Michael J. Fox is one of those not-so-lucky actors that have had more than one life: actor, author, advocate. The guy's a certifiable triple threat.
I laughed my ass off at his Alex Keaton on Family Ties. Lusted after his DeLorean (and Lea Thompson) in Back to the Future. And applauded his efforts to find a cure for Parkinson's disease. No splitting hairs here - the 49-year-old actor is a Baby Boomer hero.
When SMU's Tate Lecture Series (Charlotte and I are patrons, Dahling) announced that Fox was one of this year's speakers, I was anxious to hear what he had to say. I was also curious how he'd handle the rigor of a stand-up speaking engagement - after all, he's had Parkinson's for almost 20 years.
He's got every right to be a middle-aged curmudgeon and have someone push him out in a wheelchair. No, this isn't how the "Incurable Optimist" rolls. Instead, he did over an hour of speaking, pacing and Q&A without sitting down (timing his medication helps, he says).
As a middle-aged Baby Boomer, I found Fox' message powerful and inspirational. He described waking up (literally) to Parkinson's one morning after a night of partying with hemp-hipster Woody Harrelson. The first sign that his nerves were short-circuiting was a tremor in his little finger that he couldn't control. He wrote it off to too much of a good time. He was after all, living life in the Fun House (his name for the world of excess known only to top celebrities).
What could be wrong? Plenty. He says hiding the Parkinson's tremors from producers, directors and other actors became "wildly exhausting." His description of trying to stop the tremors by twisting his body into a pretzel is excruciatingly hilarious. But, after years of tests and second, third and even fourth opinions he was finally convinced his Parkinson's diagnosis was real.
Fox said, "I left the doctor's office; went home and immediately got into bed because I'd just been told I was sick. After a few minutes, I sat up and asked myself what I was doing there. I didn't feel sick. That's when I decided to get on with my life."
Get on, indeed. He's created a non-profit foundation that's donated more than $200 million to Parkinson's research, written best-selling books and even won more acting awards.
Fox' best Boomer advice came during the Q&A (odd, because these questions almost always suck).
"How can I help someone I love deal with a Parkinson's diagnosis?"
Fox responded with a rapid fire answer worthy of Alex Keaton.
"Help them to understand it's like a wrinkle," he said. "It doesn't define who they are."
As a Boomer with plenty of wrinkles of my own - prostate cancer survivor - titanium screws holding my heel together - I understand what he means.
Or, as Fox continued, "There's no value in looking back."
"It's all about the future."
Back to the Future's "Doc" Christopher Lloyd is one of his favorite actors. "Nobody 'lays pipe' (translation: he's great at expository dialogue, e.g., "The flux capacitor must be set at precisely...") like Chris. He throws his whole body into a scene - any scene."
Working with Sean Penn (his co-star in 1989's Casualties of War). "There's nothing quite like being in a jungle with the world's greatest method actor, when the script calls for him to kill you."
How he got his "stage name". Fox was originally Michel Andrew Fox, but had to change his name to get his SAG card (there was another Michael Fox). He decided against Michael A. Fox, because he didn't want teen magazines using the headline, "Michael, A Fox!" Instead, he took the "J." from Michael J. Pollard (the famous character actor in Bonnie & Clyde).