Michael J. Fox Speaks on How His Parkinson’s Impacts the Roles He’s Willing to Take

by Suzanne Halliburton

Michael J Fox brought some classic roles to life. Think Alex P Keaton, the conservative son of a couple of liberal former hippies in Family Ties. Or how about time traveler Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movie franchise.

Or maybe you remember Michael J Fox as Mike Flaherty in Spin City. The actor, who turns 61 next week, has appeared on the big and small screens since the 1970s. He’s a staple on the classic TV scene. But he’s not doing much acting work these days.

He says his Parkinson’s is impacting his memory. And because of that, he can’t remember multiple pages of dialogue. Fox noticed it when he reprised his role of attorney Louis Canning in The Good Fight, a streaming spinoff of CBS hit The Good Wife. Canning is a formidable and manipulative lawyer who suffers from tardive dyskinesia. That means he had uncontrolled body movements, similar to Fox’s real-life Parkinson’s. Canning used his condition to gain sympathy with jurors, much to the chagrin of the lawyers he faced.

But although Canning was a very comfortable character for Michael J Fox — he played him 28 times — he couldn’t remember the dialogue.

” I just had this blank,” Fox told the Hollywood Reporter. “I couldn’t remember the lines.”

Michael J Fox, pictured here in 2015 with the cast of Back to the Future, has dealt with Parkinson’s since 1991. (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

Michael J Fox Diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991

Fox always has been upfront with his condition since he made it public in 1998. He received the diagnosis of early-onset Parkinson’s in 1991. He was only 29. But he kept working. It took almost three decades for it to take him out of most acting jobs.

He told the Hollywood Reporter how easy it once was for him to do his job well. He said Family Ties writers would “give me the script and I’d go, ‘I’m in. Mallory, get off the phone.’ And I knew it, like in an instant, and it continued to be that way for me. I have 70 pages of dialogue on a [Brian] De Palma movie, and knowing that a hugely expensive Steadicam shot depends on me knowing the lines — not a trickle of sweat on my brow.”

He said he had memory problems on both The Good Fight and while filming Designated Survivor. He said he took it in stride.

“It was this legal stuff and I just couldn’t get it,” said Michael J Fox. “But what [was] really refreshing was I didn’t panic. I didn’t freak out. I just went, ‘Well, that’s that. Moving on. A key element of this process is memorizing lines, and I can’t do it.’”

So what does Michael J Fox do now? Reassess his roles. Shrug his shoulders. Then head off to a happy, calming place.

“I don’t take on something with a lot of lines, because I can’t do it,” he said. “And for whatever reason, it just is what it is. I can’t remember five pages of dialogue. I can’t do it. It can’t be done. So I go to the beach.”