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Gainesville, Florida-November 1990
I woke up to find the message in my left hand. It had me trembling. It wasn't a fax, telegram, memo, or the usual sort of missive bringing disturbing news. In fact, my hand held nothing at all. The trembling was the message.
I was feeling a little disoriented. I'd only been shooting the movie in Florida for a week or so, and the massive, pink-lacquered, four-poster bed surrounded by the pastel hues of the University Center Hotel's Presidential Suite still came as a bit of a shock each morning. Oh yeah: and I had a ferocious hangover. That was less shocking.
It was a Tuesday morning, so while I couldn't recall the exact details of the previous night's debauchery, it was a pretty safe bet that it had something to do with Monday Night Football. In those first few seconds of consciousness, I didn't know what time it was, but I could be fairly certain that I hadn't overslept. If I was needed on set, there would have been a phone call from my assistant, Brigette. If I had to leave the hotel at 10:00 A.M., let's say, she would have called at 9:30, again at 9:40, then finally at 9:50 she would have taken the elevator from her floor up to mine, let herself into my room, propelled me to the shower, and slipped into the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. None of that having transpired, I knew I had at least a few minutes.
Even with the lights off, blinds down, and drapes pulled, an offensive amount of light still filtered into the room. Eyes clenched shut, I placed the palm of my left hand across the bridge of my nose in a weak attempt to block the glare. A moth's wingor so I thoughtfluttered against my right cheek. I opened my eyes, keeping my hand suspended an inch or two in front of my face so I could finger-flick the little beastie across the room. That's when I noticed my pinkie. It was trembling, twitching, auto-animated. How long this had been going on I wasn't exactly sure. But now that I noticed it, I was surprised to discover that I couldn't stop it.
Weirdmaybe I slept on it funny. Five or six times in rapid succession I pumped my left hand into a fist, followed by a vigorous shaking out. Interlocking the fingers of each hand steeple-style with their opposite number, I lifted them up and over behind my head and pinned them to the pillow.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Like a moisture-free Chinese water torture, I could feel a gentle drumming at the back of my skull. If it was trying to get my attention, it had succeeded. I withdrew my left hand from behind my head and held it in front of my face, steadily, with fingers splayedlike the bespectacled X-ray glasses geek in the old comic book ad. I didn't have to see the underlying skeletal structure; the information I was looking for was right there in the flesh: a thumb, three stock-still fingers, and out there on the lunatic fringe, a spastic pinkie.
It occurred to me that this might have something to do with my hangover, or more precisely, with alcohol. I'd put away a lot of beers in my time, but had never woken up with the shakes; maybe this was what they called delirium tremens? I was pretty sure they would manifest themselves in a more impressive wayI mean, who gets the d.t.'s in one finger? Whatever this was, it wasn't alcoholic deterioration.
Now I did a little experimentation. I found that if I grabbed my finger with my right hand, it would stop moving. Released, it would keep still for four or five seconds, and then, like a cheap wind-up toy, it would whir back to life again. Hmmm. What had begun as curiosity was now blossoming into full-fledged worry. The trembling had been going on for a few minutes with no sign of quitting and my brain, fuzzy as it was, scrambled to come up with an explanation. Had I hit my head, injured myself in some way? The tape of the previous night's events was grainy at best. There were a lot of blank spots on it, but there were a couple of possibilities too.
Woody Harrelson was in Gainesville with me on this film, and he had been in the bar the night beforemaybe we'd had one of our legendary drunken slap fights. Woody and I were (and remain) close friends, but for some reason after an indeterminable amount of alcohol consumption, we'd find some excuse to start kicking over chairs and stage elaborate mock brawls. No harm was intended, and the majority of punches were pulled, but Woody is a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than me, which meant that whenever the game got out of hand, I was always the one that took the most serious ass-kicking. So maybe I'd caught a Harrelson haymaker to the side of the head.
But I couldn't recall any such melee. I did recall, however, a moment at the end of the night, when my bodyguard, Dennis, had had to prop me up against the door frame while he fumbled the key into the door of my suite. By the time he'd turned the knob, my weight had shifted onto the door itself; as he flung it open I'd careened into the room, barreling headfirst into the foyer table. But I didn't feel any bumps, so that couldn't have been it. Any pain in my head was from boozing, not bruising.
