Excerpted from ALWAYS LOOKING UP by Michael J. Fox
Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Fox. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion.
Always Looking Up
the adventures of an incurable optimist
Michael J. Fox
Into the Great Wide Open
In many ways, day-to-day life is tougher now than it was when Lucky Man was published. I thought I was in rough shape in 2000 when I retired from Spin City. The twin hammers of producing and performing in one hundred episodes over a four-year span had knocked me on my ass. Brain surgery two years earlier had reduced the emphatic tremor on my left side but had done nothing to diminish the trembling on my right and in my legs. Titrating medication was a daily battle with a shape-shifting enemy. The segues between being “on” and “off” my meds, transitions that under ideal circumstances transpired like quasi-civil conversations, had deteriorated into a belligerent riot of interruptions and cross talk. In a futile attempt to be “on” at the optimal times—that is, when I was performing—I would try to get through my producing duties with as little levodopa (or “L-Dopa,” the synthetic dopamine that Parkinson’s patients take to control symptoms) in my system as possible, so that when I had to act, I could up the dose and be steady in front of the cameras. Rarely, if ever, did I get it right. Getting it wrong—erring on the side of too much levodopa—brought on a torrent of dyskinesias; uncontrollable movements like undulating, weaving, rocking, and bobbing. The cruel joke was that I didn’t notice it as much going through my paces as I did afterward when I watched the footage in the editing room.
Having decided halfway through thefourth season that my physical condition would not allow me to do a fifth, I began to wonder if I’d even make it through the thirteen or so episodes that remained. My daily regimen of drugs (which, by the way, have no psychotropic effect—no buzz whatsoever) affected my speech patterns and sometimes caused me to slur my words or hesitate before saying my lines—a real bitch when you’re trying to time a joke. As for physical comedy, hell, I was just trying to avoid physical tragedy.
Although everyone—cast, crew, and audience—knew by this point that I had Parkinson’s, I was still attempting to play a character who did not. Whatever comedic or dramatic complexity a particular scene called for, my greatest acting challenge was always acting like I didn’t have Parkinson’s. Though I continued to employ the same old bag of tricks that had served me for years—manipulating hand props to control tremulous hands, leaning against walls, desks, and fellow actors, shifting in a chair or behind a table to cover my uncontrollable leg and foot movements—the advance in symptoms was forcing me to update my repertoire. I discovered that, for short periods of time, I could direct all the energy coursing through my body to one particular extremity—a hand, leg, or foot. So when blocking a scene, I would position myself (and the rest of the cast as well) in such a way as to best conceal the appendage in which the surge of Parkinsonian energy was manifest. Like I said, it’s the same sort of thing I’d been doing for years, and my thinking was that once I could explain to people why I was doing it, it would make the whole process that much smoother.
But it didn’t make it any easier. It was still tough. Now people just had a better idea of why it was tough. My friend Michael Boatman played Carter Heywood, the mayor’s minority affairs liaison on the show. One day we were rehearsing a scene that required both of us to pass through the mayor’s office door simultaneously and in opposite directions. Scripts in hand, we started to walk the scene, but when we both got to the door, instead of passing by Michael, I froze directly in front of him. “You gotta move,” I said, rather more bluntly than intended.
Michael is one of the nicest guys on the planet, but he was a little confused and taken aback by my direction. “What?” he replied.
“You gotta move. I can’t move until you move.”
He eventually complied, and after the rehearsal, I tried to explain what had just happened.
Occasionally, when my brain asks my body to perform simple tasks that involve some degree of judgment regarding spatial relationships, the message gets lost in transmission. It takes some form of outside stimulus, like the movement of an obstacle or, curiously, even the introduction of an obstacle, for me to move forward. Some Parkies who freeze when walking can resume again when a ruler is placed in front of their feet and they are forced to step over it. Michael, of course, accepted my explanation and even managed to laugh with me about the strangeness of it all.
