Michael J. Fox tears up recalling how his wife reacted to his Parkinson's diagnosis

Scott Stump
·5 min read

It's been almost 30 years since the day Michael J. Fox had to break the news to his wife that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at 29, but the memory of her reaction is still enough to move him to tears.

The "Back to the Future" star spoke with Willie Geist on Sunday TODAY about that emotional moment in 1991 with his wife, actor Tracy Pollan, which he also writes about in his latest book, "No Time Like the Future."

"We didn't know what to expect," Fox, now 59, said. "One of the things I'll always love Tracy for is that at that moment, she didn't blink."

"And she hasn't since, has she?" Willie answered.

"No," Fox replied while wiping away tears.

"It's not the kinda thing you can do without a partner, is it?" Willie, whose father is also living with Parkinson's disease, asked.

"It's really great to have a partner," Fox said.

Fox and Pollan, 60, have been married for 32 years and raised four children since first meeting on the 1980s NBC hit sitcom "Family Ties," where Fox won three Emmy Awards playing Alex P. Keaton.

Pollan's sense of humor has helped Fox endure some difficult stretches with his condition.

"Well, Tracy's amazing," he told Willie. "She's there in the front lines with me every single day. She never pretends to know as much as I know. And the other thing Tracy does is, if there's something funny, let's get to the funny. We'll deal with the tragic later.

"I just picture her talking to me, like, 'So anyway, I'm going to the store, and oh, you've fallen down. OK, I'm going to the market, I'm getting — are you okay? OK, so I'm getting cheese, and I'm getting bread, I'm getting baguettes. Don't get up. Just stay there for a second. I'm taking the station wagon. Not that you care."

He really needed her support in 2018, when his trademark optimism waned during one of the darkest periods of his life. Fox underwent spinal surgery to remove a tumor, which forced him to relearn how to walk. Then four months later he suffered a fall in their home and shattered his arm.

"I was underneath the phone, against the kitchen wall, on the kitchen floor alone with a broken arm, waiting for the ambulance to show up," he said on Sunday TODAY. "I couldn't believe the amount of fury I had toward myself for being so careless to do this, and to let down my surgeons.

"I had been so stubborn about being independent, and my family, who'd been so patient during all this. And I couldn't put a shiny face on it. I couldn't make lemonade out of this. In fact, I was out of the lemonade business. I just kind of felt more sorry for myself, and I'd never done that before. And I questioned my optimism."

Fittingly for a man with five Emmy Awards, watching television helped restore his positive outlook on life. He binge-watched old Westerns from the '50s and '60s while recovering from his broken arm.

"I kind of realized that this happened before I was born, these shows," he told Willie. "I'm part of that continuum. I'll be survived by my reruns. That gave me a little bit of a dash of immortality.

"All these things were connected. And they all pointed me toward how grateful I was for my interaction with my kids. They're all smarter than me, and all better looking than me, they're all taller than me. And so I look up to them."

Two years after the accident, Fox is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which has become the world's preeminent organization for Parkinson's disease research.

"We started the foundation literally with nothing," he said. "We got the best people on it doing the best work they can, as quickly as they can.

"We've been responsible for 17 active therapies that are now being used that were never thought of before. We funded $1 billion in research. This is our 20th year. If we knew it was gonna be 2020, we would've started a year earlier or a year later because this year really blows," he quipped.

Fox also shares in his new memoir that he's retiring from acting due to the effects of living with Parkinson's disease.

He previously retired at 40, and he threw his energy into his foundation, but he later returned to acting, guest-starring on "The Good Wife" and "Rescue Me," the latter of which earned him his fifth Emmy.

TV and film aside, Fox has regained his optimism and literally takes life one step at a time due to his condition.

"You have to plant your heel and shift your hips and transfer weight. I mean, all this mechanical biokinetics you have to go through to just go get a cup of coffee across the room," he said of his life now. "But if every time, you risk falling, every step is precious."

He shared that constantly being asked how he's doing can get a little tiresome, but he hasn't let it dampen his outlook on life.

"Sometimes I want to go, like, 'Really? You wanna know? Pull up a chair. I'll give you 45 minutes of it,''' he said. "If you want the short answer, I'm feeling great."

"Optimism is a choice," he added. "But in a way, it isn't. There's no other choice. I don't think there's any other viable choice than to hope for the best and work toward it."