For instance, gossipmongers long ago alerted the world to the fact that Fox was showing early symptoms of the disease in 1990 while filming Doc Hollywood. Later, those same mongers reported that because of Parkinson’s, he would be leaving Spin City. He then channeled his energy into forming The Michael J. Fox Foundation in 2000, which is “dedicated to finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease through an aggressively funded research agenda and to ensuring the development of improved therapies for those living with Parkinson’s today.” He’s written three books, made guest appearances on hit shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boston Legal and Scrubs, and has been politically active, including a much-discussed appearance before a Senate Appropriations Committee in 1999, during which he testified unmedicated, and his starring role in a 2006 political ad for Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, a senate candidate who supported stem cell research. (McCaskill won the election.) All of this is well documented.
“The first seven years that I lived with the diagnosis, I did a lot of work,” he says. “I really became a student of the condition. The whole thing about the way I deal with Parkinson’s and the things I’ve been able to do, and that people give me too much credit for — I was so lucky. I was in a position where I could take the time to figure out what was going on with me, and I could get the best medical advice, and I could eventually put time into starting the foundation. And when I wanted to go back to work, I could do it on my own terms. I had an obligation to do something positive and to help other people with the attention I can bring to the condition and to the community.”
What isn’t so well documented is that five cast and crew members from the late-’70s/early-’80s Canadian show Leo and Me, Fox’s first major role, also developed mid-life Parkinson’s, which is alarming. Although there was work and research being done on Parkinson’s at the time, the idea that this condition could be environmental had been considered but not thoroughly explored. Using his name, his resources and his celebrity, Fox and his foundation are able to research not only an environmental connection but are at the forefront of medical research of all things Parkinson’s related. “Clinically, and from a scientific point of view, that’s too small a cluster to be significant,” he says with a pang of despair. “It’s certainly worth noting, and I’m personally curious about it. There are larger clusters elsewhere, and we’ve put a lot of our resources at the foundation into figuring out why these clusters happen. Is it environmental? Is it genetic? There’s an expression we use all the time: Genetics loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger. You’re genetically predisposed potentially if X factor is added to the mix, and the X factor is some environmental component that you just happen to be exposed to. So if you have a cluster, you know whether that’s a cluster of people who are genetically related and predisposed or whether it’s people that have just perhaps run into an insecticide or pesticide or some other heavy metal that adds to it.
“We cover a huge range of possible causes,” he says. “We also work with pharmaceutical companies to get them to work on compounds that they might otherwise not work on if they didn’t have the money for research. We’re working to identify genes that predispose family members to disease. If it’s important work on Parkinson’s, we’re doing it.”