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Michael J. Fox is donating the profits from his book to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which is dedicated to fast-forwarding the cure for Parkinson’s disease. The Foundation will move aggressively to identify the most promising research and raise the funds to assure that a cure is found for the millions of people living with this disorder. The Foundation’s web site, MichaelJFox.org, carries the latest pertinent information about Parkinson’s disease, including:
- A detailed description of Parkinson’s disease
- How you can help find the cure
- Public Services Announcements that are aired on network and cable television stations across the country to increase awareness
- Upcoming related Parkinson’s disease events and meetings
- Updates on recent research and developments
A Wake-up Call
Gainesville, Florida—November 1990
I woke up to find the message in my left hand. It had me trembling. It wasn't a fax, telegram, memo, or the usual sort of missive bringing disturbing news. In fact, my hand held nothing at all. The trembling was the message.
I was feeling a little disoriented. I'd only been shooting the movie in Florida for a week or so, and the massive, pink-lacquered, four-poster bed surrounded by the pastel hues of the University Center Hotel's Presidential Suite still came as a bit of a shock each morning. Oh yeah: and I had a ferocious hangover. That was less shocking.
It was a Tuesday morning, so while I couldn't recall the exact details of the previous night's debauchery, it was a pretty safe bet that it had something to do with Monday Night Football. In those first few seconds of consciousness, I didn't know what time it was, but I could be fairly certain that I hadn't overslept. If I was needed on set, there would have been a phone call from my assistant, Brigette. If I had to leave the hotel at 10:00 A.M., let's say, she would have called at 9:30, again at 9:40, then finally at 9:50 she would have taken the elevator from her floor up to mine, let herself into my room, propelled me to the shower, and slipped into the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. None of that having transpired, I knew I had at least a few minutes.
Even with the lights off, blinds down, and drapes pulled, an offensive amount of light still filtered into the room. Eyes clenched shut, I placed the palm of my left hand across the bridge of my nose in a weak attempt to block the glare. A moth's wing—or so I thought—fluttered against my right cheek. I opened my eyes, keeping my hand suspended an inch or two in front of my face so I could finger-flick the little beastie across the room. That's when I noticed my pinkie. It was trembling, twitching, auto-animated. How long this had been going on I wasn't exactly sure. But now that I noticed it, I was surprised to discover that I couldn't stop it.
Weird—maybe I slept on it funny. Five or six times in rapid succession I pumped my left hand into a fist, followed by a vigorous shaking out. Interlocking the fingers of each hand steeple-style with their opposite number, I lifted them up and over behind my head and pinned them to the pillow.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Like a moisture-free Chinese water torture, I could feel a gentle drumming at the back of my skull. If it was trying to get my attention, it had succeeded. I withdrew my left hand from behind my head and held it in front of my face, steadily, with fingers splayed—like the bespectacled X-ray glasses geek in the old comic book ad. I didn't have to see the underlying skeletal structure; the information I was looking for was right there in the flesh: a thumb, three stock-still fingers, and out there on the lunatic fringe, a spastic pinkie.
It occurred to me that this might have something to do with my hangover, or more precisely, with alcohol. I'd put away a lot of beers in my time, but had never woken up with the shakes; maybe this was what they called delirium tremens? I was pretty sure they would manifest themselves in a more impressive way—I mean, who gets the d.t.'s in one finger? Whatever this was, it wasn't alcoholic deterioration.
Now I did a little experimentation. I found that if I grabbed my finger with my right hand, it would stop moving. Released, it would keep still for four or five seconds, and then, like a cheap wind-up toy, it would whir back to life again. Hmmm. What had begun as curiosity was now blossoming into full-fledged worry. The trembling had been going on for a few minutes with no sign of quitting and my brain, fuzzy as it was, scrambled to come up with an explanation. Had I hit my head, injured myself in some way? The tape of the previous night's events was grainy at best. There were a lot of blank spots on it, but there were a couple of possibilities too.
Woody Harrelson was in Gainesville with me on this film, and he had been in the bar the night before—maybe we'd had one of our legendary drunken slap fights. Woody and I were (and remain) close friends, but for some reason after an indeterminable amount of alcohol consumption, we'd find some excuse to start kicking over chairs and stage elaborate mock brawls. No harm was intended, and the majority of punches were pulled, but Woody is a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than me, which meant that whenever the game got out of hand, I was always the one that took the most serious ass-kicking. So maybe I'd caught a Harrelson haymaker to the side of the head.
