Definitive Eighties: Michael J. Fox, Actor

In the decade that nurtured the birth of Reaganomics there was perhaps no greater right-wing evangelist, or icon of conservative ambition, than young Ohioan Alex P. Keaton. He rejected those notions of the previous counterculture generation – including those of his own parents – and openly held the ideals of Milton Friedman, William Buckley, Jr., and Richard Nixon in the highest regard. He worked tirelessly to not just put himself within position of economic benefit, but to participate in its very direction. He eventually broke free from the confinement of Columbus to engage first-hand in the financial world of Wall Street before following his idols’ footsteps into the political arena, ultimately serving as a United States Senator.

Alex Keaton was undeniably charming in his emphatic, if not buffoonish, devotion to conservatism. As he should have been given that Alex Keaton was never a real person, but the indelible protagonist played by Michael J. Fox on the hit NBC sitcom Family Ties.

Airing from 1982 to 1989, Family Ties chronicled the lives of the Keatons, a middle-class suburban family comprised of liberal parents at constant odds with their conservative children. Though mother Elyse (Meredith Baxter) and father Steven (Michael Gross) were to be the focal characters of the program, Fox quickly became the breakout star. He continually defined the tenor of the sociopolitical era with his earnest albeit self-absorbed portrayal, which would go on to earn the him three Emmy awards and the number 17 spot in TV Guide’s “50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time” list.

File:Family Ties cast.jpg

(Michael J. Fox, second-from-right. Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Although it would be the role that would launch Fox into stardom, NBC hadn’t originally intended to cast the 21-year-old Canadian actor. Even after first-choice Matthew Broderick turned down the opportunity to play Keaton, producer Brandon Tartikoff lobbied to have Fox removed from the show, doubting the actor’s ability to connect with an audience. At its peak, Family Ties’ viewership represented one-third of American households. But even as Fox’s nimble charisma continued to put naysayers to silence, there were few who could have anticipated just how giant the actor’s future would be.

A 1.21 Gigawatt Role

By now, even the most novice cinephile knows that when principal shooting for Back to the Future began in 1984, Eric Stoltz was cast in the lead role of Marty McFly. Many, however, believe that Stoltz was director Robert Zemeckis‘ first choice for the part. But this is something of an inaccuracy. Though Zemeckis was impressed with Stoltz’ performance in Mask, Michael J. Fox was his first choice for the lead. Conflict, however, with filming for Family Ties initially kept Fox from accepting the role.

As Fox had become the centerpiece of the show, producer Gary David Goldberg feared with Meredith Baxter absent on maternity leave, losing their two biggest stars would be a ratings disaster for Family Ties. Production of Back to the Future moved forward with Stoltz, but five weeks into filming, Zemeckis came to an unsettling conclusion: Stoltz was miscast. Convinced Stoltz could not deliver the whimsical disbelief essential to the role, Zemeckis scrapped five weeks of filming to start anew. It was an expensive decision that cost production $3 million and pushed the release date back from May to July. But by now Baxter had returned to Family Ties, and the producers of Back to the Future were able to negotiate a deal with Goldberg that allowed Fox to work on the film after shooting dailies for his show.

The process was arduous but fruitful. Fox’s everyman charm and on-screen chemistry with co-star Christopher Lloyd made Back to the Future a runaway success. The film grossed over $380 million and became the most successful movie of 1985. It propelled Fox into Hollywood superstardom. The fervor of Back to the Future was followed up not two months later with the release of Teen Wolf. Along with a hit TV show, Michael J. Fox had almost overnight become a bonafide movie star.

Cover of "Back to the Future"

Cover of Back to the Future

Fox credited much of his acclaim as Marty McFly with how easily relatable he found the character. Like McFly, Fox was both an avid skateboarder and guitar player. It was a genuine kinship that translated with the audience. Back to the Future spawned a franchise the included two sequels, Back to the Future II (1989) and Back to the Future III (1990), an animated television series, and a theme-park ride at Universal Studios Theme Park.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception, Fox was briefly in a precarious position. He’d found success in playing off-beat yet engaging teenagers. The pitfalls of typecasting were abundant during the mid-80s as many of the child stars of the 70s attempted to reinvent themselves for a more adult audience.

Fox countered, however, with a string of movies that relayed his calculated wit in increasingly adult roles. He finished two films in 1987. In Light of Day he played, Joe Rasnick, the guitar playing brother of Joan Jett’s character, Patti Rasnick. While not a hit, the film received critical praise and was an unequivocal departure from Fox’s previous light-hearted fare.

