Michael J. Fox made his Parkinson’s diagnosis public in 1998, and ever since he’s been open about both the good days and the bad.
Thanks to his role as Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movie trilogy, Michael J. Fox will always have a place in cinematic history. But despite fame and success, the star has endured some serious hardship. Famously, Fox has Parkinson’s disease, and he’s grown to become a leading voice in the fight against the debilitating condition. But now, the Emmy winner has opened up about some dark and upsetting times.
Fox was handed the diagnosis of Parkinson’s all the way back in 1992, when he was just 31 years old. And since then, he’s become a zealous campaigner for both awareness of and a cure for the disorder. In 2000 he even established the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and today the organization acts as the largest charitable source of funding for scientific investigation into the condition.
And over the years, Fox has received acclaim for his work in this field; in 2007 Time even honored him as being one of 100 people “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.” But Parkinson’s is still hard to live with – and Fox has revealed just how he has managed to keep going when life seems all too bleak.
Even despite his diagnosis, of course, Fox has had a very successful screen career, with his star turns in Family Ties, Teen Wolf and the Back to the Future movies making him a teen idol and heartthrob. He has also proved his versatility as an actor in The Secret of My Success and Casualties of War.
And Fox has been pretty fortunate when it comes to romance, too. On the set of Family Ties, he ran into Tracy Pollan, who played his girlfriend on the show. As fate would have it, he encountered her again on the movie Bright Lights, Big City. Then, barely half a year after Fox and Pollan became an item, the Back to the Future star proposed. The couple subsequently wed in 1988, and they’re still together to this day.
But Fox would be dealt a blow in 1992 when he was told that he had Parkinson’s. “When I was first diagnosed, my line to Tracy was ‘It’s going to be okay’ – but I was really freaking out,” Fox told Oprah Winfrey in 2002. “I had no idea what Parkinson’s was, and I was in denial.”
After that, Fox went into a downward spiral and began drinking heavily. And while he finally found the fortitude to get sober, it only came after a wake-up call. In August 2018 Fox told People about the moment that he decided to quit booze. According to the star, Pollan had found him slumped on the couch with beer slopped everywhere and the couple’s young son in the room. She had then asked her husband, “Is this what you want? This is what you want to be?”
So, Fox stopped drinking, sought help and decided that he would tell the world about his diagnosis. And in 1998, he revealed all to People and released a statement on the matter. “It is important to Mr. Fox to convey that he lives a normal, thriving and happy life, and since his diagnosis seven years ago he has been active as an executive producer and star of a very successful television series,” the message read.
The show in question was Spin City, and Fox was concerned that audiences may not enjoy the sitcom if they knew of its star’s health condition. “The reason I wasn’t telling [anyone about my diagnosis] was that I wondered if people would still laugh if they knew I was sick,” Fox later explained to Oprah. “Can you laugh at a sick person and not feel like an a**hole? I finally thought, ‘Let me not worry about that.’”
Then, the year after Fox announced his diagnosis, he went before three United States Senate subcommittees to argue in favor of extra cash for Parkinson’s research. “What celebrity has given me is the opportunity to raise the visibility of Parkinson’s disease and focus more attention on the desperate need for more research dollars,” he told the public officials.
And Fox chose not to take any medication for his condition before that hearing, as he wanted people to see clearly the effect that Parkinson’s could have. “It seemed to me that this occasion demanded that my testimony about the effects of the disease – and the urgency we as a community were feeling – be seen as well as heard,” he wrote in his 2002 book Lucky Man.
In fact, Fox quit Spin City in 2000 so that he could concentrate on his campaigning work and foundation. “[The foundation] only had one goal, which was to take this declaration that I heard from a few scientists – that a cure was possible within a decade – and make that our mantra,” he told The New York Times in 2002.
Meanwhile, in a 2006 interview with CBS, Fox explained some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s and the side effects of the treatment. “On any given day, I have a thousand different things I can feel. I go through a million cycles. For example, right now this is a dearth of medication – not by design. I just take it, and [it] kicks in when it kicks in,” he said. “Sometimes it kicks in too hard, and then you get what you call dyskinesia, which is that rocking motion.”
