The Unrelenting Energy of Michael J. Fox

A new documentary examines the actor's career and his refusal to be slowed down by Parkinson's

May 12, 2023 6:00 am
Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox

At the beginning of 1985, Michael J. Fox didn’t sleep. In the midst of playing Alex Keaton on the ABC hit series Family Ties, the 23-year-old had worked out a schedule with showrunner Gary David Goldberg that allowed him to simultaneously star (and replace Eric Stoltz) in Back to the Future. As a result, Fox spent the next three months shooting his family sitcom by day and turning into Marty McFly by night, shuttling between the Paramount lot and wherever director Robert Zemeckis needed him until the next day’s sunrise. Upon wrapping each morning, a teamster driver would then take Fox home to get two hours of rest before he’d start the entire cycle again. 

That dizzying work schedule comes to life in Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, a new Apple+ documentary from director Davis Guggenheim that surveys the actor’s surge to stardom and subsequent battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Using his own interviews and narration from Fox’s memoirs, Guggenheim meshes behind-the-scenes footage, reenactments and a trove of movie and TV clips to recreate his subject’s unrelenting energy and astronomical fame. But in this specific period of his life, right before everything changed, these storytelling formats combine to epitomize Fox’s signature state of restlessness — one minute, he’s vouching for Reagan to his liberal parents, and the next he’s slipping into a red puffer vest and rushing to a mall parking lot to hop inside a Delorean. Though the constant back and forth “swallowed me whole,” Fox describes, his screen presence and fruitful career — and, eventually, his entire life — would come to be defined by movement. 

According to Fox, this kinetic characteristic was born inside of him. When he was two years old, he remembers often jetting out the back door of his family’s Canada home and racing to the candy store unsupervised. He spent the rest of his childhood and adolescence relying on his ability to run, ducking and dodging school bullies with his miniature size and finding a home in drama class with his smooth-talking charm. In retrospect, those early years prepared him for movie stardom, which skyrocketed thanks to roles that leaned into his quick-witted, affable nature and inherent squirmy energy. Even his most notable voiceover roles — Chance in Homeward Bound and Stuart Little — were always on the go. As Guggenheim notes, those same habits forecasted the internal battles he’d soon face, when his early diagnosis forced him to confront and ultimately embrace an existence of never-ending motion. “It was one of the great ironies of my life,” Fox says in the documentary. “I couldn’t be still until I could no longer keep still.”

Before he had the freedom to run on screen, he learned to crack wise within the limitations of a multi-cam setup. Like his notorious decision to add an unscripted “P” in the middle of his full name, Fox developed Alex Keaton into an economics whiz with superb comedic timing, knowing right when to punctuate a moment for an extra laugh. In a family of pacifists with ex-hippie parents, Alex ostracizes himself with his corporate look and Nixon-loving slogans, but he remains the central figure of the home, instigating and advising his three siblings while fostering his own financial ambitions. In the fifth season’s premiere, Alex wantonly pulls his younger brother, Andy, out of preschool because the group of toddlers is engaged in playing house and other non-traditional, gender-reversed activities, out of line with his Republican values. It’s not long before Alex makes amends, re-enlisting Andy and leading his class with business-minded vocabulary and playtime as a solution. Nearly every Family Ties episode ended with a tidy moral lesson, but Fox, who earned three Emmys during the show’s seven-season run, managed to fix his weekly problems with inventive and reliably upbeat ways. 

When he agreed to take on Back to the Future, the movie that would kickstart his rapid ascent in Hollywood, he began a crash course in adopting multiple identities. As he shuttled between his sitcom duties and the movie’s night shoots, “I experienced confusion as to what set I was on, and basically who I was in the first place,” he says. In some ways, the movies he chose reflected his real-world scenario. In Teen Wolf, he toggled between his human and werewolf form, hustling on the court and hiding from full moons in the same manner as Marty McFly racing against the clock (and manipulating his parents) to prevent a paradox in the time continuum. Fox plays both teenagers with the same self-important confidence as Alex Keaton, only this time taking off the family-friendly gloves for longer stretches of time.

