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- February 07, 2000
- Vol. 53
- No. 5
Real-Life Family Ties
Exhilarated but Exhausted, Michael J. Fox Quits Spin City to Focus on Those He Loves and a Cause He Cares About: Combating Parkinson's
"On some level, it's an end of an era for our show," says Fox's costar Michael Boatman (who plays mayoral aide Carter Sebastian Heywood). "Everyone at our table was a wreck. We all had tears in our eyes. It meant a lot to him to win that award. It was a very emotional and very gratifying moment for him."
In large part because, as Fox said in his acceptance speech, while his castmates might be at the ceremony next year, he won't. Fourteen months after making public his longtime battle with Parkinson's disease—he first noticed a tremor in his finger while filming Doc Hollywood in 1991—the actor once again surprised friends, colleagues and fans by announcing on Jan. 18 that he is quitting Spin City, after four seasons. "I feel that right now my time and energy would be better spent with my family and working toward a cure for Parkinson's disease," he said in a statement. The day following the announcement, Fox, 38, elaborated to his friend, reporter Pat O'Brien, on Access Hollywood. "During Christmas break [in his hometown of Burnaby, B.C.] I was away...and it just felt terrific," he told O'Brien, whose mother, Vera Moss, died from the effects of the disease last August at age 78. "And I just started thinking, 'The more I do [Spin City] the more I have to postpone getting involved with Parkinson's advocacy, and I can't do both.' " Fox also stressed that his abrupt departure had nothing to do with worsening health. "I didn't suddenly take a turn. It's not a case where I've hit a wall and said, T can't do this anymore.' Certainly it's a progressive disease, so that it changes; it doesn't get better, you know. But at the same time it hasn't debilitated me. I wanted to make the choice while I could. I feel good and I'm happy and I have energy and there's stuff to do. I happen to believe there is a God, and perhaps I'm in this position so I could do something," he added. "This is what was in the book for me."
After the Golden Globes, Fox and Pollan—whom he thanked during his acceptance speech for doing the "tough job" of getting him through his illness "so well"-were clearly at ease with what friend and Spin City costar Victoria Dillard (who plays the mayor's secretary Janelle Cooper) says was surely "a family decision." "The way that we have both chosen to live our lives is in the moment, and today is fantastic," Pollan, 39, told Good Morning America. "I just hope for other days like today."
Still, Fox is doing more than hoping. The day he announced his retirement from the sitcom, he phoned Joan Samuelson, president of the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Parkinson's Action Network, to reaffirm a commitment to fund-raising that began last September, when he appeared before Congress to lobby for a hike in federal spending on Parkinson's research. "With the help of daily medication and selective exertion, I can still perform my job, in my case in a very public arena," he told a Senate subcommittee headed by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). "I can still help out with the daily tasks and rituals involved in home life. But I don't kid myself. That will change." Several advocates say Fox's appearance led to an initial increase of $10 million earmarked for Parkinson's research—well shy of the $75 million Fox had urged (and of the $244 million a year experts believe is needed to help find a cure within a decade)—but an impressive start. "He caused an enormous stir," says Specter. Samuelson agrees: "People's love for him is staggering. Spin City's loss is our gain."
Support for Fox is equally strong on the Manhattan set of Spin City, where the complexities of the loss are still being absorbed. "We're all confused about what is going to happen next," admits costar Barry Bostwick (who plays Mayor Randall Winston). Though ABC and Spin City producer DreamWorks could opt to continue without their star, few think it is likely. "He was the charm, the talent," says Bostwick. And despite the rash of lost jobs, not one cast member, says Bostwick, begrudges Fox his departure. "I never thought this would be the time. But he made us understand how difficult a decision it was. He made us understand how much he loved us. If I were struggling with the disease I wouldn't have even done the four seasons," adds Bostwick. "He stayed in longer than he wanted, in a way, because of his sense of affection and loyalty to his partners, to us. I think to myself, if I had Parkinson's, would I be as generous in protecting my fellow workers? Or would I crawl into a hole and feel sorry for myself? How can you argue with his decision? When you only have a finite amount of energy in your life during the day, you want to be where the love is."
For Fox, that's with his family. Square-dancing with his 4-year-old twin daughters, Aquinnah and Schuyler, in a friend's barn near their country home in rural Connecticut. Listening to hours of the teeny-bop pop group Hanson on a cross-country road trip with his 10-year-old son, Sam, a few years back. Relaxing in the antique-filled Fifth Avenue Manhattan apartment whose practicality—near schools and playgrounds and parks—makes it a fantasy home, as Fox told Architectural Digest in 1997, for "me and Tracy and the three units." Or just "lighting up like a Christmas tree," says Victoria Dillard, whenever Pollan and the children drop by the set. "They have a very close and intimate relationship," she says of Fox and Pollan. "They seem like absolutely the best of friends. You can just see the love between them." Adds Bostwick: "The minute she or the kids walk on the set, rehearsal shuts down for a while and he goes for hugs and kisses. [Tracy] has kept him grounded, sane, throughout all this time and turmoil."
