Michael J. Fox opens up about alcoholism, broken bones, and 'crazy Crispin' Glover in new doc
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, the latest documentary from Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim, tells the whirlwind story of how an undersized kid from Canada moved to Hollywood on his last dime, became the "boy prince of Hollywood," and ultimately channeled his greatest challenge into a beacon of hope for millions suffering from Parkinson's disease.
Told through a series of interviews with the actor, and interspersed with a blend of reenactments and cleverly selected clips of his work, Still provides an intimate, unflinching, and often funny look at Fox's incredible life story. The actor's trademark humor permeates even its darker moments, and his banter with Guggenheim is a highlight. Lucky Man and other Fox memoirs provide a backbone to the storytelling, with portions of his self-voiced audiobooks used as voiceover. We also hear a little from his kids and a lot from his wife, Tracy Pollan.
Still, some of the documentary's most poignant moments come in unscripted exchanges with Guggenheim, who questions him about the bruises and scrapes that crop up on his body, evidence of his most recent falls. At one point during filming, Fox reveals he fell and broke bones in his face, which required surgery and pins.
But in the end, Still offers a hopeful and uplifting message of the power of perseverance, hope, and humor in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Below, EW breaks down some of our favorite moments from Still, which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival.
"I was never still"
Even as a little kid, Michael J. Fox was always on the go. Still opens with a reenactment of the time Fox, then a toddler, walked out the front door of his parents' home and strolled over to his local candy shop. When his shocked mother got a call from the owner, she apologized and said she'd rush over with some money to pay for anything Fox had taken. The owner laughed, telling Mrs. Fox that her child had brought plenty of her money with him.
Early on, it was obvious that Fox was smaller and looked younger than other children his age. When he'd go trick-or-treating with his younger sisters, adults would often assume that he was the baby of the family. He endured bullying as he got older and developed a quick wit and keen sense of humor to cope. If he could make the bullies laugh, he realized, they'd be less inclined to pummel him. Limited by his size, Fox found more of a calling doing drama than sports, and enjoyed his status as the cute boy in a class of mostly girls.
"A potential f— up"
Fox had a complicated relationship with his father, William, a police dispatcher and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Before he got into acting, Fox tells Guggenheim his prospects were limited, and his father considered him something of a "potential f— up." But Fox's acting prospects were looking up. His stature and youthful look, the source of so much bullying and strife, provided him with a valuable advantage in his budding career. At 15, he was cast as a 12-year-old boy in the Canadian TV series Leo and Me. Producers were thrilled to work with a teenager who could play the younger role in lieu of hiring a child actor with less experience and range.
At 18, Fox decided it was time to take his shot in Hollywood, and to his great surprise, his dad went along with it, even driving him to Los Angeles. He might not have said it, but the supportive gesture showed Fox that his dad believed in him and saw something special in his acting.
Jam packets and dental floss
Fox lived in a cramped apartment in the early days of his career, so broke that he would take home packets of jam from restaurants to eat as a snack. A callback for a role in Ordinary People was less than encouraging — Fox remembers director Robert Redford flossing his teeth throughout the audition. The role ultimately went to Timothy Hutton, and Redford won an Oscar for his debut behind the camera. There was reason for Fox to hope, though: He'd scored small roles in 1980's Midnight Madness and 1982's Class of 1984.
The role that would change his life came about just as a broke Fox was considering cutting his losses and leaving Hollywood. Even then, he got the part by the skin of his teeth and over the objections of honchos at NBC.
Lunch box revenge
Fox was in the mix of actors being considered for a role on a new sitcom called Family Ties, but ended up losing the role to burgeoning star Matthew Broderick. When the Ferris Bueller star backed out, though, Fox was considered a viable replacement by a handful of the show's crew. Unfortunately, his supporters did not initially include the show's creator, Gary David Goldberg, and NBC big wig Brandon Tartikoff. Fortunately for Fox, co-producers and writers advocated to give him a chance, and Goldberg relented, filming the pilot with Fox in the role of neoconservative Alex P. Keaton. Goldberg, and especially the live audience, lapped up Fox's scene-stealing performance, but Tartikoff still wasn't convinced, telling the creator that Fox might be good, but he'd never be a face you'd see on a lunchbox.
The show became a hit, with Fox as its standout star, seemingly to the chagrin of his onscreen parents, Meredith Baxter-Birney and Michael Gross, who were originally supposed to be the main attractions. Fox admits that he got some playful revenge on Tartikoff years later, sending him a Back to the Future lunchbox with his face on it, along with a message: "To Brandon: This is for you to put your crow in. Love and Kisses, Michael J." Fox went on to win three Emmys and a Golden Globe for his work on the show.
