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The Sunday Conversation: Michael J. Fox

On 'Back to the Future's' 25th anniversary, his disease and aging.

October 24, 2010|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Michael J. Fox, 49, is back yet again as time traveler Marty McFly in the 25th-anniversary DVD and Blu-ray release of the "Back to the Future" trilogy. He's also busy raising four kids in New York with wife Tracy Pollan and serving as "head cheerleader" of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

You've been talking about "Back to the Future" for the past 25 years. Do you ever get sick of talking about it?

No, it's funny. This was true from the beginning, and it's even truer now; there are thousands of people who know more about the movie than I do. People come up to me and ask me questions about the flux capacitor and the possibility of time travel or hoverboards. And I say, "I was just in the movie. I don't know what to tell you."

The trilogy has endurance, which is a quality so many later, ultimately forgettable blockbusters lack. What do you think accounts for that?

It's lots of things, and all credit is due to [writer-director] Bob Zemeckis and [writer-producer] Bob Gale, [executive producer] Steven [Spielberg] too, I guess. They stayed with the vision, and while it was big, it wasn't quite the same as the blockbusters you're referring to today. They would never show a character just walking across the street the way they showed Crispin Glover, and a lot of times, how a character walks informs us who he is as a person. That would be quick cut, boom to the next thing and boom to the next thing. I think there was a lot of attention paid to character development and character history and the richness of the back story.

Which was your favorite film in the trilogy?

Probably the first one, just because it was such an unusual experience for me. I did "Back to the Future" and "Family Ties" at the same time, so it was kind of a blur. I worked 18 to 22 hours a day almost.

I actually liked the second one. It added layers of complexity to the first one.

My recollection is it was actually one script originally and Universal had a cow. They said, "Do you know what this will cost to make?" So they made it into two movies. Now, people do these franchises and they do them all in one whack, but then it was really unheard of.

What's it like for you to see yourself when you were younger and healthier?

It's a funny thing. I was thinking about Muhammad Ali, who's a friend of mine, and how he must feel. I called up Lani, his wife, and I said, "How does Ali feel when he watches television and sees footage of himself as a young fighter, and he's so poetic and smooth and glib and fantastic and healthy? Does it make him sad?" She said, "He loves it!"

When I was flipping the channels — usually on any given night I can find me somewhere — I used to flick it off like an infomercial. Now I'll stop and watch for 10 or 15 minutes, not with any kind of nostalgia but purely to check it out. But there's no bittersweet, there's no longing. It was then, and it was great, it was on the road to now, and now is fantastic. I'm happy to get back to the future, so to speak.

So how are you?

I'm fine. The disease progresses, but the velocity has not been intense. I'm not careening off a cliff. It's a lot of stuff with aging anyway. Sometimes I'll say to Tracy, "I can't do that." And she'll say, "It's not because of Parkinson's. It's because you're old." I have to admit she's right sometimes. I'll be 50 next year.

How optimistic are you at this point about finding a cure?

We'd obviously like to find a cure, but we have all these other issues we're trying to solve along the way. One of the most pressing missions right now is to find a biomarker, which is a way to identify the disease and the tendency toward the disease in patients who are asymptomatic.

In March, you received an honorary doctorate from Sweden's Karolinska Institute, which is one of the world's top 10 medical schools. Not bad for a high school dropout.

I do have my G.E.D. It was really thrilling. Any of those things are just a reflection of the good work the foundation does. But I was happy to get it. I call my mom up and say, "It's your son, the doctor."

You're on "The Good Wife" Nov. 9. How do you choose your occasional guest spots?

I figure out how I relate to the material and how I relate to the show. That's a great show, well written and well acted. If they're willing to take what comes with having me on set, which is, you can't always tell when you're getting your shot and that kind of stuff, then I was willing to give it a shot, and it was fun.

I play a lawyer who has a form of Parkinson's, and he's representing a drug company, and he's unabashed about using his condition to evoke sympathy from the jury. I hope I haven't used my condition to evoke anything other than someone holding a door for me now and then. But I thought it was fun to get inside this guy's head and think if you were going to be manipulative, what would you do and what tactics would you employ?

You did deliberately not take your medication when you testified before Congress.

If I'm representing that community, I owe it to them to represent their situation honestly. When I'm not symptomatic as a result of my medication, when I'm not tremulous or have the other effects of the disease, that's not my natural state. The medication covers that up. It makes things much more smooth on a day-to-day basis, but it's not the reality.

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