Over the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, countless situations would arise when similar explanations were required, and that, in and of itself, became a fatiguing responsibility. The Jekyll-and-Hyde difference between when the meds were working and when they weren’t understandably confused people. Those around me had a difficult time reconciling the energetic, expressive Mike Flaherty that they would see in front of the camera with the shuffling, masked-face Mike Fox that they would encounter as he went about his business behind the scenes. My producing partner, Nelle Fortenberry, remembers more than a few occasions when department heads and other members of the cast and crew would step into her office, close the door, and beg her to tell them why I was mad at them.
“What makes you think he’s mad at you?” she would reply.
“I just passed him in the hallway, and he didn’t smile or wave or even slow down.”
Nelle would repeatedly explain that one of the symptoms of PD is a dearth of facial animation—the Parkinson’s mask. In addition, something as simple as turning my head over my shoulder to convey a greeting can be an actual physical impossibility. Once I have any degree of momentum while walking, the expenditure of energy required to stop and start again can be ten times as taxing as it is for a normal-brained person.
Away from the set, it was Nelle with whom I most often interacted on a day-to-day basis, along with executive producers Bill Lawrence and David Rosenthal, and our director, Andy Cadiff. This was when I put on my producing hat, and we’d wade through production budgets, future story lines, script drafts, proposals for set designs, post-production issues, cast and crew grievances, and the rest of the minutiae that comes with churning out a new episode of television every seven days. Believe it or not, it could be fun. But it could also be grueling. Problems were like popcorn; as we worked our way through the bowl we had in front of us, it seemed like there was a big popper outside the office door, constantly manufacturing a new batch.
Sometimes I’d laugh when Nelle would lay out the new challenges for the day. I’d remind her that, however big the problems were, they wouldn’t be my biggest. I didn’t mean this as a complaint but as a comment on a perspective I’d gained from my situation.
If I could go back today and speak to the me of 2000, as I waged my daily battles with Parkinson’s disease, I’d have this to say: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”
In fact, having the benefit of my experience since, I know now that it was going to get a lot worse before it got…well…a lot worse. Still, with what I have learned since about managing stress through creative scheduling, and the current generation of drugs that were just around the corner, I probably could have done a full seven seasons. That’s not to say for a minute that I wish I had. My decision to leave Spin City was the right call at the right time.
By then, making a decision about what to commit my time and energy to came down to how I felt about something as opposed to what I thought about it. Certainly, my decision to retire from Spin City in the spring of 2000, effective at the end of the fourth season, was all “feel.”The decision happened late in the afternoon on the last day of the twentieth century. My family and I were snorkeling the pristine waters off St. John’s in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We’d been visiting this beach for years, and had never seen a sea turtle. Having finally spotted one gliding through the sea grass just inside the coral reef, I swam slowly behind it, keeping a respectful distance. When I finally emerged from the water, I kicked off my flippers, walked over to where Tracy was toweling off the kids, grabbed a towel for myself, and informed her that I was leaving the show. It may have been a bone-deep exhaustion from battling symptoms every day just to do my job, or maybe it was just the sublime indifference of that turtle, but a switch had flipped, and depending on how I chose to accept it, a light had either just turned on or just turned off. If the perfunctory nature of my announcement startled Tracy, she covered it well. Certainly it was her moment to fill. She could have laughed it off like a weak throwaway joke or just pretended to ignore it, tacitly offering me the space to reconsider. Or she could have said, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” After all, what I was so casually proposing would bring about sweeping changes in each of our lives, as well as the kids’. I didn’t even mention the turtle, fearing that she would think I was only consulting her for a second opinion. Whatever rough patches there had been in our marriage had usually arisen when one of us—okay, me—acted unilaterally. Bottom line, she could have reacted in any of a number of ways. But what she did was look me in the eye, utter a single word, “Good,” and pull me into a wet, sandy embrace.
For the few remaining days of the vacation, we didn’t talk about it much. If I was waiting for her to talk me out of it, that wasn’t happening.
