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How Michael J. Fox became a movie star

Michael J. Fox got his start on the sitcom Family Ties and eventually made it to the big screen and had an extremely successful career with multiple hit movies.



There are many iconic faces that people from all generations know and love. We have all heard of Marilyn Monroe or Cher as they made a big impact on pop culture during their lives. An actor who made quite the impact in the 1980s was Michael J. Fox. Fox is the recognizable face associated with the famous movie trilogy ‘Back to the Future’ and other famous shows such as Family Ties.

While Fox has had much success throughout his career, he has also had many personal challenges. Fox has been very open about his struggle with Parkinson’s disease, which he was diagnosed with in 1991. He has turned a negative situation into a positive and is using his fame and fortune to do good and even started his own foundation to search for a cure for the disease. Fox took some time off from acting to deal with health issues, he returned to acting in 2012 and a trailer for a 2018 revival of ‘Back to the Future’ has recently been released!

We thought we knew it all, but there are many things we did not know about Michael J. Fox. For instance, he was not originally cast as the role of Marty McFly in ‘Back to the Future’! Can you imagine a world where the famous character was played by somebody else? If you want to know more interesting facts about the former Teen Wolf’s life, keep reading.

He’s Canadian, eh?

Many may be surprised to know that Michael J. Fox is actually Canadian. That’s right, He was born Michael Andrew Fox in 1961 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His mother, Phyllis, was an actress and payroll clerk and his father, William, who was a police officer as well as a member of the Canadian Forces which caused the family to move across Canada a number of times. The family moved to Vancouver where William retired in 1971.

Name changer

As you have just read, Michael’s middle name is actually Andrew. So why the subtle and seemingly unnecessary name change? Well, Michael himself said in an interview that he decided to change his middle initial from A to J, because he did not want the headlines in magazines to read “Michael A Fox!” We agree that the J has a better ring to it and avoids sounding like someone named Michael just saw a fox.

Canadian superstar

Fox attended Burnaby Central Secondary School, which now boasts a theater named after the actor. When he was just 15 years-old, he got his start in acting after auditioning for a Canadian television show titled Leo and me, which was produced by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Fox starred in the show and it was the beginning of his long and successful career. Michael never actually graduated high school which he regrets to this day. He recalls it as a, “Stupid youthful mistake.”

His teacher’s advice

When Fox was contemplating dropping out of school to pursue his career, he went to one of his teachers in high school to tell him. His teacher humorously said, “Fox, you’re not going to be cute forever.” Fox replied by saying, “Maybe just long enough, sir.” Michael recalled this story when he was on the David Letterman show when he said, “It turns out we were both right.” While we think that everyone should stay in school, we’re glad that Fox didn’t listen to his teacher.

He struggled in school

Michael did not have a great school experience as he was much smaller than his peers. Fox, who is only 5”4, was obviously small in when he was young as well. He could not play ice hockey due to his size. Fox found a different outlet through his drama class. In the end, his small stature did help him as he was able to get cast as a ten year-old when he was in fact, 15.

Challenges as an actor

When he was 18 in 1979, a young Michael J. Fox decided to pack his bags and move to Los Angeles. Fox was initially offered quite a few roles and his success came pretty quickly. The roles, however, eventually stopped coming and Fox was forced to survive off of mac & cheese until more work was offered to him. Michael got a break after he was discovered by producer Ronald Sheldo. He was cast in the television show Letters from Frank under the name Michael Fox.

Forced to sell his things

Like many other people that move to Hollywood with big ambitions, reality hit Michael J. Fox. He was a struggling actor and he allegedly had to sell half of his couch and books so he could even pay for food. He was also forced to ask his parents for money just so he could pay his rent. Thankfully, Michael does not have to struggle financially today as he has had a lot of success in his acting career.

First film roles

After his stint on television, Fox got his first major role in the feature film Midnight Madness. His second notable role was in Class of 1984. In both of these films, he was still using the name Michael Fox. In 1982 Fox began playing the character that shot him to stardom. He played Alex P. Keaton in the NBC hit Family Ties. He was on the show until 1989 and said in a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon that he negotiated for the role over a payphone at a fast food restaurant.

