When Canadian actor Michael J. Fox was being considered for a role in the NBC comedy, Family Ties, the network’s president, Brandon Tartikoff, was not on board with the decision. After the show’s producer, Gary David Goldberg, continued to support Fox, Tartikoff said: “Go ahead if you insist. But I’m telling you, this is not the kind of face you’ll ever see on a lunch box.” Fox became a huge star after appearing in Steven Spielberg’s Back to the Future and soon Family Ties took advantage of his popularity by having the show focus on his character Alex P. Keaton. Fox got the last laugh, sending Tartikoff a lunch box with his photo on it and a note: “Brandon, They wanted me to put a crow in here, but … Love and Kisses, Michael J.”
As a child, Fox was constantly in motion so it was no surprise that his rise in Hollywood would be fast. What he didn’t expect, however, was that he would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he was 29. He continued to hide his illness well into his 30s, trying his best to disguise his symptoms in front of the camera. When he went public with the news, his fans embraced him and he became a forceful voice for Parkinson’s, establishing a foundation to raise money for more research.
STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie is an unflinching look at Fox’s life, then but mostly now. Putting together clips from his TV shows and films, and recreating scenes from his life, the documentary tracks the amazing trajectory of his career and the impact Parkinson’s has had on his life.
Michael J. Fox attends the special screening of the Apple Original Film “STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie” at the Paramount Theatre at the SXSW Film & TV Festival 2023. Photo credit: Apple TV+.
Fox makes it clear that he does not see himself as a victim and is not looking for pity. He quickly gets that out of the way in one of the first scenes. Coming out of his Manhattan apartment building with his physical therapist, he falls, something that we learn happens often. A woman stops to see if he needs help, recognizes him and tells him she loves his work. He’s as gracious as ever, not apologizing, not embarrassed. At another point he faces the camera with a bruise on his face, telling the documentary’s producer, David Guggenheim, that he fell and hit furniture, breaking several bones in his face. He notes that people who keep telling him to be careful miss the point. No matter how careful he is, he’s going to fall. With Parkinson’s, gravity wins.
Despite the seriousness of this documentary, there are many funny moments. Fox’s comedic timing, key to his success, is evident. When Guggenheim asks “How’s Tracy?” referring to Tracy Pollan, Fox’s wife, he answers, “Married to me,” pauses, then adds, “still.” Not only is Pollan still married to Fox, but along with their four children, makes up the actor’s critical support team. In the many family scenes, there are no tears, only lots of laughter and love.
STILL, at its heart, is a story of enduring love between Fox and Pollan. The two met when she was cast on Family Ties as a love interest for Fox’s character. Filming a scene, Fox detected garlic on her breath – she had eaten shrimp scampi for lunch – and embarrassed her by mentioning it. Hurt showing on her face, she swears at him and leaves. While Fox could have dated anyone, few displayed the strength of character that Pollan had in that one encounter. She’s the real hero in this story, standing besides him through his struggles which included years of alcohol abuse. He’s now been sober for decades.
STILL is a continuation of Fox’s efforts to show the devastating effects of Parkinson’s. From 2010 to 2016, he was a recurring guest star on CBS’s The Good Wife, playing a ruthless lawyer with a neurological condition. Opposite the show’s star, Julianne Margulies, he argued cases, tics and all. And in 2015, alongside Muhammed Ali, he testified to Congress about Parkinson’s and the need for more research funding. Before his appearance, he refused to take any medication, wanting the lawmakers to witness firsthand the symptoms of the disease.
Watching clips from Fox’s films and TV shows makes for many bittersweet moments. He was a once in a lifetime talent, his boyish charm making the conservative Alex P. Keaton irresistible. And no one else could have launched time traveler Marty McFly into the movie firmament. (Turns out that Fox replaced Eric Stolz who producers felt wasn’t working in the role.) We can only imagine how many more great characters Fox might have created if Parkinson’s hadn’t intervened. What this documentary shows, however, is that he’s now playing the most important role of his life.
Credit for top photo: Apple TV+