Michael J. Fox, most famous for his roles as staunch conservative Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties and as the time-traveling companion of Doc Brown in the Back to the Future franchise, appeared to have everything going for him in the late '80s. The actor, who comes from a Canadian military family, considered himself lucky when it came to the roles he landed. But in 1991, something felt off. The actor noticed a twitch in his pinkie, and less than a year later, he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease. The degenerative disorder affects nerve cells in the brain, causing tremors and joint stiffness, and impairing body movement.
Although there is no known cure, Fox is still optimistic about his diagnosis. The actor has become the celebrity advocate of Parkinson's disease, and his charity, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, has provided over $900 million to Parkinson's research and treatment.
Only A Small Circle Of Family And Friends Knew About The Disease
When Fox was first diagnosed in 1991, only a few close family members and friends were aware of his condition. Fox wasn't keen on making his ailment public information, as he felt that it might make people hesitant to hire him for future rolls. Aside from his wife, his mother, and his siblings, not many were privvy to his condition.
He continued to work in features, and when he was approached about Spin City in 1996, Fox made sure that those he was working closely with - specifically producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and ABC president Bob Iger - were aware of his condition. "I said it could get very bad or not get bad," Fox told People. "They said, 'Let's go.'"
After His Diagnosis, He Coped By Drinking Heavily Before Eventually Getting On The Wagon
Fox is open about the fact he had been something of a heavy drinker before his Parkinson's diagnosis. When he officially received his diagnosis, he found himself drinking even more than usual.
Speaking with The Guardian, Fox revisited the moment when he knew he had to give up alcohol. A year after his diagnosis, Fox woke up groggy on the couch after a night of binge drinking. Half-empty beer cans were strewn around him, and his son was climbing on him. Fox's wife didn't seem disgusted with his actions, but rather, indifferent. This is when he knew he had to make a change:
I was so... it really is a course correction - at that point in my life, when I got Parkinson's, I had to look at the way I was living: the drinking. It wasn't like a little warning sign at the side of the road. It was a big caution in flashing lights. I don't know that I would have the family that I have now, the life I have, the sense of purpose, if none of this had happened.
- Photo: Spin City/ABC
In March 1997, He Underwent Brain Surgery To Reduce His Tremors
In March 1997, roughly a year and a half before he announced his diagnosis to the world, Fox underwent brain surgery to help eliminate some of his more debilitating tremors and symptoms.
The procedure, called a thalamotomy, targets precise parts of the thalamus, or the part of the brain that controls involuntary movements. The procedure helped alleviate some of Fox's symptoms, including most of the tremors on his left side.
In 1998, Fox Announced He Had Parkinson’s Disease
Fox kept his Parkinson's diagnosis a closely guarded secret that only family and close friends were privvy to. In 1998, seven years after doctors first diagnosed Fox with early-onset Parkinson's disease, the actor went public with his illness. Fox gave an exclusive interview to People, which first ran in the December 7, 1998 issue. His disease had progressed to a point where he no longer felt like he could effectively keep it private - and that by talking about it, he could help others in his same situation:
It’s not that I had a deep, dark secret. It was just my thing to deal with. But this box I had put everything into kind of expanded to a point where it’s difficult to lug around. What’s inside the box isn’t inhibiting me. It’s the box itself. I think I can help people by talking. I want to help myself and my family.