
He talks about the move to L.A. at 18, driving down there with his dad, who died a few years later. “I didn’t appreciate the risk I was taking. But now I do – and the fact that my parents let me do that, trusted me to do it and gave me – either genetically or through example – the confidence that I could do it,” he says. “It paid off for me in the long run.”
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.