But could the break really have been that simple, that clean? This was a momentous decision, easily one of the most important in my life, and I was just blurting it out.
Well, yes—in a sense. Never once after my encounter with the sea turtle have I wavered in my conviction that it was the right thing for me to do and the right time for me to do it. But it was hard too. Not a hard decision to make, but a hard decision to have made. As with any turning point or instance when a new road is chosen and an old one forsaken, there are consequences. Here it was, New Year’s Eve, the cusp of not only a new year, but a new millennium, and my resolution was to leave behind everything that I had resolved to achieve, acquire, and accumulate over the previous twenty years. I knew I wouldn’t just be leaving the show—I would be putting aside my life as an actor. While I always had difficulty thinking of myself as an artist, I took pride in being a craftsman. I think I understood that even though, officially, my retirement was from Spin City and not my career as a whole, I couldn’t just tweak the schedule or the working conditions and expect to take on another leading role in a television series or film. This was it. I was essentially pulling the plug. Adios. Bye-bye.
John Gielgud, revered for his decades on the English stage and famous for playing Dudley Moore’s butler in Arthur, once described his life’s work in this way: “Acting is half shame, half glory. Shame at exhibiting yourself, glory when you can forget yourself.” As a sixteen-year-old, just embarking upon a career, I could relate. I dabbled in the other arts, for a time envisioning a future as a writer, commercial artist, or musician, but it was acting that came most naturally to me. At an age when most people (and I was no exception) feel ungainly, awkward, and unlovable, I’d found something for which I seemed to have a facility. I could be anyone, anything, any size, any shape, transport myself to any place or time. And if I did it right, there was the bonus of approbation from those whom I was otherwise hard-pressed to please. Roles in school plays and locally produced film and television productions encouraged me to test my potential, and soon I became more and more aware that my real limitations were geographical. I needed to go to where the work was.
Acting provided a life beyond anything I could imagine—and I had a fervent imagination. At eighteen, my aspirations led me to Los Angeles. I stuck through humiliating and seemingly pointless auditions and routine rejections, with the occasional reward of a small TV gig or national commercial that would pay my rent and keep my spirits afloat. Then came success, and with it a new confidence in my craftsmanship and the courage to try new things; some with positive results, some not so positive, but never with regret.
Acting was an occupation that required me to be both an observer and participant in the world. Throughout my many years in comedy, I relied upon an intuitive ability to find the humor in almost any situation. There’s always a “funny part.” An actor’s palette is the entirety of the human experience. A career as long and busy as mine had allowed me to empathize and connect with people in a way no other profession could have. And of course, there were the tangible benefits: travel, a financial windfall, goodwill beyond any deserving. Perhaps the greatest gift of all came courtesy of a fortuitous piece of casting: meeting Tracy on the set of Family Ties.
I never went to college; I didn’t even finish high school. Being an actor was the only career I’d known, and now, on the inferred advice of a turtle, I was ready to leave it as easily as I had toweled the seawater off my sunburned back?
Deep down I knew that my love of working—that megavolt crackle that licked up my spine when a well-written joke was well-timed and well-received—was still there. A hard-earned comfort had developed after so many years of performing—not laziness, but a reasonable confidence that no matter what emotion, intention, or attitude I needed to access, that arrow would be in my quiver when I reached for it. As a younger actor, I could sometimes obscure my insecurity about the integrity of a given moment with some deft piece of physicality: Alex Keaton, putting his hands in his pockets and leaping backward onto the kitchen counter; Marty McFly, duckwalking, windmilling, and power-sliding through “Johnny B. Goode”; Brantley Foster, hulk-flexing in the elevator clad only in boxer shorts; or even Mike Flaherty, stripping off his sweatpants in midair while executing a full flip over the bed and his waiting girlfriend. I could always rely on the physical. The unfortunate irony was that at a time when I felt in full possession of the emotional and intellectual dimensions of my performing identity, I could no longer count on my body to play along. I didn’t want to make choices as an actor based on disability rather than ability.
