Michael J. Fox, tireless activist for Parkinson’s disease, has become an icon for the optimism and courage in how he has dealt with the cruel disease that struck him at a young age. The “Back to the Future” star is being featured on the cover of People magazine this week.
Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, at the age of 29, when his professional career was at its peak. Doctors told him he would be lucky if he could act for 10 more years, but it wasn’t until 2020 that he announced his retirement. It hasn’t been easy living with Parkinson’s disease. Fox says it has influenced the projects he selects in his acting career, saying that remembering lines has become more difficult in the decades since he was first diagnosed.
Having just finished playing air guitar during a shoot for the PEOPLE’s Kindness cover that appeared on October 26, in his usual determinedly upbeat attitude Fox says, “I’m rocking and rolling.”
This year has been a tough one of breaks and recovery. The beloved star — who has helped raise more than a billion and a half dollars for Parkinson’s research through his foundation since his 1991 diagnosis with the disease — will soon receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an honorary Oscar recognizing outstanding philanthropic efforts, at the Governors Awards on Nov. 19. But in the background, he has been quietly navigating another challenging chapter. The past year has brought with it a cascade of frustrating new injuries that no amount of optimism can wish away.
He is no stranger to difficult periods. In a memoir two years ago, he chronicled what he called the worst year of his life, a period beginning in 2018 in which a risky spinal-cord surgery to remove a tumor was followed by a painful left-arm break. It ended with his recovery and an African safari with his wife, actress Tracy Pollan, and their four children: son Sam, 33; twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, 27, and youngest daughter Esmé, 21.
But the past year brought new hurdles. “It got worse,” Fox says matter-of-factly. “I broke my cheek, then my hand, then my shoulder, had a replacement shoulder put in and broke my [right] arm, then I broke my elbow. I’m 61 years old, and I’m feeling it a little bit more.”
While Parkinson’s affects Fox’s movement, those around him say the injuries don’t necessarily mean his disease is progressing any faster. He got an infection after surgery for his broken hand, and temporarily not being able to use the hand led to balance issues and falls. He admits the painful incidents put a dent in his sunny outlook. “I was never really a cranky guy, but I got very cranky and short with people,” he says. “I try to nip it in the bud. I always think of these aides who work with me. And I often say to them, ‘Whatever I say, just imagine I said “please” at the beginning and “thank you” at the end'”.
His recovery has provided an emotional lift. “Just now,” he says, “I’m coming through where the last of my injuries are healing up; my arm is feeling good. Life is interesting. It deals you these things.” Now, he says, “the whole mission is: Don’t fall down. So whatever works to not fall down, whether it’s a walker or a wheelchair, a cane, a guy with a belt around my waist holding onto it — I use all those tools.”
For Michael J. Fox, walking across a stage unassisted is a victory—one that reaffirms his optimism.