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‘I’m not pathetic… I’m a tough son of a b****’: Michael J Fox’s surprise Bafta appearance had audience members in tears, but his determination not to be an object of pity has defined his battle with Parkinson’s


It was in Florida in 1990 that Michael J Fox woke up in his hotel suite with a ferocious hangover – and something that turned out to be infinitely worse.

As the Hollywood star put a hand over his face to block the sunlight streaming in through a window, he noticed that his little finger was twitching and he couldn’t stop it.

‘The trembling was a message from the future,’ he said in a documentary film he made last year.

The famously chirpy star of Back To The Future cannot resist making quips, even about the terrible condition – Parkinson’s disease – that he has been battling for more than half his life.

The Canadian-American actor’s battle with this degenerative and incurable affliction – in which parts of the brain become progressively damaged over many years – was movingly brought home last night when he made a surprise appearance at the Baftas to present the Best Film award.

Michael J Fox with Christopher Lloyd in Back To The Future Part II, which came out in 1989

Michael J Fox with Christopher Lloyd in Back To The Future Part II, which came out in 1989

Fox, 62, who rarely makes public appearances nowadays, came on stage in a wheelchair but then insisted on standing up at the podium to present the award to Oppenheimer. Bafta host David Tennant described him as a ‘true legend of cinema’.

Audience members gasped as he made his first appearance at the UK awards for more than 30 years. Many viewers said they found it so emotive that they wept.

Fox founded the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in 2000 and it has reportedly so far raised at least £1.6billion to tackle a condition that affects around 128,000 people in England alone.

Joined by Tracy Pollan, his actress wife of 36 years, he was also there because Still: A Michael J Fox Movie, a 2023 film about his life with the disease, was nominated for best documentary, but lost out to the Ukrainian war film 20 Days In Mariupol.

Fox’s documentary certainly makes for arresting viewing about a tragically debilitating condition that, thanks to his fame, has got far more attention and research funding.

Fox was boyishly handsome Marty McFly in the Back To The Future trilogy ¿ films that made him the biggest star in Hollywood

Fox was boyishly handsome Marty McFly in the Back To The Future trilogy – films that made him the biggest star in Hollywood

His decline is all the more shocking given all we remember of his glory years in the 1980s as skateboarding, wisecracking, boyishly handsome Marty McFly in the Back To The Future trilogy – films that made him the biggest star in Hollywood.

His life now couldn’t be further away from his self-assured off-screen persona back then. In place of the workaholic, egotistical star who often came across as rather too pleased with himself is a deeply thoughtful and humble middle-aged man who now takes nothing for granted.

In place of the actor who loved to charge around on screen is a man who wobbles dangerously after only a few yards. ’Every step now is a frigging math problem, so I take it slow,’ he said – and that was four years ago in 2020.

As revealed in Still, from the moment he shakily puts toothpaste on his toothbrush each morning in his apartment on Central Park in Manhattan, his day is dominated by his condition.

It’s most obvious to others when he is walking, frequently lurching out of control, losing his balance and falling over – especially if he doesn’t remember the advice of a therapist walking alongside him to ‘stop and reset’.

Another frequent injunction from his therapist is to ‘slow down’, both physically and mentally, which the naturally impatient and driven star clearly finds a challenge. He once described the disease as the ‘gradual paring away of my physical self’.

Michael J Fox received a standing ovation from the stars in attendance at the 2024 British Academy Film Awards as he took to the stage in a wheelchair

Michael J Fox received a standing ovation from the stars in attendance at the 2024 British Academy Film Awards as he took to the stage in a wheelchair

His Parkinson’s also curtails the instinctive joker in him – when he thinks of a punchline he desperately wants to say, he often cannot get out the words in time.

Throughout the day he takes regular doses of dopamine, a neurotransmitter usually made by the body that is used by the nervous system to send messages between nerve cells and which is lacking in people suffering from Parkinson’s.

When it starts to run out, he gets what he calls his ‘Parkinsonian mask’ – he freezes, both physically and facially and struggles to smile or show any expression.

Meanwhile, a side effect of Fox’s medication is dyskinesia, or involuntary movements and tics. Fox says that is far preferable to the alternative, which involves symptoms such as confusing his words so speech becomes hard and finding it very difficult to sit still in one place.

Like other Parkinson’s sufferers, he falls over frequently and often badly, sometimes breaking bones and needing surgery. Once the metal pins put in a broken hand became infected and he almost had to have a finger amputated. On another occasion he slipped and fell over, damaging his upper arm so severely it required 19 screws.

In 2018, Fox needed surgery to remove a tumour on his spine. It was unrelated to the Parkinson’s but his recovery was made so much harder by the tremors and balance issues caused by the disease.

