“Michael is just an awful lot of fun to be around, and you’d never know the burdens he’s carrying because he addresses the challenges with his famous optimism. And he maintains that not in a saccharine way, but in a way that’s rooted in reality. It does not deny what’s happening or deny what he’s dealing with, but puts it in perspective. Michael shows everyone the importance of perseverance and hope while addressing what life throws at you.”
~George Stephanopoulos, ABC News anchor, in “Hangin’ with Winners”
There are so many words to aptly describe Michael J. Fox: Actor. Husband. Father. Humanitarian. Author. Friend. Golfer? More later on that last description that I’ve been fortunate to experience in an up close and personal way. But first, some background on this extraordinary person.
Michael Andrew Fox was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He opted to use the middle initial “J.” professionally in order to distinguish himself from another actor named Michael Fox, and not caring for the play on words that “Michael A. Fox” lent itself to. Michael became a household name with his role of Alex P. Keaton on the popular NBC sitcom Family Ties. He gained even greater stardom after appearing in films such as Back to the Future and its sequels. He has been honored with multiple Emmy, Golden Globe, People’s Choice, Screen Actors Guild and Grammy awards. His handprints can be found on two Walks of Fame, in both Hollywood and Canada. But one of his greatest honors is an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award presented by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
Michael and I first met in 1996 around the time of the launch of Spin City on ABC. This show’s storyline was centered on a fictional local/New York City government, and Michael played the role of Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty. In 1999, Michael announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; he later left the show following its fourth season — and 100th episode — in 2000 to focus more time on his health and family.
Michael had another important reason for taking a sabbatical from his acting career: to raise money for a greater awareness of, and research into, Parkinson’s disease. Another icon, Muhammad Ali, had been similarly diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984. He reached out to Michael and told him, “I’m sorry you have this (disease), but with you in the fight we have a better chance of winning.” And taking the fight to Parkinson’s is precisely what Michael has done in the years since. In May of 2000, he announced the formation of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research that is “dedicated to finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease through an aggressively funded research agenda, and to ensuring the development of improved therapies for those living with Parkinson’s today.”
Michael has since received four honorary degrees, and his work led to him being named by Time magazine in 2007 as one of the 100 people “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.”
Susan and I had the pleasure of attending the “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cure Parkinson’s” annual gala in November 2014. Over 1,000 guests, including many of Michael’s friends from television and film, gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to raise $5.4 million for the foundation. In keeping with Michael’s tradition of playing guitar at this event, he accompanied the legendary Paul Simon on “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” and “You Can Call Me Al”. With the contributions from this gala and many other fundraising efforts, the foundation has to date funded more than $1 billion in research and programs to meet its mission — all the while pursuing a cure for Parkinson’s disease.
Michael has published several books. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future…Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned (2010), Michael — who dropped out of high school to pursue his acting career — draws on his personal experiences to encourage new graduates to recognize life’s opportunities as they present themselves and to “roll with the punches” as the inevitable challenges arise. He has also authored Lucky Man: A Memoir (2002) and Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist (2009), the audio book for which earned Michael his Grammy Award. Read any or all of these books, and you’ll learn much more about Michael J. Fox and what a truly special person he is.
Now, back to the “golfer” reference. Michael took up the game to challenge himself only after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He was my special guest at the Principal Charity Classic Pro-Am in May 2009. Michael said at the time that taking up golf after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s was the “most optimistic” thing he had ever done. He added, “I’m committed to showing that people with challenges can lead an active life.” After attending the Draw Party the night before, we had a large gallery of his fans and admirers follow us around the Glen Oaks Country Club. Many of those followers were Parkinson’s patients, or supportive caregivers to those dealing with Parkinson’s. The respect shown to Michael was something to behold. We have played together in numerous charity golf events since, and we won the Broadcasters Foundation of America Celebrity Golf Tournament at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in September 2011!
It was my great privilege to nominate Michael for one of the television industry’s highest honors: the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Distinguished Service Award. It is presented annually to broadcasters “who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the American system of broadcasting.” The honor roll of past recipients is a ‘Who’s Who’ of television legends, including Edward R. Murrow, Bob Hope, Walter Cronkite, Dick Clark, Barbara Walters, Mary Tyler Moore and Oprah Winfrey. My nomination of Michael made specific reference to “his tremendous contributions to both the entertainment and medical research communities.” The award was presented to him in Las Vegas during the annual NAB Show on April 12, 2010. Playing golf in the Philip J. Lombardo Charity Golf Tournament, and later having dinner at the Prime Steakhouse in the Bellagio, rounded out what will always be one of the most memorable weekends of my professional career.
It was noted earlier how Michael forged a special relationship with Muhammad Ali. After Ali’s passing in June 2016, Michael wrote the following about dealing with their common health challenge: “It’s very tough to keep an even keel, but it’s something that you have to do to go forward and enjoy life. You can’t stomach other people’s projections of what you should be feeling. Muhammad was a perfect example of that. I mean, the whole world projected their fears for him onto him. And he took it all in with love, with confidence and with humor.” Those same words apply, in every respect, to Michael J. Fox.
Michael has said, “We’re going to unlock (big advances) … We could be a year away; we could be 10 years away; we could be 20 years away. But if you ever wake up in the morning and wonder who is pursuing this, we are. And we’re pursuing it hard, and with complete dedication and with purity of motive.” While he has always insisted that “I never set out to be heroic” it is nonetheless obvious that Michael is the public face of Parkinson’s. He is very much a hero … and every bit a WINNER.
Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist by Michael J. Fox (Hyperion Books, 2009)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future by Michael J. Fox (Hyperion Books, 2010)
No Time Like The Future – An Optimist Considers Mortality by Michael J. Fox (Flatiron Books, 2020)
Ellis, Rosemary (October, 2013) “No Complaints, No Excuses” Good Housekeeping
Freeman, Hadley (October 6, 2013). “Michael J Fox: ‘Nobody pities me and that’s great. I couldn’t stand it’” The Guardian
“Michael’s Story” Retrieved from www.michaeljfox.org
(May 20, 2009). “Michael J. Fox to play in Principal Charity Classic” Retrieved from www.desmoinesregister.com
(November 23, 2009). “Michael J. Fox to Receive NAB Distinguished Service Award” Retrieved from www.nab.org
Baggs, Mercer (April 25, 2011). “Game of Life: Parkinson’s Place” Retrieved from www.golfchannel.com
Malone, Michael (September 18, 2014). “Broadcasters Foundation Raises $250,000 on the Links” Retrieved from www.broadcastingcable.com
Lewis, Hilary (November 24, 2014). “Michael J. Fox, Stars Continue Fight to Fund Parkinson’s Research at Annual Gala” Retrieved from www.hollywoodreporter.com
Fox, Michael J. (June 6, 2016). “Michael J. Fox on Muhammad Ali: ‘He Made No Apologies, But Understood Kindness’” Retrieved from www.rollingstone.com
Hautman, Nicholas (June 6, 2016). “Michael J. Fox on Fighting Parkinson’s Disease With Muhammad Ali: We Were ‘Part of Something Bigger’” Retrieved from www.usmagazine.com
(February 28, 2017). “Michael J. Fox Leads More Than 200 Parkinson’s Disease Advocates on Capitol Hill in Support of Federal Research Funding and Access to Care” Retrieved from www.michaeljfox.org
Last Updated: October 30, 2022