A lucky man and his actress wife reflect on sickness and health, love and marriage, and their no-spin family ties.
The walls in Michael J. Fox's writing nook are a testament to what he calls the most significant part of his life; they're filled with photos of his wife, actress Tracy Pollan, and their children. It was in this quiet space that he wrote his autobiography, Lucky Man , due out this month. But much more than luck has held Michael and Tracy together through almost 14 years of marriage and the challenge of living with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative neurological disorder he was diagnosed with just three years after their wedding. Pollan, the daughter of a prominent New York family, first met Fox—an army brat who'd dropped out of high school to pursue acting—when she played his girlfriend on the hit NBC show Family Ties in 1985. Pollan and Fox didn't date until 1987, while working together on the movie Bright Lights, Big City ; they married the next year. In 1991, while filming Doc Hollywood —one in a string of movies, including Back to the Future , he made during the 1980s and '90s—Fox developed a twitch in his pinky that wouldn't go away. Within six months the twitch had spread to his entire hand, then his shoulder began to stiffen. But he and Pollan (who had a toddler, Sam, now 12) kept his illness a secret. A few years later she gave birth to twins, Aquinnah and Schuyler, now 7, and he took the starring role in the ABC sitcom Spin City . Finally, in the December 7, 1998, issue of People , Fox announced the news he feared would shatter his career as a funnyman: He had Parkinson's and had undergone brain surgery to alleviate the tremors.
Fox's career worries were unfounded. If anything, his announcement strengthened the public's support of the man they'd come to know as Spin City 's deputy mayor—a portrayal for which he won three Golden Globe Awards, an Emmy, and a People's Choice Award. But as much as he loved the show, by January 2000, Fox, then 38, felt an even bigger calling: to use his time and energy to work toward a cure for Parkinson's. After appearing in 100 episodes of Spin City , he said goodbye to his cast and fans and stepped into his role as founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
On the day I met with Fox and Pollan, he proudly showed me a small photo album filled with pictures of the newest addition to their family: their fourth child, Esme, born last November. It's clear to me that theirs is a spiritual union—one that defines the way they see each other and themselves.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Michael J. Fox and Tracy Polan
Note: This interview appeared in the March 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: Has your relationship surpassed what you imagined it would be?
Michael: Let me put it this way—my instincts were proven out. Tracy was the right person for me, and it has been amazing.
Tracy: Michael and I had great role models. Though his father has passed away, his parents had an amazingly strong marriage, as do mine. Both weathered really tough times. For us it has been normal to stay together through difficulties. We grew up witnessing that firsthand.
Michael: Not surprisingly, what Tracy just said is a more eloquent way of putting what I was trying to say! When we married, we married—and that was it. We were in love then, as we are now, and we planned to stay married.
Oprah: I've had friends who have said, "I'll get married, and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out." You never said that?
Oprah: How old were you when you married?
Michael: I was 27....
Tracy: And I was 28. That's funny, because now I'm younger than him. When we married, I was actually older, and then somehow that changed.
Michael: It's magical—now she's two years younger than me! The secret to the marriage is that I contribute to that deception.
Oprah: I've talked to many people who never discuss their ideas about marriage. When they take their vows and say "For better or for worse," they have no idea what "for worse" might mean.
Michael: When Chris Rock did a benefit for our foundation, he talked about the marriage vows. He said, "What do they mean when they say, 'For richer'? Of course a woman will stay with you if you're rich! The vows should ask, 'Will you stay with me if I'm sick and broke?' If the woman says yes, then you're in."
Oprah: Tracy, I read that when you first met Michael on the set of Family Ties, you weren't even attracted to him.
Tracy: It wasn't that I wasn't attracted to him—I was just dating someone else.
Michael: And it wasn't that I wasn't attracted to her—the guy she was dating was just bigger than me.
Tracy: From the beginning, I loved his sense of humor and that brain of his. He's so smart.
Michael: Before Tracy and I started seeing each other, I was this boy prince of Hollywood. I had a Mercedes and a Ferrari and a Range Rover, and I was really nuts.
Tracy: He was out of control!
