It’s been over twenty years since Michael J. Fox rocked the entertainment world with the shocking news that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he was just 29 years old, at the height of his Hollywood career. Now, in his new documentary STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie—which premiered at Sundance Film Festival this week, and will release on Apple TV+ later this year—the Back to the Future star reflects on his career and his disease with brutal honesty. And that includes opening up about his years of alcohol abuse following his life-changing diagnosis.
Directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman”), STILL is partly an intimate one-on-one conversation between Guggenheim and Fox; and partly a retrospective on Fox’s life, narrated by Fox reading passages from his latest book. Unsurprisingly, it is the unscripted conversation that yields the most compelling parts of the film, thanks to Fox’s unwavering willingness to be honest and vulnerable. That was particularly true when it came time to discuss that devastating moment in his life: When Fox was told, at the age of 29, that he had Parkinson’s disease, and would only be able to work for a few more years. Fox kept that secret for nine years, while he continued to work regularly, but not without a cost. As Fox explains in the documentary, he began to abuse his medication, as well as alcohol, as a way to disassociate from his body.
“Parkinson’s was ‘hide the bottle’ time,” Fox tells director Guggenheim in the film. “I had bottles stashed in the garage. I would open two bottles of wine, and Tracy [Pollan, Fox’s wife of 34 years] would think we just drank one. She didn’t know that I drank the other one. I started to have a margarita before the last take. Things started to slip.”
As an example of his tenuous control over the situation, Fox recalls a time he got in a violent altercation with a stranger at a store. “This guy stepped in front of me,” Fox says. “I said, ‘Excuse me, what am I, fucking invisible?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, you’re invisible.’ I grabbed his shirt and said, ‘Fuck you man. I’ll take you outside and take your head off.’ I said, ‘I would love nothing more than today to take your head off.”
The drinking, Fox says, was his method of coping with his uncertain future, now that his plans had been blown up by the diagnosis. “I didn’t know what was happening, and I didn’t know what was coming. So what if I could just have four glasses of wine, and maybe a shot?”
When asked point-blank by Guggenheim if he was an alcoholic during this period of time in the early ’90s, Fox responds, “Yeah, I was definitely an alcoholic. But I’ve gone 30 years without having a drink.”
It was his wife, Fox said, that ultimately pushed him to go sober, when he woke up after a particularly bad night and she asked him, “Is this what you want? Is this what you want to be?”
That said, Fox clarifies that sobriety was not a cure-all for him. “My first few years of sobriety were like a knife fight in the closet,” Fox tells Guggenheim. “I wasn’t facing things. I wanted to be out of the world, I wanted to be in another place, doing other things. I went away and did movies that were in different parts of the world. You can’t pretend at home that you don’t have Parkinson’s, because you’re just there with it. If I’m out in the world with other people, and they don’t know I have it, then I don’t have it.”
Fox goes on to describe his years starring in the ’90s sitcom Spin City, where he did everything he could to hide the shaking in his left hand and arm, often by fiddling with objects. In one harrowing scene, he recalls writhing on the floor of his dressing room, with a studio audience just outside. “I was just lying on the floor twisting, with an audience outside waiting for me to do a scene.” Fox finally went public with his diagnosis in 1998.
STILL: A Michael J. Fox movie will release on Apple TV+ later this year. A release date has not yet been announced.
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