When was Michael J. Fox diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease?

The story behind the screen legend’s ongoing health battle

Michael J. Fox in Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie. (Apple TV+)
Michael J. Fox in Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie. (Apple TV+)

Michael J. Fox is not only one of the most iconic actors of a generation but also an inspiring figure in the world of raising awareness for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease.

Bursting onto screens in the American sitcom Family Ties, it was his portrayal of time-travelling teen Marty McFly in 1985’s sci-fi megahit Back to the Future that cemented his place as a household name and movie icon. Two sequels followed in 1989 and 1990, by which point Fox was already well on his way to becoming a beloved Hollywood figure.

However, behind the scenes, the star was secretly struggling with a health battle that would go on to impact him for the rest of his career and personal life. Undeterred, Fox made it his mission to endure and raise awareness about Parkinson’s disease and the necessary work that needs to be done in order to one day find a cure.

Read more: Michael J Fox admits Parkinson’s battle is ‘getting tougher’ every day

It’s an awe-inspiring tale that has finally been told in full in Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie — a documentary by Davis Guggenheim that takes a no-holds-barred look at the star’s highs and lows.

Read on to find out how exactly this Back to the Future icon discovered he had the disease and the work he has done to put it in its place.

When was Michael J. Fox diagnosed with Parkinson’s?

Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox in 'Back to the Future'. (Credit: Universal)
Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future. (Universal)

The idea that Fox may have Parkinson’s disease first came to his attention in 1991 when he was around 31-years-old. He was filming the small-town fish-out-of-water comedy movie Doc Hollywood when he began to notice his little finger moving of its own accord.

Combined with a slight pain in his shoulder, it was enough for him to get it checked out by his doctor and he was formally diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease shortly afterwards.

For those unaware, Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease that affects the body's nervous and motor systems and can lead to a number of different symptoms, the most noticeable of which is visible tremors.

Michael J Fox driving in convertible in a scene from the film 'Doc Hollywood', 1991. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)
Michael J Fox driving in convertible in a scene from the film Doc Hollywood, 1991. (Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

While there are various ways a person can minimise these issues through medicines and treatments, there is no known cure for Parkinson’s disease.

Research around the cause of Parkinson’s is poor and the reasons why a person may get the disease are not wholly understood. It has been found that a combination of genetic and environmental factors may be the blame in some scenarios, with the latter involving head injuries and exposure to certain types of pesticides and chemicals.

Read more: Michael J Fox opens up about ‘terrible year’ with Parkinson’s disease

Fox was one of four members of the cast and crew of the Canadian series Leo and Me who later developed early on-set Parkinson’s. Commenting during a 2020 interview with the Guardian, he said: ​​"I can think of a thousand possible scenarios: I used to go fishing in a river near paper mills and eat the salmon I caught; I've been to a lot of farms; I smoked a lot of pot in high school when the government was poisoning the crops.

"But you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out.”

What happened after his diagnosis?

Michael (Michael J. Fox) and Stacy (Jennifer Esposito) in a 1998 episode of Spin City. (Bill Foley/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

Following his diagnosis, Fox suffered depression and began drinking heavily before getting sober and publicly announcing his condition in 1998.

While he was originally told that his ability to work would be impacted in the future, Fox continued to star in a number of projects until his symptoms became too obvious to carry on working.

In 1996, he returned to the small screen in the sitcom Spin City, starring in the show until 2001.

STUART LITTLE 2, Stuart Little (voice: Michael J. Fox), 2002, ©Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection
Michael J Fox voiced the mouse in Stuart Little 2. (Columbia/Everett Collection/Alamy)

On the big screen, he provided the voice of the animated Stuart Little in three movies while continuing to sporadically appear in various smaller roles in feature films leading all the way to 2023’s documentary Still: A Michael J. Fox Story.

After retiring from Spin City, Fox guest starred in Scrubs, The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm, with each of his performances earning critical acclaim.

In 2012, he made his life with Parkinson’s the focus of his very own series in The Michael J. Fox Show and later released four books about his career and life with Parkinson’s between the years of 2002 and 2020.

Christopher Lloyd as Principal McTavish and Michael J. Fox as Mike Henry in NBC's The Michael J Fox show. (Getty Images)

Throughout this work, Fox has established himself as one of the most prominent voices in the world of Parkinson’s disease research. In 2000, he founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation to help pave the way towards research and, hopefully, a cure for the disease.

In the years since he has been vocal in encouraging American politicians to invest in stem cell research and in 2022 he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for earning over $1 billion for medical research.

Still: A Michael J. Fox Story is out now on Apple TV+