Michael: I had so many cars that I needed a valet parking guy to get them out. It was stupid—I was like the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes winner. I was always hanging out with Woody Harrelson and Julian Lennon, you know? When Tracy was leaving the show, she played me this James Taylor song called "That's Why I'm Here." It said something like "Learn not to burn means to turn on a dime / Walk on if you're walking, even if it's an uphill climb / Try to remember that working's no crime / Just don't let them take and waste your time." And that song stayed with me. The next spring I was casting a movie in New York, and I saw Tracy, who had come in to read for a part. I said, "How's so-and-so?" She said, "We're not together anymore." I was like, "(a) You have the job and (b) let's have lunch." By the time the movie was finished, we were on vacation together—and less than a year later we were married.
Oprah: In your marriage, one of the unexpected challenges has been Parkinson's. Can you tell me what the disease is exactly?
Michael: Having Parkinson's is like having your brain talk to your body on a cell phone in a tunnel. When the medication is working, all the transmissions are smooth. But between dosages you lose control, which can show up in everything from an inability to express emotion facially to the inability to articulate speech. You might also shuffle or have a hitch in your gait. Parkinson's occurs when nerve cells in a part of your brain that controls movement begin to die, and your brain stops producing a chemical called dopamine. In fact, by the time you notice symptoms, about 80 percent of those cells are already dead. At first you have a lot of tremors, but as the disease progresses you actually become more and more still. Tracy used to tell me, "You're like inertia—once you get going you can't stop, but once you stop nothing will get you going again."
Tracy: But that's not related to the Parkinson's—that's just your personality.
Michael: Exactly. But that's also an apt description of living with the disease.
Oprah: Do you feel self-conscious in public?
Michael: We once went to a benefit where a band we wanted to hear was playing. During the early part of the evening when the lights were on, I was shaking badly and people were coming up to me, hugging me and looking at me with that look I recognize, and...
Oprah: What is that look?
Michael: They're looking for fear in me. When they don't see that, they then see their own fear reflected back at them and they start to freak out. I end up saying to them, "You're going to be fine." You want to tell them that bad things can happen to you and you don't know where they'll take you, and that is okay. I don't discount for a second that people care for me or that their concern is genuine. But at the same time people look at me and think, "My God, could that happen to me?" And when I look back at them, it's as if I'm saying "It might, and maybe you'll be okay. Just get there when you get there."
Oprah: That's profound.
Michael: So that night at the concert when the lights went out, I felt great because my pills had kicked in. Tracy and I were holding hands in the dark as the band was playing, and we were groovin'. I said to Tracy, "This is the difference in my life now, as opposed to a few years ago. A few years ago I would have said, 'God, I just want my pills to work until the lights go out—and after that I won't care, because no one will see me.' Now I say, 'I don't care if the pills aren't working when the band's not playing. But when the band comes on, I want to be feeling good so I can enjoy this!'" In fact, Oprah, I want to stop right now and take a pill.
Oprah: Okay. So Tracy, have you had to progressively adjust to Michael having Parkinson's?
Tracy: Absolutely. A lot of my adjustment has been dictated by Michael's point of view. He's so relaxed and so accepting of where he is, and that makes it easier for me, the kids, and everyone around him.
Oprah: Michael, when you take a pill, how does it help you?
Michael: It takes a while for it to work—like right now, I'll have to wait for the pill to kick in. Then suddenly I'll feel this energy on my left side, and my foot will start twisting around. Then the tremors will seem to push out through the bottom of my foot, and it's like my body and my mind are back together again. Then I'm good for another couple hours before I start tremoring.
Oprah: Are you comfortable sitting here talking to me?
Michael: I'm moving around a lot, but I'm comfortable. When you have Parkinson's, your body language lies. Before I went public about the disease, I'd read these interviews that journalists had done with me, and they'd write, "Michael was really nervous—he was pacing like a cat!" I wasn't nervous at all. My brain was just screwed up.
Oprah: Tracy, how did Michael first tell you he had Parkinson's?
Tracy: He just came home from the doctor and told me. Before he'd visited the doctor, we didn't think there was anything seriously wrong.
Oprah: During that time, were you still in that romantic stage of heightened delight in your marriage?
Michael: Kinda. We had a young baby....
