Michael J. Fox retires from time traveling and basks in the present

Michael J. Fox has a problem: too much good luck. His starring role on Family Ties made him TV’s No. 2 comic actor (after Bill Cosby); his tossed-off film comedies Teen Wolf and The Secret of My Success grossed $100 million; and Back to the Future made him the biggest little action-comedy hero in movie history. The time-trip fantasy and its sequel took in about $640 million worldwide. With Part III opening in theaters in late May and BTTF II joining BTTF at video stores, the trilogy will probably clear a cool billion by Christmas.

When a 29-year-old actor’s grosses approach 10 figures, he tends to quit counting change and start trying to make one — a career move, a stretch, a stab at tragedy and grandeur. As Woody Allen once put it, ”When you’re doing comedy, you’re not sitting at the grown-ups’ table.”

Alas, when Fox tried to get respect by getting serious in Bright Lights, Big City and Casualties of War, he found himself the prisoner of his comic persona. Nobody wanted to see him suffer; each movie earned about half as much as Teen Wolf. He knew the risk he was running: Just before the release of Casualties, he quipped, ”If this movie makes only a buck and a half, it’s going to be things like Bikinis Away for me.”

Yet he looks back on his serious-drama phase without regret. ”I was in the position of being able to do almost any film I wanted to,” Fox explains. ”You don’t get that many opportunities, and you have a responsibility to yourself to do all the things you think you want to do whether people want to see them or not. I think that cycle in my life and in my thinking was very satisfactorily capped with Casualties of War.”

Fox shares his audience’s satisfaction with his familiar — and now reborn — role as an affable funnyman. ”Comedy is something that comes easier to me and involves less angst and struggle. Of course, anything you don’t struggle for and enjoy, you immediately feel guilty about. I’m a little older now, and I’m very comfortable about just goofing around and having a good time.”

Fox says marriage and fatherhood have matured him; he feels at peace with his place in the film business. ”I can’t believe I get to do this: I pretend I’m other people for a living. I have to explain that to my kid in a couple of years, when he asks what I do. ‘I pretend that I’m other people. That’s my job. Gimme my hat. I gotta go.’ I’m dissecting it a lot less and trying to enjoy it more.”

Fox thinks the same attitude might help viewers make the most of the Back to the Future movies. ”Part II was confusing,” Fox admits. ”But it was a middle section, nothing more and nothing less. It wasn’t a pure sequel. When people see Part III, they’ll see how it all fits.”

Whatever the public reaction, one thing is certain: No more time traveling. It’s definitely the end of the Future for Fox. At this point, he plans to do more of what his audience has always demanded: upbeat comedy. He’s getting ready right now to start work on a movie that actually comes close to capturing the course of his own career. In it Fox plays a TV comedy star who, feeling guilty about how effortlessly he got rich, is determined to prove himself as a serious actor. He finally gets a chance to star in a crime drama and researches his role as a policeman by hanging out with a real hard-nosed cop (James Woods). Gritty realism gives way to gags, action, and good fun.

The movie’s title is The Hard Way. But as far as Michael J. Fox is concerned, it might as well be called Easy Street.

Back to the Future Part III
  • Movie
  • 118 minutes
  • Robert Zemeckis