He almost didn’t get the role

The character that made Michael famous was almost given to another famous actor. It has been reported that the creator of Family Ties, Gary David Goldberg, was not fond of Fox after his first audition. However, the casting director for the show, Judith Weiner loved him and convinced Goldberg to give him another chance. He did and the rest is history. It has even been rumored that he only got the role because Matthew Broderick was unavailable at the time.

Not a ‘lunchbox’ face

Even though he was no longer in high school, Fox could not escape being discriminated against for his height. A producer of Family Ties, Brandon Tartikoff, thought that Fox was too short in comparison to the actors portraying his parents. Tartikoff is quoted as saying about Fox’s appearance, “This is not the kind of face you’ll ever find on a lunch-box.” Fox later made a joke out of this nasty comment after he became successful when he sent Tartikoff a lunch-box with a funny inscription.

From TV to real life

In addition to furthering his career, Family Ties also improved Fox’s personal life. Actress Tracy Pollan played Michael’s girlfriend on the show. Tracy was in a relationship with actor Kevin Bacon in the 1980s but she and Fox started dating when they worked together again on the set of Bright Lights Big City. Unlike many other married couples in Hollywood, the two are still very much in love and recently celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary.

The Fox children

Michael and Tracy share 4 beautiful children together. Their eldest is 28 year-old Sam Michael Fox and the resemblance is uncanny as he looks identical to his famous father. He graduated from Stanford University in 2012 and has had acting roles in his father’s show Spin City as well as the 70th Golden Globe Awards. The couple also have a 15 year-old daughter named Esme Annabelle Fox who has been seen on the red carpet with her famous parents.

Twin daughters

In addition to Sam and Esme, Michael and Tracy also have twin 22 year-old daughters. The two have chosen not to follow in their parents acting footsteps and keep a relatively low profile. Schuyler Frances attended Pomona College and Aquinnah Kathleen attended Duke University. They certainly have successful genes in the family as Schuyler is a research coordinator at Columbia University Medical Center according to her Linkedin profile. No word on what Aquinnah is up to these days but we’re sure she’ll be successful in everything she does.

Tracy’s upbringing

While Fox was raised Anglican, his wife Tracy grew up in a Jewish household and the pair decided to raise their four children Jewish. In his autobiography, Fox wrote that he is a member of a Reform Jewish synagogue in New York. They were even married in a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony under a chuppah (a wedding canopy). Fox is very involved in the Jewish community and even won an award at the Union for Reform Judaism’s convention

Marty McFly

Probably Fox’s most famous role was when he portrayed Marty McFly in the beloved classic film trilogy ‘Back to the Future’. The film revolves around teenager Marty McFly who accidentally gets transported back to 1955 after a science experiment goes awry. By mistake, Marty gets romantically involved with his mother which alters the future. He enlists the help “Doc” to help him repair history by getting his parents to fall in love and get themselves back to 1985.

He almost didn’t get cast

Similar to almost missing out on his Family Ties role, Fox almost did not get the spot for ‘Back to the Future’ either. Fox had scheduling conflicts as he was committed to filming Family Ties, producers were unable to get Fox for the role of Marty. They cast Eric Stoltz instead but after 4 weeks of shooting the director, Robert Zemeckis, realized that he was not right for the role. By then Michael was available and took over the role.

Presidential connection

Lucky for Fox that he ultimately got the role because the film began iconic. It was so embedded in American culture that the President at the time, Ronald Reagan even quoted a line from the film in a speech in 1986. He said,”Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film ‘Back to the Future’, ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads’.”

Box office hit

The film grossed over $383 million worldwide and received mostly positive reviews. The film has won multiple awards including a Hugo Award and a Saturn award. It even won an Oscar for best sound effects and editing and was nominated for best original screenplay. The massive success of the original film led to two sequels titled ‘Back to the Future Part II’ and ‘Back to the Future Part III’. Both films were successful, however, Part III was not quite as successful as the original and the first sequel.

Other films

Fox also worked on other projects during and after the filming of the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy. He starred in the film Teen Wolf which was adapted into a television series in 2011. He also starred in Light of Day, Bright Lights Big City, and Casualties of War. Fox became one of the most well-known faces in the 1908s. His career continued to prosper into the 1990s with films such as For Love or Money and The American President.