Throughout the course of the morning, the twitching would intensify, as would my search for a causenot just for the rest of that day, but for months to follow. The true answer was elusive, and in fact wouldn't reveal itself for another full year. The trembling was indeed the message, and this is what it was telling me:
That morningNovember 13, 1990my brain was serving notice: it had initiated a divorce from my mind. Efforts to contest or reconcile would be futile; eighty percent of the process, I would later learn, was already complete. No grounds were given, and the petition was irrevocable. Further, my brain was demanding, and incrementally seizing, custody of my body, beginning with the baby: the outermost finger of my left hand.
Ten years later, knowing what I do now, this mind-body divorce strikes me as a serviceable metaphorthough at the time it was a concept well beyond my grasp. I had no idea there were even problems in the relationshipjust assumed things were pretty good between the old gray matter and me. This was a false assumption. Unbeknownst to me, things had been deteriorating long before the morning of the pinkie rebellion. But by declaring its dysfunction in such an arresting fashion, my brain now had my mind's full attention.
It would be a year of questions and false answers that would satisfy me for a time, fueling my denial and forestalling the sort of determined investigation that would ultimately provide the answer. That answer came from a doctor who would inform me that I had a progressive, degenerative, and incurable neurological disorder; one that I may have been living with for as long as a decade before suspecting there might be anything wrong. This doctor would also tell me that I could probably continue acting for "another ten good years," and he would be right about that, almost to the day. What he did not tell mewhat no one couldis that these last ten years of coming to terms with my disease would turn out to be the best ten years of my lifenot in spite of my illness, but because of it.
I have referred to it in interviews as a giftsomething for which others with this affliction have taken me to task. I was only speaking from my own experience, of course, but I stand partially corrected: if it is a gift, it's the gift that just keeps on taking.
Coping with the relentless assault and the accumulating damage is not easy. Nobody would ever choose to have this visited upon them. Still, this unexpected crisis forced a fundamental life decision: adopt a siege mentalityor embark upon a journey. Whatever it wascourage? acceptance? wisdom?that finally allowed me to go down the second road (after spending a few disastrous years on the first) was unquestionably a giftand absent this neurophysiological catastrophe, I would never have opened it, or been so profoundly enriched. That's why I consider myself a lucky man.
Recognizing just how much irony figures in my story, I recently looked the word up in the dictionary:
irony n. expression of meaning by use of words normally conveying opposite meaning; apparent perversity of fate or circumstances.
The definition floored me, particularly the second part, in italics. Now I looked up the word perverse: "directed away from what is right or good ..." and realized that here was yet another rich irony. Despite appearances, this disease has unquestionably directed me toward what is right or good. I went back to the first definitionexpression of meaning by use of words normally conveying opposite meaning; apparent perversity of fate or circumstancesand smiled. How ironic.
Here's one more "apparent perversity": If you were to rush into this room right now and announce that you had struck a dealwith God, Allah, Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Bill Gates, whomeverin which the ten years since my diagnosis could be magically taken away, traded in for ten more years as the person I was beforeI would, without a moment's hesitation, tell you to take a hike.
I am no longer the person described in the first few pages of this chapter, and I am forever grateful for that. I would never want to go back to that lifea sheltered, narrow existence fueled by fear and made liveable by insulation, isolation, and self-indulgence. It was a life lived in a bubblebut bubbles, being the most fragile constructions, are easily destroyed. All it takes is a little finger.
New Yorkfully 1990
In order to illustrate the full dimensions of the bubble in which I lived and to trace the events leading up to that fateful morning in Gainesville, I need to go back a few months, and then back a few months more. The story would start, not in a hotel room in Florida, but inside my dressing roomtrailer, parked in the Lower East Side. Anyone who's ever come across a film crew shooting on the streets in Manhattan, Los Angeles, or any other American city has seen one of these motor mansions and wondered about the thespian holed up inside. You know we're in there, we know you're out there, andto put the interests of candor over public relationswe like it that way. The trailer is one of the many bubbles within the bubble.
On this particular early afternoon, I had a visitor to my trailer, a man I'd never met before. Michael Caton-Jones looked a mess, and that's meant as a complimentbelieving, as I do, in a bit of wisdom gleaned from amongst the more scatological offerings scrawled on a toilet stall door in Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre, circa 1978: A creative mess is better than an idle tidiness. Shambling into my motor home, Caton-Jones was dripping sweat. His full, ruddy face unshaven, he wore the kind of loose-fitting, mismatched, thrift-store ensemble that was trendy in the summer of 1990, but that he would have worn regardless.
