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Michael J. Fox on Parkinson's and how he finds "optimism is sustainable"

Michael J. Fox on Parkinson's, and maintaining optimism
Michael J. Fox on Parkinson's, and maintaining optimism 08:03

Michael J. Fox remembered the first time he came to New York City, to meet with Jane Pauley on "The Today Show." "Me and my friend who came with me to New York wandered down Fifth, and we were at breakfast. And it was $20. I lost my s***. I went, 'Twenty dollars?!?'"

Michael J. Fox, appearing on "Today" to promote "Family Ties." He found breakfast in Manhattan expensive. NBC

At the time Fox was promoting a new show, "Family Ties," and I introduced a new name in Hollywood: Michael J. Fox, on the cusp of a very bright future. "Family Ties" debuted 40 years ago, and after taping the first show with a live audience, he knew it landed. 

He knew he found something – and the moment he'd found it: "I just did this ad-lib thing where I was supposed to say, 'Hello, this is Alex Keaton,' and I just went, 'Hello, this is Alex P. Keaton.' And it became a big part of the character."

 "Is P funny?" asked Pauley.

"P is funny," said Fox. "P is percussive. Percussive P!"

Parkinson's? Not funny: an incurable degenerative disease. But for years, Fox has been getting a laugh describing Parkinson's as a gift: "It's the gift that keeps on taking."

Pauley said, "Every time I see you, I can see it's taken a little bit more of something."

"It's been 30+ years; not many of us that have had this disease for 30 years," he said. "It sucks having Parkinson's."

Jane Pauley and Michael J. Fox in 2023.  CBS News

As millions know too well. "For some families, some people, it's a nightmare. It's a living hell," he said. "They have to deal with realities that are beyond most people's understandings."

Fox is first to say he has advantages: "My life is set up so I can pack Parkinson's along with me if I have to."

"But at some point, Parkinson's gonna make the call for you, isn't it?" asked Pauley.

"Yeah, it's, it's banging on the door. Yeah, I mean, I'm not gonna lie. It's gettin' hard, it's gettin' harder. It's gettin' tougher. Every day it's tougher. But, but that's, that's the way it is. I mean, you know, who do I see about that?"

Even talking comes at a price, as he showed us five years ago on "Sunday Morning."

"I can make myself still, but I won't be as animated," he said. Still, but silent. "I can't talk, [because] I start to move."

From 2017: Michael J. Fox's fight against Parkinson's

Michael J. Fox's fight against Parkinson's 10:17

More now than tremors and slurred speech, muscle rigidity, the exhausting jerks and twists; it's been falls and broken bones. "I had spinal surgery. I had a tumor on my spine. And it was benign, but it messed up my walking," he said. "And then started to break stuff. Broke this arm, and I broke this arm, I broke this elbow. I broke my face. I broke my hand."

"Falling on things?"

"Which is a big killer with Parkinson's. It's falling and aspirating food and getting pneumonia. All these subtle ways that gets ya'. You don't die from Parkinson's; you die with Parkinson's. I'm not gonna be 80. I'm not gonna be 80."

He does think about mortality, but at 61, he savors his past. "I had to go through our den, TV room. And I look up and 'Back to the Future' was on, it was just starting. And I hadn't seen it since, like, 1987. I hadn't seen it."

As he recalls, Tracy Pollan, his wife of 35 years, had been waiting for him. "I sat down on the sofa. Like, four or five minutes later, Tracy goes, 'What are you doing? Where are you?' And I said, '"Back to the Future"'s on.' She said, 'You're watching "Back to the Future"?' And I said, 'Yeah, you know, I'm really good in this!'"

Johnny B. Goode - Back to the Future (9/10) Movie CLIP (1985) HD by Movieclips on YouTube

In the summer of 1985 Michael J. Fox was the hottest name in Hollywood, with not only the #1 movie ("Back to the Future") but also a #2 ("Teen Wolf"), and a top TV show that would capture 20-30% of the viewing audience – unthinkable today. "On the Thursday night, walking down the hallway of a hotel, and every room I could hear 'Family Ties,' And it was, it was massive," said Fox.

"How'd you handle that fame?"

"I pigged out on it," he replied. "I loved it."

In recognition of his foundation work, old friend Woody Harrelson presented Fox with an honorary Oscar last year. In his acceptance speech, Fox acknowledged to Harrelson, "We did some damage."

Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences 13th Governors Awards
Michael J. Fox and his wife, Tracy Pollan, with their four children: Sam, Esme, Aquinnah and Schuyler, attending the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 13th Governors Awards, November 19, 2022 in Los Angeles. Emma McIntyre/WireImage via Getty Images

Pauley asked, "Is it possible you did some damage?" 

"Yeah, very possible," Fox replied. "I mean, there's so many ways that you can, that I could've hurt myself. I could've hit my head. I could've drank too much at a certain developmental period. Most likely I think is, that I was exposed to some kind of chemical. What we say is that genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger."

The Michael J. Fox Foundation has raised $1.5 billion for research, and this month announced a breakthrough: a biomarker for Parkinson's which could mean faster diagnosis and treatment.  

"This changes everything," said Fox. "I know with where we are right now, in five years they will be able to tell if they have it, be able to tell if they're ever gonna get it, we'll know how to treat it."

The "Family Ties" and "Back to the Future" actor has become just as famous for his very public fight against Parkinson's disease. CBS News

His family ("The child I love best is one I'm with at the time") all appear in a new documentary about Fox, his life, his career, and of course, Parkinson's, called "Still" (debuting on Apple TV+ May 12).  

Pauley asked, "What does still imply, evoke?"

"I could never be still, until I couldn't be still," he replied.

"Still has other meanings. Still here. Still committed."

"And I'll take 'em all!"

And in "Still," we see it all, with Fox losing his footing, but not his dignity, nor his sense of humor. When he falls on the street while greeting a passer-by, he comes in with the punchline: "You knocked me off my feet."

"Got the laugh!" said Pauley.

"Anything for the laugh!" he replied.

Michael J. Fox is a serious person: funny, but wise.

Pauley said, "There had never been a time in your life that wasn't amazing."

"Very good life."

"And it's perverse to say it, but kind of a 'charmed' life."

"That's the point; that's the joke," Fox said. "I recognize how hard this is for people, and I recognize how hard it is for me. But I have a certain set of skills that allow me to deal with this stuff. And I realized, with gratitude, optimism is sustainable. And if you can find something to be grateful for, then you can find something to look forward to, and you carry on."

To watch a trailer for "Still" click on the video player below:

STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie — Official Trailer | Apple TV+ by Apple TV on YouTube

For more info:

Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

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