Fox has never been fuzzy about his life priorities. "My family is the reason I live, not the work," he said recently. "You could bring back Olivier from the dead and have him perform Hamlet and I would be at home with my family." Still, after four years working 14-hour days together, says Dillard, "we are also a family." One that has since November 1998 struggled to balance Fox's need for normality with his need to pay attention to his health. "From the moment we understood what his issue was, he and his health and his family have been uppermost," says Bostwick. "We sort of stay out of his way, give him his space to be quiet, and rest and be creative." This year, says Connie Britton (who plays accountant Nikki Faber), the "long, grueling workweek was reconformed to better suit his energy level." Instead of rehearsing Monday through Friday and taping Friday evenings, the cast began rehearsing Thursday and Friday and then again Monday and Tuesday with a Tuesday-night taping. Still, while the other actors come in for a quick script read on Wednesdays and then "go to the gym or home," says Bostwick, Fox, as co-executive producer, has to spend several more hours with the director and writers "ripping apart next week's script."
The toll on Fox was inevitable. "Stress and anxiety worsen the symptoms of a Parkinson's patient," says Dr. Michael Rezak, medical director of the Young Onset Parkinson's Disease National Information and Referral Center in Glenview, Ill. (Dr. Rezak adds that calls to the center have increased "tenfold" since Fox announced he'd leave Spin City.) Says Dillard: "You can tell when he's really tired, you can see it in his eyes and in his face. Sometimes he looks a little like someone who's just run a marathon." But work hours are not the only issue. Like many of the estimated 1 million Parkinson's sufferers (10 percent of whom are under age 40), Fox is constrained less by demands of work and family than by the disease's symptoms—tremors and painful stiffness—which he has regulated with synthetic dopamine. "For me it takes about a half an hour before my body works, [before it] will kind of listen to what I want," Fox told Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America last year. "And then it will wake up and get very tremory, and then the drugs will kick in, and it will all mellow out for a while for about an hour and a half or so, and then you do the whole dance again."
Working Spin City into the rhythm of that dance has always been a challenge. "He likes to take his medication in the morning because it makes him feel better," says costar Alan Ruck (who plays chief of staff Stuart Bondek). "But then it won't be effective at night [when we tape]." In order to be "as smooth as possible on-camera," says Ruck, Fox must delay taking his medication on show days. "And that means in the morning he may be in pain. Juggling when to take his medication drives him crazy," Ruck adds. "He wants to be home with his kids. He loves them to death, but now when he gets home he is so exhausted." The changes in Fox do not seem to bother his children. "All my kids know I'm there for them on a lot of levels," he recently said. "They don't live in fear." Indeed, as Pollan told Good Morning America last week, "our son is extremely empathetic," and the girls are still less focused on their father's ability to control his hand than, say, on who gets to wear the green shoes and who gets to wear the blue. For them, said Pollan, "it's, 'Daddy's a little under the weather. I still want those green shoes.' "
Though Fox—who won his first Golden Globe in 1989 for his role as Republican poster boy Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties—has said he plans to continue acting, producing and directing on a project basis, he may not have time. Besides developing a new Web site, michaeljfox.com, which provides information on how to support Parkinson's research, he will be kept busy later this year, Joan Samuelson promises, shooting public-service announcements that promote Parkinson's awareness. "I think he realized, 'Hey, this is what life's all about,' " says Pat O'Brien, of Fox's advocacy. "Luckily, he no longer has to worry about paying the rent. He's earned the right to give himself a break."
A break that officially kicks in when he tapes his final episode of Spin City in April—but in effect began the minute he gathered his castmates around him in his dressing room to share his news on Jan. 18. "We all became very emotional," says Britton. "There were definitely tears, and this feeling that we just wanted to hold on to each other, first because of the love we feel for Michael, and second because we really are a family and the idea of disbanding is very sad." By the time the evening's taping rolled around, a very different feeling had taken hold. When Fox walked onstage, audience members, most of whom had heard the news, gave him a standing ovation—and another one when the show wrapped. "It felt like there was magic in the air," says Victoria Dillard, "a triumphant feeling rather than a grieving one. Michael values his family and his quality of life so much that he is willing to step down for them, and I applaud that. We all do," she adds. "We all want for him the absolute best."
Karen S. Schneider
Cynthia Wang, Fannie Weinstein and Elizabeth McNeil in New York City, Ken Baker, Tom Cuneff and Ulrica Wihlborg in L.A., Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C., and Karen Ann Cullotta in Chicago
- Cynthia Wang,
- Fannie Weinstein,
- Elizabeth McNeil,
- Ken Baker,
- Tom Cuneff,
- Ulrica Wihlborg,
- Jane Sims Podesta,
- Karen Ann Cullotta.
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