Handshakes, quick, friendly "Good-to-meet-you's" out of the way, he sprawled sideways across one of the Winnebago's two swivel chairs, threadbare from the asses of a thousand actors. "Have you got a beer?"in a thick Scots burr, more of a mutter than a request. I liked this guy already.
Pulling a Molson's from the mini-fridge, I considered one myself, but instead grabbed a Diet Pepsiwhich, contrary to popular belief, was my second favorite carbonated beverage. With several scenes remaining on the day's schedule, alcohol was not an option.
It was a blistering July day, the kind that feels especially oppressive in New York City. Heat like that, if you're angry, just makes you madder still, and from outside on the street, above the rattle and drone of traffic, I could hear voices pitched in fury. We were in the Alphabet City section of Manhattan, working on The Hard Way. We were technically on lunch break; shooting had been delayed much of the morning because a hastily organized act of civil disobedience blocked our access to the set. A homeless group was protesting outside, pissed offjustifiablybecause the city had rousted them from the abandoned tenement they had been occupying. "Unsafe stairwells," the city had told themthen apparently turned around and sold Universal Pictures a film permit to haul thousands of pounds of lighting and camera equipment up those same stairs.
While producers, film commission reps, homeless activists, and city officials huddled in the production trailer trying to hammer out an accord, Mike and I enjoyed the sporadic bursts of air conditioning kicked out by the portable generator and talked movies. Warner Brothers wanted me for a project called Doc Hollywood, and with an eye toward green-lighting production that fall, they had flown a few potential directors out to New York to meet me, each pitching his particular take on the material. Caton-Jones was the latest candidate to pay a visit. Not knowing much about the guybased in London, snooty sounding, veddy British hyphenated nameI was surprised and relieved to meet this working-class kid from Glasgow, early thirties at the oldest. His most recent work, Memphis Belle, a WWII drama about the final mission of the legendary bomber, was, I thought, a remarkably confident piece of work for such a young director. What he really wanted to do next, he announced, was make a Capra-esque American comedy.
Seated across from each other at the fold-down dinette table, I picked through an oily catering truck salad while he sipped his beer. We debated the best films of Frank Capra, the great populist director whose classicsMr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Lifehad lightened the hearts of Depression-era audiences. These were among Michael's favorites, along with Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. A romantic evening early in my relationship with Tracy had started out with a video of It Happened One Nightso I had to put that wry, sexy 1939 Clark Gable-Claudette Colbert comedy at the top of my list.
The mention of Colbert led us to 1942's The Palm Beach Story, directed not by Capra, but a director/screenwriter we agreed had had an even greater influence on us both: Preston Sturges. In tribute to Sturges, master of the American screwball comedy, Mike said he had named his production company "The Ale and Quail Club," after the train car full of rowdy, hilariously shit-faced millionaires in Palm Beach Story. For my part, I confessed that the movie I was working on owed a small debt to Sturges's masterpiece, Sullivan's Travels. In The Hard Way, I was playing a spoiled young Hollywood movie star who, after traveling incognito to New York, tags alongside a reluctant NYPD detective as research for a role that, he is convinced, will finally get him taken seriously as a dramatic actoryou can see how I could relate. In Sturges's film, Joel McCrea is a director who assumes the life of a hobo, an experience that, he is convinced, will prepare him to tell a cinematic story possessing much deeper social relevance than the silly but popular comedies that have brought him fame and riches. McCrea's character eventually discovers that the films he was already making had great meaning for his escape-hungry audiences. I discovered, in the end, that The Hard Way owed less to Sullivan's Travels than it did to Beverly Hills Cop, Cobra, or any of a number of other big-budget action movies.
Interrupted by a knock on the door, we looked up to see Charlie Croughwell enter, unbidden and apologetic. An inch or so shorter than me, ten pounds less body and twenty pounds more muscle, Charlie is even tougher than he looksand he looks like George Raft.
"Sorry, Mike ... but it doesn't look like we're getting inside that building today, so they're setting up to toss you through the barroom window in about a half an hour."
Excerpted from Lucky Man by Michael J. Fox. Copyright © 2002 by Michael J. Fox. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.