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From Alex P. Keaton to off-screen hero

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10/13/2015

From Alex P. Keaton to off-screen hero photo

Photo credit: Mark Seliger

Back in the 1980s, I grew up on a steady diet of my favorite TV show, the sitcom Family Ties.

I'd imagine what it would be like to be the fifth Keaton child. Don't get me wrong--I loved my own family ties. Still, I dreamed of being the long-lost sister on the show where you could solve a squabble with a sibling or a parent in the Keaton kitchen over hugs, laughs, and orange juice in 22 minutes flat. I envisioned myself knocking on the door to their Ohio home alongside sweet, awkward neighbor Skippy Handelman.

Most of all, I had a ginormous crush on Emmy Award-winning Michael J. Fox, my all-time favorite actor, who, playing the lovable conservative, Wall Street-obsessed genius Alex P. Keaton, somehow made America fall in love with him despite his Gordon Gekko-like tendencies.

Then, Alex and I both grew up--and Fox evolved from teen heartthrob into courageous humanitarian and activist. He will share his inspiring journey with the Chicago Jewish community when he headlines JUF's Vanguard Dinner on Thursday, Nov. 5.

And quite a journey it's been for the star. Back in 1991, at just 29 and amidst a red hot acting career, Fox was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease--a chronic degenerative neurological movement disorder. In order to come to terms with the illness, Fox waited to go public with his diagnosis for seven years.

The Canadian native became famous and beloved in roles including Alex Keaton, Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy, and Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty on Spin City. Today, Fox has become equally well-known, respected, and loved for this subsequent chapter in his life as a champion for patients with Parkinson's disease--and a hero to many of us.

In 2000, he launched The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, the largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson's drug development in the world--which has raised $450 million to date. Fox, at the helm of the Foundation, has galvanized the search for a cure to the disease that currently affects at least an estimated one million people in the United States and five million people worldwide.

(See details below about how the Center for Jewish Genetics and other JUF-affiliated agencies are meeting the challenges of Parkinson's disease.)

Fox has transformed his obstacles into something beautiful. He calls his struggle with Parkinson's "a gift," approaching life and his illness with the serenity and boundless optimism he writes about in his three books:  Lucky Man, his memoir; Always Looking Up: The Adventures of the Incurable Optimist; and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future, his compendium of wisdom for graduates.

Real life imitated the small screen when Fox fell in love with Tracy Pollan, the Jewish actress who portrayed Alex's girlfriend, Ellen, on Family Ties. The couple has been married for 27 years and has four children--who have all celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs--a 26-year-old son, 20-year-old twin daughters, and a daughter who turns 14 in November.

In recent years, Fox has reemerged as a TV star. On The Good Wife, he currently plays a recurring role as Louis Canning, the funny, yet manipulative attorney who suffers from tardive dyskinesia, a neurological condition that causes erratic body movements.

Fox recently sat down with me for a phone interview--a profound conversation--where we talked about acting for him then and now, his real-life family ties, and how we can all face life, including our struggles, with grace, courage, and optimism.

JUF News: How has your journey with Parkinson's disease been, as you put it, "a gift"?

Michael J. Fox: I always qualify it as saying it's the gift that keeps on taking. It's a gift for me because my life was on a path that had gotten ahead of me... After the diagnosis, all of a sudden I couldn't [continue] on that path anymore and I had to find my own path. It had been an easy path of success and privilege and all the blessings that I had. This new path was much more challenging, but by facing it…I realized I had the strength [to cope] and I had people around me who loved me. I had insight to gain from it…over the course of a few years, it all added up to make me a much better person than I had ever thought I could be.

How can all of us use our hardships as a gift in life?

If you deal with the truth. And in my case my diagnosis was the truth--I had Parkinson's--but it took me a long time to accept it. Until you accept it, you're not going to get anywhere. And by acceptance, I don't mean resignation necessarily, but I accept that I'm there and I look at the truth of being there, and then I can cope with everything else. Then [your struggle] only takes up the size it takes up--not this amorphous blob of dread that's floating all through every corner of your life. I have Parkinson's, but I have my family, I have my job, I have my friends, I have my beliefs, I have my ethics--and that doesn't change. The only way it can change is if I let one fact of my life--Parkinson's--become the central fact of my life, which it shouldn't be. But if I make it the central fact of my life, it's going to affect every other area.

Do you ever have moments of weakness where instead of "looking up"--as your book title says--you look down? And when you're going through a hard time, what are your coping tools to get you back to looking up?