Tracy: And up to that point, we hadn't had anything major happen. Before then, I had always been a horrible hypochondriac, and Michael had helped me through many fictional illnesses.
Tracy: Everything! Elephantiasis—it ran the gamut.
Michael: Poor Tracy was always telling me, "I think I have this," and I'd say, "Look, you don't have that." And of course she'd always think she had an embolism on a Friday night....
Tracy: When the doctors weren't available.
Michael: I'd say, "Why is it always on a Friday? On Monday you'll find out you're fine, so let's not have the disease until Monday." So when I called her and said, "Tracy, there's something weird going on with my hand," she of course said, "Don't worry, it's nothing." Then I come home from the doctor and say, "Honey, I have an incurable brain disease—how 'bout that?"
Tracy: That cured my hypochondria.
Oprah: When you were told the disease was degenerative, what was your first reaction?
Tracy: We went through a day or two of shock and had a feeling of devastation.
Oprah: You felt like, "What does this mean?"
Tracy: Yes. I had spent so much time worrying about these horrible fantasies, but when presented with something this huge and terrifying, my reaction was completely opposite from what I thought it would be. I just dealt with it every day as it came. We stopped thinking about the big picture. Michael was instrumental in that—he has always been like, "Today I'm still okay."
Michael: When I was first diagnosed, my line to Tracy was "It's going to be okay"—but I was really freaking out. I had no idea what Parkinson's was, and I was in denial. After the diagnosis I didn't even get a neurologist. You've probably read in People that I'm a nice guy—but when the doctor first told me I had Parkinson's, I wanted to kill him. I thought, "What a shitty thing to say to somebody!" I just knew it was a mistake. So I started drinking a little more to keep from looking at it. I finally got to a pivotal point where I really worked on understanding it. About three years after I'd been diagnosed, I was okay—and that's when life got much better.
Oprah: How so?
Michael: Well, it's a long story. I had quit drinking....
Oprah: Was the disease beginning to show?
Michael: To me, but not to others. And for a lot of reasons, I kept it a secret. In a way I was also trying to keep it a secret from myself. Eventually, my whole left side was shaking. There were other symptoms, too, like a feeling of rigidity. After I quit drinking, I had a couple of years of just being crazy—I didn't have anything to replace the drinking with. Then in the beginning of 1994, I went to analysis and started to look at it. After that, Tracy said to me, "You showed up again. Your sense of humor was back, and you were just there."
Oprah: Three years is a long time to be gone.
Michael: For better or for worse.
Tracy: There were definitely good days in those three years.
Oprah: Tracy, was there ever a time when you said, "This isn't what I bought into"?
Tracy: Definitely, but that was more of a day-to-day thought rather than a stepping back to say, "Whoa, this isn't what I want in my life."
Oprah: That's because you knew you would always be with him.
Michael: Through it all, we've loved each other....
Tracy: And that love never died. We had a solid foundation to begin with.
Oprah: Michael, I read that there was a time when you knew Tracy had bought in for the long run.
Michael: There were a lot of questions I was afraid to ask Tracy, like "Does it scare you that I'm sick? Do you not love me because I'm sick?" I didn't ask her those questions.
Oprah: You were saying to yourself, "Why would she want to be with me?"
Michael: Yes, but nothing Tracy was doing was showing me that she didn't want to be with me.
Tracy: Any time I would say to myself, "This isn't what I bought into," it wasn't about Michael being sick. It was about his doubting and the behavior that came out of that fear.
Michael: Once I got a doctor and really started thinking about my situation, it was like boom!—a second honeymoon.
Oprah: The truth will set you free every time.
Michael: In a sense, I kind of went away to deal with the Parkinson's myself. And though I was present in our everyday lives...
Oprah: You withdrew.
Michael: Right. I just took my carcass back into my cave and scratched at it for a bit, and when I popped my head up again in 1994, Tracy was like, "I've been waiting for you." That's when we decided to have more kids—and then we got twins. It was as if we were being told, "Listen, don't worry about loss and timing. That will be taken care of."
Oprah: Michael, I've read that your children call you Shaky Dad. How much do they know about the disease?