But I couldn't recall any such melee. I did recall, however, a moment at the end of the night, when my bodyguard, Dennis, had had to prop me up against the door frame while he fumbled the key into the door of my suite. By the time he'd turned the knob, my weight had shifted onto the door itself; as he flung it open I'd careened into the room, barreling headfirst into the foyer table. But I didn't feel any bumps, so that couldn't have been it. Any pain in my head was from boozing, not bruising.
Throughout the course of the morning, the twitching would intensify, as would my search for a cause—not just for the rest of that day, but for months to follow. The true answer was elusive, and in fact wouldn't reveal itself for another full year. The trembling was indeed the message, and this is what it was telling me:
That morning—November 13, 1990—my brain was serving notice: it had initiated a divorce from my mind. Efforts to contest or reconcile would be futile; eighty percent of the process, I would later learn, was already complete. No grounds were given, and the petition was irrevocable. Further, my brain was demanding, and incrementally seizing, custody of my body, beginning with the baby: the outermost finger of my left hand.
Ten years later, knowing what I do now, this mind-body divorce strikes me as a serviceable metaphor—though at the time it was a concept well beyond my grasp. I had no idea there were even problems in the relationship—just assumed things were pretty good between the old gray matter and me. This was a false assumption. Unbeknownst to me, things had been deteriorating long before the morning of the pinkie rebellion. But by declaring its dysfunction in such an arresting fashion, my brain now had my mind's full attention.
It would be a year of questions and false answers that would satisfy me for a time, fueling my denial and forestalling the sort of determined investigation that would ultimately provide the answer. That answer came from a doctor who would inform me that I had a progressive, degenerative, and incurable neurological disorder; one that I may have been living with for as long as a decade before suspecting there might be anything wrong. This doctor would also tell me that I could probably continue acting for "another ten good years," and he would be right about that, almost to the day. What he did not tell me—what no one could—is that these last ten years of coming to terms with my disease would turn out to be the best ten years of my life—not in spite of my illness, but because of it.
I have referred to it in interviews as a gift—something for which others with this affliction have taken me to task. I was only speaking from my own experience, of course, but I stand partially corrected: if it is a gift, it's the gift that just keeps on taking.
Coping with the relentless assault and the accumulating damage is not easy. Nobody would ever choose to have this visited upon them. Still, this unexpected crisis forced a fundamental life decision: adopt a siege mentality—or embark upon a journey. Whatever it was—courage? acceptance? wisdom?—that finally allowed me to go down the second road (after spending a few disastrous years on the first) was unquestionably a gift—and absent this neurophysiological catastrophe, I would never have opened it, or been so profoundly enriched. That's why I consider myself a lucky man.
PERVERSITY OF FATE
Recognizing just how much irony figures in my story, I recently looked the word up in the dictionary:
irony n. expression of meaning by use of words normally conveying opposite meaning; apparent perversity of fate or circumstances.
The definition floored me, particularly the second part, in italics. Now I looked up the word perverse: "directed away from what is right or good . . ." and realized that here was yet another rich irony. Despite appearances, this disease has unquestionably directed me toward what is right or good. I went back to the first definition—expression of meaning by use of words normally conveying opposite meaning; apparent perversity of fate or circumstances—and smiled. How ironic.
Here's one more "apparent perversity": If you were to rush into this room right now and announce that you had struck a deal—with God, Allah, Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Bill Gates, whomever—in which the ten years since my diagnosis could be magically taken away, traded in for ten more years as the person I was before—I would, without a moment's hesitation, tell you to take a hike.
I am no longer the person described in the first few pages of this chapter, and I am forever grateful for that. I would never want to go back to that life—a sheltered, narrow existence fueled by fear and made liveable by insulation, isolation, and self-indulgence. It was a life lived in a bubble—but bubbles, being the most fragile constructions, are easily destroyed. All it takes is a little finger.
New York—July 1990
In order to illustrate the full dimensions of the bubble in which I lived and to trace the events leading up to that fateful morning in Gainesville, I need to go back a few months, and then back a few months more. The story would start, not in a hotel room in Florida, but inside my dressing room–trailer, parked in the Lower East Side. Anyone who's ever come across a film crew shooting on the streets in Manhattan, Los Angeles, or any other American city has seen one of these motor mansions and wondered about the thespian holed up inside. You know we're in there, we know you're out there, and—to put the interests of candor over public relations—we like it that way. The trailer is one of the many bubbles within the bubble.
