Michael J. Fox Turns 60; Retires for Health Reasons

Here’s a benchmark calculated to make me feel like Methusaleh. Michael J. Fox turns 60 today. Soon he can start redeeming those senior citizen coupons for half-priced coffee. “Back to the Future”, indeed! Slow down, future!

Like the rest of America, I’d first known Fox as a “teen” star in the early ’80s (though he was actually in his early 20s at the time). Small statured, with an open, likable face, Fox read as younger, and he was popular and so right, that he became emblematic of the era.

That last clause is not an exaggeration. As Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties (1982-89), Fox was a kind of bellwether for the country’s shifting direction. The ingenious and savvy premise of the sitcom was that two baby boomer, ex-hippie parents (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter) have a brood of kids with a completely different set of values, the old generation gap now reversed: Alex (Fox) is a Reagan Republican who dreams of becoming a wealthy businessman, Mallory (Justine Bateman, sister of Jason) is into fashion and gossip, and the youngest Jennifer (Tina Yothers) is obsessed with sports. (Gross’s character works at a PBS station, Baxter’s is an architect). Marc Price, whom we wrote about a few days ago, played their friend Skippy. What at first probably seemed a silly, high concept scenario rapidly proved to have its finger on the pulse of the country, thanks to great writing, directing and performances. This led to Fox becoming a movie star, initially in similar roles, such as the Back to the Future pictures (1985-90) and Teen Wolf (1985) and later, some more serious twists on the image, as in Bright Lights Big City (1988) and Casualties of War (1989). Stuff from the middle years included the comedy Doc Hollywood (1991), The American President (1995), and Mars Attacks! (1996), and the TV political drama Spin City (1996-2001). It’s sometimes fogotten that Fox also had some notable credits prior to Family Ties. He was a regular on the short-lived Norman Lear-produced period dramatic series Palmerstown USA (1980-81) and had a role in the unintentionally hilarious juvenile delinquent flick Class of 1984 (1982) starring Roddy MacDowell.

In 1998 Fox publicly announced that he had Parkinson’s Disease, something he’d known about since 1991, but the fact that the symptoms had begun to manifest forced his hand. This made us all very sad, but then that changed somewhat when he proceeded not to retire. He next provided the voice of the title character in the Stuart Little films (1999-2005) and the voice of the lead in Disney’s animated Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). Most glorious of all, he bravely played recurring on-camera parts on Boston Legal (2006) and Rescue Me (2006), and finally, what I consider one of his crowning achievements, the role of the disabled son-of-a-bitch Louis Canning on The Good Wife and The Good Fight (2010-2020), a cultural breakthrough of sorts, for it may be one of the first occasions when such a character is neither a sterotypical villain (think of Lionel Barrymore in It’s a Wonderful Life) nor a patronizing “gee whiz” portrayal about a guy who’s “just like the rest of us”. In the high powered world of corporate lawyers to be just like everybody else is to be someone who’s paid to be a bastard, and his character is not only very good at it, but he plays the cards he is dealt, shamelessly exploiting his illness. I thought he did heroic, masterful work on those shows, and if you think about it, technically HARD work. If that performance was offensive or appalling to some people, it was more than balanced out by his role on The Michael J. Fox Show (2013-2014) a sitcom that took a more positive, conventional approach to a character with Parkinson’s. He also founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

In late 2020, Fox announced the sad news that he was finally retiring for good; his symptoms had grown too great, he’s entering late stages. At the time he did a terrific, frank interview with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast; listen to it here. On the show, he mentions something I had known about but forgotten — his wife is Tracy Pollan (m. 1988), who played his girlfriend Ellen on Family Ties. I had the hugest crush on her! Clearly Fox did and does, too — it appears to be unavoidable. The pair live not far from me, as it happens, in Nassau County, Long Island, I think I’ll pop over unannounced and say “hi!” (No, no, I won’t do that, call off the dogs).

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