Although I can’t claim any lucid memories of the evening, I’m pretty sure I spent New Year’s Eve of 1979, my first as a young actor living in California, getting drunk off my ass and making wild resolutions about all that I would accomplish in the coming decades. Now, twenty years later, enjoying a quiet, sober tropical New Year’s Eve with my family and reflecting upon all that young man had accomplished, I prepared to step into an uncertain future.
soundstage d, chelsea piers march 17, 2000
For a television series, especially a sitcom, one hundred episodes represents an important threshold. Traditionally, the century mark is the minimum required to successfully launch a show into syndication. Going into season four, we expected, according to our twenty-two-show schedule, to finish the season with ninety-six shows in the can.
Our syndication deal was already in place, so it wasn’t technically crucial that we produce those extra four. But while at peace with my decision to leave the show, I became fixated on that milestone. This could have meant adding another month of production for which we had neither the time nor the money. So, rather than allowing myself to ease out of the show, I had created a logistical conundrum that required sometimes shooting one and a half shows per week, thus being able to bank six episodes in four weeks. The plan was for a one-hour finale, edited into two shows for syndication. Filmed over two weeks, for the most part without a studio audience, the storyline would also call for a day of location shooting in Washington, DC. All of this pre-filmed material, rough-edited and assembled, could then be screened for the final New York studio audience with live scenes interspersed.
I’m sure it was a difficult period for the cast and the crew, although for the last month and a half of the season, we knew that my leaving would mark not the end of Spin City but, rather, a transition. The show would continue. Charlie Sheen signed on as the new deputy mayor, and production would be moved to Los Angeles, where Charlie and Spin City co-creator Gary Goldberg lived. (Gary would reassume executive producer duties.) Of course, this would be the New York–based crew’s final season. For the audience, then, this would not be a farewell to the show, just a farewell to the character of Mike Flaherty.
The final episode was tricky to conceive and execute because the entire situation was rife with verisimilitude. Mike Flaherty, for reasons that were not entirely fair, was being forced to prematurely leave the job he loved. I could relate, and the other actors seemed as concerned for me as their alter egos were for Mike. It was all one and the same. This was it. It was really over.
The fictional Mike Flaherty’s prospects were better than mine. He’d probably work again. But would I? Doubtful. At least, not like this, performing week-in, week-out, in front of a live studio audience.
I worked closely with David Rosenthal, Bill Lawrence, and the rest of the writing staff to ensure that Mike would have at least one substantial scene with each of the show’s regular characters. This was both to give the audience a sense of closure on each of these relationships and to allow me one last chance to share the stage with each of these gifted performers, whom I had come to care so much about over the previous four years. The whole thing was loaded with emotion; the logistical burden we’d created only compounded the exhaustion that had me retiring in the first place. Beyond the soundstage, my plans to leave the show created another wave of support and affection comparable to what I’d experienced two years earlier when I made public my PD diagnosis. There was a tremendous media interest in those last days of my tenure, with members of the press on set, observing our prep for my final show. Everyone—cast, crew, writers, and production staff—was at once at the top of his or her game and in a total fog. But they, at least, grasped something that seemed to be eluding me. This final episode marked a turning point in my life, a tectonic shift. I might have looked around, understood what had been set in motion and what would soon grind to a halt, and said, “Oh, shit! What have I done?”
I had sailed into waters too narrow and too shallow to turn the boat around. It’s not that I was totally unaware of what was happening; I was caught up in the emotion like everyone else. And I felt guilty too, knowing that by choosing to change my life’s direction, I had thrown so many others off course; hopefully not irreversibly, but probably unexpectedly. Or maybe it wasn’t so unexpected. Everyone could see my battle fatigue. And the final push to bring it all to a close in a fitting way, the pressure to hit the one-hundred-episode mark, and the physical demands of simultaneously performing and producing only reinforced the ultimate wisdom of my decision. But the imperative that I get these last few laughs and collapse across the finish line precluded any thoughts about what I was falling into on the other side of that invisible threshold. For now, what drove me to keep going was the need to stop.