And in the same interview, Fox talked about how his life had been affected by the disease. “It’s not pretty when it gets bad,” he said of his condition. “I’ve learned to throw vanity out the window. I’ve had enough years of people thinking I was pretty and teenage girls hanging my picture on walls. I’m over that now.”
It seems, too, that Fox’s foundation has made real headway in the battle against Parkinson’s. In 2011 the star revealed to Good Housekeeping, “Sometimes, with the foundation, I look around, and it’s an out-of-body experience. It’s amazing to think, ‘Look what we’ve wrought.’ And I’ve been really lucky with people.”
What’s more, although Fox may no longer be a big-hitter in Hollywood, he still has a thriving screen career. Most notably, he portrayed lawyer Louis Canning in The Good Wife from 2010 to 2016. “Careerwise, it was great to work again on The Good Wife,” Fox told CBS. “It’s nice with work to still have a sense of, ‘What do I bring to this? What tools do I have?’ Not concentrating on what tools I don’t have.”
Fox has even seen the funny side of his condition. “You sure you want the truth? The truth is that on most days, there comes a point where I literally can’t stop laughing at my own symptoms,” the actor said in a 2017 interview with AARP, demonstrating how his arm shook when he raised it.
And in the star’s opinion, Parkinson’s had given him “two things to reckon with.” “You deal with the condition, and you deal with people’s perception of the condition,” Fox added. “It was easy for me to tune into the way other people were looking into my eyes and seeing their own fear reflected back.” But, he went on, “After a while, the disconnect between the way I felt and the dread people were projecting just seemed, you know, funny.”
All in all, then, Fox seemed to be doing pretty well. However, in 2018 he suddenly experienced a frightening setback. “I was having this recurring problem with my spinal cord. I was told it was benign, but if it stayed static I would have diminished feeling in my legs and difficulty moving,” Fox told The New York Times a few months after the fact.
And, worryingly, the problem only seemed to get worse as time went on. “Then all of a sudden I started falling – a lot. It was getting ridiculous. I was trying to parse what was the Parkinson’s and what was the spinal thing,” Fox said. “But it came to the point where it was probably necessary to have surgery. So I had surgery [as well as] an intense amount of physical therapy after.”
Then, after this period of convalescence, Fox was supposed to go back to work. Unfortunately, though, fate had other plans. “I woke up, walked into the kitchen to get breakfast, mis-stepped, and I went down,” Fox told the The New York Times. The actor broke his arm badly as a consequence, leading to him requiring “19 pins and a plate.”
And when the New York Times interviewer asked Fox how he had coped with the situation, the actor responded, “I try not to get too New Age-y. I don’t talk about things being ‘for a reason.’ But I do think the more unexpected something is, the more there is to learn from it.”
Fox pondered, “In my case, what was it that made me skip down the hallway to the kitchen thinking I was fine when I’d been in a wheelchair six months earlier? It’s because I had certain optimistic expectations of myself. And I’d had results to bear out those expectations, but I’d had failures too.”
Fox concluded, then, that he “hadn’t given the failures equal weight.” And it later transpired that the accident had taken a pretty big toll on him. In April 2019 Fox spoke at the Tribeca Film Festival about his struggle after his injuries. On stage with his friend and fellow actor Denis Leary, he gave fans an insight into how he dealt with adversity.
At the BMCC Performing Arts Center, Fox opened up to reveal, “After my spinal surgery, I had to learn [to] walk again. I remember walking, and I was really cocky. And [then] I fell and I shattered my humerus, and a broken humerus is no f**king joke.”
Naturally, then, dealing with yet another injury proved rough for Fox – especially as he had always believed in the power of positive thinking. Indeed, in 2009 he had published the book Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist. “I’m known as a guy who makes lemonade out of lemons, but I was out of the lemonade business. I can’t do this any more, I can’t,” Fox told Leary.
Happily, though, Fox was eventually able to recover his mental equilibrium. “But then I realized that I have to take every step one at a time now, and that slows life down. You have more time that way,” the actor continued. “Every step is a new adventure. I could fall down, not fall down, I could go off this way, go backwards – who knows?”
“I don’t want to be selling people the optimism thing because people have tough times, man,” Fox added. He told the audience, “People with depression have real depression, and things happen to them that I can’t even comprehend, making my stuff seem like Band-Aids and skinned knees. So, I don’t want to be deceptive [by] saying, ‘Cheer up.’”
