Michael J. Fox: Keep it Small
In the eighties, Michael J. Fox rocketed to stardom on the sitcom “Family Ties”. Then Back to the Future made him a movie star. But after “Family Ties” went off the air and the Back to the Future movies were done, Fox’s career started to cool off. Screenwriter Michael Angeli interviewed Fox for the cover story of the August 1991 issue of Movieline magazine while the actor was busy promoting his new comedy, Doc Hollywood.
“Does anyone outside of ‘enquiring minds’ care a rat’s ass about Michael J. Fox?”
–Letter to the Editor, Esquire magazine.
The thing is, Fox is the perfect mystery; there are no plot holes. Tolerant, reasonable, irresistibly diffident, he’s a guidance counselor’s wet dream. His peers love him; his critics treat him like a homeboy. He’s a vessel of self-command, a repository of equilibrium.
“Well, well, well–a poor man’s Alex Keaton.” I was greeted with this arraignment by my father some years ago as I walked into a family reunion, a pronouncement significant only in its inference that I must’ve been away for a long time. Truth was that Alex Keaton represented, in the language of Scott Fitzgerald, “everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” The central character of “Family Ties” was a persistent sneeze of Reaganite pollen, a mascot in the decade of greed, a worker bee of glibness whose miscellaneous buzz of talents spun a honeycomb of supply-side philosophy around a likably passive family. Left-hemisphere dominant, decked out in a wardrobe of be-my-preppie ensembles, Alex’s serial love affair was not so much with money as it was with the machinations of obtaining it. An elfin David Stockman on nitrous oxide, barbarians in the breakfast nook, sent forth to conquer in little penny loafers. The Keaton clan represented those of us dispersed by the rubber bullets of the 70s; Alex was the savior, rally ’round the big board, boys, where bold is beautiful. I’ll have the L.B.O. on rye. Make it white bread.
No, Pop, I was no Alex Keaton. As a pressed flower child of the ’60s, I was about as far away from that character as the guy who portrayed him was. In the algebraic scheme of things, I might have a better chance playing the poor man’s Michael J. Fox.
We happen to be about the same size, which means buying pants that fit in the waist only. Since Forbes pegged Fox’s earnings at $23 million last year, the kind of commando tailoring I’m used to doing, i.e., rolling under the cuffs till they shrink, is probably just a fond memory for him. Fox dropped out of high school in Burnaby, Canada, emigrating to receive his education in the prison system of Hollywood, seven years of chapter and verse from Alex Keaton that stayed with him; I chose to do four-to-seven of university time and about all that stayed with me were long distance threats from student loan officers and collection agencies. “You’re not gonna be cute forever,” one of his teachers warned him. If I was lucky, I was told, I might still grow into my nose. Still, up to this point, I’m okay, I can hang with Mike, I can wing it. But that’s as far as it goes.
I falter, I sin, I require the services of a full-time confessor to chase the hyenas from my backyard. I wouldn’t have had the good sense to marry Tracy Pollan (Michael’s girlfriend on “Family Ties”), as he did, I would’ve wound up with Joan Jett, his co-star from Light of Day, with a tattoo of Uncle Fester on my left bun and a child who could see his breath in July. In the end, the upkeep required to maintain an image like Michael’s would bankrupt me. I have not the patience nor the durability of heart to endure remarks like those uttered in his press bio: “Nobody dislikes Michael J. Fox. Women find him adorable, men feel unthreatened, kids are enchanted.” The question is, how does Michael feel about Michael? It was he, after all, who in our conversation first alluded to the Esquire rat’s ass quote. “I love it,” he says. “Cracks me up when people say things like that about me. I have a ‘kick me’ sign on my back.” Another difference. Mine is a little lower.
When I am allowed to trespass into Fox’s agenda, I am left to roam through a sprawling photography studio in the Hollywood Hills, where he’s involved in a shoot. The structure consists of four levels, each one outdoing the next in troves of contemporary art–works by Hockney, Dean Barret, Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter, Edith–celebrating, it would seem, the devolution of man. On one floor, the statues of two uncircumcised, naked men are smooth and alabaster, livid in the faces, with life-like eyes and Guernica teeth, screaming and confrontational, striding towards you like auto-graph hounds dispatched by Dante. On a patio off the kitchen, a gray kitten leaps from a life-sized replica of a ’20s-style wooden electric chair, cobwebs threaded across the iron headgear used to keep the skull in place. Another life-sized sculpture of a man whose physique is defined by a ligature of cables, construction fasteners and wires, all of it gone to rust, watches over a bleached-out deck overlooking the hyped-out Sunset Strip. Aides and set people cross paths in an airy sunroom where the shoot is set up. A sophisticated casualness pervades an atmosphere of professional show, and if part of Less Than Zero wasn’t filmed in this compound it’s only because Andrew McCarthy can’t method act on stairs.
