When Michael J. Fox was approached by an Academy Award-winning producer to make a movie of his slow, smothering embrace by Parkinson’s disease, the retired movie and TV star demanded only one condition.
That there be “no conditions,” said Fox.
Producer Davis Guggenheim, who already had an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth was willing to give Fox a producer’s sign-off to get at the core of the story of a brilliant career decimated by a chronic disease. But Fox didn’t want it.
“He said, ‘Well, here’s the way I work, you get three objections to three major plot points,’ and I said, ‘No, that’s not my pressure, that’s your pressure! I’ll show up and you roll cameras!’ “
The result, a documentary called STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie, was released on Apple TV+ earlier this month after having its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs. Fox sat down for an interview with CBC’s Harry Forestell to reflect on making the film and sharing his journey with Parkinson’s disease in such a public way.
- Watch the full sit-down interview with actor Michael J. Fox during CBC’s The National on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.
“Nothing I did in this movie, nothing I do in my life, is for effect. I’m too old, I’m too tired, I can’t do it,” Fox said. “But if it’s real then it’s the easiest thing to do.”
The comic actor, who first rose to fame on the sitcom Family Ties, then broke out into superstardom as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies, has been battling Parkinson’s for more than 30 years.
Keeping his diagnosis secret
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that affects the nervous system. According to Parkinson Canada, more than 100,000 Canadians live with the disease.
Parkinson’s is a progressive condition and there are no known cures, although various treatment options can help to alleviate symptoms.
Forestell, who also has Parkinson’s, noted that the film touched on a tendency of younger Parkinson’s patients to hide their condition for as long as possible, and Fox explained why he kept his 1991 diagnosis a secret for seven years.
“I needed to learn a lot of stuff, and if I just threw myself out to the masses before I knew what the hell I was talking about, they were going to form that narrative for me,” he said.
“They were going to tell my story for me before I knew what my story was.”
Fox says he initially used drinking as a coping mechanism while hiding his diagnosis.
“When I got diagnosed it turned nasty. It wasn’t about fun anymore, it was about exiting from the situation,” he said.
Only after getting sober, a process he said was “like having a knife fight in a dark closet,” was Fox able to see a bigger picture.
“Over the course of that seven years I got sober, we had more children, I grew fuller in my understanding of what it was that I was dealing with.”
Acceptance and learning to lose well
He says acceptance has been a big part of his journey.
“The doctor said to me ‘You don’t win this, you lose,’ ” Fox said.
“I like to win, I don’t like to waste my time with stuff, I like to go after it, and so that was the dilemma I faced. If I really learned from this, it was to learn how to lose well.”
WATCH | The trailer for STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie:
In 2000, he launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which has raised more than $1.5 billion and contributed to advancements in Parkinson’s research and placed an emphasis on incorporating the experiences of Parkinson’s patients when it comes to steering research efforts.
“At the beginning when we first started [the foundation], people would say, ‘Well, what are we doing?’ And I’d say ‘Purity of motive, purity of motive,’ ” Fox said.
“I don’t want to be politically motivated, I don’t want to be connected, I don’t want to be connected with money, I don’t want any of that crap! I want to sit down and figure out how to solve this problem.”
Still was produced and directed by Guggenheim, whose 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth won the Academy Award for best documentary.
Support from fans, family
Fox says he’s been struck by the reception Still has received.
“It’s just flooring me how people are responding to it, and loving it,” he said.
Fox, who has four children with his wife, Tracy Pollan, noted that his family is also supportive of the film.
“They love it — and not so much love it, that’s the wrong way to put it. Another big word in our house, besides joy, is acceptance,” Fox said.
“And so we learn to accept things, so if that’s what I wanted to do, and they understood why it was important for me to do it, they accept it.”
Fox believes sharing his Parkinson’s diagnosis publicly has helped create a wider awareness around the disease and its symptoms. He hopes that has resulted in people having more empathy for those living with the disease.
“I’m just living beat by beat,” Fox said. “And the easier I can make it for those around me, the better.”