Mon. Jun 24th, 2024

In this week’s PEOPLE cover story, the beloved actor and Parkinson’s activist speaks openly about year of broken bones, losing his mother and staying optimistic. “Just now I’m coming through where the last of my injuries are healing up.”

Michael J. Fox, famed for his optimism and tireless activism around Parkinson’s disease, is in a playful mood on a recent day in New York. “I’m rocking and rolling,” says the star, who just finished playing air guitar during a shoot for PEOPLE’s Kindness cover, on stands now.

Following a tough year of breaks and recovery, there’s a mischievous glint in Fox’s eye. The beloved star — who has helped raise more than a billion and a half dollars for Parkinson’s research through his foundation since his 1991 diagnosis with the disease — will soon receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an honorary Oscar recognizing outstanding philanthropic efforts, at the Governors Awards on Nov. 19. But in the background, he has been quietly navigating another challenging chapter. His mother, Phyllis, died in September at the age of 92, and the past year has brought with it a cascade of frustrating new injuries.

The star has weathered difficult periods before. In a memoir two years ago, he chronicled what he called the worst year of his life, a period beginning in 2018 in which a risky spinal-cord surgery to remove a tumor was followed by a painful left-arm break. It ended with his recovery and an African safari with his wife, actress Tracy Pollan, and their four children: son Sam, 33; twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, 27, and youngest daughter Esmé, 21.

But the past year brought new hurdles. “It got worse,” Fox says matter-of-factly. “I broke my cheek, then my hand, then my shoulder, had a replacement shoulder put in and broke my [right] arm, then I broke my elbow. I’m 61 years old, and I’m feeling it a little bit more.”

While Parkinson’s affects Fox’s movement, those around him say the injuries don’t necessarily mean his disease is progressing any faster. He got an infection after surgery for his broken hand, and temporarily not being able to use the hand led to balance issues and falls. He admits the painful incidents put a dent in his sunny outlook. “I was never really a cranky guy, but I got very cranky and short with people,” he says. “I try to nip it in the bud. I always think of these aides who work with me. And I often say to them, ‘Whatever I say, just imagine I said “please” at the beginning and “thank you” at the end. Just take a second and absorb that I might have said that if I was more myself, but I didn’t, so I apologize.’ “

His recovery has provided an emotional lift. “Just now,” he says, “I’m coming through where the last of my injuries are healing up; my arm is feeling good. Life is interesting. It deals you these things.” Now, he says, “the whole mission is: Don’t fall down. So whatever works to not fall down, whether it’s a walker or a wheelchair, a cane, a guy with a belt around my waist holding onto it — I use all those tools.”

He’s been relying on them less as his strength comes back; weeks ago fans saw Fox walk unassisted across a New York stage for an emotional mini-reunion with his Back to the Future costar Christopher Lloyd. “I’m just getting to where I’m walking steadily again,” Fox says. “I think it’s cool to walk by myself. It is. It’s fantastic.”

Even through the most difficult of times, Pollan, 62, says her husband of 34 years is “one of the most kind people I’ve ever met.” She credits how he was raised, noting that he “almost always looks at the situation and at the people involved and thinks about others before he thinks about himself.” Fox appreciates more than ever the resilience he learned from his late, “spectacular” mother and his father, William, who died in 1990. As military kids (William served 25 years in the Canadian forces), Fox and his four siblings looked out for one another — and Phyllis was the glue that kept the family together. “Army wives are masters of adaptation,” he says. “They just know how to approach a new situation, get the house together, get the schools set up, get a job on the side — because military salary is nothing. As kids, we didn’t get it. Now I get it.”

Fox’s attitude was also shaped by acts of kindness he experienced early in his career — memories he now treasures. After he left his Canadian high school for Hollywood in 1979, he found a crucial advocate in Judith Weiner, a casting director who championed the unknown actor to Gary Goldberg, creator of Family Ties. Goldberg initially wanted Matthew Broderick, but after being swayed by Weiner, he told NBC he wouldn’t do the show without Fox. Fox and Goldberg went on to become best friends and producing partners.

Years later, while filming 1991’s Doc Hollywood in a small town in Florida, Fox found himself on the receiving end of unexpected Southern hospitality from the late River Phoenix, whom Fox recalls “scooping us up and taking us to his place [near Gainesville] for barbecues.” The gesture stemmed from a pep talk Fox gave on the set of Family Ties years prior, when Phoenix — playing a bit part a year before starring in Stand by Me — felt foolish grappling with a scene. “I told him, ‘Welcome to the business. It’s all goofy,'” recalls Fox. “‘But if you stick with it, you can find a way to tell a story that other people can’t.’ And he was phenomenal. I guess that’s why he was so nice to me when he became a huge star.”

Fast-forward to 1995. Fox, married and expanding his family with Pollan, was shooting The American President with Michael Douglas and director Rob Reiner when his twins were born. “I said to Rob, ‘I’ve got to go.’ He said, ‘We have scenes to shoot!’ I said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you, Rob. I’ve got to go.’ And he let me go. He could’ve stopped me, but he let me go be with my wife and kids.”

Fox retired from acting in 2020, departing a career packed with cultural touchstones: three Back to the Future installments, films including The Secret of My Success and Casualties of War, memorable TV roles in Spin City, Rescue Me, The Good Wife and (in a self-referential turn) Curb Your Enthusiasm. He decided to move on after struggling to remember his lines while filming a role on Kiefer Sutherland’s Designated Survivor. For most of his career, memorizing lines had come easily: “I could look at a page and get it.” But Parkinson’s can affect cognition. “I couldn’t focus on a line,” he says. “I didn’t beat myself up. I couldn’t do it, so I didn’t do it anymore.” Fox has a new project in the works — an AppleTV+ documentary due in 2023 — of which he can say little except: “It’s about me and many different ways of looking at my life.”

Fox and Pollan have faced his disease side by side, and their marriage has adjusted. “It took me a while to get that it wasn’t just about me,” Fox admits. “If I break my arm, I’m dealing with my broken arm. But if you’re the person who lives with and loves and supports the person with the broken arm, you’ve got to do everything.” Pollan says that even in the small moments of friction, they give each other the benefit of the doubt: “We assume the best.” And Fox continues to find joy in watching who their kids are becoming in adulthood. “My youngest [children] never knew me without Parkinson’s,” he says. “Sam was 2 or 3 when I was diagnosed. So they never knew anything else. And there’s a certain latitude you have to give someone who has Parkinson’s. You can choose how nice to be and how much to do — and how much to know not to do. That’s all about empathy.”

As he leaves this difficult year behind, Fox appears more determined than ever to put the spotlight back on a new chapter of possibilities. “It’s been a struggle, but I’m happy,” he says. “I say that because I hope on some level people can find happiness in spite of what they’re going through.”