On this particular early afternoon, I had a visitor to my trailer, a man I'd never met before. Michael Caton-Jones looked a mess, and that's meant as a compliment—believing, as I do, in a bit of wisdom gleaned from amongst the more scatological offerings scrawled on a toilet stall door in Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre, circa 1978: A creative mess is better than an idle tidiness. Shambling into my motor home, Caton-Jones was dripping sweat. His full, ruddy face unshaven, he wore the kind of loose-fitting, mismatched, thrift-store ensemble that was trendy in the summer of 1990, but that he would have worn regardless.
Handshakes, quick, friendly "Good-to-meet-you's" out of the way, he sprawled sideways across one of the Winnebago's two swivel chairs, threadbare from the asses of a thousand actors. "Have you got a beer?"—in a thick Scots burr, more of a mutter than a request. I liked this guy already.
Pulling a Molson's from the mini-fridge, I considered one myself, but instead grabbed a Diet Pepsi—which, contrary to popular belief, was my second favorite carbonated beverage. With several scenes remaining on the day's schedule, alcohol was not an option.
It was a blistering July day, the kind that feels especially oppressive in New York City. Heat like that, if you're angry, just makes you madder still, and from outside on the street, above the rattle and drone of traffic, I could hear voices pitched in fury. We were in the Alphabet City section of Manhattan, working on The Hard Way. We were technically on lunch break; shooting had been delayed much of the morning because a hastily organized act of civil disobedience blocked our access to the set. A homeless group was protesting outside, pissed off—justifiably—because the city had rousted them from the abandoned tenement they had been occupying. "Unsafe stairwells," the city had told them—then apparently turned around and sold Universal Pictures a film permit to haul thousands of pounds of lighting and camera equipment up those same stairs.
While producers, film commission reps, homeless activists, and city officials huddled in the production trailer trying to hammer out an accord, Mike and I enjoyed the sporadic bursts of air conditioning kicked out by the portable generator and talked movies. Warner Brothers wanted me for a project called Doc Hollywood, and with an eye toward green-lighting production that fall, they had flown a few potential directors out to New York to meet me, each pitching his particular take on the material. Caton-Jones was the latest candidate to pay a visit. Not knowing much about the guy—based in London, snooty sounding, veddy British hyphenated name—I was surprised and relieved to meet this working-class kid from Glasgow, early thirties at the oldest. His most recent work, Memphis Belle, a WWII drama about the final mission of the legendary bomber, was, I thought, a remarkably confident piece of work for such a young director. What he really wanted to do next, he announced, was make a Capra-esque American comedy.
Seated across from each other at the fold-down dinette table, I picked through an oily catering truck salad while he sipped his beer. We debated the best films of Frank Capra, the great populist director whose classics—Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life—had lightened the hearts of Depression-era audiences. These were among Michael's favorites, along with Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. A romantic evening early in my relationship with Tracy had started out with a video of It Happened One Night—so I had to put that wry, sexy 1939 Clark Gable–Claudette Colbert comedy at the top of my list.
The mention of Colbert led us to 1942's The Palm Beach Story, directed not by Capra, but a director/screenwriter we agreed had had an even greater influence on us both: Preston Sturges. In tribute to Sturges, master of the American screwball comedy, Mike said he had named his production company "The Ale and Quail Club," after the train car full of rowdy, hilariously shit-faced millionaires in Palm Beach Story. For my part, I confessed that the movie I was working on owed a small debt to Sturges's masterpiece, Sullivan's Travels. In The Hard Way, I was playing a spoiled young Hollywood movie star who, after traveling incognito to New York, tags alongside a reluctant NYPD detective as research for a role that, he is convinced, will finally get him taken seriously as a dramatic actor—you can see how I could relate. In Sturges's film, Joel McCrea is a director who assumes the life of a hobo, an experience that, he is convinced, will prepare him to tell a cinematic story possessing much deeper social relevance than the silly but popular comedies that have brought him fame and riches. McCrea's character eventually discovers that the films he was already making had great meaning for his escape-hungry audiences. I discovered, in the end, that The Hard Way owed less to Sullivan's Travels than it did to Beverly Hills Cop, Cobra, or any of a number of other big-budget action movies.
Interrupted by a knock on the door, we looked up to see Charlie Croughwell enter, unbidden and apologetic. An inch or so shorter than me, ten pounds less body and twenty pounds more muscle, Charlie is even tougher than he looks—and he looks like George Raft.
"Sorry, Mike . . . but it doesn't look like we're getting inside that building today, so they're setting up to toss you through the barroom window in about a half an hour."