Even if I didn’t appear to be saying, “Oh, shit!,” I did it by proxy. In order to find a way for Mike Flaherty to leave his job at City Hall (and for me to leave Spin City), we had to create that moment for him, and this safe remove provided me with a little perspective.
This was the conceit: Though innocent of any wrongdoing himself, the mayor of New York is implicated in a scandal linking City Hall to organized crime. Seeing no way to spin his boss out of the jam, Mike’s only recourse is to take the fall himself. He agrees to resign from his post. His coworkers are shocked, and he himself is shaken, but he is also certain that leaving is the only right thing to do. And so he goes about severing his ties to the job that has defined him. After his last day at work, at home with his girlfriend and coworker Caitlin, Mike voices his anxiety. What the hell is he going to do now?
CAITLIN IS PLACING FOOD ON THE TABLE — DINNER FOR TWO. MICHAEL ENTERS.
Hey, you didn’t make it to the bar.
Things were a little crazy at the office.
Yeah, I heard they lost somebody pretty valuable today.
He was just eye candy.
I’ve often felt that Heather Locklear is underestimated as an actress, for the most part because she’s so natural and effortless in front of the camera. Further proof of her ability, though, was right in front of me as we worked on this last episode. Caitlin might have been a rock, but Heather was a mess, crying before and after every take. She was great that week, as she had been throughout the season. Brought in, after all, to help lighten my load as the going got tougher, Heather had done a spectacular job, just as Caitlin was doing for the soon-to-be-former deputy mayor.
The exchange that closed the scene, however, was really all about me and Tracy, an acknowledgment of how much I am empowered by her belief in me, in the life and family we have built together. Sometimes I have only the courage of her convictions, her unflinching support, and her assurance, almost matter-of-fact, that I should trust my heart, my gut, and her love. Reprising not just a moment from our recent history together, the words and emotions evoked remembrances of other times when I had offered my doubts and fears to my wife—drinking, career crises, Parkinson’s—and she had not judged them, just shared them. When all appears lost, I look to Tracy to help me find it again—or, better yet, be with me for as long as it takes for something new to arrive. And longer.
MICHAEL SITS DOWN AT THE TABLE. FOR THE FIRST TIME IN A LONG WHILE HE TAKES A DEEP BREATH.
You know what, it’s okay. I’m gonna bounce back from this, right?
Of course, Mike.
It’s not over, right?
It’s a long way from over.
It’s weird, for as long as I can remember, every morning I’ve had somewhere to go, something to do. What am I going to do tomorrow when that alarm goes off?Caitlin
I wouldn’t set it.
On show night, the place was packed. The press was there and so was everyone from the network and the studio; my family had flown in from Vancouver; and all of the writers and producers who had worked on the show over the last four years had returned to say good-bye. Even with all the special guests, seats had been saved for regular civilians, those loyal audience members who had shown up every show night since the beginning. And of course, Tracy spent most of the evening just offstage, by the floor monitors with Gary, both of them in tears as they watched the episode and this chapter of our lives come to a close.
At the end of the night, I ran out to join the cast for curtain call, which we planned to include as part of the episode. I wore Mike Flaherty’s Fordham letterman’s jacket and embraced each of the cast members and waved good-bye. Behind all of this played the song “Glory Days,” which Bruce Springsteen had kindly given us permission to use. It was a sentimental choice, but it was also meant to be ironic. Time slips away and leaves you with nothing, mister, but boring stories of Glory Days. Surely, my glory days hadn’t come to an end. I would have more stories to tell.
After the show, we packed into a nearby restaurant we had booked for that night. We danced and partied, laughed our asses off, and said our good-byes. That night when Tracy and I got home and went to bed, I didn’t set the alarm.