I’m still in awe after hearing the remarkable words and inspiring story of Michael J. Fox last night at Lowell (MA) Memorial Auditorium. Featured speaker at the annual Middlesex Community College Celebrity Series, Fox offered a look back at his life in a speech which was equal parts humorous and heartbreaking — but always riveting.
Pretty good resume the kid has. (And he still looks like a kid. How does he pull that off.) Teenage star playing the conservative Alex Keaton in Family Ties. Hairy heartthrob leading man in Teen Werewolf. And of course, his iconic turn as Marty McFly in the “Back to the Future” trilogy.
But his biggest role came after all those hits. 20 years ago he woke up with a shaking pinky finger. He chalked it up to extra heavy partying with fellow actor Woody Harrelson while they were working on a movie. (“You wouldn’t believe,” was all he could say about Harrelson.)
But the shaking pinky never did go away. And Fox has been shaking ever since his diagnosis of early onset Parkinson’s Disease. In fact, he shook pretty much incessantly during his speech. Reading from a script, he spoke very fast — occasionally too fast to understand. I, and presumably the rest of the audience, had to pay close attention. But that wasn’t a problem for anybody, considering the storyteller and his story.
One of Fox’ core themes was “Don’t play to the result.” It’s an actor’s term; it means that even though you know what’s going to happen in the script, you can’t act like you know. You have to let it play itself out and be “in the now” at all times. For Fox, that has meant never worrying about the future of his disease, never losing sight of the immediate moment, never losing optimism and perseverance.
In the question and answer session, he told one young mother — who had been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s — to be honest with her kids. To be open about the situation. With his own kids he doesn’t want to be “Daddy minus.” He simply wants to be Daddy who happens to have Parkinson’s.
So many other touching and funny anecdotes from the evening. Like the part Denis Leary asked him to play on “Rescue Me” — a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. “You understand, Dennis, that I can’t stop shaking, right? And I’m supposed to play paraplegic!” Leary was confident — and persuasive — and Fox pulled it off without a hitch. (Pardon the pun, but Fox used quite a few himself.)
One other question was, “What would Alex Keaton be like today?” The hyper-capitalist Keaton character was “destined” to be rich. Fox suggested that Alex would become an insanely rich hedge fund manager, but would feel guilty about his enormous wealth and contribute heavily to Parkinson’s research.
Fox also confessed to being a lifelong Boston Bruins fan, which wasn’t easy as a youngster growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia. (He had to “sit on his hands” watching the Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup.)
As a parting gift, Fox was given a Middlesex CC hockey sweater, which he promptly put on to the delight of the crowd.
He walked off the stage to a warm rousing ovation. The stage, by the way, had three comfy-looking chairs around the rostrum for Fox to use. Over two hours, however, he never sat down.