Fox continued, “Some stuff sucks. But it’s a matter of then just taking that and saying, ‘Well, in my overall experience, where does that fit in? If I have Parkinson’s, is that an amorphous blob that could take over my life, or something that I could understand and accept and look at and be willing to deal with?’”
Yet even though Fox claimed that his sunny outlook on life hadn’t been of assistance this time around, Leary suggested otherwise. “Even just within that statement, your f**king optimism,” he said. He went on, “That’s a big f**king injury… and then within weeks, you know, you’re on course to recover from that. So it’s not bulls**t, your optimism.”
Leary also expressed his admiration for Fox’s fundraising events. “There’s no censoring of the comedians. You talk about whatever you want, and you raise all this money for Parkinson’s. Essentially it’s a giant f**king comedy show, which reflects your optimism,” he said.
Fox’s fundraising parties have indeed raised a lot of money towards Parkinson’s research, as has the foundation in general. The annual A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cure Parkinson’s galas have garnered approximately $80 million in total as of 2018, while Fox’s organization has drummed up over $650 million towards finding a cure.
And while Fox has also talked about how his new injury has affected his family life, he did so with humor. “I’m now moving slower because I’m still recovering from this thing,” the actor claimed during his Tribeca Film Festival event – although his lack of mobility did give him an amusing anecdote to tell the audience.
Fox said, “I’ll hear my daughters, Tracy, any combination of people in the hallway having a conversation and I’ll be like, ‘What are you talking about? I might have something to say about this. Well, I’ll kind of hobble out to the hallway and turn… and then they’ve dispersed.’”
And when Fox raised his concerns with his daughter, she told him that he had something called FOMO. “I said, ‘What’s FOMO?’ She said, ‘Fear Of Missing Out’… I hate the internet even more because there’s language I don’t speak,” the star added, to laughter from the audience. “FOMO. That’s my parenting style.”
Then, towards the end of the interview, Fox talked about the exciting new work that his foundation was doing. “We’re really zoning in on finding out why [Parkinson’s] happens,” he said. According to the actor, the organization was working towards sorting Parkinson’s sufferers into groups based on their genetics in the hopes of finding a breakthrough.
And this categorizing system is something that Fox has spoken about before. “I’m also fascinated by the idea of biomarkers, genes that might predispose [someone] to [Parkinson’s],” Fox told The New York Times in 2002 when asked what areas of research he was most interested in. “A pet project I would love to do is get an accurate census, which I don’t think exists.”
At Tribeca, Fox talked, too, about the need for quick intervention when it came to Parkinson’s. “By the time I had symptoms in my hand, 70 percent of dopamine-producing cells in my brain were already gone,” he said. “If we can go in there at the beginning before any of those cells die… we can stop it from happening.”
Leary then told Fox that he found the foundation’s work “amazing” – an assertion with which it’s arguably hard to disagree. And during the Q&A session at the end of the talk, Fox revealed that he was working on another book as well. In typically optimistic fashion, he quipped that its working title was currently Why We Don’t Suck.
Then, when the conversation turned to the race for a Parkinson’s cure, Fox said, “After I’m gone, if I had something to do with it, that will be great.” But even though the star is busy both with his acting career and campaigning for Parkinson’s breakthroughs, he has taken time out to relax and enjoy life as well. In July 2019, for example, Pollan uploaded a snap to Instagram that shows her and her husband chilling out on a boat together – and no one can say he doesn’t deserve some time off.
But Fox isn’t the only influential person who’s been brave enough to talk publicly about a diagnosis. Take actor Alan Alda, for instance. Perhaps best known for his role as “Hawkeye” Pierce in M*A*S*H, the star has used his platform to speak out about how his life-changing illness has affected him.
Alda has been acting for six long decades. And while he may be a familiar face to most of us, there’s nonetheless something that his many fans didn’t know about him. It appears, in fact, that the M*A*S*H star has been hiding a life-changing diagnosis. After more than three years of living with his illness, though, Alda has now spoken out about how he’s coped.
Quite simply, Alda is arguably one of America’s most beloved actors. And the award-winning TV star is perhaps most famous for his portrayal of “Hawkeye” Pierce – the much-loved army captain from the war comedy-drama M*A*S*H.