Michael: When our oldest child, Sam, was about 4, we started playing a game where I showed him how to short-circuit my tremors—if you occupy yourself with an activity, it stops the shaking for a certain amount of time. If Sam saw my "wiggly hand," he'd grab my finger and thumb so he could stop it. He'd then count to five and let go before grabbing it again. So we had a connection, which has continued. He's a frighteningly bright kid, so now we talk about the disease in specific ways. He probably knows more about it than I do.
Oprah: Tracy, after having Sam early in your marriage, what has it been like for you to have another child at this age?
Tracy: That sounds so bad: "At this age"!
Oprah: Earlier, when I asked how you got back in shape so quickly after the baby, you said, "I stopped eating desserts." Is that it, Tracy? I guess that's the key I've been missing all these years!
Tracy: Dessert was big for me!
Oprah: Well, you look like you just stepped out of a magazine. How was having this baby different from having your oldest child, Sam?
Tracy: Sam was our science project. Thank God he has turned out as well as he has, because we didn't know what we were doing.
Michael: When you have your first baby and the pacifier falls on the floor, you pick it up and boil it. But when you get to the fourth, you just lick the pacifier and give it back. You realize that all you need to do is feed 'em, love 'em, and keep 'em out of traffic. And when you have children in your forties, you're not looking for them to complete anything for you. You're a done deal. You're cooked. You're just sharing your experience with a new person.
Tracy: The biggest difference I've noticed is that I'm enjoying every second of having a tiny little baby. Sam and the girls were overwhelming. I wished a lot of it away. With this baby, I'm not wishing it away at all. It's so fun.
Michael: When you meet the person you want to spend your life with, you realize you'd step in front of a train for her—that's love. Then when you have a baby, you say, "I'd step in front of a train right now—and I don't even know you!" We love each of our children just the same. When you hear your own parents say that, you say, "Bullshit! I know you love him more than me!" But I tell my kids, "I just love each of you so much—every one of you is your own story."
Oprah: What an outstanding thing it is to share your life with someone for whom you'd be willing to step in front of a train.
Michael: Absolutely. Choo-choo! I feel really lucky and smart. I look at Tracy sometimes and I have two feelings. One is that she becomes more beautiful every second; and more important, I look at her and say to myself, "Damn, you're smart. Boy, did you make the right choice."
Oprah: What would you add to that, Tracy?
Tracy: The pressure! I can't add much. I feel the same way about him.
Oprah: As I sit here talking with you, you seem like much more than a couple. You have a spiritual partnership.
Michael: What Tracy has done for me is amazing. She's married to this Mickey Mouse, this...
Tracy: Mister Mayor.
Michael: And yet every day she shows me she's a person with an incredible sense of dignity and responsibility.
Oprah: Where did that come from, Tracy?
Tracy: I don't know—that's not how I see myself.
Michael: But it's true.
Oprah: Tracy, when you hear him say those things, doesn't part of you resonate with that?
Tracy: I'm very grounded—that's how I would put it. If you met my mother, you'd probably say the same thing about her. I had a very sane upbringing, though some very insane things happened.
Oprah: Is your marriage still in the state it was in during 1994?
Tracy: Yes. And as our marriage grows and changes, we have to explain so little to each other.
Michael: That's the key.
Tracy: It took a long time to get to this place—there's an understanding between us.
Michael: And a trust.
Tracy: One of us can be in a horrible mood and say the worst things to the other one. Right after I'd had the baby, I was getting dressed and nothing fit. Michael came in to ask me a question, and I just turned around and said, "What do you want? Get out of my closet! You shouldn't even be in this room!" He was like, "Okay, honey, I'll see you later." The fact that I can have an outburst like that and not have to say "I've just had a baby and my thighs are a little big" is so important. He totally understands. The same is true the other way around.
Oprah: Would you say Parkinson's has been a gift in your marriage?
Michael: I've often referred to Parkinson's as the gift that keeps on taking. It's a gift in that it really gave me a whole different appreciation for life. I discovered that I wasn't me minus Parkinson's. I was me plus it. I have been enriched by what it has opened up for me. It hasn't allowed me to take anything for granted.
Oprah: I love the beautiful quote I saw about your book....
