C: Sky News Australia (YouTube Screengrab)

Michael J. Fox at Comic Con: Actor shows real courage in face of illness  

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at the age of just 29 in 1991. 31 years down the line, famed actor and writer Michael J. Fox is still refusing to let the illness win.

The iconic actor touched the hearts of thousands over the weekend when he made an appearance at Comic Con in New York City, where he was reunited with Back to the Future co-star Christopher ‘Doc Brown’ Lloyd. Fox, 61, was filmed embracing his co-star in emotional scenes which flooded the internet shortly afterwards. Thousands expressed their well-wishes to Fox and his on-screen partner, Lloyd, who is now in his eighties:

C: Sky News Australia (YouTube Screengrab)

The main talking point of the occasion, however, became Fox’s Parkinson’s, as thousands of people expressed sadness to see the seeming progression of his illness played out on the world stage. A sea of social media comments wished the actor well, with many praising the father of four for his bravery in choosing to carry on with a smile as he continues life in the public eye while dealing with the side effects of an illness which has afflicted him for over 30 years.

The sight of a visibly frail Fox who seemed to have some trouble walking, moving slowly on stage, and at times appearing to be held up by his much-older co-star, served to remind me, more than anything, of what real bravery looks like. We joke that the smallest of things have now come to be regarded as ‘stunning and brave’. But Michael J. Fox is truly brave. He is an inspiration.

After all, being truly brave is hard. It’s easy to be a coward, and it’s so tempting to fall into self-pity. But continuing to get up every day and face your weaknesses, your insecurities, your limitations head-on, to battle through and refuse to quit when difficulties come our way, that takes courage. Having a physical illness or a disability which requires you to forgo your pride, as Parkinson’s does because of the visible side effects, requires genuine courage.

Canadian-born Fox was catapulted to worldwide fame aged 24 when he played time-travelling teenager Marty McFly in the beloved 1985 sci-fi film.

He revealed earlier this year, however, that his diagnosis with early onset Parkinson’s just five years later had a huge impact on his acting career and the roles he was able to take on. Fox, now in retirement, spends a lot of his time writing, a passion and talent which has become his main source of income.

Fox has not dealt with his illness alone, and has been supported from the beginning by his wife of over thirty years, Tracey Pollan. She has remained by his side through thick and thin, their union serving as a powerful witness to the vows made in marriage to love one another “in sickness and in health”.

Their thirty year love story is a story in and of itself, with their union remaining intact despite so many Hollywood marriages crumbling around them. Fox and Pollan met on the first season of Family Ties, when Tracy was cast as Ellen Reed, who played the love interest of Fox’s character. The two had a strictly professional relationship at the time, as Tracy was in a long-term relationship with actor Kevin Bacon. However, when the pair were reunited again for 1988’s Bright Lights, Big City, sparks would begin to fly.

Michael says he took his chance to pursue his former co-star as soon as he found out that she and Bacon had broken up. Speaking to People in 1989 about their romance, the young actor said: “It sounds really horrible, but it was one of those things”.

“Someone goes, ‘Did you hear that so-and-so aren’t together anymore?’ and you go, ‘Hmm, that’s too bad. Where’s the phone?’”

Tracey agreed to go on a date, and the rest is history. They got engaged after less than a year of dating, with Michael proposing on Boxing Day in December 1987; Michael said he was never worried about Tracy saying no, even if they hadn’t been going out for long.

 

Pollan and Fox at the 1989 Emmy Awards

 

The happy couple walked down the aisle at the West Mountain Inn in Arlington, Vt. Their wedding was one of the most covered celebrity events of the time, with a surge of eager paparazzi swarming the picturesque wedding venue by foot and helicopter. They went on to have four children, Sam Michael, born in 1989, one year after the couple were married, twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, born in 1995, and daughter Esmé, who was born in 2001.

Fox and his family


Fox’s diagnosis came just three years into his marriage to the actress, when they were both in their twenties. The couple said they didn’t know what to expect at the time. 

Speaking during a 2020 interview to promote his memoir No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, Fox said his wife has been like a rock to him.

“She puts up with me,” he joked. “She doesn’t cut me any slack, which is great. She’s honest, affectionate, kind, smart and she’s just there in a pinch. She’s beautiful and I love her”, he said. He often posts images of his wife to his Instagram with the phrase, ‘Love of my life’. 

Tracy has admitted that it hasn’t always been easy, but has credited her husband’s positivity with helping her to see things in a different way with regards to his Parkinson’s.When interviewed by Oprah back in 2002, she said doubts would sometimes come their way, but her husband’s acceptance of and point of view relating to his condition made it easier.

“Any time I would say to myself, ‘This isn’t what I bought into,’ it wasn’t about Michael being sick. It was about his doubting and the behaviour that came out of that fear.

