Since Michael J. Fox has recently made a comeback to prime-time television, producing and anchoring a family sitcom as a father with Parkinson’s disease, there’s been a renewed interest in the actor. I thought I would take the opportunity to share some of my own thoughts about his life, his career, his political activism, and of course, his decades-long battle with Parkinson’s. For all children of the 80s, he is forever immortalized as Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly. For me, his voice alone will always evoke fond childhood memories of Chance, the young canine protagonist of Disney’s Homeward Bound. On a personal level, he is arguably the best-loved actor in Hollywood. At the same time, he is (rightly) unpopular with many conservative Christians because of his vigorous campaigns for embryonic stem cell research.
In search of source material that encompassed all that while at the same time going beyond it, I realized I could do no better than Fox’s own memoirs. A verbal prodigy from early childhood, Fox needed nobody to write them for him. His graceful, vivid prose reveals intriguing details about his background, his family, and even his perspective on the Christian faith. As I read his autobiographies and collected other research materials, I was struck by his force of personality, yet keenly felt how tragic his story was in every possible way. When I sat down to capture everything I thought and felt in a single essay, I had to force myself to stop, because I found it all so fascinating. So I hope you all will join me on this little journey, and I hope you find it as thought-provoking as I did.
Whatever your personal opinion of Michael J. Fox, the one thing nobody can deny is his effortless charisma on the screen. Justly recognized as a comic genius (any one of these clips should convince you), he’s also shown an under-recognized talent for powerful dramatic acting. In the film Casualties of War, he played a young private in Vietnam who witnesses and reports a horrific war crime, attempting to keep his sanity and his moral compass through it all. (Although I have NOT seen the film and am NOT recommending it, to anyone, I do recommend this one clip of his character’s conversation with a chaplain in a bar, because it demonstrates this side of Fox’s talent so brilliantly.) Recently, he guest-starred on another television show—as a paraplegic. Let that sink in for a moment.
Blessed with a face anyone could trust, the Canadian-born actor first rose to fame by managing to make the sarcastic, money-obsessed Alex P. Keaton a lovable fixture of American television on Family Ties. In cult classics Teen Wolf and Back to the Future, he cemented his image as “the boy next door.” The country fell in love with him in large part because he really was that funny, down-to-earth and likable. He met the girl of his dreams on Family Ties, got married, stayed married, and started a family while other celebrity marriages crumbled. In his first memoir Lucky Man (2002), he describes how the couple successfully managed to dodge the press for their wedding, protecting the private sanctity of their commitment. Go ahead and make your own day by watching this montage of their work together:
Then came the diagnosis at age 30: Parkinson’s disease. Progressive. Debilitating. Incurable. At first, it drove Fox to push the bounds of a long-time drinking habit. But through the tough love of his wife, he put away the bottle for good in 1992. He has described Parkinson’s as “the gift that keeps on taking,” because coming to terms with the diagnosis changed and humbled him in so many ways, perhaps even saving his marriage. He returned to TV work in 1996 for the starring role in Spin City, a show that would net him an Emmy, three Golden Globes, and two SAG awards. Although he maintained his debonair exterior for live studio audiences, he was forced to take multiple backstage breaks when his symptoms came on, writhing on the floor and punching holes in the walls until L-dopa drugs took effect. In 1998, he went public with his condition. Another two years, and he was forced to quit the show.
Fox did not choose to go public lightly. For years, he had mentally distanced himself from other people with the disease. But after his announcement, he began to realize what he represented to those people. He interacted with the larger Parkinson’s community on anonymous chat forums, trying to learn more under the freedom of a nom de plume. (Of course, this became awkward when his new friends asked him what he thought of Michael J. Fox!) Armed with a new sense of responsibility, he proceeded to sift through the numerous solicitations he was now receiving from this organization, and that foundation, and that other foundation. In 1999, he picked the group that was most aggressively pursuing the expansion of government funds for cure research. Within a few weeks, he was preparing a speech before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services (full text here).
That was the same hearing where he first heard a doctor utter the magic words: five to ten years. With enough funding, Parkinson’s might well be cured in five to ten years. Fox was stunned. He would never have guessed, but then he wasn’t an expert, and here was this Expert with a capital “E,” saying it could be done. Hope pulsed through him. He had to do something. That same year, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research was born.
The following years saw Fox immersing himself in fund-raising and political activism, not only for Parkinson’s research but research that he was told could cure a plethora of diseases, including Huntington’s, multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes, and ALS, among others. I’m speaking, of course, of embryonic stem cell research. With the encouragement of his more “scientific” friends, he confidently presented hope for cures as “not ‘if,’ but ‘when’.” However, they predictably came to view George W. Bush as a hindrance to their efforts and the progress of Science in general. You can sense Fox’s personal bitterness towards Bush in his second memoir Always Looking Up (2009), which describes Bush’s 2001 compromise as a “head-fake.” (In fairness, there is a lesson for Bush here: Giving in a little bit will never satisfy the other side. It’ll only make them all the more mad when you don’t go all the way. This is a lesson the Republican party has never really learned.) The foundation sought out and backed sympathetic congressional candidates, mostly Democrats, plus a few “might as well be Democrats” like Arlen Specter.
