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People Top 5
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- December 04, 1989
- Vol. 32
- No. 23
Getting Back to His Future
Hard at Work on the Final Episode of the Time-Travel Trilogy, Michael J. Fox Walks the Line Between Career and Family
It wouldn't take a clairvoyant to see why. Over the past decade, the native Canadian, now just 28, has presided over seven seasons of Family Ties, one of the most successful sitcoms in television history, earned glowing reviews in two films (1987's The Secret of My Success and this year's Casualties of War) and survived two turkeys (1987's Light of Day and 1988's Bright Lights, Big City), signed a multi-commercial, $2 million Pepsi endorsement contract, and formed his own company, Snowback Productions. In his spare time, he knocked off a short film about hockey players for Late Night with David Letterman, which resulted in a standing offer from Steven Spielberg to direct a film of his own.
Oh, yes, and there was also that starring role in Back to the Future, a little film about time travel that racked up more than $300 million worldwide to become the top-grossing movie of 1985. Even while cash registers started jangling last week with ticket sales for its sequel, Back to the Future Part II, Fox was busily filming the final part of the trilogy, Back to the Future Part III, scheduled for release next summer.
The pace of Michael J. Fox productions embarrasses even Michael. "People have been saying for the last four years, 'You're a workaholic. You should slow down,' " he says. "But I'm still fulfilling commitments I made five years ago when I was single, when I might as well have been working." That philosophy, he suggests, came to a halt with his July 1988 marriage to former Family co-star Tracy Pollan, 29, and the May 30 birth of their son, Sam Michael Fox. All in all, he says, "It's been a pretty busy 10 years. It's felt like 30."
Or, maybe, 130. If anyone can be forgiven for warping out on his time frames, it's this guy, caught as he is in the virtual back-to-back Future sequels. In Hollywood, where studio execs refer to them as Back to the Bank, there are high expectations for the films, and Fox, whose price has soared from $250,000 for the original to $5 million for each of the sequels, is now under the kind of pressure that comes with such a phenomenal track record. "There's a lot at stake here," he admits, slapping dust from the buckskins that are his wardrobe for Future Part III, in which Fox's Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd as Emmett "Doc" Brown blast back to the West of 1885 to right some sagebrush-era wrinkles in time. "But I think people are going to like the movies. The sequels aren't a slapdash exploitation. It's nice to return to one of the better things in your career and say, 'Let's do that again.' "
Ironically, Fox's return to Future comes close on the heels of his farewell to Family Ties. "I miss the people a lot, but I don't miss the work," he says, after completing 176 episodes of the series that made him famous. Besides, he took along the co-star who mattered the most. Though some now claim they saw sparks when Tracy played Alex Keaton's girlfriend during the show's 1985-86 season, at the time, Michael says, "It wasn't even an issue." Pollan was then living with actor Kevin Bacon, and Fox had maintained a long relationship with actress Nancy (The Facts of Life) McKeon. "I always thought she was cool, but it was like a couple of married people who worked together and liked each other."
A year later, though, after Pollan had left the series and both she and Michael found themselves free, Fox decided to pursue the issue. "It sounds really horrible, but it was one of those things," says Fox. "Someone goes, 'Did you hear that so-and-so aren't together anymore?' and you go, 'Hmm, that's too bad. Where's the phone?' " Seven months later, on Dec. 26, 1987, Fox proposed. "I wasn't really worried that she would say no," he says. "The toughest part was trying to figure out when to get married, and then to figure out how nobody else could know about it."
The latter proved to be no small feat—and Michael was about to discover just how popular a star he had become. After settling on a July 16 wedding date, just after Fox was scheduled to wrap Casualties of War, the couple settled on the peaceful West Mountain Inn in Arlington, Vt.—and then watched in horror as a full-blown media circus erupted around them, including helicopters of photographers circling overhead during the ceremony. "It was nuts," says Fox. "Inside, it was like anybody else's wedding. It was a house party. We rolled back the rugs and danced the night way. You've got everyone in the world that you love in a one-acre area, and five idiots are flying over your head. You can't let kids run down the street because there are people with cameras there, grabbing them and pumping them and scaring them."
In fact, fame's downside had begun to look darkly ominous earlier that year. In February 1988, while Fox was still on location in Thailand, Tracy began receiving threatening letters from, authorities say, Tina Marie Ledbetter, a 26-year-old Camarillo, Calif., shipping clerk. Vowing to kill both Fox and Pollan, Ledbetter allegedly sent more than a dozen letters a day, twice simply sent boxes of rabbit droppings, and stepped up her threats after news of the couple's impending nuptials became public.
"We had people trying to plant parabolic microphones outside our honeymoon suite," says Michael, "but in the broad scheme of things, the least of our concerns was keeping people from taking pictures of us in the shower." Over a one-year period, he says, Ledbetter fired off more than 5,500 letters. "They were very vitriolic, very violent, very frightening. You can't just shrug it off and say, 'Well, I'm a celebrity. It comes with the territory.' " On May 24, Michael testified in court in Los Angeles about how "distraught" he and Tracy became due to Ledbetter's harassment. She is now in custody in a California psychiatric facility awaiting trial on five counts of making terroristic threats.
