7 Surprising Facts About Michael J. Fox

Actor Michael J. Fox
Actor Michael J. Fox / George Rose/GettyImages

Beloved for his iconic performance as Back To The Future hero Marty McFly, and his courage and charitable efforts on behalf of Parkinson’s disease research, Michael J. Fox is that rarest of Hollywood figures—someone that nobody has a bad word to say about.

From his breakout role as teenage Republican Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, Fox built up a career as a movie star and the lead on another successful sitcom, Spin City. He subsequently channeled his fame into raising enormous amounts of money for Parkinson’s disease research following his own diagnosis three decades ago. All that, and the 60-something actor barely looks a day over 35. Maybe he really does have a time machine.

1. The J. in Michael J. Fox doesn’t stand for anything. 

Fox’s middle name is Andrew, and he was credited in his first Canadian acting roles simply as “Michael Fox.” But when he moved to the U.S. and joined the Screen Actors’ Guild, he had to change his name because there was already an actor named Michael Fox (who, coincidentally, starred in multiple episodes of Science Fiction Theatre, George McFly’s favorite TV show in Back To The Future). He was worried that “Michael A. Fox” would be misinterpreted as either boastful of his own handsomeness or as a riff on the Canadian interjection “eh,” so he opted for a J. The choice was partly in homage to Bonnie and Clyde star Michael J. Pollard. 

2. Michael J. Fox and Crispin Glover worked together before Back to the Future.

Fox and his Back To The Future dad Crispin Glover both worked on the 1983 TV movie High School USA, also starring Todd Bridges and Anthony Edwards. While he and Glover haven’t spoken since BTTF, Fox remains very close friends with Christopher Lloyd, who played Doc Brown. Later in his career, Fox enjoyed bringing back former co-stars—his directorial debut on an episode of Tales from the Crypt co-starred BTTF’s Principal Strickland, James Tolkan; Spin City featured appearances from Family Ties alumni Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter; and The Michael J. Fox Show featured guest appearances from Lloyd and Spin City colleague Richard Kind.

3. His height was an issue for at least one network executive.

At 5 feet, 4 inches tall, Fox’s height almost derailed his career before it had really begun. NBC president Brandon Tartikoff insisted Fox was too short to play Alex P. Keaton (Michael Gross, who played his father, is 6-foot-4-inches) on Family Ties. Show creator Gary David Goldberg stuck up for him, saying, “Look, all I know is this: I send the kid out with two jokes and he brings me back five laughs.”

Around the same time, the filming schedule of Back To The Future included reshooting multiple scenes which had already been shot with 5-foot-11-inch Eric Stoltz playing Marty. Even shots of an arms reaching in from off-screen had to be redone. Perhaps to acknowledge these snafus, Fox’s second memoir was titled Always Looking Up, both a reference to his unending optimism and his stature. 

4. He spent weeks preparing for his performance of “Johnny B. Goode” in Back to the Future

Fox was a keen guitarist until the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease got in the way, and is rumored to have once auditioned to play bass in the Canadian hard rock band Helix. But his performance of “Johnny B. Goode” in Back To The Future still took him weeks of preparation. He worked with guitarist Paul Hanson to perfect his finger positioning and choreographer Brad Jeffries for his overexcited stage moves. Fox lip-synced to vocals performed by an uncredited Mark Campbell of the band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack. 

5. He was afraid of being pigeonholed.

During his leading-man days, Fox was occasionally uncomfortable about being pigeonholed as a comedy star. While his dramatic films—Casualties of War, Light of Day, and Bright Lights, Big City—were all reasonably well-received, people revered his sitcom beginnings and iconic comedy roles. While promoting Casualties Of War, a Vietnam War drama directed by Brian de Palma, he told The New York Times, “In a comedic film, I may be taking my pride and putting it out there, but not my guts. If I just do comedies, I will have blown it for myself.” He also joked that if the film made $1.50 at the box office, he’d spend the rest of his career making movies with titles like Bikinis Away. Following his diagnosis of Parkinson‘s diagnosis, he also wondered if audiences would be uncomfortable laughing at him in comedies. As he wrote in his memoirs, “can you laugh at a sick person without feeling like an a**hole?”

6. Fox played a range of ages and characters in the Back to the Future trilogy.

Across the three Back To The Future movies, Fox played Marty McFly at ages 17 and 47, as well as his son Marty Jr., daughter Marlene, and great-great-grandfather Seamus. He also voiced an adult William McFly—Seamus’s son and Marty’s great-grandfather, seen as a baby in the third film—in Back To The Future: The Game. Over the years he also revived the role of Marty for various skits and cameo appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live, in a Spike TV promo, and in Lil Nas X’s Holiday video

7. Fox has battled Parkinson’s disease for more than 30 years.

Fox was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease at the age of 29 in 1991, while filming Doc Hollywood. He went public with it in 1998, establishing the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which to date has raised over $1 billion. Fox has described the illness as “the gift that keeps on taking,” yet credits some of the happiness of his personal life with the choices his condition forced him to make. “I don’t know that I would have the family that I have now, the life I have, the sense of purpose, if none of this had happened,” he told The Guardian in 2020. (While the causes of Parkinson’s disease are not known, researchers theorize that genetic and environmental factors are likely involved.) In November 2022, Fox’s charitable efforts were recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.