Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox, 62, has been a household name for decades. The longtime Hollywood heartthrob won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2023 Academy Awards, five Emmy Awards, and numerous other accolades. Despite being a successful actor, the 62-year-old has also dedicated his life to Parkinson’s disease research after being diagnosed over three decades ago. Michael founded The Michael J. Fox Foundation in 2000 and continues to advocate for those with the disease today. Amid his battle with the disease, Michael has spoken about his battle at length many times. He spoke about calling his diagnosis a “gift” in an interview with Entertainment Tonight on November 11, 2023.
On May 12, the proud father-of-four released his new movie, Still, which is a documentary about his life and living with his condition. He recalled the first time he noticed his symptoms in 1990. “I woke up with a ferocious hangover,” Michael shared. “I placed my left hand across the bridge of my nose to block the sunlight. A moth’s wing flattered against my right cheek. I put my hand in front of my face so I could finger flick the beast across the room. That’s what I noticed my pinky, auto-animated. For christ sake, it’s just your freaking finger. But it wasn’t mine. It was somebody else’s.” He concluded, “The trembling was a message from the future.”
Michael J. Fox Diagnosed With Parkinson’s Disease
Michael was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991, according to his organization’s website. “I was in my late 20s — how could I possibly have this old person’s disease?” Michael wondered in his 2023 documentary. “With no obvious cue, my left hand would begin shaking uncontrollably. I had my internist prescribe medications. Therapeutic value and comfort weren’t the reasons I took these pills. There was only one reason — to hide.”
It would not be until 1998 that the Oscar-winner would be ready to announce his diagnosis to the world. “Day after day, for hours on end, I never gave a second thought of sharing my diagnosis with anyone,” he admitted. “I had work to do.” He was only 29 years old at the time he finally did share the news, meaning he has now been living with Parkinson’s for over half of his life. “The stress of doing a weekly show [Spin City] in front of an audience was exacerbating my symptoms,” Michael shared in his Still documentary. “The whole of my left arm would be shaking forceful enough to shake my entire body. Still, no one outside of my family knew.”
Once he could no longer hide his trembling hand, though, he had to come clean, and it went better than he expected. “I had to hope that they could accept me,” he said. “I got this huge reaction. After all those years of hiding my symptoms, I could let it go. I realized that to do anything, I’m just going to be myself. I was still me. Some people would view the news of my disease as an ending, but I was starting to sense that it was really a beginning.” Since he revealed to the world that he had the condition, he has been very public about his advocacy work against the disease, including starting The Michael J. Fox Foundation in 2000.
In 2022, Michael opened up about the time he told his wife, Tracy Pollan, about his diagnosis during an interview with CBS Sunday Mornings. “We were just married when I was diagnosed,” he explained at the time. “We’ve been married for 32 years, I’ve been diagnosed for 30 years. Very early in the marriage she got this dumped on.” He noted that the “last time” they cried about his diagnosis was the first time he told her over three decades ago. Since them, they’ve welcomed four kids: Sam Michael, Schuyler Frances, Aquinnah Kathleen, and Esmé Annabelle.
What Is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that can cause “unintended or uncontrollable movements, such as shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination,” per the National Institute on Aging. The condition progresses slowly and can often make it difficult for a person to speak and walk. The same organization notes that although it is unknown why, often times Parkinson’s effects for men than women. Other symptoms of the disease include “behavioral changes, sleep problems, depression, memory difficulties, and fatigue.”
A diagnosis is typically achieved by a neurological examination, as no blood or lab tests can diagnose non-genetic cases of Parkinson’s. There are medications used to treat the condition, however, there is no known cure for the condition. Other alternatives to medicine include surgery and therapies.
How Long Has Michael J. Fox Been Sick?
As previously mentioned, Michael has been battling Parkinson’s since he was 29 years old. He recently was awarded with the the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2023 13th Governors Awards. During his acceptance speech (watch here), Michael shed light on his disease and expressed gratitude for those battling the same condition.
“I’m so grateful to all of these people and thousands more who will make this world without Parkinson’s a reality. I’m not sure I communicate it well, but it is humbling in the deepest way to stand here and accept your kindness and admiration, when truly the effort is being driven by others so deserving of this attention,” he said at the time. “I’m grateful to them and to you because my optimism is fueled by my gratitude. And with gratitude, optimism is sustainable.”
Despite being diagnosed in 1991, Michael didn’t speak publicly about the disease until seven years later. He spoke about how he used to hide his Parkinsons in a May 18, 2023 interview on The View. “It took me a while to get my head around it, and it was just a lot of stuff to manage. My left hand was my really dominant side early on. [It] shook a lot. So if you look at everything I ever did from 1991 on, I had something in my left hand. I decided that that was it. So I told Barbara Walters and People Magazine,” he said.
How Is Michael J. Fox Doing Today?
Michael recently shared an update on his health with Stat News on April 12, 2023. “It’s been a terrible year,” he told the outlet, before adding that he’s “feeling better,” after new research funded by his foundation has brought celebratory news. The news that could turn things around for many was published in The Lancet Neurology, found that earlier intervention with Parkinson’s can now take place as a result of “examining spinal fluid from living patients,” per PEOPLE.
“This is the thing,” Michael said to Stat News earlier this month. “This is the big reward. This is the big trophy.” With the new science, one could possibly discover the condition many years sooner “It’s all changed. It can be known and treated early on. It’s huge,” he quipped. And in October 2022, Michael told PEOPLE that he also suffered numerous broken bones amid his disease. “Just now 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,” he recalled at the time. “It got worse,” he continued. “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.”
Michael also opened up about how he’s feeling now in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, which aired on April 30, 2023. “You don’t die from Parkinson’s. You die with Parkinson’s. So I’ve been thinking about the mortality of it,” he said. “I’m not gonna be 80. I’m not gonna be 80.”
While speaking about the condition, Michael told CBS that “everyday it gets tougher,” while explaining how his condition has progressed. He explained that the disease has led him to break different bones and other health problems. “I had spinal surgery. I had a tumor on my spine. It was benign, but it messed up my walking,” he said. “I broke this arm. I broke this arm. I broke this elbow. I broke my face. I broke my hand from falling, which is a big killer with Parkinson’s.”
In the Still documentary, Michael had a positive outlook about his situation, but was also realistic. “The [way I walk] really freaks people out,” he shared. “Do with it what you will. If you pity me, it’s never going to get to me. I’m pathetic, got s*** going on. But I’m a tough son of a b****. I’m a cockroach. You can’t kill a cockroach.”
Michael has called his battle with Parkinson’s a “gift,” but he clarified his remarks at his A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cure Parkinson’s Gala on November 11, 2023. He told ET that his diagnosis shifted his perspective. “It really gets all of that stuff out of your life, and you start seeing things that are important, like your family and your health and your career and your obligation and your opportunity to serve,” he told the outlet. “It’s a tremendous gift in that sense.”