"Sorry I sucked"
Fox's comedic chops on Family Ties attracted the attention of Robert Zemeckis, who was working on a movie about a time-traveling teenager. Zemeckis wanted Fox for the lead role of Marty McFly, but, due to his work on Family Ties, Greenberg refused to let the director approach his star.
As the story goes, Eric Stoltz got the part and filmed several scenes. When Baxter-Birney, Fox's TV mom on Family Ties, took maternity leave, Fox was freed up to do a movie, accepting a role in what he thought of at the time as a "B-grade wolf movie."
In Still, Fox recalls hearing about Back to the Future while working on Teen Wolf, and not realizing that he was wanted for the lead role. He recalls being angry that "crazy" Crispin Glover was cast in a cool movie while he was stuck with Teen Wolf.
Meanwhile, Zemeckis wasn't pleased with Stoltz's performance as McFly, feeling he lacked the comedic timing the role required. He again pursued Fox. This time, Goldberg relented. Baxter-Birney was back from maternity leave, and the showrunner believed she could help carry more of the load.
That didn't mean, however, that he was letting go of his golden boy. For the next two months, Fox would rehearse for Family Ties from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at which point a driver would take him to the Back to the Future set, where he would work until the early morning.
In Still, Fox admits he sometimes couldn't even remember which set he was on or which character he was supposed to be. Believing his exhaustion affected his performance, Fox apologized to Zemeckis after the shoot. "I'm sorry, I know I sucked," he said, "but I had a really good time."
"The boy prince of hollywood"
When Teen Wolf and Back to the Future both lit up the box office in 1985, Fox instantly became one of the most famous people in the world. Dubbing himself the "boy prince of Hollywood," Fox admits to some questionable behavior during this period. "I was a bit of a dick," he admits.
It was during this time that Fox met his future wife. Pollan, who came from a more serious acting background, was cast as his love interest on Family Ties. It was not love at first sight; Pollan was initially put off by him. It wasn't until a couple years later, when they reunited on Bright Lights, Big City, that they fell in love. They married in 1988 and have four children together.
In sickness and health
Fox woke up one morning in 1991 to find his pinky finger fluttering involuntarily. At first, he shrugged it off, crediting it to the hard partying he'd done with Woody Harrelson the night before. Unfortunately, it didn't stop. When he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, he was told he had 10 years left before he'd be too sick to work. In Still, he remembers that when he delivered the news to his wife, the first thing she said was, "In sickness and health."
Fox chose to keep the illness private and quickly signed on for several films in the '90s, none of which were as well-received as his previous work. Medication helped lessen his symptoms for periods of time, so Fox became an expert at timing his dosages so that the effects would kick in during his takes. When symptoms persisted, he hid the shaking by holding and playing with objects in his hands.
Fox turned to alcohol to deal with the emotional impact of the incurable degenerative disease. In Still, he's quick to admit that he became an alcoholic when asked directly by Guggenheim. Fox credits his wife with helping him overcome the addiction, saying he's been sober 30 years now.
As his film career seemed to be stalling, Fox returned both to TV and Goldberg, starring in the producer's new show, Spin City. The show became a hit, leading to a resurgence in the actor's popularity. By the time he left the show, he'd won an Emmy, three Golden Globes, and two Screen Actors Guild awards for his performance. Working on TV also allowed him to spend more time with his family, and, in 1998, Fox felt ready to share his Parkinson's diagnosis with the world.
"An amazing f—ing life"
After leaving the show, Fox continued acting and making appearances on shows like FX's Rescue Me and CBS' The Good Wife. He retired from acting in 2020 due to his health, but he continues to fundraise and advocate for his Parkinson's research organization, which has raised an incredible $1.5 billion since he founded it in 2000.
In Still, we see Fox working hard with a physical trainer to retain his mobility. But taking hard falls when he loses balance has become a fact of life, much to his family's distress. He breaks bones often, and tells Guggenheim that he's regularly in "intense pain." Still, he's full of hope and can look back on his life with pride, saying he's most proud of his family and Back to the Future. "It's an amazing f—ing life," he says.
Where does he see himself in 20 years? "Dead or a pickle," he jokes. Asked if he's at peace with the fact that a cure for Parkinson's might not come until after his time, Fox replies without hesitation: "S— yeah, just get it done."
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