PARK CITY, Utah — A powerful new documentary goes inside Michael J. Fox’s decades-long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, and depicts the “Back to the Future” star’s enormous optimism in the face of hardship.
“The walking really freaks people out,” the 61-year-old actor says after a stroll on the streets of Manhattan about the difficulties he has with his stride. “But if you pity me, it’s never gonna get to me.”
“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Friday to a long standing ovation for both the movie and its beloved subject who’d flown into Utah for the event.
Onstage after the film, Fox said, “It’s been a f–king amazing life.”
Landing on Apple TV+ later this year, “Still” portrays the wild roller coaster of emotional ups and downs for the performer known for his boyishness and knack for a punchline. He was only 16 years old in Edmonton, Canada, when he decided to drop out of high school and move to Hollywood.
His skeptical dad gave in, bankrolling the trip and telling him, “If you’re gonna be a lumberjack, you might as well live in the goddamn forest.”
After a series of low-paying gigs and five years in a grungy Beverly Hills studio apartment — he says he had so little money, he resorted to eating Smuckers jam packets — Fox became one of America’s most famous actors.
His big break was at 21 years old playing Alex P. Keaton on the TV series “Family Ties,” which then helped net him the enduring role of Marty McFly in the “Back to the Future” trilogy. For a week in 1985, his movies “Back to the Future” and “Teen Wolf” were, respectively, the No. 1 and No. 2 movies at the domestic box office.
He was at the height of his popularity, gracing the covers of glossies and lounging on the couch of “The Tonight Show,” but things would soon fall apart.
Of fame, Fox says, “I was the Prince of Hollywood,” however, life experience has taught him better. “You think it’s made of brick and rock. But it’s not. It’s made out of paper and feathers. It’s an illusion.”
That was never more apparent than after a night out drinking in Florida in 1990. He woke up hungover and noticed that his pinky finger was twitching. When it didn’t improve, he finally visited a neurologist in 1991 who diagnosed him with Parkinson’s. Shocked, he shot back at the doctor, “You know who you’re talking to, right? I’m not supposed to get this.”
He kept the diagnosis secret for seven years, popping dopamine pills to calm early symptoms and always carried props in his left hand on-screen to hide the shaking. In retrospect, footage from his projects at the time lay bare the stress the secret was putting him through. He dealt with his silence by using booze.
“I drank to dissociate,” he says to director Davis Guggenheim. “I was definitely an alcoholic. But I’ve gone 30 years without having a drink.”
Scenes in “Still” show Fox working with a trainer to learn strategies to build strength and steady his walk. In the weeks the documentary was filmed, he sustained several injuries from falls, which is a common symptom of Parkinson’s. Fox broke the bones in his left cheek, his hand, his arm and dislocated his shoulder.
“A festival of self-abuse,” he jokes.
Fox doesn’t like when people tell him to “be careful.”
“This has nothing to do with being careful,” he says. “This happens. You get Parkinson’s, you trip over stuff.”
Sitting on the beach with his 33-year-old son Sam, one of four children he shares with wife and former “Family Ties” co-star Tracy Pollan, Fox asks, “Do you feel like you have a 90-year-old dad? Because I don’t feel old.”
He shares in the film that Parkinson’s causes him “intense pain,” yet he also sees it as a grounding contrast to his years spent in the limelight being someone he didn’t recognize.
“Parkinson’s is a disaster — that’s real,” he says. “You can’t walk and you can’t go to the bathroom — that’s real.”
Fox had a career resurgence in the aughts and 2010s and acted in TV shows such as “The Good Fight” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which he didn’t shy away from Parkinson’s and was able to be himself. He retired from acting in 2020, but continues to write books about his experiences, and his Michael J. Fox Foundation has been a leader in advocating for more research and funding for the so-far incurable disease.
“People express to me that I make them feel better and do things that they normally wouldn’t do,” he says. “That’s a big responsibility.”