Michael: Yes—"I couldn't be still until I couldn't be still." I couldn't trust that I could just take an action and let go of the result.
Oprah: Before the disease, your whole focus in life was different.
Michael: I had been constantly taking care of this and making sure that was okay, and now Tracy and I are just in it.
Tracy: I feel more at peace. There are days when I don't feel that way, but for the most part I trust that what's supposed to happen will. Worrying won't prevent the worst outcome. I've learned to live in the moment, which is not my natural tendency. I've always thought that if I worried about something enough, it wouldn't happen. I forgot to worry about Parkinson's.
Michael: People are often surprised to hear that Parkinson's doesn't come up that much in our house—it's not the major focus every day. Sometimes I'll joke with Tracy, "Honey, I got that Parkinson's, you know? That whole degenerative brain disease!"
Oprah: But it doesn't affect your thinking, does it?
Michael: Not at all.
Oprah: Do you think a cure will be discovered in your lifetime?
Michael: Absolutely. There will be a cure.
Oprah: So you're not interested in better drugs, just a cure, right?
Michael: Better drugs are great. I'd love to see people's quality of life improve. But we now know how Parkinson's is created—there are even chemicals that can cause a Parkinsonian reaction. And now there's all this work with cells and DNA. We're trying to bring the tipping point closer and closer. A cure is inevitable—we just have to light a fire under everyone to make it happen soon. When I hired the person who runs our foundation, the first thing I told her was "If we have a tenth anniversary, you're fired."
Oprah: Has your involvement with the foundation turned up the volume in your life?
Michael: I'm pumped!
Oprah: I know you left Spin City so you could do more work with the foundation. Why did you decide to take a role on the show in the first place?
Michael: After we had the twins, I went to New Zealand to make a movie while Tracy stayed here with the girls. Being separated felt like a step backward. I thought, "I'd love to go back to TV and get a job with regular hours so I can be with Tracy and the kids." Then everything just fell together.
Oprah: Lucky man!
Michael: It was fantastic—but there came a time when it was too difficult to do the show, especially without anyone knowing my secret. There were a few people who knew I had Parkinson's, and I put them in a position of having to always cover up for me when I couldn't be somewhere on time. I thought, "This is stupid. Why am I not telling people?" The reason I wasn't telling was that I wondered if people would still laugh if they knew I was sick. Can you laugh at a sick person and not feel like an asshole? I finally thought, "Let me not worry about that. What other people think is none of my business. I just have to have faith in the audience. If it's funny, they'll laugh." Sure enough, everyone was great, and I did the job for another year and a half. But at some point I realized there was a lot of work to be done to raise awareness about Parkinson's. I thought, "If the meter is running in terms of my effectiveness, it may be better to apply my energy here."
Oprah: Were you frightened when you first told the world you had Parkinson's?
Michael: By the time I announced it, I had gone through seven years of dealing with it—of running from it and then stopping running from it. Once you're diagnosed you have the feeling you're predictable, because doctors can predict your prognosis. I hated being predictable, right down to the point where some Swiss woman I'd never met, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross [author of Death: The Final Stage of Growth], could say I would go through five stages of grief—denial, anger, negotiating, depression, and acceptance. And in the first seven years, I went through all five of those stages. When I made my disease public, I was ready.
Oprah: Now that everyone knows you have Parkinson's, are you ever overwhelmed by people's compassion?
Michael: Since September 11 everyone has been watching footage of people picking up strangers on the street and carrying them through the smoke and hearing about the firemen who walked into those buildings. While I've been just as blown away by this as everyone else, part of me has been thinking, I've known this side of people for years. I've seen this level of compassion and selflessness. I've seen it shown to myself and to others.
Oprah: Do you have any regrets, Michael?
Michael: What am I going to do with regrets? I only have so much time in the day. Regrets are like the word should. The only application of the word should is to say that it should not exist. The only worthwhile use for regret is to say, "In the past I did something I didn't like, and now when I'm in a similar situation, I'm going to make a different decision."
Oprah: You should write a book!
Michael: I'm thinking about it!
Oprah: Thank you both for your time.
Tracy: Thank you, Oprah.
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, December 8, 2013
© 2012 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.