But the sad truth, the central tragedy of all Fox’s activism, is that he was manipulated. Oh, certainly not unwillingly. After all, he was the one who called the politicians. And yet, he was fed half-truths and outright lies by supposed professionals who knew better. His famous Claire McCaskill ad never fails to reduce me to tears, but not for the same reasons it reduced everyone else to tears. They wept because they felt compassion for him, and they were proud of his cause. I weep because I feel compassion for him, and I see his cause for what it truly was—not only a violation of life, but a violation of true scientific integrity.
As even liberal bioethicist Art Caplan will tell you frankly, embryonic stem cell research was over-hyped for political gain. For example, Caplan admits that any researcher worth his salt would have laughed at the notion that stem cell research ever had a hope of curing Alzheimer’s disease. Apparently nobody told Michael J. Fox, who repeatedly named Alzheimer’s victims as among those ostensibly victimized by Bush and the Republicans’ resistance to Science. He spoke breathlessly of how the projected success of the research was “informed by the collective knowledge of the nation’s most brilliant medical scientists and researchers.” Even its embarrassing failures were smoothed over as “one step forward, two steps back.” In one interview, he downplayed the discovery of brain tumors in mice as “some tissue residue… which is not ideal.” One wonders if that drink had been sweetened before it ever reached Fox’s lips.
Was Michael J. Fox a sucker? A dull-witted dupe? On the contrary, few adjectives could describe Michael J. Fox worse than “dull-witted.” He writes like an angel. His conversational vocabulary is about ten times as large as the average college student’s writing vocabulary—at a conservative estimate. Did I mention he was a high-school drop-out? The phrase “useful idiot” is often misunderstood to imply that the person in question is a literal idiot, but this is certainly not the case here.
Was Michael J. Fox an evil man? Was he cynically playing the American people along with the rest of ESCR’s snake-oil salesmen? I believe Michael J. Fox was sincere. But I also believe he made his own choice.
For all the deception surrounding him, he knew, as everyone knew, what embryonic stem cell research meant for embyros. Still, he was content with the same tedious, “period at the end of this sentence” cliches with which liberal activists have bored us for years. That warm, open personality became very cold whenever he spoke directly about embryos. They were dismissed as “clumps of cells,” and nothing more. In Always Looking Up, he sanctimoniously claims to sympathize with people who have a principled ethical objection to the research, saying that he and they are each “frustrated” in their own way and thus can find common ground for respect. But that “respect” is lacking when he lambastes Bush’s Snowflake Babies as political manipulation (while defensively insisting that a boy who spoke about his juvenile diabetes at a pro-stem-cell rally was not manipulated). He gives himself away when he recalls watching Bush’s 2006 veto on national television, mouth sour and tight-lipped, eyes hardened, contemptuous at the implication that “a healthy Tanner Barton and an adopted embryo are mutually exclusive.” Even while he decries Rush Limbaugh as a “bully” for clumsily accusing him of manipulating his symptoms for the McCaskill ad, Fox fails to recognize the bully within himself.
Still, it is heart-breaking to see how whole-heartedly he embraced the myth common to all liberal propaganda—that not only was ESCR the future of medical research, but the hope it gave people was the true embodiment of the American spirit. This interview clip speaks volumes (full transcript here):
What is crueler? To not have hope or to have hope? And it’s not false hope, it’s a very informed hope. I mean, it’s hope that’s informed by the opinion of our leading scientists, almost to the point of unanimity… will it be a straight path to victory? Probably not, probably you’ll have stutter steps along the way… you know, it’s a process. It’s how this country was built. It’s what we do. I don’t want to get too corny about it, but isn’t that what the person in the harbor with the thing… [waves aloft an imaginary torch]? It’s about hope! And so to characterize hope as some kind of malady or some kind of flaw of character or national weakness is to me really counter to what this country is about.
So, in the final analysis, we see Michael J. Fox for what he is: Not a stupid man, not an evil man, but a man of the left. And the crowning irony? He himself finally admitted in May of last year that ESCR will likely not cure anything within his lifetime. Other research and therapies, he now realizes, are closer to that goal. We can be glad that Fox has finally come to understand the truth, yet recognize the double tragedy of a man who gives up his soul to gain nothing in return.
