Michael J. Fox first noticed symptoms of Parkinson’s after an epic night out. Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, the 61-year-old actor’s Apple TV+ documentary, opens in Florida in 1990, the night after Fox was out drinking with Woody Harrelson.
“I woke up with a ferocious hangover… I noticed my pinky, auto-animated. For Christ’s sake, it’s just your freaking finger. But it wasn’t mine. S**t. It was somebody else’s,” Fox says via voiceover. “Had I hit my head? The tape of the previous night’s events was grainy at best. Woody Harrelson was in the bar the night before. Maybe we’d had one of our legendary drunken fights? But I couldn’t recall any such melee.”
“I did recall how my bodyguard had to prop me up against the doorframe as he fumbled the key to my suite. But I didn’t feel any bumps. F**k,” he continues. “In the face of all evidence to the contrary, I was in an acid bath of fear and professional insecurity. The trembling was a message.”
That trembling, which made Fox feel like his finger “was somebody else’s,” came at the height of Fox’s career. Back to the Future had been a hit and Family Ties was going strong.
“The most paranoid fantasy I could think of could not have prepared me for the two words the neurologist bludgeoned me with that day — Parkinson’s disease,” Fox says. “I said, ‘You know who you’re talking to, right? I’m not someone who’s supposed to get this.'”
“He said some more words like, ‘progressive, degenerative, incurable.’ He said, ‘You lose this. You lose this game. You don’t win this,'” he continues. “I remember standing on the street looking for an answer. My world blew up. I should’ve seen it coming, the cosmic price I had to pay for all my success.”
Though he had his wife, Tracy Pollan, by his side, Fox “clung to fantasies of escape” and kept his diagnosis from the world. While filming, Fox masked the tremors in his hand by holding an object. But doing so exacerbated his symptoms. Soon, he turned to drinking to “disassociate, to escape my situation.”
“I was definitely an alcoholic,” Fox admits. The actor got sober, but “as low alcohol had brought me, abstinence would bring me lower” because he “could no longer escape myself.”
While starring on Spin City, Fox could no longer hide his symptoms and publicly revealed his diagnosis for the first time. He worried about doing so, but soon “realized I didn’t have to do anything other than be myself.”
“I was still me people recognized,” he says, “just me plus Parkinson’s.”
Looking back, Fox views his diagnosis as “one of the great ironies of my life.”
“I couldn’t be still until I literally could no longer keep still,” he says, before explaining his symptoms today. “I get frozen, frozen physically and frozen facially. It’s a mask. I have a Parkinsonian mask. I have to really struggle to smile, to show expressions.”
Even so, Fox, who’s raised more than $2 billion for Parkinson’s research since his diagnosis, doesn’t want pity. “If you pity me it’s not going to get to me,” he says. “… I’m a tough son of a b**ch. I’ve been through a lot of stuff.”
His positive attitude notwithstanding, Fox is realistic about his future, telling the cameras, “If I’m here 20 years from now, I’ll either be cured or like a pickle.”
It’s for that reason that Fox decided to tell his story now. “My world is getting smaller,” he explains. “I love my mind and I love the place it takes me. I just don’t want that to get cut short.”