The trick that television plays on viewers hit me one day in the ’90s after wrapping up an interview with “Family Ties” star Michael J. Fox.
He was touring in support of his aging-well romantic comedy “Doc Hollywood,” and was at the end of his day of meeting various members of the Southeastern entertainment press As I was walking out, I turned on my heels with the thought “Wonder if he’d want to grab a drink?”
That has never happened before or since, something you can put down to Fox’s disarmingly open screen persona, and the fact that people of his generation watched the Canadian grow up on TV. We feel we “know” him.
That affability served him during a long acting career, and gilded his private image as well. I ran into him later as he watched his wife, Tracy Pollan, co-star in an out-of-town tryout of Neil Simon’s play “Jake’s Women” (with Alan Alda), still absurdly approachable in the lobby of Winston-Salem, N.C.’s Stevens Center.
His public disclosure that he’d been diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s hit his fans hard, stifled his career and as he discloses in his latest memoir, “No Time Like the Future,” has finally led to a second and this time “permanent” retirement.
The author of “Lucky Man” and “Always Looking Up” is still “looking up” in his latest, even as his world shrinks around him a little more each day.
He writes of ending his first “retirement” when his old friend Bill Lawrence custom wrote him into “Scrubs,” leading to Emmy winning and Emmy nominated appearances in “Boston Legal,” “The Good Wife” and the like. His hilarious turn on Larry David’s “nothing is sacred” series “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is recalled with self-mocking glee.
He speaks of the difficulties in reinventing himself — a broadly physical and facially/vocally expressive actor — into something else. He writes lightly and emotionally about his family, his health struggles and the “uncles” like Bill Murray and others who dragged him onto the golf course, a sport he took up long after his Parkinson’s diagnosis.
Fox doesn’t apologize for his privilege, the profile that let him not only start a very successful foundation aimed at studying the illness that hit him but didn’t stop him, but gave him legions of famous friends, posh vacations among the elite, a safari to Africa and a documentary about his visit to the “gross national happiness” paradise, the mountain kingdom of Bhutan.
The real value in these memoirs is in his simple, uncluttered eloquence in describing the progression of his disease, the pratfalls he takes and grueling therapy he is subjected to just to keep going. I can’t imagine anyone, freshly-diagnosed or well into the Coping with Parkinson’s Wars, not taking some inspiration or at least solace in his story, identifying with the difficulties anyone — rich and famous or humble and alone — faces, first among them, the idea that your mortality is staring you in the face every minute of every day.
He’s still available to his public, still raising money by maintaining a profile, so don’t hesitate to say hi. But as he’s related many times over the years, and in all his books, he’s long on the wagon. There’s no point in trying to buy him a drink.
NO TIME LIKE THE FUTURE: An Optimist Considers Mortality. By Michael J. Fox. Thorndike Press. 363 pages.