Michael J Fox: TV’s favorite son is short of stature but long on talent
Michael J. Fox is the unlikeliest of superstars. Though he’s twenty-five, the pint-size costar of Family Ties barely looks old enough to shave.
But with a top-rated series and three hit movies to his credit, and another film (“The Secret of My Success“) due out this month, Michael is the hottest thing around in blue jeans. A recent public-opinion poll ranked him as the most popular male celebrity in America after Bill Cosby, a man old enough to be his father.
And Michael isn’t even the star of Family Ties. His character — the yuppie conservative Alex Keaton — was meant to have only a secondary role, but Fox’s appeal threatens to dwarf the show’s other stars, Meredith Baxter Birney and Michael Gross. It would be easy for the five-foot-four actor to develop an ego twice his size, but that’s not his style. Besides, he’s too busy being overwhelmed to be stuck up.
Michael’s appeal cuts across the generations. To girls in braces, the freckled superstar is a sex symbol. To men, he is something of a kid brother — eager, likable and unthreatening. And women of all ages find him as adorable as a puppy. It’s no wonder the actor gets twenty-one thousand fan letters a week — more than any other TV star.
“Many of the letters I get are from teenagers,” he says. “And because of my age and the bond young people have with Alex, I feel I have a moral obligation to them. They like me, and therefore they want to copy everything I do. So in both my life and my movies, I try to project a positive influence.” He’s clearly doing a good job. In addition to all the teenagers who send him letters, many parents also write to say, “I’m so glad that your picture is on my kids’ walls, and not Prince’s or Boy George’s.”
A mother’s dream
Fox is indeed a mother’s dream. In his spare time (what little of it he has), he does charity work around Los Angeles for liberal and environmental causes, including the passage of a clean-water act in California.
At a time when some young celebrities are known for their all-night partying, Michael prefers to spend evenings at home watching hockey games or old movies. And you can be sure he will never get mixed up with drugs. He’s seen too many sports and entertainment figures get hooked on cocaine, often with tragic results.
“I don’t care how successful you are or how far you go in your career,” he says. “If you don’t love yourself — and somebody who does drugs and screws himself up that way obviously doesn’t — then all the fame and all the money don’t mean anything. It’s not as though someone is going to say, ‘We were only joking. You’re not screwed up. You haven’t lost everyone and everything that mattered to you. You’re not dead.’ Drug abuse is like a huge rock falling on society, and we’re all going to have to work together to get out from under it.”
It’s easy to see how Michael has earned himself a reputation around Hollywood as Mr. Clean. It’s even reached the point where he’s concerned his image has become too goody-goody. That’s one of the reasons he jumped at the chance to play a grittier role — that of a struggling sheet-metal worker who moonlights in a rock band — in his most recent film, Light of Day.
“I wanted to prove something to myself by taking on a role that was the exact opposite of what I knew I could do,” he explains. ‘I don’t want to set myself up as a twenty-five-year-old Alan Alda. I’ve been fortunate that up until this point I’ve been able to play nice guys. But if a script popped across my desk that had an interesting character who happened to be a raving sex maniac, I’d consider playing him, too.”
Adorable Michael J. Fox playing a sex maniac? What true-life experiences would he have to fall back on?
“I’ve done wicked things,” he insists. ‘I just can’t think of any right now.”
Come on, Michael. There must be a little bit of wickedness in you.
“Well, if I wake up in the morning and my hair is messed up and pointing in nine million directions — almost to the point where I can pick up satellite transmissions — and I don’t feel like combing it, then I won’t.”
In fact, Michael’s only apparent vice is smoking, a habit he’s been unable to kick, even with Meredith Baxter Birney’s prodding. He does, however, feel rather guilty about it.
“I was visiting a friend of mine and his young nephew recently,” Michael says. “As I was about to leave, my friend said, ‘You know, my nephew started smoking after he saw you doing it.’ And I realized that all the excuses I had built up for not quitting were meaningless. Because no matter how I can justify my smoking, that kid’s still going to pop a cigarette in his mouth when he sees me do it.”
Considering Michael’s all-American image, it’s a bit ironic that he was born and raised in Canada. The fourth of five children whose father was in the Canadian army, he remains totally devoted to his family, which he says is the most important thing in his life.
“They are my foundation,” he says. “My parents mean more to me than anything else. I’m proud of who they are and how they’ve always supported me. They brought me into this world, and we’re still the best of friends.”
