Ask Michael J. Fox what prompted him to write his third book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future, and he does exactly as you’d expect: crack wise. The 48-year-old actor, author, and advocate for medical research (he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991) says he’s finally gotten to the point where he can “dispense a certain degree of advice with a straight face.” A beat, though, and he adds this about the book: “There’s no expertise in it. It’s all my experience. I don’t have the burden of expertise.”
Two decades after portraying Marty McFly in the final installment of the Back to the Future trilogy, Fox has largely given up acting. He knows that for many fans, his face and voice will always conjure memories of Alex P. Keaton, the conservative teen he portrayed on the 1980s sitcom Family Ties. But if you want his recipe for happiness, it’s simple: Leave the past behind (yes, the ’80s too!) and live in the moment.
Reader’s Digest: You joke in your new book that you are fortunate to have married someone—actress Tracy Pollan—who is smarter and better looking than you. Do you think marital bliss boils down to that one choice: marrying the right person?
Michael J. Fox: Obviously, that’s fundamental. But the key to our marriage is the capacity to give each other a break. And to realize that it’s not how our similarities work together; it’s how our differences work together.
RD: Do you mean letting stuff go? Not sweating the small stuff?
MJF: Yes. How worth it is this to get crazy about. When people say about someone, “If they only knew!”—well, they can’t know. Because they’re not you. You have to take it in stride and realize that someone can care for you and still not understand your every motive, emotion, need, and desire.
RD: You have four kids, with twin daughters in the middle.
MJF: Is it only four? It feels like five sometimes.
RD: Share some advice on parenting that begins “Always … ”
MJF: Always be available to your kids. Because if you say, “Give me five minutes, give me ten minutes,” it’ll be 15, it’ll be 20. And then when you get there, the shine will have worn off whatever it is they wanted to share with you. I’ve never gotten up to see something one of my kids wanted to show me and not been rewarded.
RD: Your last book, Always Looking Up, was about optimism. It’s the rare person who is as positive as you are. What’s your prescription for dealing with really negative, difficult people?
MJF: I think the scariest person in the world is the person with no sense of humor. So that’s a test. If you have doubts about someone, lay on a couple of jokes. If he doesn’t find anything funny, your radar should be screaming. Then I would say be patient with people who are negative, because they’re really having a hard time.
RD: You have done some guest spots on Denis Leary’s series on FX, Rescue Me. Any acting gigs coming up that we should know about?
MJF: No. I haven’t done anything in a while. The Rescue Me gig was a unique opportunity to play a character—a misanthropic, angry guy—who was so contrary to how people think of me. If another opportunity like that comes up, I’ll grab it. But in the meantime, I’ll let Tracy do the work.