By Jess Cagle
Updated October 01, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

There is joy in the office of Michael J. Fox. ”How cool is that?” the boss exclaims to several colleagues during his lunch break. Fox holds up a Hollywood Reporter story announcing that Paul McCudden, one of his assistants, has just sold his first screenplay,called The Brave. It will be produced by Jodie Foster’s production company, Egg Pictures. ”How cool is this, man?” says Fox, carrying on generously. ”It’s so great!” It’s also ironic. The Brave is a dank, dark allegory about a young, dirt- poor father who arranges to sacrifice himself in a snuff film so that his family will inherit his $30,000 paycheck after he’s carved up-hardly what one would expect to come spinning out of Fox’s seemingly sunny orbit. This is, after all, a man who made his considerable fortune growing up in a white-bread TV family and traveling merrily through time. But Fox has, if not a dark side, at least a few shady edges; stories of his drinking days are widely discussed around town. And as for his fortunes, they are not what they once were. His new movie For Love or Money, an old-fashioned romance about an ambitious young hotel concierge, opens this week under suspicion; last June it was abruptly yanked from the summer lineup. Fox concedes that Universal was eager to distance it from his other summer release, Life With Mikey, which had already bombed thermonuclearly. ”After a while,” says Fox, ”you get kind of tired of hearing, ‘Well, he was good, but-”’ And so, at age 32, he has seized firmer control of his career. Last summer, he fired his longtime agent Peter Benedek, signed with Mike Ovitz’s powerhouse CAA, and invigorated his own production company. ”I was feeling this malaise,” Fox says with some frustration, after his ecstatic assistant has raced off to photocopy the front page of the Reporter. ”It kind of unfolded around the time of Life With Mikey. I was just saying, ‘What do I do now?”’ He devotes some time to the no-fat turkey burger laid before him on the coffee table, then gets back to his future. ”I got a deal to make films,” he says. ”Goddamnit, let’s make them. I got a television development deal. Goddamnit, let’s develop television.” Fox finishes his burger and is summoned back to the set of Greedy, his latest film, a farce costarring Phil Hartman, Nancy Travis, and Kirk Douglas. At the reception desk in Fox’s offices, McCudden is wondering who might play the desperate father in his own decidedly un-Foxy movie. He watches as another assistant leads Fox out the door and down the sidewalk toward a black, chauffeured car. ”Hmmm,” he says. ”Michael J. Fox in a snuff film. It could work.”

Drastic, maybe, but clearly an image change is in order. Fox was only 21 when he became an icon. As young Republican Alex P. Keaton on TV’s Family Ties, he put a happy face on 1980s yuppie materialism for the better part of that decade. Just over 5’4”, with impeccable timing, he made greed positively adorable in The Secret of My Success. Squeaky-clean, sly but silly, he slid easily into Back to the Future and its two sequels, which earned a total of nearly $1 billion worldwide. As a bright, crafty, squirrelly hero, Fox was big business. But times changed. Alex Keaton’s hero hobbled out of the White House under the pall of Iran-contra. Come the ’90s, Michael J. Fox’s go-getter ’80s image had worn thin. Good as he was, Fox had never taken off in dramatic parts (Light of Day and Casualties of War fizzled at the box office). He resorted to self-parody, and failed, in 1991’s The Hard Way as a spoiled star, then in Mikey as a former child actor gone to seed. After 15 years in the business-beginning in his native Canada with his role as an orphan being raised by a playboy uncle in the TV series Leo and Me-Fox has reached his mid-career crisis. Eternally boyish talents can blossom in one of two ways: impishly elegant (James Cagney) or impishly irritating (Mickey Rooney). At this point, Fox could go either way. ”I think in For Love or Money, Michael is a real romantic lead, like Cary Grant,” says its director, Barry Sonnenfeld. ”It’s a little bit less of the energetic, wacky Michael, where he screams ‘Indians!’ or something like ‘Terrorists!’ or ‘Arabs!’ or ‘Iranians!’ or whatever he used to scream out in those Back to the Future movies.” No one is better equipped to understand this transitional stage than the star himself. ”I try to make these interesting movies in spite of the movie (the studios) want me to make,” he says. ”They have it in their minds that they want a Michael Fox movie. I’m going to do everything I can to make it interesting, in spite of what they might have in mind.” ”He’s very, very savvy,” says Matt Tolmach, the 29-year-old production chief of Fox’s company, Snowback Productions (the name is a Canadian play on ”wetback”). ”I find him a much edgier, much more complex character than I’ve seen on film.” The offices of Snowback are in a generous, airy bungalow on the Universal Studios lot-a tidy cocoon from which Fox could emerge as the next Ron Howard, another child star who grew up and spread his impressive directorial wings. So far, Fox’s directing credits are limited to a couple of TV episodes. Early next year, though, Snowback will roll the cameras on a movie called Thirty Wishes-directed by and starring Michael J. Fox. In Thirty Wishes, he will calculatedly forsake the driven baby boomers whom he epitomized on Family Ties. Instead, he hopes to reposition himself as the poster boy of the post-boom Generation X. ”I relate to that group,” says Fox. In the movie he will play an aimless young man who, upon turning 30, is awarded every birthday wish he ever made. The character is disillusioned. Struggling to find out what he wants. ”There’s a ton of Michael Fox in this movie,” says Tolmach. Fox recently set up a meeting with actor-director Kenneth Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing). ”He’s my age,” says Fox, ”and he’s doing what I’d like to do. So we talked about our generation. We talked about our attitudes toward movies, toward acting, our attitudes toward directing film, studios, all kinds of things.” ”I think he’s going to be a fantastic director,” says Benedek, who remains friends with his former client. ”People who have spent a lot of time in the half-hour television business tend to make really good directors. They’re trying to turn out something funny and moving in 22 minutes. There’s a whole bunch of them you can look at, from Danny DeVito and Ron Howard to Rob Reiner and Garry Marshall.” ”I have a lot of interesting things in front of me,” Fox says one August afternoon, dangling a sneakered foot over the arm of a big, cushiony chair in Tolmach’s office and winding up for one of his typical speeches. ”But I’m not driven by ego because I’ve accomplished so much in my life. I’m not ego-driven in terms of defining what those things are. If those things are that I direct and star in the representative film of my generation, I’m happy to do it, and I hope it makes a jillion dollars.” Fox often converses in rambling soliloquies that begin with a thesis, fly off on tangents, and usually-amazingly-circle back to where he began, his point made a dozen different ways. He really wants to be understood. The following day, he is still trying to clarify the above statement. ”It’s not like we sit here and say we speak for anybody,” he says. ”You know what I’m saying?” He continues for a few minutes and concludes with, ”These guys (the audience) may say, ‘You know what? Save it. We’ll pick our own icons.”’ ”The amount of pressure that is put on him any time anything comes out that he’s starring in is so enormous,” says Fox’s wife, actress Tracy Pollan, ”that I think part of him just says, ‘F — – it-there are other things that I want to do and can do.”’ Located next to Sydney Pollack’s office and across a driveway from Steven Spielberg’s elaborate Amblin headquarters, the Snowback bungalow often vibrates with laughter. During meetings, Fox-or Foxy, as Tolmach calls him-has been known to leap up on the desk and act out the scenes. And these two are easily sidetracked. ”Remember Man From Atlantis, the way he swam?” says Tolmach during a meeting. ”What, Patrick Duffy?” asks Fox, playing Butt-head to Tolmach’s Beavis. ”He had this great thing, I used to try to do it in the pool.” ”Yeah. He would just, like, kick, and he could-” ”Right,” says Tolmach. ”But his body was all one.” ”Yeah,” Fox concurs. ”It was kind of like a dolphin.” Lunch is delivered by Fox’s personal trainer/cook, a brawny ponytailed guy named Rich. Most of Fox’s testosterone-heavy entourage look more like Secret Service men than the hair-and-makeup detail. Add to this lineup a bodyguard-a staple ever since Fox received death threats around the time of his 1988 marriage to Pollan. Fox’s mother, Phyllis, a widow who lives in Canada near her other four grown children, says her youngest son was always a target for bullies. ”He would just laugh it off,” she says, ”and he always had friends who were big and kind of kept an eye on him.” Fox’s office at Snowback is usually vacant. He actually lives back east in Vermont, Connecticut, and Manhattan, with Pollan, 32, and son Sam, 4. Except for a picture of Pollan, his desk is blank, and the office has a still, gentlemanly air-a leather club chair, a pile of antique suitcases, a weathered set of croquet mallets, a wooden trunk for a coffee table. A framed Hard Way poster decorates one wall; behind his desk there’s a framed letter from Cagney, his equally diminutive hero. ”All signs point to your being little,” it says. ”That goes for me too. Size doesn’t mean a thing!” A Pepsi machine stands across the room, dispensing free cans of the stuff-a gift from Fox’s reported $2 million endorsement deal. Mindful of fellow Pepsi pushers Madonna and Michael Jackson, he says, ”I’m the only one who isn’t in some scandal, so they still send me free Pepsi.”