Michael J. Fox Recalls Years of 'Denial' After Parkinson's Diagnosis: 'I Told Very Few People'

Michael J Fox
Michael J Fox

Jason Merritt/Getty Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox is reflecting on his harrowing journey with Parkinson's disease.

The Back to the Future star, 61, said that his Parkinson's "truly has been a gift" as he accepted the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an honorary Oscar recognizing outstanding philanthropic efforts, at Saturday's 13th Governors Awards in Los Angeles.

"It was a gift, as my friend George Stephanopoulos pointed out in a film," he said in his acceptance speech of the short tribute prior. "I refer to Parkinson's as the gift that keeps on taking. But it truly has been a gift.

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"Once I became engaged in learning about the disease, every interaction, every new piece of information I gathered, every researcher or NIH official I talked to, all confirmed, the science was ahead of the money. The answers could be unlocked with the right investments," Fox added.

In the speech, he recounted dropping out of high school in 11th grade and leaving Canada, making it in Hollywood, later getting his GED, finding fame on Family Ties, and falling in love and starting a family, before learning of his Parkinson's diagnosis when he was around 29.

Michael J. Fox (L) and Tracy Pollan attend the 2021 A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Cure Parkinson's gala on October 23, 2021 in New York City.
Michael J. Fox (L) and Tracy Pollan attend the 2021 A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Cure Parkinson's gala on October 23, 2021 in New York City.

Noam Galai/Getty Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan

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"I was told I only had 10 years left to work. That was s—y. That's what happened. The hardest part of my diagnosis was grappling with the certainty of the diagnosis and the uncertainty of the situation," Fox mused.

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"I only knew it would get worse. The diagnosis was definite, the progress was indefinite and uncertain," he said. "[Wife Tracy Pollan] made it clear that she was with me for the duration. But my young son, Sam, didn't know. He didn't have a choice."

Fox and Pollan, 62, tied the knot in 1988, and they share son Sam Michael, 33, twin daughters Aquinnah Kathleen and Schuyler Frances, 27, and 21-year-old daughter Esmé Annabelle.

"Then I entered into seven years of denial, trying to make sense of it all. The kid who left Canada convinced that he would make anything happen, at least by working hard and by believing, now had a tall order in front of him," he continued.

"I told very few people, and they kept my secret," Fox said. "Then there were all kinds of doctors who helped me understand the physical processes that were at work, or not at work, in my brain, as the case may be. Finally, I felt like I needed to tell everybody. I understood it would have a huge impact on my career."

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The Golden Globe winner said he "had to figure out how best to deliver the news, so I told Barbara Walters and PEOPLE Magazine," adding: "Remember this was at the dawn of the internet. And in those days, if you wanted to get news out, you'd go to PEOPLE Magazine and Barbara Walters. Oh, for simpler times."

"What happened next was remarkable," he said. "The outpouring of support from the public at large, the beautiful reaction from all of my peers in the entertainment business, all of you, thank you, and the people that I worked with, was transformative."

"Then I reached out to the Parkinson's community itself. Patients, families and doctors, leading scientists in the field. And it struck me that everything I'd been given, success, my life with Tracy, my family, had prepared me for this profound opportunity and responsibility," Fox added.

Fox, who launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research in 2000, which has since raised over $1.5 billion, admitted he "didn't want to call it that," recalling with a laugh: "I wanted to call it PD cure. And I told Tracy and she said, 'Pedicure?'"