“A lot of my adjustment has been dictated by Michael’s point of view,” she recalled. “He’s so relaxed and so accepting of where he is, and that makes it easier for me, the kids, and everyone around him”.

In the words of Fox, who initially struggled to accept his diagnosis, “Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation. It means that something is the way that it is, and there’s got to be a way through it”.

Even though those who had not seen Fox in action for a while described seeing his condition as sad, the reunion between the iconic blockbuster duo was a joyful one, and it was great to see that Fox, is still all smiles. Many people, particular those with loved ones with the neurological condition, said they were moved to tears.

“I have 3 family generations of Parkinson’s in my family, and the internal self-consciousness and external stigma are real. Michael J. Fox is a hero. This brought tears to my eyes”, one social media comment read.

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder after Alzheimer’s disease, and figures indicate that an estimated 12,000 people in Ireland are living with the condition. This number is projected to rise to up to 20,000 over the next ten to 15 years. It’s important for sufferers to have someone in the public eye raising awareness, willing to give others strength through their own courage in managing the condition.

Since his diagnosis, Fox has raised more than $1 billion to find a cure for the degenerative neurological disease through the Michael J.Fox foundation, pouring huge energy into his activism. Speaking in February of this year, he shared his optimism about advances in Parkinson’s treatments.

“We just want to cure Parkinson’s. 15 years ago, I couldn’t have sat still for this long. There are better drugs now, and more effective treatments for a lot of the side effects,” he said, providing sure hope for the millions of people living with the condition, which disproportionately affects men. 

Speaking shortly after celebrating his milestone 60th birthday in June 2021, the actor and devoted family man made it clear that his love for life has remained intact through his refusal to let Parkinson’s disease define him.

His secret? Gratitude.

“If you can find something to be grateful for, then optimism is sustainable,” Fox said in a moving interview with AARP, where he talked about the influence of Muhammad Ali’s mindset on his own outlook on his health problems, and not looking exactly how he used to look.

“At 60, I just feel like in spite of this thing I carry every day, I love my life, I love my wife, I love my kids. I love my music that I listen to, I love my books that I read. Parkinson’s is just this thing that’s attached to my life, it isn’t my driver – other than it drives my passion in trying to find an answer for it”, he said.

Despite being at breaking point on serval occasions, Fox has refused to give up.

“I went through a real crisis in 2018,” Fox, who has retired twice because of his condition, said. “I was sitting on the floor and I was thinking, ‘This optimism ****, this sucks. This is only bad. And as I came through it, I came to this conclusion, if you can find something to be grateful for, then optimism is sustainable.

He said he came to the realisation that: “I’m the luckiest son of a **** in the world, I’m lucky as hell”, he says in this interview, which is well worth a watch:

It may seem astonishing, but Fox even looks at his condition as something which has provided him with opportunities. He was rewarded with a second career several years after taking a step back from acting because of his health. He appeared as a guest star on Scrubs in 2004, playing Dr. Kevin Casey – a brilliant but troubled surgeon suffering from OCD.

“I did a couple of episodes of Scrubs, and it was fun. I played a guy who had OCD and I realised I could put some of the Parkinson’s into that,” he said.

He also went on to appear in Boston Legal, playing a cancer patient for four episodes of the show in 2006. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for that role. He recalls a great stroke performing a recurring role on The Good Wife in 2010, where he played the character of Louis Canning. Canning was a crafty lawyer who used his symptoms to manipulate the jury and to manipulate other people. Fox earned Emmy nominations for three consecutive years for his portrayal of Canning.

“I loved it, because I love the idea that disabled people can be ***holes too,” Fox said of his time playing Canning on The Good Wife.

In 2018, Fox fell, shattering his arm and breaking his humerus. He was once again plunged into crisis.

Speaking of that time in his life, he recalled: “I was sitting on the floor, and I was thinking, ‘Who am I to tell people to be optimistic, and to keep their chin up and to carry on? Maybe that’s bull****. Maybe you just hit a wall, and you hit a wall, and you slide down to the floor and you go away”.

Yet, Fox did not lie down for long. He said he learned to see the things he was grateful for, something that transformed his way of thinking, and helped him navigate through the darkness.

“So it was a really tough time for me. And then as I came through it, I started to notice things I was grateful for, and I started to notice the gratitude in other people, the way they would respond to difficulty with gratitude. And so I just stepped back a little bit and appreciate that life has been great and there’s a lot more to live”.

“I’m really lucky, and I try to spread my luck around”, he said in the same interview.

The way in which Fox has lived his life while having Parkinson’s shows us we all have the power to inspire and give hope to others during our own trials which inevitably come our way, often sooner rather than later.

Fox himself summed it up so perfectly when he said in a 2021 interview: “Your public fight gives others private strength”.

That is certainly true of Fox’s fight, and his courageous witness will hopefully have the power to give strength to others living with Parkinson’s Disease.

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