An Interview with Michael J. Fox

A Q&A with the icon himself.

Ask Michael J. Fox what prompted him to write his third book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future, and he does exactly as you’d expect: crack wise. The 48-year-old actor, author, and advocate for medical research (he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991) says he’s finally gotten to the point where he can “dispense a certain degree of advice with a straight face.” A beat, though, and he adds this about the book: “There’s no expertise in it. It’s all my experience. I don’t have the burden of expertise.”

Two decades after portraying Marty McFly in the final installment of the Back to the Future trilogy, Fox has largely given up acting. He knows that for many fans, his face and voice will always conjure memories of Alex P. Keaton, the conservative teen he portrayed on the 1980s sitcom Family Ties. But if you want his recipe for happiness, it’s simple: Leave the past behind (yes, the ’80s too!) and live in the moment.

Michael J. Fox
Fox says he practices two principles daily: acceptance and gratitude.

Reader’s Digest: You joke in your new book that you are fortunate to have married someone—actress Tracy Pollan—who is smarter and better looking than you. Do you think marital bliss boils down to that one choice: marrying the right person?
Michael J. Fox: Obviously, that’s fundamental. But the key to our marriage is the capacity to give each other a break. And to realize that it’s not how our similarities work together; it’s how our differences work together.

RD: Do you mean letting stuff go? Not sweating the small stuff?
MJF: Yes. How worth it is this to get crazy about. When people say about someone, “If they only knew!”—well, they can’t know. Because they’re not you. You have to take it in stride and realize that someone can care for you and still not understand your every motive, emotion, need, and desire.

RD: You have four kids, with twin daughters in the middle.
MJF: Is it only four? It feels like five sometimes.

RD: Share some advice on parenting that begins “Always … ”
MJF: Always be available to your kids. Because if you say, “Give me five minutes, give me ten minutes,” it’ll be 15, it’ll be 20. And then when you get there, the shine will have worn off whatever it is they wanted to share with you. I’ve never gotten up to see something one of my kids wanted to show me and not been rewarded.

RD: Your last book, Always Looking Up, was about optimism. It’s the rare person who is as positive as you are. What’s your prescription for dealing with really negative, difficult people?
MJF: I think the scariest person in the world is the person with no sense of humor. So that’s a test. If you have doubts about someone, lay on a couple of jokes. If he doesn’t find anything funny, your radar should be screaming. Then I would say be patient with people who are negative, because they’re really having a hard time.

RD: You have done some guest spots on Denis Leary’s series on FX, Rescue Me. Any acting gigs coming up that we should know about?
MJF: No. I haven’t done anything in a while. The Rescue Me gig was a unique opportunity to play a character—a misanthropic, angry guy—who was so contrary to how people think of me. If another opportunity like that comes up, I’ll grab it. But in the meantime, I’ll let Tracy do the work.

RD: You’ve been open about the fact that after you were diagnosed with Parkinson’s, you sought to drink yourself into “a place of indifference.” You describe your first years of sobriety as being “like a knife fight in a closet.” Is being sober still a struggle?
MJF: I want to be really careful not to violate some of the principles by which I became sober. I wouldn’t say it’s a struggle. I’d rather drink battery acid than have a beer right now. But I would say that I picked up tools that helped me with Parkinson’s. And I say in this new book: There’s no better lesson in loss of control than to have Parkinson’s. Because you learn very quickly what you can control and what you can’t control. The only answer is to accept it. I do practice those principles every day: acceptance and gratitude.

RD: One of the bravest things you’ve done in your advocacy is to reveal your own symptoms, once even forgoing medication before you addressed a Senate subcommittee. Some people criticized you for that.
MJF: I couldn’t understand the backlash. I thought, Wait a minute—I have some kind of public obligation to hide my essential being? In the years since, I’ve come to realize that when I’m symptom-free on the medication, that’s not my natural state. My natural state is trembling and halting and having difficulty talking. So I enjoy the reprieve, but I’m not fooled by it. And if I’m in public and I am symptomatic, it has no bearing on who I am or what I’m trying to get done. Not to get too Zen about it, but if I stand apart from the moment and say, “In this moment, I’m struggling and I can’t do what I want to do,” not only have I not had a good moment, I’ve missed the moment completely, just by standing outside it and judging it.

RD: Sounds like that’s your central organizing principle.
MJF: To return to marriage, it’s about judgment. The least amount of judging we can do, the better off we are.

Movies vs. Books

By Michael J. Fox from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future

Which was better? Here’s my assessment of five big books as compared to their screen versions:

1. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972. Based on the book by Mario Puzo, 1969.)
While Mario Puzo’s florid pulp epic, rendered with verve and velocity, is the kind of thing I might busy myself with on vacation, it doesn’t measure up to the Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece it inspired. Characters that are clichéd on the page mesmerize on the screen thanks to the artistry of Brando, Pacino, Duvall and Cazale.

2. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975. Based on the book by Peter Benchley, 1974.)
The novel was a page-turner, but Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough film was a stomach turner. It’s one thing to read about a Great White devouring Captain Quint. It’s a whole different kettle of fish to watch the thing munch on Robert Shaw. In fairness to Peter Benchley, I also prefer John Huston’s retelling of Moby Dick over Melville’s novel.

3. Moby Dick (John Huston, 1956. Based on the book by Herman Melville, 1851.)

4. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999. Based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk, 1996.)
First rule of fight club… don’t talk about fight club. I will say this, though. Great book. Great movie. Technical draw.

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968. Book by Arthur C. Clarke, 1968.)

This is a tricky one. Clarke’s book was actually published after the release of Kubrick’s film, and each man worked on his version concurrent with the other. Visually, the film was stunning and the atmospherics were sensational. But I have to admit, only after reading Clarke’s book was I able to discern a plot. Edge to Arthur C. Clarke. Interesting note: Just recently, I learned from my son, Sam, that HAL, the name given to the film’s mutinous computer, is a play on a familiar acronym. H A L are the three letters that precede IBM in the alphabet.

Buy the book Buy the book here.

Popular Videos

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest