May 10, 2011

Michael J. Fox on Parkinson's Disease

Michael J. Fox is a much-loved actor most famous for his endearing roles in the Back To The Future trilogy, Teen Wolf, and the Vietnam-inspired Casualties of War. In 2005, he appeared on James Lipton's Inside The Actor's Studio to talk about his life and career. The last twenty minutes or so of the interview dealt with Fox talking about his diagnosis with Parkinson's Disease as well as his charity work and coping strategies.

I transcribed the relevant parts when it was broadcast on Sky Atlantic recently.
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(The discussion develops from Michael's reminisces of his portrayal of hapless Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty in the acclaimed sitcom Spin City)

James Lipton: Your final one-hour episode received the highest ratings in the show's history. What did you want to achieve in that final episode?

Michael J. Fox: There was a lot of personal stuff going on because I was leaving for health reasons and everybody knew that. And we were kind of dealing with this thing where people know your situation and you want to preserve the purity of the character, and the integrity of what we were trying to do in terms of presenting a fiction. You have to, on some level, find something very similar to it, and we did that in that [the character's] departure was not necessarily voluntary. And in playing that, it was the closest as I've ever been to line between my life and my work. That was the challenge that week and we were all really feeling the pressure. It was one of those things where we were rewriting it every day, trying not to make it too maudlin or over-emotional, but it was so affecting to all of us that it was a tough week.

JL: When did you discover that you had an illness?

MJF: I first felt the symptoms in 1990, but in 1991 I was diagnosed.

JL: As?

MJF: Parkinson's.

JL: And how did you deal with it during the show?

MJF: Well, the first couple of years was just trying not to let anyone know.

JL: How did you tell them?

MJF: It just got to a point where I couldn't hide it any more. I was afraid of the people I was working with, so I decided the time had come.

JL: Told the cast?

MJF: Yeah. (hand trembles as he sips water) As a matter of fact, can I take two minutes?

JL: Do.

MJF: (turns to audience) Because I couldn't do this, what I'm doing now. I need to take two minutes to wait for a pill to kick in.

(MJF walks offstage to take medication, returns few minutes later to applause)

MJF: (to JL and audience) That was basically what was happening during the show. When I was waiting for a pill to kick in, I was waiting to feel better and I knew there was a [full] house out there and I couldn't go out. And I couldn't say 'this is why I can't come out'. I thought, can I be funny if people know I'm sick? Is it OK to laugh at a sick person? So now, just to be able to say 'just give me five minutes' and then come back here and say 'I love it when the drugs kick in'. (audience laughter) So, you know? That's what I needed to do.

(The interview progresses to discussion about Fox's autobiography, Lucky Man)

JL: Where did the book's profits go?

MJF: Any profits I made went to the [Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research].

JL: And what does the Foundation do?

MJF: We're an aggressively entrepreneurial group that are trying to find a cure for Parkinson's.

JL: And how are they doing?

MJF: We're doing pretty good. We clearly haven't finished yet (audience laughter) but it's going really well. There's an amazing group of people that are working on it and amazing support from the public. We've been able to, in the last four years, put $50million towards research. (Audience applaud) Thank you.

JL: (to audience) Michael has said that the biggest thing is that I can be in this situation and love life as much as I do.

MJF: Well, it's funny, it's really not that bad. It's kind of like, as I was saying to my son the other day, it's a disease that makes you uncomfortable. So, all things considered, that's not too bad. I've described it as a gift, and people say to me 'how can you say it's a gift?' I say out loud it's a gift that keeps on taking. (Audience laughter) But it's still a gift that makes one alive. Again, to see what I've lost makes me look at what I've gained and what I have. So it's a tremendous opportunity and for that, I'm really lucky that I'm in this situation where I can help, because people have a relationship with me and feel they know me because of my work. But that goes to the fact that I've been able to do the work and have those relationships in the first place. And if that doesn't make me lucky, I don't know what does.

(Later in the interview, Fox fields questions from the audience members. One question asked further about his Parkinson's Disease.)

Audience Member: Hi, my name is Megan. I'm a first-year actor, and I just ..(cries).. I just wanted to say you're a great inspiration to me. About the same time when you came out and told everyone, I was diagnosed with dystonia which is neurological, covers like half your body. And it was wonderful to see that there could be people out there in the industry who were doing what they loved to do, even if they might be affected by it. So I just wanted to say thank you so much because, having the opportunity to meet you, it means a lot.

Michael J. Fox: Thank you.

Audience Member: (continues) And I also wanted to ask how ... (giggles)... because you're Michael J. Fox and I'm just Megan from Arizona who doesn't know anything or know anyone, how realistic is it for you to come out and tell everybody about what you have and about your disability, and be so open about it?

Michael J. Fox: Well, in a lot of ways my disease made me, once again, Mike Fox from Burnaby. It's a great leveller in a way. One of the things I had difficulty with was when I tried to put people at ease about how I felt and how I was OK with it, and that it was my reality and I accepted it, is that I didn't want to say it's a piece of cake or water off a duck's back. In a way that's a slight to people who really struggle with it and don't have the advantages I have, and have to worry about losing their insurance and their jobs, and have to worry about other people's perceptions. Shortly after I made my situation public, someone said "Oh yeah, that's what Michael J. Fox has", and they felt it made them easier to carry on in this world. That's a tremendous privilege and gift to me to be in that situation. It's purely not my design, it's the way it's worked out. 

I think in anything, we're talking about acting, but in life too it really is ... just be honest and do the next right thing, and you'll know what the next right thing is for you. Dystonia is really a challenge. I sometimes get facial dystonia which is awful. It's like, imagine eating a lemon and the face you make, it's stuck like that for half and hour, 45 minutes, and it's quite painful. You just have to go to another place in your head and wait it out until it's done. And it's all about accepting and surrender and saying this is something - not to get too 12-Step - but it's what's in my power, what's in my control. Do I have to throw in the towel and have a tantrum about it? Or kill myself? Or what? None of these are acceptable to me. The only one that's acceptable is to go on and see what happens. And what I find cool is that there is great stuff out there, when you walk through this stuff, when you walk through this fear, when you walk through what people are gonna think about it, or what's gonna happen. Well, something's going to happen and we don't know what is, but chances are at least 50/50 that it'll be pretty good. So I'm willing to take that risk.

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