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 the play on words that “Michael A. Fox” lent itself to. Michael has been honored with 5 Emmy Awards, 4 Golden Globe Awards, 1 People’s Choice Award, 2 Screen Actors Guild Awards, 1 Grammy Award and 2 Walks of Fame (both Hollywood and Canada). He first 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.
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 Parkinson’s Disease and later left the show following its fourth season – and 100th episode – in 2000 to focus more time on his family.
Michael had another important reason for taking a sabbatical from his acting career: to raise money for awareness of and research into Parkinson’s Disease. Another icon, Muhammad Ali, had been 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 was 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 which would be “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 received four honorary degrees and his work led to him being named one of the 100 people “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world” in 2007 by Time magazine.
Susan and I had the pleasure of attending “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cure Parkinson’s” annual gala in November of 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 countless other fundraising efforts, the foundation has to date funded more than $450 million in research and programs to meet its mission and speed 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 recent graduates to recognize life’s opportunities as they present themselves and to “roll with the punches” as 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 first Grammy Award. Read any or all of these books, and you’ll learn much more about Michael J. Fox and what a special WINNER he truly is.
Now, back to the earlier “golfer” reference. Michael took up the game to challenge himself only after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He was my special guest in the Principal Charity Classic Pro-Am in May of 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 also said, “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 follow us around the Glen Oaks Country Club layout for the Pro-Am. Many of those followers were people who had Parkinson’s or supportive members of families dealing with Parkinson’s. The respect and admiration shown to Michael was something to behold. We have played together in numerous charity golf events since, and our team even won the Broadcasters Foundation of America Celebrity Golf Tournament at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Scarborough, NY in September of 2011!
It was my great privilege to nominate Michael for one of the television industry’s highest honors: the National Association of Broadcasters’ Distinguished Service Award. It is presented annually to broadcasters “who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the American system of broadcasting.” Previous recipients are a Who’s Who of television legends, and include William Paley, Edward R. Murrow, Bob Hope, Lowell Thomas, 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 together in the Philip J. Lombardo Charity Golf Tournament sponsored by the Broadcasters Foundation of America, followed by 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 mentioned earlier that Michael forged a special relationship with Muhammad Ali. After Ali’s passing in June of 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 with love, with confidence and with humor.” Those same words apply, in every respect, to Michael J. Fox. 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 he is 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)
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 J. Fox” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
“Michael’s Story” Retrieved from www.michaeljfox.org
“Michael J. Fox” Retrieved from www.biography.com
“Michael J. Fox” Retrieved from www.values.com
“NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
Boedeker, Hal (June 8, 1997). “’Tv Is Good’ Ads Offer New Take on Small Screen” Retrieved from www.orlandosentinel.com
Silverman, Stephen (December 17, 2002). “Michael J. Fox Gets His Hollywood Star” Retrieved from www.people.com
(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