I had to laugh; it was typical of Charlie to phrase it that way. In truth, I wasn't being flung through any window—he was. Whatever hardships his diminutive stature may have presented in his life—and I could easily identify—it had been my good fortune that someone of his physical proportions, as well as skill, had chosen to become a stuntman. He had not only saved my ass on a number of jobs, but had accomplished the not-inconsiderable feat of actually making me look rugged.
"I've got the pads on now, but I'll give 'em to you for the roll-in." The roll-in: I lie down in roughly the same place my double made his nasty, bone-threatening landing. On "Action," I roll fully into the shot and, grimacing in shock and agony, expose my face to the camera's lens—as deliberately as Chuck had hidden his.
After I introduced Charlie to the visiting director, he left to prepare the stunt. Michael and I picked up the thread of our conversation, moving now to the Warner Brothers project, about which I felt lukewarm at best.
Based loosely on the book What? Dead Again?—the story of a surgeon who, waylaid in a small Southern town, grew to love it, and to establish a practice there—the Doc Hollywood script had been on my desk for months. It was funny, but more Green Acres than Frank Capra. Picaresque to a fault, it was a string of amusing anecdotal scenes with no cohesive arc or storyline to bind them. The secondary characters, stereotypical Southern rubes—Gomers and Aunt Beas—were as familiar as yesterday's reruns. The hero, the young doctor, was purely vain and avaricious; the script gave you no reason to root for him. But my reservations about the material paled in comparison to my reservations about taking on another film so soon after The Hard Way. There was a long list of excellent reasons to sit this one out, take a breather.
First of all, The Hard Way had been a trial. With a greater emphasis on pure action, and more spectacular stunts, than anything I'd ever done, I had taken a physical beating on this picture, the best efforts of Charlie notwithstanding. My co-star, James Woods, is a genius, an amazing actor, but to hold your half of the screen with someone of that intensity requires an energy, concentration, and vigilance that wore me out. Add in a tight schedule, a hyperkinetic character, and several reshoots of key scenes due to personnel hirings and firings, and I was left even more ragged than usual. I needed rest. A long rest.
Were I to sign on, assuming that their goal of an October start date was plausible, Doc Hollywood would be my fifth film in less than three years, during which I also taped the seventy-two episodes of Family Ties, including the series' emotionally draining last season and finale. A large part of this work had been on-location—film-speak for out-of-town ("town" in this case being either New York or Los Angeles). It was all but certain that a movie set in the South would be filmed, at least in part, on location.
Filming on location is not unusual, or even entirely unappealing. Many in the business consider the opportunity for travel a perk; a break from the structure of their established routines, the demands of their families, communities, schedules, and responsibilities. Many liken it to war—not in the sense of battle or danger, but in that they are thrown together with a group of people, many of them strangers, who have been charged with a single mission: get in, get it done on time, under budget, and get out. Oh yeah—and do your best work. The pressure, isolation, and narrow scope of our lives while at "movie camp" is known to promote prolonged and legendary drinking binges. Time not spent on the set is spent either in a bar or in a coma.
Life can get pretty crazy on a long shoot. Casualties of War, the 1988 Vietnam war epic I made with Sean Penn and Brian De Palma in Phuket, Thailand, was rife with some of the most outrageous examples of location fever I've ever witnessed. The stifling tropical heat, the culture shock, and the hurry-up-and-wait rhythm endemic to any film set was a potent combination. Waiting in this context meant waiting for Brian to finish cooking up one of his signature microchoreographed steadi-cam shots. Eager to do our scenes and be done for the day, we'd become restless and start pounding down the local beer. The stuff was rumored to be laced with formaldehyde, but we couldn't read the labels and the locals weren't talking. That's not quite true: they were talking incessantly, but we couldn't understand what they were saying. Formaldehyde, turpentine, Drāno, whatever . . . we'd swill it down and then—the big kick—drive out to the local snake farm and goad each other into drinking shots of a popular Thai cure-all: equal parts Thai whiskey and cobra blood.
Some members of the C.O.W. crew, many of whom were Aussies, had hired local prostitutes as companions for their entire stay in-country. One guy set up housekeeping with two women; an oddly civilized arrangement, they would accompany him into Phuket village to do his marketing. When finally asked, "Why two?" he answered, straight-faced, as if it was obvious: "So they can keep each other company while I read the paper in the morning." He obviously wanted to approximate the routines of his ordinary home life but kick it up a notch by including the fulfillment of his sexual fantasy. Location can be nuts.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
My fantasy—at least it was beginning to seem like a fantasy—was not so much to escape a domestic routine as to establish one. I spent most of our brief engagement on location in Thailand.