Those threats, however, had a permanent effect on the way Michael J. Fox conducts his life. In April 1988, he hired L.A. security consultant Gavin de Becker to watch over him and his family. Though he has every reason to be disillusioned, Fox is philosophical about the new security measures. "I think it's just a sign of the times. After Rebecca Schaeffer was killed, people said, 'Aren't you frightened? Doesn't that scare you?' Of course it scares me. It should scare everybody. But I'm not a lunatic about it. We lock the doors like everybody else. But who wants to live in a cocoon? It's key that you live as normal a life as possible. I don't subscribe to the theory that you surround yourself with a phalanx of meat and guns."
His own bodyguards are as low-key and well-mannered as the star himself. Indeed, in a town known for star tantrums, Fox is often singled out for his mellow mood. "I don't think I'm any nicer than anybody else," he says with a shrug. "But I don't see the percentage in being a jerk. I have bad days. But it's a real Canadian thing, just being polite." Still, even Fox had trouble keeping his temper in check during Tracy's pregnancy. "People who don't know you from Adam come up and put their hands on your wife's stomach," he remembers. "I was like, 'Hey, what are you doing?' At first it bothers you, but when you think about it, it's actually pretty sweet. What excites people about having babies is that it's so optimistic—it's renewal, it's everything that's good in life."
Not that Fox's description of fatherhood is completely saccharine. With a smile, he describes how he juggled his Family Ties and Back to the Future Part II shooting schedules to accommodate Lamaze classes. "My wife calls it the Alan Alda crap," he says of the natural childbirth coaching lessons. "Whenever I'd say, 'Honey, if I could do it for you, I really would,' she'd say, 'Okay, thank you, Alan.' But Tracy had a really good pregnancy, and it was a good delivery. Thank God, she was healthy and Sam was healthy." Sam also had good rhythm: "We did the whole womb music deal, where we put the headphones on Tracy's stomach and played everything from Vivaldi to the Allman Brothers," says Fox, whose gift from Sam this Father's Day was a guitar.
The very picture of a modern dad, Fox spent his free time before the delivery poring through child-care literature. "He had a library in his house, just stacks of books," says a close friend, Cheers's Woody Harrelson. "He would talk about having a kid and how excited he was. I knew he was going to be a great father because it was all he could think about. It just consumed him at all hours." And after Sam's arrival, Fox adds, "I kind of shut the door and said to everyone we love who wanted to see the baby, 'Just give us a little bit of time to get used to it ourselves.' What's interesting is that the parental instinct just kicks in. The next thing you know, you've got a sore hip because you're holding him all the time."
For the most part, Fox—who receives regular set-side visits from Tracy and Sam—sounds like any gushingly proud papa. "The great thing about having a baby is that you just say whatever comes into your mind. When Sam laughs, he sounds like Jimmy Durante: 'Hah-hah-hah-hah!' What I really like to do is just talk to him like you'd talk to anybody: 'So, we're gonna get into the car and go down to the yogurt place. What do you think about that?' And he'll go 'Hah-hah-hah-hah!' I'll say, 'I read the paper today, and it says that Zsa Zsa is going to jail,' and he'll go, 'Hah-hah-hah-hah!' "
Still, Fox is already worried about how to keep the laughter flowing despite the demands of his career—and his wife's desire to return to work within the next year. "Sam doesn't get it," he says. "You can't explain to him that I'm doing a movie. He doesn't really care. All he knows is that he's being dragged someplace. When he was 3 months old, he flew to Canada, then to New York City, then drove to Martha's Vineyard and Vermont, then flew from New Hampshire back to L.A. He's seeing the world, and it all looks the same to him. When you're that age, it's as exciting to go to Van Nuys."
Which seems to suit his parents just fine. When Fox wraps Back to the Future Part III in January, he plans to spend most of his time quietly en famille at his 100-acre Vermont farm—at least until the spring, when he starts shooting The Hard Way, a comedy co-starring James Woods.
"Sam was conceived with the notion that he would be born about the time that I'd be finished with the sequels," says an exasperated Fox. "Little did I know. He's 6 months old, and I'm months away from finishing. I didn't expect it to go this long. I thought everything would loosen up, but it's just gotten more intense."
Part of the pressure he's feeling may come from the disappointing box office of his last serious effort, Casualties of War. "I'm obviously a giant success in the dramatic department," Fox says, his voice coated with sarcasm. Such negativism is fleeting. "But it really doesn't bother me," he adds at once. "You're lucky enough if you do one thing that people like. If you do two or three, you've already won." He even sidesteps rumors of tension between himself and his controversial Casualties co-star, Sean Penn. "When you're going to make a movie somewhere, you're not going to camp," says Fox. "You're not looking for new pen pals. A lot was made of the fact that Sean and I didn't talk when we were working, because he was into character. Well, hey, I'll trade 75 good-boy, buddy sessions at the bar after work for one good scene with an actor who connects." Today, he adds, he's connecting with a "manic presence," Chris Lloyd. "McFly is a reactive character," says Fox, "so the more I have to react to, the better."
But even as the Future Part III shoot goes on around him—a complicated scene in which the time travelers' trusty DeLorean is pushed along a railroad track by an Old West steam locomotive—Fox makes it clear that the future he'd most like to get back to is his own and that it will likely include more little Foxes. "Tracy and I kind of have an agreement. While we're still changing diapers, we don't even talk about it. But I think it's likely; we both come from big families."
And happy ones, where parents stay married, as well. "A lot of that is unspoken. We don't say, 'We're going to be together forever.' It's not that Pollyannaish," says Fox thoughtfully as he squints up into the blue Sonora sky. "We just say, 'This is a cool thing. Let's not talk about it—and maybe it won't go away.' "
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