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'No violins': Michael J. Fox reflects on his career and life with Parkinson's

Michael J. Fox in the new documentary, <em>Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.</em>
Courtesy of Apple
Michael J. Fox in the new documentary, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.

When Michael J. Fox describes his experience with Parkinson's disease in his new documentary, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, he's extremely blunt.

"Parkinson's didn't just kick me out of the house — it burned the f***ing house down," he said, in a conversation with director/producer Davis Guggenheim.

And when he spoke with NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer, he said every day with the disease is different.

"Like you woke up and you have two noses. You have two noses, next thing you know, you have nine noses, and your tongue is sticking out of your ear," Fox said.

He's held on to the sense of humor that made him famous, but he says his joking started as a defense mechanism.

"When I was a kid, I was small, and I was always getting chased around and beat up, which is why I was fast and why I was funny as much as I could be. If you made a big guy laugh, he was less inclined to beat you up," he said.

The documentary includes many funny clips from Fox's many funny movies. And as you watch some of them now, you realize that when he was on screen in the 1990s, he was hiding a tremor developing in his left hand. He did that by fidgeting a lot and keeping that hand busy, but eventually he couldn't conceal it anymore.

This interview had been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On the decision to finally reveal his Parkinson's diagnosis to the public

I was getting to a place — I was doing Spin City, and I couldn't hide it anymore. And I had press, media people at my heels. And besides, I just wanted to relax — as much as that doesn't make sense with Parkinson's — I wanted to just give myself a break and see what happened. So I did. And I told Barbara Walters and People magazine and everybody in the world knew.

Then I went online and I [saw] that there was a great appetite in the patient community for Parkinson's, for someone to come in and take that lead. And they celebrated it when I announced, and people said, "Does that bug you?" and I said no. It endeared me to them. It endeared them to me, I should say. I thought, of course they want a champion.

On his cheek injury visible in the documentary, and the many injuries he's taken, mostly from falls due to Parkinson's

Well now the broken cheekbone seems so quaint compared to some of the stuff I dealt with the last couple months, the last couple of years. I had spinal surgery, which was not related to Parkinson's, but had to do with a tumor, a benign tumor on my spine. And from that, the way it connected was I had to learn to walk again. And I was already dealing with Parkinson's making my walking difficult, so now it was compound.

And so I fell. I broke my arm, then I broke my other arm. I broke my elbow. I broke my shoulder, dislocated both shoulders, had one replaced. I'm sure I'm forgetting something. It was just a litany of damage.

Fox says it's important for people to know that we're all humans.
Mike Coppola / Getty Images
Getty Images
Fox says it's important for people to know that we're all humans.

When I have an opportunity to do interviews like this, I think it's always difficult to express: Yes, it's hard. Yes, it's challenging. Yes, it even makes you sad sometimes. And sometimes it makes you angry. But it's my life. And I'm uniquely equipped to live this life and uniquely equipped to mine it for the gold that's in it. And I don't mean money, I mean gold — real meaning and purpose. And so for that, I'm so grateful.

Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd accept the 25th Anniversary award for "Back To The Future" at the Scream Awards in 2010.
Chris Pizzello / Associated Press
Associated Press
Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd accept the 25th Anniversary award for "Back To The Future" at the Scream Awards in 2010.

On his request to director Davis Guggenheim for no violins

It's funny, because at first he thought I said no violence. And how violence would fit into this story, I don't know. Other than physical, you know, floor upon head. And then we talked about it, and what I meant was violins.

When I did some guest shots on various shows playing characters that in some way were challenged ... and I did a character on The Good Wife who is a lawyer who uses his Parkinson's symptoms to manipulate juries. And I loved this character because, quite frankly — I know you're going to say you can't say this in your show, but I'm going to say it anyway — people with disabilities can be assholes, too. It's important to know that. It's important to know that we're all humans.

You see, sometimes in movies and television, someone with a disability is struggling to perform some normal task like tying their shoelaces or something. And as they struggle and as they get the bunny ears through the hole, the music starts to swell and it's this violin concerto and builds up until the moment of success, and they've got a tied up shoelace, and music is soaring. And I don't like that.

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Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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