Fox was recently described as ‘personifying grace under pressure’. He’s naturally a positive person – of the four books he’s written since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 when he was just 29, two have ‘optimist’ in the title and another is titled Lucky Man: A Memoir.

He used to describe Parkinson’s as a gift, ‘albeit one that keeps on taking’, but says it has changed his life for the better in some ways. For a start, he credited it with stopping his drinking, which in turn saved his marriage. Many fellow Parkinson’s sufferers say they have been inspired by his optimism and his candour.

Fox credits much of his longevity to his wife, Tracy Pollan, pictured, who he married in 1988

Fox credits much of his longevity to his wife, Tracy Pollan, pictured, who he married in 1988

Bafta guests give the veteran actor a standing ovation at the annual awards night

Bafta guests give the veteran actor a standing ovation at the annual awards night

However, he knows his condition is deteriorating. ’My world is getting smaller,’ he said in Still. ‘I love my mind and the place it takes me and I just don’t want that to get cut short.’

And in an interview last November, he said: ‘Positivity is really sincere and I really feel it, and it’s genuine, but it’s hard fought and it’s hard won.’

Although it tends to strike older people, Parkinson’s kills most patients within 20 years of diagnosis. He credits much of his longevity to his wife, Tracy, who he married in 1988, and who, when he told her of his Parkinson’s diagnosis, whispered to him: ‘For better or for worse.’

He says she has never left his side although he would understand if she did. ‘We knew the bus was coming and we knew it was going to hit,’ he said in November. ‘At any time, she would have been forgiven to say: “I’m just going to step out.” But she didn’t do that.’

One thing Mrs Fox hasn’t done is to feel sorry for him. ’If you pity me it’s never going to get to me,’ Fox says in Still. ‘I’m not pathetic… I’m a tough son of a bitch. I’m a cockroach and I’ve been through a lot of stuff.’

A clip from Still, which is on release in selected cinemas and goes out on Apple TV in May

A clip from Still, which is on release in selected cinemas and goes out on Apple TV in May

He has certainly had his challenges over the years. A hyperactive child who ‘could never be still’, he was born on a military base and later raised in British Columbia.

Fox was not only short but looked much younger than his age. Bullied at school, he went to drama classes and discovered that in acting, the fact that he looked years younger than his actual age could be a huge advantage.

Dropping out of high school at 17 and intent on becoming rich and famous, he moved to Hollywood. After three years struggling to get decent roles he was about to give up when he got a part on a US TV sitcom, Family Ties. That provided a springboard to the Back To The Future franchise and the first film, made in 1985, turned him into a superstar overnight.

It was on Family Ties that he met his future wife, Tracy, who played his character’s love interest.

He said he fell in love with her on set when – unlike everyone else who was in awe of his stardom and tolerated his brattish behaviour – she rounded on him angrily after he made an obnoxious comment about the way her breath smelled.

The promotional image for Still, a documentary about Michael J Fox's battle with Parkinson's

The promotional image for Still, a documentary about Michael J Fox’s battle with Parkinson’s

They married in 1988 and, by his own admission, she rapidly became a ‘single mother’ as he continued to work relentlessly.

When Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, initially he couldn’t accept that in his late 20s he had a disease normally associated with much older people.

For years he took the pills and managed to keep it secret from everyone outside his family, even as the pressure pushed him into alcoholism and depression. (The disease had nothing to do with his hard partying Hollywood lifestyle and is instead believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as pesticides and pollution.)

In 1998, after its symptoms became obvious in his acting work, he finally announced publicly he had the disease. The following year he chose not to take his medication before testifying to a Senate committee about the disease, saying that the congressmen needed to see what the condition was like for themselves.

It’s clear his wife continues to keep his feet on the ground and that her no-nonsense attitude has been passed on to their children – they have four: Sam, 34; twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, 29; and 22-year-old Esme.

‘When I’m with my family, there’s no sentimental line with them,’ he says. ‘There’s no “Poor baby. I feel so bad for you”. That would be the worst thing they could do to me.’

In Still, as he sits in the kitchen, his right hand shaking uncontrollably, the family tease him mercilessly for the bizarre emails he sends them using word-recognition software to turn his strangulated speech into the written word.

Fox’s condition is inevitably worsening over time and he has admitted his once fierce optimism is not so strong any more.

But what hasn’t changed, he insists, is his determination not to become an object of pity. Fox reportedly made only one condition before he allowed the documentary makers to chronicle his life for Still – there couldn’t be any treacly music playing in the background.

Certainly none was needed at the Baftas last night when he sat down to the sound of deafening applause.



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