Tracy made the marathon transpacific journey for an extended set visit. T never mentioned anything about having second thoughts, but she's a smart, observant woman and I can't imagine she wasn't horrified by the emaciated wreck of a fiancé she found in the jungle—her own personal Heart of Darkness featuring her future husband as Col. Kurtz. I'd contracted some nasty strain of exotic stomach rot; she nursed me through it, and as a reward had to battle it herself for the rest of her time in Southeast Asia.
Far more unnerving—hell, it was terrifying—was the weirdness she encountered upon her return to "civilization": waiting for her at home was a series of graphic and vitriolic letters, individually stamped and posted by a single troubled individual, threatening death to Tracy unless she called off the wedding. I remember the phone call. It must have been three or four A.M. Phuket time when I picked up the phone and heard Tracy weeping, spilling out the surreal details. I felt helpless and angry to be thousands of miles away from this woman who, simply by falling in love with me, had apparently placed herself in jeopardy. We decided to hire Gavin De Becker, a widely recognized expert in matters of threat assessment and personal security, to investigate the source of the letters and assign agents to ensure Tracy's safety in my absence. Some months later it was discovered by Gavin and the LAPD that the person responsible for what eventually amounted to more than 5,000 death threats was a lonely, disturbed young woman. After months in jail awaiting trial (at which Tracy and I both had to testify), she was convicted of making "terroristic threats" and ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment.
July 16, 1988: I'd been back from Southeast Asia a little over a week when we were married in a quiet ceremony at a small country inn in Vermont—or at least that had been the idea. In many ways it was the experience we had hoped for, an intimate celebration. Before our friends and family we affirmed our commitment to spend our lives together. But it was something else too, a kind of ground-breaking. My own bubble, the one that had sheltered me through the last seven years of public life, now had to be expanded, renovated into a duplex.
We had invited just seventy-odd guests, close friends and family only. As a precaution we hired Gavin's firm to provide security. This proved to be a wise move: dozens of tabloid reporters and paparazzi attempted to crash the party, deploying helicopters and even undercover spies disguised as llamas in order to blend in with the innkeeper's pet livestock. Locals and waitstaff were bribed and pumped for information, and a surreal siege began. It became a drama of spy vs. spy—and thanks to Gavin, our spies won. The paparazzi were unable to capture even a single photograph of the bride and groom, and the wedding went on exactly as we'd hoped, except maybe for the whir of helicopters overhead.
The honeymoon also had its share of gatecrashers. We island-hopped through the Caribbean, but at each step, we would find ourselves being tailed. Wherever we went, we'd look out our window to find boats anchored just offshore, bearing photographers with 500mm lenses aimed at our honeymoon suite. Finally we made our way to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where Tracy's family had vacationed during her childhood summers. Resigned to the fact that we were going to have to deal with these interlopers, we figured we might as well face them on our own home turf.
The rush that was my life then meant Tracy and I had no real opportunity to digest the strange twists and turns on the way to the altar, or the extended road comedy that had been our honeymoon. Family Ties started up again in August, Back to the Future II in the fall of that year (forcing me to moonlight again), segueing right into Part III, which wouldn't wrap until January 1990.
My bride, the one and only love of my life, was wondering what in the hell she'd gotten herself into. Pregnant one month after the wedding, Tracy found herself with a husband who, when he wasn't away on the job, was little more than a narcoleptic Lamaze partner. I did, however, negotiate time off to coincide with Sam's birth. A clause inserted into my deal—labor plus three weeks—had to be a first for a movie contract. But as soon as the three weeks were over, it was back to work again, leaving T nursing a baby and, no doubt, a few resentments.
Another issue for Tracy—one she rarely broached but that I wish I'd been sensitive enough to acknowledge more often—was this: inside of a year, a beautiful, exquisitely talented twenty-something actress, career ascendant, had become a virtual single mother. Schlepping to and from the set, Sam in arms, was not only unfair and exhausting, but it underscored the notion that I was still free to work—that my creative identity was intact, while Tracy's was in limbo. Offers and opportunities were coming in for her; most, but not all, she had to turn down. In fact, as I was in New York shooting The Hard Way, Tracy was in San Francisco starring in a film-for-television. Sam, now fourteen months old, was with her, and I missed them both terribly.We had a home in Manhattan, so I was not the one on location this time, she was. I was happy that she was working again. Still, here we were, thousands of miles apart once again.
- On Sale
- Apr 9, 2003
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- Hachette Books