Arriving at 88 miles per hour into ’80s pop culture, Michael J Fox was an instant global movie superstar. Propelled by near-as-dammit perfect time-travel comedy Back to the Future, he became a teen idol and a hero to millions. Here was an everyman in that grand Hollywood tradition which dictates that we fall deepest in love not with the Adonises, but with those stars who are enough like us to feel authentic, while being funnier, quicker, more charming, better looking than we can hope to be.
Marty McFly was an incredibly physical, screwball performance: skateboarding at speed, frantically running, guitar-soloing, flashing that instantly recognisable, slightly lopsided smile. It was, Fox says, a continuation of the full-tilt way he’d always attacked life. “It started when I was a little kid and I had no sense of boundaries and no sense of modulation, no sense of parameters,” he explains. “I just would go out and inflict myself on the world.”
Ironic, then, is too small a word to describe Fox’s diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s, received as the 1990s began when he was just 29, not long married and with a toddler at home. He kept the diagnosis secret for seven years, continuing to star in comedy series Spin City, until the symptoms became too obvious to hide. Three decades later, the disease has prematurely ended his career and had a profound impact on his once-athletic frame. Affecting all his movements, it’s made walking difficult, has changed his speech, and sometimes causes his face to freeze. It is degenerative and there is no cure.
Yet when documentary-maker Davis Guggenheim (known for An Inconvenient Truth and documentaries about Bill Gates, Jack White and Malala Yousafzai) started making Apple TV+’s new film about his life, Fox had one condition: “no violins”. Still: A Michael J Fox Movie abides by that edict, focusing instead on Fox’s inspiring resilience, his positivity and his close-knit family ties. Yet, for all it doesn’t lean into the tragedy, the pathos is inescapable. We cut between livewire vintage clips and intimate, tightly filmed interviews with Fox today, fighting against involuntary tremors and stumbling on his words.
Fox doesn’t do a lot of appearances now, for obvious reasons, but The Big Issue is one of a handful of international media to catch up with him at Still’s South by Southwest press conference. Inspired by our legendary Letter to My Younger Self series, we ask Fox which moment in his life he’d most like to relive. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not the release of Back to the Future, the three Emmy nominations he got for his incredible appearance as sly lawyer Louis Canning in The Good Wife (a man who plays up his neurological symptoms to manipulate courts) or even the day he married his beloved wife of 35 years, the actor Tracy Pollan. Instead, he wants to go back to the moment his dad set everything in motion.
“I think,” Fox tells us, “it’d be the moment my dad says, ‘OK, I’ll take you down to find an agent.’ I mean, I was this crazy kid and I wanted to leave high school [in British Columbia, Canada] and move to California to be an actor. This is insane. It’s crazy. Nobody does that.