Incident with James Woods

While on the set of the 1991 film The Hard Way, Fox unknowingly caused an injury to his co-star James Woods. They were filming a scene where Woods was throwing Fox into a popcorn machine when he accidentally got his finger stuck in Fox’s jacket buttonhole. Woods dislocated his finger as a result of that incident. We think it was worth it for James since the film grossed over $65 million at the box office.

Illegal immigrant

As we mentioned, Fox is actually Canadian but it may come as a shock that there was a time when he was living in the U.S. illegally. Fox admits in his autobiography that there was a time when he was scared of not being let back into the United States because his visa had not come through yet. Fortunately, Fox hired a lawyer to straighten the situation out. We’re glad he did so he could keep making great movies!

He could have been in a plane crash

In 2000, Air France Flight 4590 crashed on its way from Paris to New York City. A total of 113 people died in the crash, most of whom were German tourists on their way to New York for a cruise. In his autobiography, Fox reveals that he along with his entire family took a Concorde flight from Paris to New York the day before the infamous Concorde crash. When Fox heard about the crash on the news, he became very emotional and began to cry as he realized how lucky he and his family were.

Famous family

The acting bug is prevalent in the Fox family as Michael’s sister Kelli is also an actor. However, Kelli does not act in movies but has been very successful on stage. She was a member of a Canadian acting company for many seasons and appeared in the well-known Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. Michael’s brother-in-law, Michael Pollan is also as an American author and journalist and is currently a professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism in California.

Hit show

Fox’s show Spin City ran on ABC from 1996 to 2002. It starred Fox who played the role of Mike Flaherty who was a law school graduated and was the Deputy Mayor of New York City. The show also featured other notable names like Charlie Sheen and Heather Locklear. The show did very well and won an Emmy, three Golden Globe Awards, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards. Fox made an announcement on the set during the third season of the show and revealed his health problems.

Battle with Parkinson’s

Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 but kept it a secret for seven years until 1998 when he announced his condition on the set of Spin City. As a result of his condition, Fox announced that he would be retiring from the show after the 100th episode. Later that same year he started The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Fox took a prolonged break from acting in order to raise money for this noble cause and his foundation and deal with his diagnosis.

What is Parkinson’s?

Parkinson’s is a disorder that affects the physical movement of people who suffer from it. The cause of the disease is unknown and while there is no cure, there are many treatment options for the disease. It occurs when nerve cells in the brain die or malfunction. Unfortunately, the disease affects almost 1 million people in the United States. Symptoms of Parkinson’s include tremors, rigidity, and slowness of movement. One of Fox’s goals is to find a cure.

Return to acting

By 2012, Fox was able to get his symptoms under control with a combination of many drugs to combat his Parkinson’s. His announced that he would be returning to acting full-time, which was very exciting for his fans and supporters. In 2013, he returned to television and starred in the NBC show The Michael J. Fox show. The show revolves around a newscaster who goes back to work after receiving the news that he has Parkinson’s disease.

He finds the humor in his challenges

Although Michael’s battle with Parkinson’s obviously creates many challenges for him, the actor is able to see the positive in his situation. Michael revealed his positive attitude in an interview when he said, “The truth is that on most days, there comes a point where I literally can’t stop laughing at my own symptoms.” Fox also said that although he has many symptoms, he is thankful that “None of them hurt.” So are we!

Brain Surgery

In an attempt to help alleviate some of his symptoms, Fox went through brain surgery in 1998. According to his doctor, he had holes drilled in his thalamus which was thought to be a non-conventional surgery. Fox has stated that he does not want to have any more brain surgeries and is treating his Parkinson’s with other treatments. There are other surgical therapies including deep brain stimulation for people whose medication is not working well, which Fox has not had.

Looking into the future

Fox has certainly had a successful career and does not seem to be stopping anytime soon. He said about his show, The Michael J. Fox Show, in 2013, “One of the things I love about the show is that it gives me the opportunity to tell people who have disabilities or different challenges that they deal with, that you can step back into life.” We’re glad that his Parkinson’s diagnosis hasn’t stopped him from doing what he loves and that he is using is wealth and fame to help those who suffer from Parkinson’s.