Michael J. Fox and Denis Leary took to the stage at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday for an
hour-plus of joking banter, self-deprecation, and insight on Back to the Future, Family Ties and Fox’s Parkinson’s disease activism.
Leary kicked things off noting Fox’s appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada. The honor led Leary to jokingly refer to Fox throughout the conversation as “Sir” Michael J. Fox. Tribeca
paired Fox with Leary, who took on moderator duties — noting during the audience Q&A, “I have
the power.” The two longtime friends appeared together in Rescue Me, created by and starring
Leary. Fox’s guest turn in the show lead to an Emmy win, one of his five.
“You get a lot of credit for your comedic timing in Back to the Future and Family Ties, but people don’t talk about your dramatic acting enough,” said Leary. “His role on Rescue Me had dramatic parts and some comedy. There was a scene in a bar and Michael had this long take and right as I was doing it [with him], I realized he was stealing the f*cking show. You can do a giant level of comedy and then come back to dramatic roles later. It’s crazy — which made you a ‘Sir.’”
Back To the Future loomed throughout the conversation. Fox said the filmmakers and cast
had “affection” for the feature while working on it, and its audience experienced it similarly. “We couldn’t believe it worked out so well,” he said. “Now that I’m 57, It’s like I had been in The Wizard of Oz.”
Fox recalled that when he was cast in Back to the Future (which he not surprisingly called his favorite of the trilogy), he had to pull double duty on both the film and Family Ties. “They called me out of nowhere. It happened so quickly,” said Fox of the 1985 movie. “I was told I couldn’t be off the show, so the producer said, ‘You’ll have to do both at the same time’… I understood that.”
Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 at age 29 but didn’t go public about it until later that decade. He said that his earlier comedic roles relied on physicality and speed, which of course changed with the onset of the disease. “I didn’t act for four years [after my diagnosis], but then I realized I didn’t have to rely on [physical speed] anymore,” he said. “I’d just do less and that’s OK. When I became older, I didn’t have to. I guess I was working too hard before.”
Asked about future roles he’d like to do, Fox said he’s satisfied with “surprises” and seeing what his now grown children are taking on as well as the activities of his wife, Tracy Pollan, including a
new cookbook. Fox, also an author with three published books, said he has another in the works, joking it’s to be titled Why We Don’t Suck.
Leary touted Fox’s dark humor and lauded his friend’s bountiful optimism, not letting Parkinson’s overtake him. “The core of his character is, ‘Don’t f*ck with him,’” said Leary. “You’re unrelenting
in fighting your disease.”
Part of that battle is though the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which has raised millions for research and is the largest single source of Parkinson’s research in the world. Its efforts have lead to recognizing the disease’s symptoms much earlier than was the case for Fox, as well as other breakthroughs.
While combating the disease personally and through his foundation, Fox has had setbacks. Following a spinal surgery, the actor’s ability to walk was compromised, which lead to a
fall that fractured his humerus. “At one point, I thought, I can’t do this anymore. Every step I take,
I have to think about it. It does slow life down, but that’s OK…”
Humor plays a central role in Fox’s comedy fundraiser A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to
Cure Parkinson’s, which has featured several big names. One year, Muhammad Ali and
Tony Bennett were set to be surprise guests at the event, unbeknownst to Fox. At one point backstage, Ali had to duck into a janitor’s closet in order to keep the surprise.
Along with Ali and Bennett, the event has also brought out Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, David
Blaine along with major musical acts like The Who and Elvis Costello. Fox also gets into the
musical act, with Leary noting: “There’s always this giant rock star playing, and it all ends with
Mike playing, ‘Johnny B Goode.’ “