I get a little bummed when I have trouble walking sometimes. I don't mind tremoring as much because I can deal with that with medication. But having a hard time walking and losing my balance is tricky for me because I was always very athletic and had great balance--so it was a real loss for me. More than anything else, I worried about how it looked to not be able to walk that well. And it only happened sometimes, but [then] I got a walking stick. And I realized we have to forget vanity because vanity screws us up--how we think we look and how we think we're perceived is not that important. If you need a stick, use a stick; if you need to walk sideways, walk sideways. It doesn't matter how it looks--it just matters that you get where you're going and get done what you want to get done. When I get depressed, it doesn't take long for the truth and other aspects of my life to lighten up the darkness.

How is acting different for you since you returned to the screen after your Parkinson's diagnosis?

I was always the kind of actor who brought a lot of expression, a lot of inflection, a lot of movement, a lot of action, and a lot of energy. Now I find I have to be quieter and more still. There is an expression I used to use when I talked about my diagnosis. I would say, 'I couldn't be still until I couldn't be still.' That's the same kind of thing with acting--I found a stillness, a quiet strength in the way I have to work now because I can't depend on a lot of trickery, on a quick shuffle of my feet, or on my energy. I have to depend on a deeper, quieter energy. It's a lot of fun. I enjoy acting as much now and I love this role [on The Good Wife].

After 25 years of reflection, what are your most lasting memories of Family Ties?

I have great memories of the cast and the show. It was a special [group] of people and I'm still friends with all of them. But Gary David Goldberg, the [late] creator of Family Ties, was my mentor. We used to get together every Friday after the show before we moved on to the cast party or whatever else was going on. We would take an hour after the taping was finished and we'd go have dinner at a local restaurant near the studio. We would sit there and drink wine and talk about how lucky we were and how we jumped lives: He was a poor kid from Brooklyn, I was a poor kid from Canada, and how we ended up on a sound stage in Los Angeles. We would talk about how amazing it was and how grateful we were and I always kept that. When Gary passed away, the one word I kept thinking of was gratitude--gratitude that I knew him and gratitude that we shared with each other.

Who is another hero of yours?

My [older] brother, Steve. His first son, who is now in his 30s, was born with spina bifida and cerebral palsy…He has a lot of challenges, but he is a wonderful kid and my brother and his wife have been so patient raising him. They're so loving and accepting and brave and tireless and just solid. I learn so much from them about dealing with adversity, and [recognizing] the blessings in life and that there is always something important and special that can be found in any situation.

What are the secrets to a happy marriage after 27 years with Tracy?

It's really friendship and acceptance. Romance is great…but it's really about on a day-to-day basis…that we'll trust each other and accept each other. We'll agree not to be territorial and not to look at disagreements and problems as any more than just part of the process. It's about just knowing that that person has your back and I trust Tracy more than I trust anyone else in the world. She's my best friend and she's been through all this stuff with me and I've been through all her stuff with her. We accept and we love and we carry on.

If you had one piece of advice from your journey through life to give to your younger self or to your children, what would it be?

Believe in your dreams but don't be limited by your dreams. Your dreams [are within] the extent of your imagining, but things happen beyond the extent of your imagining and you must be open to those too.

The JUF Vanguard Dinner, to be held at the Hyatt Regency Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 5, requires a $100 couvert per person and a minimum gift of $5,000 to the 2016 Annual Campaign. Diane & Steve Miller are 2016 Vanguard Chairs; Erica & Michael Fishman and Devra & Gregg Shutan are 2016 Vanguard Vice Chairs; and Harry J. Seigle is the 2016 General Campaign Chair. For more information, visit www.juf.org/vanguard or contact Patti Frazin at (312) 357-4878 or Vanguard@juf.org.

The Chicago Jewish community rises to meet challenge of Parkinson's disease

Several JUF affiliated agencies provide programming and services related to Parkinson's disease (PD). About 10 percent of Parkinson's disease is genetic, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) for Parkinson's Research is currently sponsoring a landmark study at 33 clinics worldwide. The Center for Jewish Genetics will collaborate with MJFF to help identify local candidates for this study through a Family Health History month initiative in November, and will also collaborate with MJFF to present "What's Jewish About Parkinson's?" next spring to discuss connections between Jewish heritage and PD.

JCC  was recently selected by the National Parkinson's Foundation to launch the Edmond J. Safra National Parkinson's Wellness Initiative in partnership with Northwestern University School of Medicine and CJE SeniorLife. The program's first cohort will begin in January 2016 at the Bernard Horwich JCC.

CJE SeniorLife provides support for individuals and families affected by PD in order to promote positive healthier lives; CJE has previously collaborated with MJFF on local educational and screening programs examining Parkinson's as a Jewish genetic disease.

An article will feature the collaboration in the November issue of JUF News.

For more information on the study, visit www.michaeljfox.org/ppmigenetics.

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