At this point you might be wondering where Christianity enters into this story. It actually enters into the story many years before all of this unfolded. As a 9-year-old boy, Fox got his first taste of hell-fire and brimstone preaching on a church bus parked at a carnival. The speaker was, with great relish, comparing Hell to the sensation of a thousand hot matches burning your skin—to an audience of children. Needless to say, Fox was already out of there by the time the speaker got to the “good news” part. However, Fox’s older reflections on this moment (from his second memoir) are unintentionally profound, as he theorizes about why the speaker focused more on Hell than on Heaven:
For a nine-year-old, heaven existed just outside of that Bible bus—the distance of a few steps it took to reach the midway and the rides, noise, mystery and mayhem of a summer’s day. Beyond the fair, there were a thousand further iterations of heaven–camping trips and hockey games, leaning forward in social studies class to get the full effect of whatever shampoo that pretty girl who sat in front of me was using. It never occurred to me that any of these pleasures were a reward for being a pretty good kid, any more than I needed to restructure my life just to avoid being spit-roasted on a subterranean barbecue.
Poignantly, Fox stumbles towards a very real truth—that these earthly joys are not earned but given, as a foretaste of glory divine—only to turn his back on the gift-Giver.
However, God sent Fox a new friend in 7th grade: Russell, a church-going kid whose devout Baptist family welcomed Fox with open arms. A somewhat rascally teenager, he was impressed with their kindness and personal integrity. They struck him differently from the televangelists he saw on The 700 Club, who held an ironic fascination for the budding comedian. There was nothing phony about the hymns Russell’s family sang to pass the time on long road trips. There was nothing staged in the way they climbed up a hill on Easter morning to raise a wooden cross and worship by the light of the rising sun.
But in the end, the seed did not take root. After a mutual friend committed suicide, Fox grew less interested in the messages and sermons he heard. He never lost his respect for Russell’s family, but at the same time he never truly embraced the gospel. In later years, Russell would remind him of a fleeting “conversion” moment which Fox puts down to “a rapidly growing and spiritual interest” in the pretty girl who led him through the motions. However, Fox never forgot what Russ had offered him, occasionally giving back to Russ’s family ministry in gospel music.
Fox’s adult experiences with religion were far more “progressive.” Always Looking Up describes a meeting with the notorious Bishop Carlton D. Pearson, who perniciously implied that people like Russ only wanted Fox to be saved so they could parade him on their TV shows as a “score” for Jesus. Fox also talks a good deal about Judaism, as his wife is Jewish by birth. However, her American Reform brand of the faith bears about as much resemblance to actual Judaism as Pearson’s faith bears to Christianity. Yet what might be called the “outer trappings” of Judaism fascinate Fox. Going to the synagogue feels cool. Hanukkah gives him warm fuzzies. He’s proud that his children are Jewish and growing up in a Jewish-observant home. In fact, as he humorously recalls, it was he and not his wife who insisted that firstborn son Sam be circumcised:
I surprised myself by very calmly and clearly making my point. “…You’re Jewish, and he’s Jewish. He’s part of a culture and a continuum that I can’t even pretend to understand… So let me put it this way: If the doctor does it now, I’ll go in the room with the two of them, and I’ll hold him… I’ll look him in the eye and give him something to scream at. But in thirteen years, if he decides he wants to have a bar mitzvah and he’s not circumcised, then you are going to be in that room with him. I’m going to Vegas.”
Fox also acknowledges the existence of some “higher power,” though he’s content to leave it undefined. This passage is another tragic half cadence on the way to the truth:
Parkinson’s and alcohol took a sledgehammer to any illusions I may have had that I was in control. I came to accept that any disease or condition beyond my control is, in effect, a power greater than myself. To survive this destructive energy, I must look to an even higher power. For my purposes, I need neither define it nor have others define it for me, only accept its existence. It is evident in Tracy’s love and inexhaustible friendship, the toothless gap in Esme’s smile, Aquinnah’s grace, Schuyler’s grit, Sam’s intrepid curiosity. So much to savor, so much to be grateful for. And since I’m not sure of the address to which to send my gratitude, I put it out there in everything I do.
It’s easy to admire Fox’s perseverance, optimism and strength of will. At the end of this interview, a visibly moved Larry King says hoarsely, “You… you’re a hero.” What heart could fail to melt as Fox mutters something self-deprecating and shyly looks away to shake Larry’s hand? When he did a workshop for the Actors’ Studio, an aspiring actress shared her own struggles with neurological disease in the Q & A session. Fox offered the perfect balance of empathy, encouragement and practicality in his reply to her.
Imagine how powerfully God could use these gifts if Fox surrendered them to Him. Fox has decided that choosing Christianity would take away his freedom, but in truth, it would release him to be more truly himself than ever before. His secularized way of finding meaning and beauty in life is a good imitation of the real thing, but in the end, it is only that—an imitation. As Christians, we want Fox to be saved for his sake, knowing that Christ was the only answer when he cried out in his lowest ebb, and remains the only answer now that he believes himself satisfied.