At the center of all of this activity and effort devoted to creating artifice is the person who looks the most out of place, Michael J. Fox. He is in a coping mode, his expressions arcing from larceny suspect to expectant father. When I apologize for my appearance, having arrived straight from coaching my son’s Little League team to their second consecutive defeat, he says, “Don’t sweat it, you look fine,” as hovering hairdressers work on a haircut that looks as if Floyd The Barber has come out of retirement. I take the unstylish length of his ‘do (it’s probably too short for Cravings and too long for Le Dome) as a highly evolved form of rebelliousness, since his father was a Canadian Mountie. They try spritzing him into the wet look, accessorized with a suede jacket, to which Fox reacts: “Fantastic. Now I look like Charlie Sheen.”
It’s Tucson-hot, but the session concludes without a hitch. When Michael surfaces from a dressing room, he’s wearing an over-laundered T-shirt and a jean jacket with patches on the sleeves that look as though they’ve been grafted on by a seamstress with a caffeine problem.
“If you wanna hang with me for another 15 minutes or so, I have one other thing to do at the bottom of the hill,” Michael apologizes to my shoulder. Watching reruns of “Family Ties” later on, I notice him doing the same thing to Justine Bateman; I’m thinking it looks like he’s checking out her breasts, but he does the same thing to Michael Gross, his TV father. Fox has a way of looking over the tip of his nose obliquely at you, like a dog that thinks you don’t know he’s out to bite you, the difference being that Fox rarely does. His conversation is often suffixed by a provident “you know what I mean?” meant not so much as a crutch for a failure to articulate (Fox is an avid reader; and the residue of those often brilliant Gary Goldberg scripts for “Family Ties” manifests itself in his language), but more as the disclaimer of an individual who is evidently so self-deprecating he is unwilling to have his opinion mistaken for the gospel according to Michael. When he hears of my baseball team’s defeat, he gets about as preachy as he’ll get for the rest of the day.
“Hey, you’re still back there, man. You gotta put it out of your mind. Go on to the next thing. It’s over. Done know what I mean?” I’m beginning to.
As I pull up into the driveway of The Sunset Marquis, Michael is walking toward my car to greet me. The little thing he has to take care of is a short promotional in-house video for Rolling Stone‘s 25th anniversary. A small film crew waits for him in one of the hotel’s suites. I commit a colossal error in judgment here, in an effort to convince Michael that I’ve put the baseball game behind me. Climbing out of my car, I holler, “GO TEAM! LET’S SCORE SOME RUNS!” forgetting that this is, after all, West Hollywood, and the Foxes have had their share of Hinkley-like problems with lunatic fans, not to mention tabloid exploitation.
“Gotta put it out of your mind, man,” Michael grins. But an aide and a hotel employee sprint out to the drive, frantically seeking out a madman.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Michael waves them off. “It’s okay. He’s journalism.”
After the videotaping, one of the Rolling Stone people wants an autograph for his daughter; Michael cheerfully complies, signing a piece of hotel stationery with the inscription suggested by the Rolling Stone employee. When he finishes, a woman sheepishly waves a dollar bill in Michael’s face, apologizing.
“I have to do this.”
“Sure, sure. You, uh, want me to sign this?” Michael looks at the dollar.
“No. No. I have to pay you.” By some Byzantine legal stipulation, Rolling Stone is required to pay Michael for his services. Michael rips the dollar in two and hands half of it to his publicist.
Now we are stretched out on the verdant grounds behind the hotel, our presence cordoned off by tall, sculpted bushes, a stand of coral trees, and dwarf palms. Pet bunny rabbits creep under the avocado and lemon trees like furry slinkies. The gurgle of a small fountain could bring on sleep if Michael weren’t complaining to the grounds-keepers about a new retaining wall that breaks up the natural slope of the yard.
“When did you do this? Sam’s [Fox’s two-year-old son] gonna break his neck. I used to roll down the hill with him, there. Look what these guys did.”
“We’ll put a pool beneath it so that he can jump off,” one of the waiters promises, quick to please. Michael seems more at home here amid the chirping birds and unshy rabbits, looking up into the leaves instead of down on the billboards of the Strip. With his hair drying to its usual mop state, he takes a wistful pass at his upper lip with his fingertips.
