In 1991, Michael J. Fox, then 30, received a diagnosis of an unusually early-onset case of Parkinson's disease. The beloved, bankable star of the NBC sitcom Family Ties and the Back to the Future films kept the neurodegenerative disorder a secret from the public for almost seven years, even while shooting several seasons of the ABC series Spin City. When Fox revealed that he had the condition, his millions of fans did not want him to go away.
He never really has. Despite what every Parkinson's patient and caregiver would recognize as the condition's tics and freeze-ups, as well as the up-and-down cycles of its medication, Fox has taken on recurring roles and made guest appearances on shows like The Good Wife, Scrubs and Boston Legal.
But his primary focus has been his charity, the 13-year-old Michael J. Fox Foundation. No commonplace Hollywood vanity project, the organization has raised more than $350 million for research into Parkinson's diagnosis, symptoms and treatment.
Parkinson's affects nerve cells in the brain controlling muscle movement. Specifically, it kills or inhibits the functioning of neurons that produce the chemical dopamine, which sends signals coordinating how the body moves. Such symptoms as trembling limbs and stiff, slow movements and speech gradually worsen as the disease progresses.
Just last week, Fox's foundation awarded a $1.35 million grant to finance clinical testing of a drug to treat constipation in Parkinson's patients, a fairly common symptom. Later this year, it will launch a 600-patient study to discover how two recently identified genetic mutations affect the condition's progress, a project reflecting new interest in how such biomarkers may lead to new means of not only predicting who will have the disease, but possibly how to cure it.
And now the de facto face of the nation's 1 million-plus Parkinson's patients will seek to change the way Americans view the condition as he returns to prime time in the new NBC sitcom The Michael J. Fox Show perhaps the most-anticipated new show of the fall season.
"I wasn't doing a lot of work," Fox joked during an appearance this spring on The Late Show With David Letterman, "and I just thought, 'As long as I play a guy who has Parkinson's, I can do anything.'"
Fox plays a familiar character: a star, in this case popular New York City TV newsman Mike Henry, who comes out of retirement and goes back on air despite having Parkinson's. In the premiere, we learn that Fox's character has been driving his wife and three children crazy since he began staying home full time. In a bid to boost his former station's ratings and save his family's collective sanity, his old boss colludes with his wife to persuade him to go back to work.
The funniest bit involves his protests over the station's plan to promote his return through schmaltzy promos showing him in slow motion backed by inspiring music. Other gags rely heavily on the Parkinson's symptoms Fox exhibits, such as when he accidentally dials 911 while trying to place a call to his wife because his meds have not kicked in or when he says that a bumpy van ride feels perfectly smooth to him.
It's a somewhat fine line. As Britain's The Independent put it in its review, The Michael J. Fox Show "wants to have its cake and eat it, to both laugh at Fox's experience – and to lionize it."
Fox recognizes the challenge, but believes that Americans can handle seeing a wider range of characters on TV, and that laughing about disability can be done well, especially if patients are in on the joke. "A lot of times when you have a disability, the one thing you deal with is rejection of your experience or fear other people have about it," Fox has said. "But there's nothing horrifying about it. There is no gothic nastiness. The reality of Parkinson's is that sometimes it's frustrating and sometimes it's funny. I need to look at it that way and other people need to look at it that way.
"We're not making fun of Parkinson's," he has said of the new show. "We're examining a life that has Parkinson's and just how one guy deals with it."
It remains to be seen whether America will be eager to watch a former child star manage Parkinson's every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. (The series premieres on Thursday, Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. but will eventually move to 9:30.)
Fox has said the show will draw on real situations from his own family life. But the network was confident enough in the premise to order a full season before the pilot was even filmed, a highly unusual decision.
Early reviews are mixed but generally positive. Variety calls it "a pretty thin concoction, built heavily around the appeal of its leading man," while New York magazine says it has "chilled-out confidence" and "multivalent comic richness," anchored by "Fox’s still formidable comic chops."
"The fact that he does, in fact, have Parkinson's gives him license to demystify the condition, even treat it as a source of shtick," New York reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz wrote. "He's not just using it, he's owning it."
Fox supported that idea in a new Rolling Stone cover interview in which he claimed his condition actually makes him a more confident actor. "I had a certain fluidity to my movements and rhythm of speech and a physicality that I had depended on," he said. "It served me really well, but when that was taken away, I found that there was other stuff that I could use. That hesitation, that Parkinsonian affect, is an opportunity to just pause in a moment and collect as a character and respond to what's happening and just gave me this kind of gravitas. It really gave me a new view of things."
Fox also hopes that his return to a higher public profile will boost awareness, financing and the march to a cure. Researchers lament stalled progress on new approaches for managing symptoms – most patients continue to rely on levodopa, which was a breakthrough 35 years ago. To be sure, the drug has improved. Patients on levodopa no longer career as much between "on" and "off" periods but the drug's ability to manage symptoms consistently still begins to waver as the disease advances.
It happens that Fox's return to the small screen comes at a time when other celebrities have disclosed that they are living with Parkinson's as well. Linda Ronstadt, 67, the Grammy-winning pop, rock, folk and standards singer, recently revealed that she had the disorder and could no longer sing. She last performed in 2009 and, as she told AARP magazine, she was baffled about the source of her troubles until she received her diagnosis several months ago, likely seven or eight years after her symptoms began. Across the Atlantic, perennially popular Scottish actor and comic Billy Connolly, 70, recently revealed that he, too, was living with Parkinson's, putting a new spotlight on the disease in his country.
"It's part of the human experience," Fox says. "You can't cower from it, you can't hide from it. You have to accept it, incorporate it into your life. If you have a loving, full life, it'll just be part of it, just one of the colors of the palette."