Those movies helped Fox establish a template as a bankable young hotshot caught in the middle of two worlds, making him an ideal fit for 1987’s The Secret of My Success, an underdog corporate tale that functions as a slapstick and sex-riddled comedy. Fox plays Brantley Foster, a Kansas transplant in New York City who gets a job in the mailroom of his uncle’s company. To achieve his C-suite dreams, however, he begins impersonating a fake executive, wooing a female colleague and suggesting a radical operations plan in the process. Under Herbert Ross’s direction, the movie gets too easily sidetracked with silly subplots, but Fox runs out of breath navigating his two characters, traversing the city and avoiding suspicion by abruptly changing between top-floor business attire and basement casual in the elevator. Without participating in the body-swap craze of the late 1980s, this tireless performance was the next best thing.

Perhaps aware of being pigeon-holed into likable, personality-driven roles, Fox pivoted into darker material at the height of his fame, playing a traumatized writer in Bright Lights, Big City and then portraying an ethically challenged soldier in Vietnam in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War. A year after that movie’s 1989 release, he experienced his first tremor, a finger twitch on his left hand that introduced him to Parkinson’s. Over the rest of his movie career, he would return to roles (namely two Back to the Future sequels) that accentuated movement, a means of coping with and hiding a disease he wasn’t yet ready to share with the world. Take Doc Hollywood and For Love or Money, for example, two early-‘90s romantic comedies that see both of Fox’s characters negotiating the hectic, nonstop demands of their professions. Despite their vastly different environments, each remains in perpetual motion, servicing their respective patients and hotel guests in pursuit of their bigger professional goals and romantic partners. In some ways, Fox looks just as comfortable walking a pig through a South Carolina town as he does biking, cabbing, horseback riding and choppering throughout Manhattan. By then, he’d gotten used to breaking a sweat. 

Throughout those first few years of his diagnosis, you can see the deft ways in which Fox attempts to hide the progression of his disease — look at how often his left hand is occupied, dangling inside his pocket or clutching a phone, a paper or mug to disguise the tremors. When he returned to his sitcom sweet spot in the mid-’90s, this time playing New York’s deputy mayor Mike Flaherty in Spin City, managing his sickness became a full-time job. As Guggenheim chronicles in the documentary, Fox had spent the 1980s running towards fame and fortune, and then spent the next decade “running away from something,” the director told IndieWire. As Flaherty, Fox was the smartest and wittiest man in the room, roaming offices, handling crises and mismanaging his personal life without being fazed. Acting had become both transformation and deception, with Fox learning exactly when to time his dopamine medications (which he ate like Smarties, he says) so they’d take effect on set and quiet his errant shakes.

Eventually, the tremors caught up. When he went public with his disease in 1998 and departed Spin City after its fourth season, he began a new chapter, spending more time with family and raising awareness for Parkinson’s. The disease slowed him down, made him present. Over the last two decades, he’s raised around $1.5 billion in research through his Michael J. Fox Foundation, and his various characters, recurring roles and cameos — mostly in legal dramas — over that time have shed more light on the disease by addressing their conditions. In other words, he cracked open his hidden identity, playing himself (or versions of himself) — most notably in The Michael J. Fox Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm — and reminding everyone that he never took himself too seriously. 

As he searches for a cure and better treatment, Fox has found ways to keep moving, even as he’s come to peace with his body shutting down. Throughout Still, Guggenheim shows him in physical therapy pushing through his debilitated motor skills, which have made it harder for him to walk and find his center of gravity. “I’ve always counted on movement, to not only propel me from place to place, but to express myself from place to place, to be who I am,” Fox tells his son. It’s a foundational self-awareness that has fueled his long career. The kind that makes it so when he falls, as he does in the documentary, he’s ready with a self-deprecating zinger, coaxing a laugh before he gets back on his feet and starts moving again. 

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