“I just had a mustache–a big, bushy monstrous thing for about six weeks–I was so happy. But I took it off because I’ve been into Indian food lately and I realized that no matter how much I scrubbed it–I’d smell rodi all night.”
I’m having trouble visualizing him with a bushy mustache, and the closest I seem to be able to come is Doogie Howser trying to get into a costume party as Ulysses S. Grant, or Uma Thurman after heavy steroid abuse. With his fair skin and the light, almost feminine proportions of his facial structure, Fox will probably always run five to ten years behind his biological clock, a condition that has worked to his advantage from the beginning.
“Acting wasn’t really what I wanted to do,” he’s telling me. “In the eighth grade I took guitar instead of woodworking. I was playing in a band–we played a lot of BTO, Guess Who, Rolling Stones, Grand Funk Railroad. You know that song, ‘We’re An American Band’? We changed it to ‘We’re A Canadian Band.’
“Then in the ninth grade, you get two more electives. With one of them, I took acting. The instructor kept putting me in plays at school, then one day he came to me and told me that Canadian TV was looking for a kid, a 10-year-old. I was 15 at the time, so I figured I’d be the brightest 10-year-old you ever met–because I looked 10.” The show was called “Leo and Me,” a Canadian sitcom (“More of just a ‘sit’ because there wasn’t much comedy in it”) and Fox got the part.
“Being into acting made me kind of a loner because it was a weird thing to be doing back there. The mindset in my neighborhood, which was a lower-middle to middle-class area, was you don’t go to college unless you wanna be a doctor or a lawyer or your parents have money. It’s not like, Where’re you goin’ to college, Bob?’ It’s more like, Do you think you can get in the plant this summer?’ I mean here in L.A., you go to a high school, you get a lot of people raising their hands when you ask who wants to be a writer, or an actor, or a director. At my school, trust me, nobody said, ‘I’d like to be a cinematographer’ or even an aerospace engineer, for that matter. Nobody thought anybody was gonna make it. We all thought we’d just settle into a groove, at some point get somebody pregnant and marry them. But I love Canada. There’s something about having to leave there to come here and become a professional asshole.”
At 18, Michael moved to Los Angeles, where he played the struggling actor role, landing appearances on ‘Trapper John, M.D.”, “Lou Grant,” and Norman Lear’s “Palmerstown, U.S.A.”
“Did I ever feel like it wasn’t gonna happen? You kidding: I knew it wasn’t gonna happen. I went through a lot of weird shit when I was really desperate. It’s funny how things work–I was a little fat–I gained weight, and I wasn’t getting work. My attitude was off and I wasn’t keeping my appointments, I was getting apathetic, like it wasn’t going to happen. I was getting pissed off, argumentative–which is weird because they didn’t usually see me that way. “Then I ran out of money and wasn’t eating as much–so I lost a bunch of weight–and I looked better. So my attitude got a little better. I started to get to my appointments on time.” But just before the “Family Ties” offer materialized, Fox reached the end of his rope. While he had fared well–he earned close to $50,000 that first year in Los Angeles–he now got his first taste of the tax swoon.
“That money the first year, to me was a fantastic sum–twice as much as my parents made–and I didn’t understand anything about withholding. They said you can either take taxes or worry about it later. Well, the worry-about-it-later option sounded great to me. I ended up owing about 20 grand to the IRS. I did something which I had never done before–I had to call my parents for money.”
By the time “Family Ties” came calling, Fox had been offered a role in a play at the Coronet Theater, a part he would’ve taken over the Alex Keaton role had it not been for the tax issue still hanging over his head.
“I had to do something that was gonna make me some money real fast. That, or go back to Canada, and I probably couldn’t have come back to the States because I owed the IRS. Then when I went in, read for “Family Ties,” Gary Goldberg hated me. He didn’t want to hire me. They had Matthew Broderick in mind. I figured I blew both jobs at once. Then something, Kismet, or the aligning of the planets, or what-ever–something just pulled me back from the edge. Something just said, Alright, okay–just fuckin’ with ya. Now here’s all the good shit.’ I was just at the edge of the cliff. My momentum was even over the cliff. In a period of three short weeks,” Michael snaps his fingers, “Bing, bing, bing. I had this new apartment up in the Hollywood Hills, people liked what I was doing, I’m making a lot of money and sitting by the pool saying, ‘Whoa, what the hell was that?'”