An Incurable Optimist Confronts an Incurable Disease in His Recent Documentary

Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease that has affected many celebrities over the years, including Muhammad Ali, Neil Diamond, Jesse Jackson, Ozzy Osbourne, and Linda Ronstadt. But of course the most notable celebrity with the disease is Michael J. Fox, 61, who was diagnosed in 1991. The “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future” star is well-known for his optimism and raising awareness and $1.5 billion for Parkinson’s research through The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease.  

Fox Wasn’t Always Outspoken About His Diagnosis

Despite being diagnosed in 1991 at the age of 29, Michael J. Fox didn’t go public with this diagnosis until 1998 when he told Barbara Walters and People Magazine. Many wondered how such a young man could have been afflicted with a disease that most people associated with older people. In fact, at that time, of the 1 million Parkinson’s cases, only about 10 percent affected those under the age of 40. Despite the rarity of being diagnosed at age 29, Fox’s neurologist, Dr. Allan Ropper of St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, stated that he didn’t think anything made Michael especially susceptible to Parkinson’s. He had no family history or any other factors that made him more likely to get the disease.

Different people handle such diagnoses in different ways. After four doctors confirmed the diagnosis, Fox leaned on his wife, actress Tracy Pollan, to move forward. He was optimistic and wanted to help find a cure and help others suffering from the disease. He noticed around that time when he went online, there was a great need in the Parkinson’s patient community for someone to come in and take that lead. After he made his announcement, it endeared him to others with the disease, who really “wanted a champion,” and he was intent on becoming that person. 

Despite the worsening symptoms of the disease, Fox, who is well-known to be an “incurable optimist,” refers to Parkinson’s and the effect it’s had on his life as “a gift.” He says, “(p)eople are completely dubious of that and kind of wonder how I could say that. I qualify it by saying it’s a gift that keeps on taking, but it is a gift, because it’s really opened me up to more kind of compassionate, curious, risk-taking person.” 

Ever since going public with his diagnosis, Fox hasn’t shied away from speaking out about the disease’s impact on his life and leading the search for a cure. Now, Fox is opening up more than ever about his life with Parkinson’s in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.”

“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” Is Released on Apple+ TV

From the start, Michael J. Fox’s attitude about his diagnosis has been “optimism mixed with reality.” To describe his life, his health, and the physical toll the disease has taken on him, Fox traces his life in his documentary. “Still” portrays how Fox keeps fighting, even as Parkinson’s slowly takes away many of the things he values most. The documentary contains footage and clips from Fox’s TV shows and movies that parallel key moments in the actor’s life and some clips that show the clever ways in which he disguised his symptoms prior to him announcing his diagnosis. The film begins with the instant in 1990 when Fox realized he had a tremor in his pinkie finger he couldn’t control. In the film, a body double in a hotel bed grabs his own hand while clips from fight scenes in other Fox films build a montage showing the feelings flooding the actor. Fox says in a voice-over, “(t)he trembling was a message from the future.”

“Still” draws viewers into the painful reality of Fox’s life with Parkinson’s without turning him into an object of pity or martyrdom, which is certainly something he doesn’t want. One of the film’s most poignant moments is when Fox faces the camera and speaks directly about his life — connecting with viewers through the camera as if he’s speaking directly and solely to each one of us. He declares his intention to avoid pity and live as independently as possible, while remaining realistic about how much more difficult things are becoming with each advancing year.

The title of the documentary is a very clever triple entendre. The documentary makes clear that Fox is still Fox. He is still the same funny, courageous, and optimistic person that he has always been. The documentary also points out that Fox has a somewhat hyperactive personality, always one to be moving fast and doing things … he has never been able to remain still in his life. Lastly, the documentary poignantly glimpses into the future, subtly hinting at the reality that Parkinson’s brings with it increasing stiffness and eventually causes almost complete immobility in many patients. The man who has never been able to remain still may ultimately have stillness foisted upon him by the progression of the disease that he has lived with for over half of his life.  

Fox Remains Optimistic that There Will Be a Cure for Parkinson’s

Twenty-three years ago, since he launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, Fox has poured most of his efforts into its work. The nonprofit has funded numerous clinical trials and other research in the name of ending the disease. “I still believe in a cure,” he told The New York Times Magazine. This April, a study that relied, in part, on Fox Foundation data found a biomarker associated with Parkinson’s that could pave the way for the first lab test able to confirm a diagnosis. It might also predict who is likely to develop the disease. “This is, this changes everything,” Fox told CBS News. “I know with where we are right now, in five years, we’ll be able to tell if they have it, be able to tell if they ever get it, we’ll know how to treat it.” Hopefully, he’s right about that!

For more details on Parkinson’s and Parkinson’s research, please read my other articles on the subject

Do You or a Loved One Suffer from Parkinson’s or Another Debilitating Disease?

If you or a loved one is suffering from Parkinson’s or any other progressive disease, the need for long-term care may already be present, or may be just around the corner. Please know that the Farr Law Firm can help: 

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.