Michael J. Fox has always been a poster boy. With his youthful good looks and intelligent charm, he rose to fame playing a sassy Republican teenage son of ex-hippie parents in the TV sitcom Family Ties. In the blockbuster Back to the Future film trilogy, he was a time traveler with perfect comedic timing. And in a later sitcom, Spin City, he made us wish all politicians were as personable as his Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty.
In 1998, Fox became a poster boy for another reason: He went public with the news he had Parkinson’s disease, diagnosed 7 years earlier when he was 30. Parkinson’s is marked by:
- Trembling in the hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face
- Stiffness of the body
- Slow movements
- Impaired balance and coordination.
The disease had become unmanageable for the actor, who until then was able to minimize his symptoms thanks to medication, surgery, and good timing. Eventually, the effort became too much.
“I needed every bit of those 7 years to say, ‘I want to be out there,'” Fox says. “But at a certain point I woke up and said, ‘What’s the risk? That people will judge you? People are already judging you about whether you wear red shoes or blue shoes. So I talk funny or shake — why should I restrict myself?'”
“You have to take your time and do what you need to do,” he says. “But when you arrive at a place where you are no longer judging it, where there’s no good or bad or right or wrong and it just is what it is, you accept it.”
Much to his amazement, so did everyone else. While Fox feared becoming a sob story for the tabloids, he was met with huge support. Overnight, the actor beloved for his ability to make people laugh came to represent the face of an incurable illness that gets worse over time.