Michael J. Fox: the Ultimate Parkinson’s Advocate


Michael J. Fox: the Ultimate Parkinson’s Advocate

Canadian-American Michael J. Fox has not only attained international fame for his talented film and television acting, but also for his unparalleled impact on finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

MichaelJFoxThe movie industry has recognized Fox through the awards he’s won—a Golden Globe, two Primetime Emmys and a Screen Actors Guild Award to begin to name a few. However, his success in using his fame to expand attention and research on Parkinson’s disease by using himself as a spokesperson and representative for the condition is what makes him such a valuable character in our #WeAreImmigrants campaign.

Michael Andrew Fox was born in 1961 in Alberta, Canada to parents William and Phyllis Fox.

He has three sisters and a brother. The “J” currently featured as his middle initial in fact pays homage to character actor Michael J. Pollard. Fox’s father was a sergeant in the Canadian Armed Forces, so the family moved frequently while his father served. Eventually, they planted roots in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia when William Fox retired in 1971.

As a child, Fox dreamed of a career in the National Hockey League.

Michael J. Fox

Photo by Alan Light

In his teen years, he experimented with creative writing and art and played guitar in a series of garage bands before ultimately recognizing his propensity for acting. His professional acting debut was at 15 when he co-starred in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Leo and Me” sitcom. He did theater and TV work for three years including roles in American television movies that were shooting in Canada. At 18 he moved to Los Angeles, California to pursue his acting career as an adult. In 2000, Fox attained dual Canadian-U.S. citizenship.

It was while filming the movie “Doc Hollywood” in 1990 when Fox recalls first seeing signs of his Parkinson’s. One morning he woke with a headache, thinking he had a hangover, and noticed that his pinky finger was twitching. A year later doctors diagnosed Fox with young-onset Parkinson’s at the age of 29.

It took Fox an additional three years to realize and accept what he was dealing with as a person living with Parkinson’s disease.

After seven years of coping with his condition, he realized he could no longer hide the symptoms of Parkinson’s he was exhibiting. At this point, Fox made the decision to reveal his diagnosis publicly. He committed to involved himself in public and political campaigns to increase Parkinson’s disease research.

“Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation.”

— Michael J. Fox Foundation, ‘Faces of Parkinson’s’, 2014

Two years later in 2000 when Fox was the lead on the hit comedy “Spin City”, he announced his retirement. His illness made him realize that he needed to step away from the demands of a weekly show. That year he founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

His foundation is an opportunity for Fox to drive the Parkinson’s agenda as a patient.

When he began the foundation, Fox immediately wanted to fund biotech companies. He was met with discouragement; many told him that this was just not done. With this first obstacle, the foundation has set out to challenge every assumption in the non-profit world in order to cure Parkinson’s Disease. Fox has taken bold and visible steps to call attention to the plight of those with Parkinson’s disease.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation has become the world’s largest private funder of Parkinson’s research. Annually the foundation spends almost all the money it raises, so it does not have an endowment. In 2015 the foundation put $70 million dollars to work.  It has funded universities and biotech companies in 25 countries, with two-thirds of the funding granted to those working within the United States.

“We do ‘disruptive philanthropy’”

— Michael J. Fox, Late Show with David Letterman, 2015

Clearly having Fox as the face of the organization is an asset, drawing warranted attention to the disease and helping to give patients a feeling of hope and optimism. It’s also been an obstacle in that the foundation has had to prove that it’s not just another “celebrity charity.” And indeed it has.

In 2014 the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research had 66,000 donors with a median gift amount of $50. Sixty-eight donors gave six or seven-figure gifts. One of these major donors is Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, who has a hereditary risk of developing Parkinson’s Disease.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation galvanized Parkinson’s research efforts by requiring that researchers share their data, which previously wasn’t routinely done.

Fox’s foundation is the largest not-for-profit funder of Parkinson’s drug development in the world. Fox has become the most recognized name in promoting research to find a cure, while also serving as an advocate for embryonic stem cell research.

In 1999 he testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the research use of embryonic stem cells.

Fox purposely showed up to his testimony without taking any medication so that attendees could observe the effects of Parkinson’s on his body.

Later, in 2006, he visibly showed the effects of his Parkinson’s disease when he starred in a Missouri Senate campaign ad for democrat Claire McCaskill supporting the expansion of stem cell research. It was one of the most powerful political advertisements before or since, and led to McCaskill’s victory.

“I’ve opened up about Parkinson’s on TV to destigmatise it”

— Michael J. Fox, The View, 1998

In 2013 Fox boldly returned to the television screen to play a character with the disease in The Michael J. Fox Show. He shared with the world that in order to have his Parkinson’s symptoms stifled enough to play the role, he required a large cocktail of drugs.

Fox has received several humanitarian awards for his work and was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2010. He holds honorary degrees from New York University, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the University of British Columbia and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. He’s certainly a stunning example of immigrant success and contribution.

Nisha Katti

About Nisha Katti

Nisha Katti is BlueTone's Marketing Coordinator. She specializes in content writing and social media management, among other activities. Nisha is a native of Atlanta, yet her heart will always lie with the magnificent magnolias of Athens, Georgia, where she attended the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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