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Michael J. Fox tells story of his career and living with Parkinson's in new documentary
Amna Nawaz: And incurable optimist confronts an incurable disease. That is the focus of a film about actor Michael J. Fox called "Still" out now on Apple TV+.
I sat down with FOX to discuss the documentary and his life's work for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Michael J. Fox, Actor: Are you telling me you built a time machine out of a DeLorean?
Amna Nawaz: In 1985, Michael J. Fox skyrocketed to stardom with a breakthrough big-screen role as Marty McFly in the year's number one film, "Back to the Future."
Fox's face was on every teen magazine cover. By 24, he was Hollywood's golden boy, a world away from his humble roots in Canada.
Michael J. Fox: I was still pretty fresh off being an 11th grade dropout. Literally, in three years, I go from being the kid stuffed in lockers to having a conversation with Steven Spielberg about doing his next movie. Doesn't happen.
Amna Nawaz: I spoke to Fox about his full-throttle career, his family and 34-year marriage to Tracy Pollan, and his three decades living with Parkinson's, a story he tells in his own words in the new documentary "Still."
Michael J. Fox: What I like about it is, it's not morose. It's not a pity party. It's not -- it's acerbic and funny and grateful for hard-earned wisdom.
Amna Nawaz: Fox first won over audiences with his charisma and comedic timing, stealing the spotlight as Alex P. Keaton on the TV show "Family Ties."
Michael J. Fox: You ever hear of Mighty Mouse, Jen?
Amna Nawaz: You have always had this superpower of being able to make people laugh. You see it throughout the whole film.
Michael J. Fox: And I can turn cheese into gold.
Amna Nawaz: That's your other superpower. We will talk about that later.
You can do it any time still. What is that like for you to have that kind of power?
Michael J. Fox: My powers are diminishing.
Michael J. Fox: But I just always -- everything -- everything I confront and confronts me, I always say, what's funny about this? Like, what's something funny about it?
As horrible as it is, time plus tragedy equals comedy. That's why it works. My kids are funny, which is really good. And Tracy is funny. And her humor is very deceptive, because she seems so serious, and she's so beautiful, and she's so smart that you don't get that she's really taking the piss out of you.
Amna Nawaz: You're asked in the movie to describe your wife.
QUESTION: Describes this human being to me.
Amna Nawaz: You actually close your eyes and sit in silence for a little bit before you speak.
Michael J. Fox: Clarity.
Amna Nawaz: And there was just such love in that moment. And lots of marriages work for lots of different reasons.
But I wanted to ask you, what makes your marriage work?
Michael J. Fox: There's that old joke, you can always say, we have been married 35 years, and 25 were the best years of our lives.
Michael J. Fox: It almost doesn't matter why we didn't get as much as we didn't get out.
Tracy Pollan, Wife of Michael J. Fox: Can't wait to see you. Love you.
Michael J. Fox: That's it.
Michael J. Fox: I'm just so grateful. Grateful is a funny word to use, because grateful infers inequality. And there's no inequality.
I'm not so much grateful to her as I'm grateful to the powers that be that we continue to have the answers to each other's questions.
Amna Nawaz: Among those questions, what the future would hold after Fox's 1991 diagnosis with Parkinson's disease. He was just 29 years old. He went public seven years later and became a champion for the 8.5 million people worldwide battling the disease.
Michael J. Fox: While the changes in my life were profound and progressive...
Amna Nawaz: Testifying before Congress in 1999 about the need for research funding.
Michael J. Fox: I heard from thousands of Americans affected by Parkinson's, writing and calling to offer encouragement and to tell me of their experience. They spoke of pain, frustration, fear, and hope.
Amna Nawaz: Fox continued to act, winning awards as the lead in the TV show "Spin City" and gaining ground in the fight against Parkinson's, alongside Tracy and their four kids, running the Michael J. Fox Foundation for more than 20 years.
Back in 2002, you said that you hoped there would be a cure in 10 years. You have raised over $1.5 billion for research. Do you still think we're a few years away from a cure, five, 10?
Michael J. Fox: Not a cure. We found a biomarker, which is consistent, which tells us if someone is going to have Parkinson's. And having been armed with that knowledge, we can then encourage drug companies and scientists to pursue their patents, which we're really enthusiastic about doing. And we can then hopefully have a prophylactic drug.
Amna Nawaz: In his advocacy, as with his acting career, Fox is seemingly tireless.
I noticed one thing over and over again people say to you a lot in the movie: Oh, slow down, slow down.
What is it like for you to hear that right now?
Michael J. Fox: I take it with a grain of salt. People don't -- even people who love me more than anyone in the world and the people that are there for me all the time don't have this. They don't know what it's like.
And I don't want to undervalue that. There's a scene in the movie where I talk to my son, and I say, why are you so mad at me? And he tries to explain it to me.
I feel like a 90-year-old, like, dad, or -- because I don't feel like 90 years old. But you sometimes get mad at me. Like, you guys all say, be careful, be careful, be careful. I say, I am being careful. Do I set out to not be careful?
Sam Michael Fox, Son of Michael J. Fox: Nobody thinks your agenda isn't to be careful. It's that that maybe isn't -- it's lower on the list of things than it is for us.
Sam Michael Fox: So, I just have to make sure. And I'd rather -- it's great if you understand what I'm saying, but I'd rather you don't fall over.
Michael J. Fox: I'm working on it.
If you want me to slow down, slow me down. Slow me down with love.
Amna Nawaz: Four decades after he burst into the big time, Fox says simply starting each day can be a struggle.
Michael J. Fox: I got to figure out where I am, how I feel. What else do I have to do that day? How much do I have to do? How am I going to try to take my meds to get through that? It's just a constant planning and negotiating and sorting out.
Amna Nawaz: In the movie, you talk about -- you talk about it all, right? You talk about the pain. You talk about falling. You talk about breaking bones. You talk about all of that. But you don't seem to want to dwell on it.
Is that fair?
Michael J. Fox: Yes, I don't see the point. I'm through all that.
Whenever I'm in a moment where I'm feeling good, I just want to run with it. I just want to go with it and feel good and enjoy myself. I always bombard my kids with all this stuff. I say, if you find yourself obsessing over the worst-case scenario and it actually happens, you have lived it twice.
Amna Nawaz: You know, there's a whole generation of fans, my kids among them, who are coming into contact with you and your work for the time, but who never knew you as Alex P. Keaton or Marty McFly in the way that we did back then.
They will know you through this movie. They will know you through the work you do now. And I wonder what it is you hope that they know and understand about you.
Michael J. Fox: I hope they understand that everything is possible, that effort brings reward, and reward is deepest when it's not for you, and just that I think -- my mother passed away in September, and my brothers and sisters asked me to write the obituary.
And the last thing that I could think of to say was, she left the world a better place than she found it. And that's all I want to do.
Amna Nawaz: You feel like you have done that?
Michael J. Fox: Well, I haven't left yet.
Michael J. Fox: I can still screw it up.
Amna Nawaz: A signature Michael J. Fox move, to always leave them laughing.
Geoff Bennett: It's a fantastic interview. He is endlessly inspiring.
Amna Nawaz: And endlessly funny, I have to say, to this day.
Geoff Bennett: Yes.
Amna Nawaz: It was a lot of fun to talk to him.