But Alda has achieved many great things over the course of his 60-year career. Aside from M*A*S*H, he has starred in shows such as The West Wing and ER as well as having hosted Scientific American Frontiers. And that’s not even to mention his considerable success on the big screen.
Some of Alda’s most notable film roles include that of George Peters in 1978’s Same Time, Next Year and Lester in Woody Allen’s 1989 movie Crimes and Misdemeanors. In 1981 he even turned his hand to directing by helming romcom The Four Seasons, in which he also acted.
And the New Jersey resident’s work has earned him some substantial accolades. Alda has six Emmys to his name, for instance, as well as a further six Golden Globes – nearly all of which are for his work in M*A*S*H. In 2004 the actor also received an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Aviator.
But Alda has a life outside of the screen, too. He’s been married to his wife, Arlene, since 1957, and together they’ve raised three daughters: Beatrice, Elizabeth and Eve. Alda and Arlene also have eight grandchildren – two of whom are reportedly eager to follow their grandfather into the acting profession.
And by mid-2018 the accomplished actor, director and dedicated family man had showed no sign of slowing down. It was then, after all, that the 82-year-old launched his Clear+Vivid podcast, which explores human interaction and communication.
In order to promote his new venture, Alda then gave a number of interviews to the press. And it was during one particular TV chat – on this occasion with CBS This Morning in July 2018 – that the actor revealed that he had been diagnosed with a life-changing disease more than three years prior.
The disease in question was Parkinson’s, a progressive disorder that affects the central nervous system. Among its many possible symptoms are involuntary tremors and stiff muscles. And, unfortunately, there’s currently no known cure for the condition.
In particular, Alda had decided to speak out about his diagnosis after noticing a tremor while watching his television interviews back. And as a result, he thought he’d take ownership of his journey and perhaps provide some hope to other Parkinson’s sufferers.
Speaking to CBS This Morning, Alda explained, “I could see my thumb twitch in some shots [on TV], and I thought, ‘It’s probably only a matter of time before somebody does a story about this from a sad point of view.’ But that’s not where I am.”
Instead, Alda said that he has lived “a full life” following his diagnosis. Revealing some of his achievements from the past three years, he added, “I’ve acted, I’ve given talks, I help at the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook [University]. [And] I started this new podcast.”
The M*A*S*H star also revealed that he had first sought a diagnosis after learning that physically performing out your dreams may be an early symptom of Parkinson’s. “I was having a dream that someone was attacking me, and I threw a sack of potatoes at them. But what I was really doing was throwing a pillow at my wife,” he explained.
Regardless of his condition, though, the actor seemingly wanted to promote an attitude of positivity. “In the very beginning [after diagnosis], [you can] be immobilized by fear and think the worst thing has happened to you,” he admitted. “[But] it hasn’t happened to you.” And Alda himself has learned how to live with his illness.
Revealing how he’s grabbed life with both hands, Alda said, “You still have things you can do. I’m taking boxing lessons three times a week. I do singles tennis a couple of times a week. I [also] march to Sousa music because marching to music is good for Parkinson’s.”
And instead of being angry about his prognosis, Alda sees the illness as a kind of “challenge.” He added, “You’ve got to cross the street, [and] there are cars coming. How do you get across the street? You don’t just sit on the pavement and say, ‘Well, I guess I’ll never cross the street again.’ You find a way to do it.”
During his CBS This Morning interview, Alda was eager to stress that no two experiences of Parkinson’s are exactly the same. “There are some common symptoms, but mostly everybody’s different, and each day is different from the next. One day you wake up, you think, ‘Oh, it’s over, it’s gone.’ Next day it’s back a little worse,” he explained.
And while Alda hoped that speaking out would help others – much like Fox – his actions weren’t entirely altruistic. By being open about his diagnosis, the actor admitted, he could therefore live without agonizing over whether someone would spot his symptoms and out him.
Then, concluding his interview with CBS This Morning, Alda said, “I’m not going to worry [about Parkinson’s.]” He added, “It’s three and a half years since I had the diagnosis, and it hasn’t stopped my life at all. I’ve had a richer life than I’ve had up until now.”