Michael J. Fox Is Retiring From Acting To Focus On His Health

The actor was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1991, and had surgery to remove a spinal tumour two years ago.
Michael J. Fox at the 89th Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 26, 2017.
Michael J. Fox at the 89th Annual Academy Awards on Feb. 26, 2017.

In his new memoir, Michael J. Fox revealed he’s leaving the world of acting due to his health.

“There is a time for everything, and my time of putting in a twelve-hour workday, and memorizing seven pages of dialogue, is best behind me,” Fox wrote in No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, which came out Tuesday.

“At least for now ... I enter a second retirement,” he continued, according to the Los Angeles Times. “That could change, because everything changes. But if this is the end of my acting career, so be it.”

The Edmonton-born actor was just 29 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that affects the nervous system, causing stiffness, shaking, and difficulty with walking, talking and coordination.

Thirty years later, Fox has had a lot of success since the diagnosis, including award-winning turns on “Spin City,” “Rescue Me” and “The Good Wife,” as well as establishing the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. He’s also known for being an eternal optimist, even in the face of such a difficult disease.

“If we could look each other in the eye, we’d recognize our mutual humanity. But often in the wheelchair, I’m luggage.”

- Michael J. Fox

But at times, the emotional and physical tolls of the last few years have challenged that optimism. 2018 was particularly hard, he wrote in the book: First, his father-in-law died. Then he received another difficult diagnosis: a tumour on his spine, which had caused his legs to go numb, making it even harder to walk.

He was able to get the tumour removed, he told CBC’s Q with Tom Power. While he was recovering from surgery, he needed a wheelchair to get around. That experience was frustrating and often isolating, he wrote in an excerpt from the book published in the Irish Times.

When he was in the wheelchair, he was “allowing someone else to determine the direction I’m going and the rate of speed I can travel,” he wrote. “The pusher is in charge.”

“Generally the person in control is a stranger, an airport or hotel employee. I’m sure that if we could look each other in the eye, we’d recognize our mutual humanity. But often in the wheelchair, I’m luggage. I’m not expected to say much. Just sit still ... No one listens to luggage.”

Michael J. Fox speaking onstage at a fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation on Nov. 21, 2009.
Michael J. Fox speaking onstage at a fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation on Nov. 21, 2009.

Not being able to move around independently also meant “a suffocating loss of privacy,” he said.

He spent the rest of the year trying to walk again.

“People say, ‘I had to learn to walk again,’ and I think sometimes they mean they had to get a balanced stride or get an evenness with their pace,” Fox told Power. “I had to literally learn to pick up my foot, put it in front of the other foot, and then transfer my balance over the other foot. It was quite painstaking.”

He was so relieved when he could walk effectively enough that he could tell the support workers to leave him alone, he said. But he ended up slipping on his kitchen floor. He fell and crushed his arm, making it impossible to get to his phone and call for help.

That was the point where I went ‘I’m out of the freakin’ lemonade business. I can’t put a shiny face on this. This sucks, and who am I to tell people to be optimistic?’” Fox explained.

Michael J. Fox and his wife Tracy Pollan, centre, with their kids Esme, Schuyler, Sam and Aquinnah Kathleen at a 2017 fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
Michael J. Fox and his wife Tracy Pollan, centre, with their kids Esme, Schuyler, Sam and Aquinnah Kathleen at a 2017 fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

He started to wonder if the look-on-the-bright-side attitude he had projected in the past had been more harmful than helpful.

’Had I offered optimism as a panacea? Had I commodified hope?” he wrote in the book. “Had I been so glib about my positive experiences that it had been counter-productive or not sincere?”

His book is clear-headed about aging and death as inevitabilities.

“People have a lot worse than this to deal with, and I have a broken arm and a bad back and Parkinson’s and I’m whining and squealing and complaining. So what good has optimism done me? And that began a kind of a semi-quasi journey to find my way back to being an optimistic person.”

Gratitude is a big part of the book, too. He expresses a lot of love for his wife, Tracy Pollan, and their four children.

Pollan is “not always a rock, but that’s OK,” he writes. “Rocks are solid, stubborn, and immovable. That’s me. Tracy, on the other hand, has learned to keep the rock rolling.”

As the LA Times points out, Fox returns, again and again, to advice from Tracy’s late father, Stephen Pollan: “With gratitude, optimism becomes sustainable.”