Though Michael’s childhood was a happy one, it wasn’t always easy. Because his father was in the military, the family had to move from base to base when he was young.
Between the frequent uprootings and his being much smaller than most of the boys his age, it was difficult for Michael to fit in with peers and make lasting friends. “You have a choice when you’re in a situation like that,” he says. “You can withdraw into a shell… or you can do what I did — develop an outgoing personality. Force people to notice you. Throw it back in their faces.”
Michael never got into any real trouble as a child, but his exuberant personality and love for pranks made him quite an attention-grabber whenever the family moved. “We’d be in a new city only about a week,” he says, “and people would already know me. When they’d meet my parents, they’d say, ‘So, you’re Mike Fox’s folks.'”
The start of the actor’s career
A natural ham, Michael landed his first acting job on a Canadian TV show when he was fifteen (he played a ten-year-old). He later dropped out of high school to stake his claim in Hollywood, changing his name slightly from Michael A. Fox, to avoid fan magazine headlines like “Michael, A Fox.”
The young actor’s parents never stood in the way of his career, even though it meant their son would not complete high school. “When I came home and said I wanted to be an actor, they weren’t angry. There was a bit of concern that it was a difficult way to make a living and that I might get hurt, but there was never a feeling that I couldn’t accomplish anything I wanted to try to accomplish.”
At first, Michael met with success in his career, landing a part in a Walt Disney movie and guest spots on several TV series. But then the offers stopped coming. At the tender age of twenty, he found himself unemployed and $30,000 in debt. When his phone was disconnected for lack of payment, Michael used a phone booth on the street as his office to make calls to his agent.
When the work stopped, I couldn’t bring myself to go back home — I didn’t want to be a failure,” he recalls. “I may have been an idiot, banged my drum too loudly when I left, and I didn’t want to go back and face that.”
Michael remained in California and kept plugging away. One day, the phone rang in his phone booth “office,” and his agent informed him about a screen test for an upcoming series called “Family Ties.” Though he was five years older than the character of Alex, Michael’s boyish looks made him a natural for the part.
Since then, things have been happening very quickly for the young superstar. The success of “Family Ties,” the number-two show on television, and the tremendous appeal of “Back to the Future,” the highest-grossing movie in 1985, have turned the baby-faced actor into one of the most sought-after stars in Hollywood. His phone rings nonstop with film offers, only now it’s in his spacious three-bedroom home in the upscale Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles, and not in a phone booth.
For many actors his age, the pressure of sudden stardom would I overwhelming, but Michael has got through it all with aplomb. “I don’t intend to sit around and enjoy all the temptations of success,” he says. “I just come to work — barrel through, keep my head down and work. The pace has been exhausting — I finished shooting ‘Secret of My Success’ on a Sunday and returned to the set of Family Ties on Monday. But the hard work has certainly kept me honest.”
What’s next for Michael J Fox?
What’s next for the busy actor? A sequel to Back to the Future is planned next year, and then Michael will team up again with Back to the Future’s executive producer, Steven Spielberg, to star in and also direct a future Spielberg production.
The noted producer had caught a four-minute comedy on ice hockey Michael made for David Letterman’s Holiday Film festival last year and was impressed enough to offer him a contract.
Directing could be the perfect vehicle for Michael to fall back on when he gets too to play teenagers, but remains too short to look the part of their parents. For the time being, however, Michael refuses to let his height (or lack thereof) get him down. He’s been ribbed about his stature for so long (the cast of Family Ties playfully offers him piggyback rides) that even he makes light of it.
Upon accepting the Emmy Award for best supporting actor in a comedy series in 1985, he exclaimed, “I feel four feet tall!”
Michael has been spotted around Hollywood with a number of women who are considerably taller than he, though the actor now is reportedly seeing actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who is only five-foot-two. Michael insists he doesn’t have the time for a relationship right now, however. “I’m working too hard to be serious with anyone one woman,” he says. “It would be unfair to me and my work, and to her as well.”
But when he does have time to date, what does he look for in a woman? She has to be optimistic, funny and hardworking,” he says. “And she has tell my mother her cooking is good, matter how bad it is.”
There’s his mother again. How’s a guy supposed to shake his boy-next-door image if he keeps talking about his mother?
“What can I say — I’m a romantic Irishman. My mother is the center of my universe.”