The three roles of Michael J. Fox
On Thursday, NBC will air the sixth episode of its new comedy series, “The Michael J. Fox Show.” In it, Fox plays a popular television anchorman who returns to work after having retired years earlier because of his Parkinson’s disease. This, of course, closely tracks Fox’s own story. An extremely well-liked actor, he last starred in a television series in 2000, which is when the tremors, stiffness and involuntary body movements that are associated with Parkinson’s forced him to retire from “Spin City.”
On that same Thursday, The Michael J. Fox Foundation will hold its seventh annual PD Therapeutics Conference in New York City. Upward of 250 academics and industry representatives will share the latest research on Parkinson’s disease — much of which has been driven by the foundation. “Select Michael J. Fox Foundation investigators will present research on a variety of topics, including novel therapeutic targets, biomarkers for early detection and assessment of disease progression, and strategies to alleviate symptoms,” read a recent email announcing the conference. Clearly, this is not your typical celebrity foundation.
Sufferers of Parkinson’s disease got lucky when Michael J. Fox became their poster boy. He was 30 when he learned that he had the disease. For years, he kept the news to himself — as many people do when they first learn they have Parkinson’s.
But when he realized he could no longer work on “Spin City” because his symptoms had become too pronounced, he quickly — and readily — became a spokesman for people with the disease. He gave interviews to Barbara Walters and People magazine, and testified before Congress. Although he’s not the chest-thumping type, he acknowledged when I spoke to him recently that many Parkinson’s sufferers feel shame — and that he had helped take the shame out of the disease. That’s the first important thing he did.
The second important thing was starting the foundation 13 years ago. Many disease foundations stress patient advocacy, which plays an important role. But, as he learned more about the disease, Fox realized that Parkinson’s research had slowed to a crawl. He wanted his foundation to push the science — something no one else was doing. “For a long time, there was a lack of understanding about how the disease worked,” says Todd Sherer, a scientist who has been with the foundation for nine years, the last two as chief executive.
Fox hired Debi Brooks, a refugee from Goldman Sachs, as the foundation’s first chief executive, and together they charted a unique course. (Brooks remains an important part of the Michael J. Fox Foundation.) They insisted, for instance, that scientists who got grants from the foundation share their research with others in academia and the industry. Their staff included scientists, who didn’t just vet grant applications, but served as problem-solvers and facilitators.
They took risks that neither government nor the industry would take. In recent years, they have been trying to speed up the time it takes to do clinical trials, while also trying to make them less expensive and less risky. The ultimate goal is to come up with drugs that can help Parkinson’s sufferers — or possibly cure it. Though they do not yet have a drug on the market, they have drugs in the pipeline, some in Phase II clinical trials.
Fox has never tried to micromanage the science. His attitude has always been that he would hire the best people he could find, and give them both running room and support. “He is an inspirational figure,” Brooks says, “who leads by example.”
“Science is a lot of failures,” Fox says, “a lot of misses. The important thing is to take your swings.”
Recently, after a Phase III drug trial failed, Fox got on the phone to Sherer, Brooks and others. “He is always optimistic,” Sherer said. “His focus is, ‘Did we learn something so that the next time we have a better chance.’”
The third important thing he has done is go back to work. Several years ago, his doctors tweaked his medication, and his body movements stabilized enough that he began to think about the possibility of acting full time again. He had recurring roles in a number of shows, including “The Good Wife,” where he played a lawyer with Parkinson’s who was not above using his disease to gain sympathy from the judge. He liked playing against type.
In the first episode of the new show, many of the jokes revolved around Fox having Parkinson’s, but since then his disease has receded into the background. On screen, his hands shake a little and his head is tilted to the side, but you get used to it — and then forget about it — pretty quickly. Which is exactly the point.
“I can play anybody,” Fox told me with a smile, “so long as he has Parkinson’s.”
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.