The Secret of My Success brought Fox back to his comedic origins, but this time in the more sophisticated setting of the boardroom. Fox played financial wiz Brantley Foster, who moves to New York for a lofty job only to find himself living a double life in order to scale the walls of corporate success. It is arguably Fox’s bawdiest role, pitting him against corporate megalomania (in an ironic twist as Fox was still portraying Alex Keaton on Family Ties) while screwball sexual farce ensues.

It was not, however, until 1988 that Fox was given the opportunity to truly break out of the hapless-come-charming youth persona he’d set the bar for with his earlier work. In Bright Lights, Big City – a screen adaptation of Jay McInerney’s second-person examination of urban decadence – Fox starred as Jamie Conway, an aspiring writer who numbs his emotional turmoil with drugs, alcohol, and the endless solace of big city anonymity. The performance is uniquely Fox, filled with rattled wittiness faintly a hair above tragic isolation. While critics stood polarized on Fox’s selection as the lead, Bright Lights, Big City would be the door that would lead Fox through his ultimate acting arc.

Cover of "Bright Lights, Big City"

Cover of Bright Lights, Big City

By 1989, Family Ties had come to an end, but Fox’s movie career was in full swing. He’d followed up his smash success as Marty McFly with Back to the Future Part II, simultaneously filming the second sequel, Back to the Future Part III, and having them released only six months apart. But it was a lesser-known film by Brian De Palma that showcased Fox’s most reaching role. In Casualties of War, Fox plays Max Eriksson, a troubled Vietnam vet who recalls the horrific rape and murder of a young Vietnamese woman by his fellow squad members. The film is graphic in its recount of the Incident on Hill 192, with Fox playing the sole center of morality, defying orders and threats in an ultimately vain effort to save the teenage girl. The film is purely morose, absent even the smallest shred of Fox’s frenetic giddiness. Casualties of War failed to resonate with audiences, but it remains Fox’s most desperate characterization to date and cemented his breadth within cinema.

Despite demonstrating his ability to contend with “dramatic” actors such as Sean Penn and Keifer Sutherland, Fox returned to his comedic roots by wrapping up the Back to the Future series in 1990, and releasing Doc Hollywood in 1991. A string of lighthearted fare followed, including Life With Mikey and For Love or For Money in 1993, and Greedy in 1994, until Fox’s last major film role in 1996’s The Frighteners.

Rise of the Incurable Optimist

Unlike the seminal roles he’d created during the 80s, Fox’s 90s character canon – with the exception of Doc Hollywood – is mostly forgettable. Fox, however, remained indefatigable, reclaiming his infectious small-screen charisma as Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty in ABC’s Spin City (1996-2002). As the ringleader of a social misfit New York City municipal administration, Fox captured audiences virtually overnight by engaging over 15 years’ worth of practiced coyness, restrained disbelief, and righteous mockery, and amalgamating it into the relentlessly kinetic Mike Flaherty. It remains his most definitive character.

Sadly the kinesis that drove Fox’s performance was a symptom of the real-life disease he had been suffering from in private since 1991. It was on the set of Doc Hollywood that Fox began showing symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. He filmed three seasons of Spin City before revealing he had Parkinson’s and that the fourth season would be his last as the show’s star. He accumulated three Golden Globes, an Emmy and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award during his run as lead actor on the series, after which he continued in Emmy-winning guest appearances on television shows such as Rescue Me, Boston Legal, and Scrubs.

Since his diagnosis, Fox has most commonly been seen in the public eye as a crusader in the fight for stem cell and degenerative disease research. He has published three autobiographies, and will return to television on September 26, 2013 in The Michael J. Fox Show. Outside of his role as a public advocate for medical research, Fox has continuously delivered open, honest, and at times self-mocking candor in both acting and personal demonstration. The actor has received two honorary doctorates of law, one honorary doctorate of medicine, and was lauded by Time Magazine in 2007 “to be celebrated for his work, his kindness, his humor under duress, and for a noble heart.”

While his accomplishments as an actor can often be overlooked in relation to his highly publicized battle with Parkinson’s Disease, there is no denying that Fox’s versatility, timing, and natural aplomb make him the irrefutable cornerstone of the last 30 years of North American film and television. Thus, Michael J. Fox earns the title of Retrobacktive’s Definitive Eighties: Actor.

39th Emmy Awards - Sept. 1987- rehearsal - Per...

39th Emmy Awards – Sept. 1987- rehearsal – “photo by Alan Light” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Holy cow, look at that coat!