'I'm So Blessed'

updated 11/13/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

By late afternoon, Michael J. Fox has already put in a long, grueling day on the campaign trail in Ohio and now Iowa, firing up hundreds in the crowd after hobbling down a plane stairway, holding the handrail as he descends with a bent arm and bouncing leg. But as he prepares to sit down with a reporter in a Des Moines airport conference room, it's obvious that one thing is perfectly intact: his famously wry humor. "Look," he says, gesturing to a plush lounge chair as he takes the flimsy plastic one next to it, "I'm even giving you the comfortable seat."

Fox isn't known for taking the easy route. Diagnosed 15 years ago with Parkinson's disease, the degenerative neurological condition that robs its victims of the ability to control their movements, the harsh reality of his condition is now so much a part of his life that even the kids from his 18-year marriage to actress Tracy Pollan—17-year-old Sam, 11-year-old twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler and Esme, 5—barely mention it anymore. "They know it so intimately," he says. "It would be like asking your mother what it's like to be that tall." The disease is also a learning experience for his children. "I think the thing it has taught my kids is resilience," he says. "And that's a great lesson and a great gift I've been able to give them just by example."

Although Fox, 45, first revealed his illness publicly in 1998 and has been quietly dealing with its repercussions ever since, his dedication to the cause of embryonic stem-cell research has now put him more in the public eye than ever, culminating in a string of recent political ads and TV interviews that showcased the involuntary tremors often associated with Parkinson's. And his outspokenness has stirred controversy. Conservative critics like Rush Limbaugh [see box on page] accuse Fox of using the stem-cell issue as an excuse to shill for Democratic candidates; others decry his pro-stem-cell position as not respectful of the sanctity of life.

But Fox insists that he supports the research because the majority of experts believe it's the most promising avenue for a cure—not just for Parkinson's, but also for afflictions such as Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis. Adding an aura of urgency to Fox's fight is his own deteriorating physical condition. "I have less control over the way my body moves," he says. "The thing that gets tougher as you go along is that the medication gets less effective and has more side effects. So it's a lot more challenging."

Challenging maybe, but not demoralizing. In the day to day, Fox still scuba dives and can even play the occasional game of tennis. Shaving, on the other hand, is really tough. So is getting a good night's sleep. "Michael says that when he gets up to go to the bathroom at night," says Lonnie Ali, 49, the wife of fellow Parkinson's sufferer Muhammad Ali, "he tries to get back to sleep before his Parkinson's wakes up."

But those private travails have had remarkably little effect on his public persona. Since checking out of Spin City in 2000, he's written a bestselling autobiography, Lucky Man, guest-starred on Boston Legal and founded The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, which to date has raised more than $80 million. Beyond that, he's emerged as the country's most visible proponent of embryonic stem-cell research. His contributions are "enormous," says neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose 1973 book, Awakenings, inspired the feature film about a hospital ward of patients with a form of Parkinson's. "He has done more than any other person on this planet to galvanize the subject." Says Ali: "Michael's leading the march for all of us. He's on a mission."

Still, in his private life Fox "doesn't get out of making sandwiches for his kids," says Tammy Duckworth, 38, a pro-stem-cell research Army veteran who lost both legs in Iraq and who received Fox's help last month during her Congressional race in Illinois. "He was talking about the fact that even though your family loves you and supports you, they don't give you any slack. It might be hard for him to do the basics, but that doesn't mean he gets out of making lunch."

According to Fox it's his family, more than anything, that gives him strength. "My family is great. Tracy is great. She does all the sweaty work," he says. "When I was doing Spin City, life just got too difficult. But when I'm hanging around with my family, [the illness] doesn't come up." In fact, Fox leans on Tracy, 46, even in his political endeavors. "Her counsel I value above everyone else's," he says. "She'll watch me do an interview and say, 'You should've said this. Next time, say that.' The best thing is she's also quick to help me put it aside and just lead a normal life."

These days, for the Foxes, normal means "going out to dinner and to movies and traveling and going on vacations," he says. They spend much of their summers at the beach, and winters "going up to the country [including their 80-acre Connecticut estate]. We ski and hang out. This time of year what we do is supervise homework and get kids to the bus, music lessons, soccer practice and ballet. Just all the regular stuff. There's nothing like supervising four kids—one in preschool, two in middle school and one in high school. Between talking about colleges and trying to pick a kindergarten, it's a pretty busy life. It takes your mind off just about everything."

Everything, that is, except his crusade. Frustrated at a presidential veto last July of legislation that would have expanded funding for embryonic stem-cell research, Fox has recently taken to the hustings on behalf of a roster of candidates who support his cause. Last month, at a campaign appearance with Duckworth in Illinois, "He talked a lot about how much he missed his kids, and that he wished he was home," she says. "It's hard to have an illness and travel and get up in front of groups of people and talk." But he does it, relentlessly. "I'm so blessed with a great family, and I've had success in my career," he says. "I feel this is a really unique opportunity for me to help out and try to effect change."

For Tyler Mills, 19, who, confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, showed up to hear Fox speak in Des Moines, the message—and messenger—are inspiring: "We need those kinds of advocates, someone to put a face to this issue. I've met Michael. He took the time to talk to me for a half-hour. It was really special."

It's that kind of response, says Fox, that makes all the effort worthwhile. "For a lot of people, [getting Parkinson's] is like being hit by a truck. But in a way it's also gift—one that keeps on taking, but still a gift. To be able to be of service, to help people, that's the greatest privilege I could have."

And so, homesickness aside, on an unseasonably warm day in Des Moines, after entering the hall to a thunderous standing ovation (and a few "Michael for president!" cries from the crowd), Fox takes the stage to deliver his message, visibly swaying and wiping the sweat from his brow with a tissue. He hangs on to the podium to steady himself, outlines his argument and at one point even raises the specter of what his ultraconservative Family Ties alter ego, Alex Keaton, might think about his support for Democrats. "I think he'd probably tell me to put my tie back on no matter how hot it is," says Fox with a grin. "But I think he would tell me I'm doing the right thing."

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