In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Back To The Future, the entire trilogy was re-released on a special edition Blu-ray DVD this week. In addition, AMC theatres held select screenings of the original film on 158 screens in over 40 cities.
Fans of Back To The Future came out to celebrate and revisit the iconic characters created in the films: Chistopher Lloyd as the lovable mad scientist, Doc Brown; Crispin Glover as the quintessential geek-hero, George McFly; Thomas F. Wilson as the equally quintessential bully-who-gets-his, Biff Tannen; Lea Thompson as Marty’s (sometimes disturbingly) super-sexy mom, Lorraine; and of course, Michael J. Fox as the young, old and young again, Marty McFly.
Michael J Fox’s career spans nearly 40 years and includes some of the most memorably charming characters ever to be captured on celluloid (well, back then it was mostly still celluloid). From Alex P. Keaton to Brantley Foster to Spin City’s Mike Flaherty, Michael J. Fox is always somehow relatable and likable, even when his characters are committing what may be some less-than-savory acts. Those qualities are what made him the perfect choice to portray the appealing, and often excitable, Marty McFly.
He captivated audiences with his portrayal of the every-man/boy, and it’s hard to imagine any other actor in that career-defining role, but, as has oft been discussed of late (and as all of us BTTF nerds know), Michael J. Fox took over the role of Marty five weeks into production on Back To The Future.
Although Fox was always the first choice, scheduling conflicts with Family Ties forced director Robert Zemeckis to hire Eric Stoltz to play the role. A little over a month into production, Zemeckis felt that he wasn’t getting what he needed from Stoltz, and made the switch to Fox. As part of the Back to the Future anniversary Blu-ray, the film’s creators talk about the casting shift, and why Fox was so fundamental to the success of the franchise.
Take a look at this clip from the feature:
Robert Zemeckis compares Fox to Jimmy Stewart, and the likening feels apropos. Fox has a quality that illustrates, and inspires us to believe in, the best parts of ourselves. He is not a mythic and out of touch hero, but an ordinary man who is living his life in extraordinary ways.
The Power Of Love:
Michael J Fox represents the opposite of the Emo-lethargy of so many angst-ridden teenage characters and tales today. Whatever he did, he did enthusiastically. An Alex P. Keaton sans Michael J. Fox’s humor may have been an insufferable stuffed shirt, but with it, Alex became the most dynamic and beloved character on Family Ties.
In a New York Times article about the DVD release of the sitcom (which ran on NBC from 1982-1989) writer Susan Stewart theorizes that the show “probably wouldn’t have lasted two seasons without Michael J. Fox in his defining role as the Reagan-loving, tie-wearing teenager Alex P. Keaton.”
The series was created as a vehicle for Meredith Baxter-Birney and Michael Gross, who played Fox’s ultra liberal, ex-hippie parents, charged with raising some traditional-to-outright-conservative children. None of the children were more conservative, or more hilarious, than the big business and Nixon-worshiping Alex.
He was silly, and charming. and smart. He did not just love money, he loved money as some might love a puppy…or their newborn. Everything he did was underscored with a genuinely affectionate nature, that affable quality combined with his quick-wit and comedic timing swooped in to steal the show.
Take a look at this clip where Alex inspires a brand new generation of Republicans:
The Outsider Who Finds His Way In:
Michael J. Fox often played the role of the outsider who somehow finds his way to his hearts desire, and eventually back to himself. In the 1986 film Teen Wolf he was the somewhat nerdy boy turned ultra popular…er, wolf, who finds that the friends who were with him prior to his (exceedingly) dramatic change are the ones he values most. He is also faced with the need to integrate the person he thought he was with who he has become, as well as who he ultimately wants to be. It was a silly movie, but a fun one; and one that follows a similar thematic trajectory to many of his films.
As the ambitious young upstart Brantley Foster in The Secret To My Success, Fox’s character had to adopt the false identity of an executive named Carlton Whitfield, in order to fast-track it in the world of corporate America. In some respects the film is the farm boys’ Working Girl. In the film Fox must, once again, circle back to himself and find a way to be the man he aspires to be (rich and successful), and yet maintain the core values of his fundamental self (grounded and real).
Doc Hollywood saw Fox in a reversal of his usual character trajectory. In it he plays Dr. Benjamin Stone, the big city slicker, who learns to love the simplicity and calm (not to mention naked supermodels) that country life has to offer. Yet, once again, he must reconcile his ambition with his values. A lesser actor may have brought a sanctimonious feel to these characters, but Fox always seemed — just human. He is simultaneously charismatic and down to earth.
Fox turned in several performances in dramatic films, yet audiences seemed to prefer him in more comedic roles. Whether portraying a dramatic or comedic character, one thing that remained consistent was his tendency to play men navigating their moral compass against their desires, and the influences surrounding them.
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching example, is his turn in the film Casualties Of War.
This is the film’s official synopsis:
During the Vietnam War, a soldier finds himself the outsider of his own squad when they unnecessarily kidnap a female villager.
We once again see Fox as the outsider, only this time the stakes are so much higher, and the consequences so much more severe. Fox plays Eriksson, against Sean Penn’s Meserve. The two men represent two responses to war: Meserve gives in to every base instinct and violent drive imaginable, while Eriksson, the younger, and perhaps more naive man, strives to cling to what he feels makes him human and whole. Fox, as Eriksson, must find a way to hold onto his sanity and sense of self, in the face of unimaginable circumstances.
Of course, the true tragedy is that the film is based on all to real events.
Fox played another man struggling to maintain a hold of his identity in the face of the seductive glitz, and the intelligentsia glamor of New York in Bright Lights Big City, where he held his own onscreen against Kiefer Sutherland.
Though he delivered a strong performances in these, and other dramatic roles, there is something about Michael J. Fox, and his particular spark, that is best expressed with light material. Perhaps it is his natural optimism and exuberance. Whatever it is, there is something that feels uncomfortable about seeing him set against life’s grittier circumstances. It’s not that he doesn’t have the chops, it is simply a feeling that we made an agreement with him, and in it, he is to make us laugh and believe in life’s greatest possibilities, rather than illustrate the horror of what life sometimes is.
Perhaps Fox’s greatest role is that of father to the four children with his wife and one-time Family Ties co-star, Tracy Pollan. As a tribute to his family, he has voiced several characters in notable family films including: Homeward Bound, Stuart Little and Atlantis The Lost Empire.
A Return To The Small Screen:
Fox reunited with Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg in 1996 for his role as deputy mayor Michael Flaherty in ABC’s Spin City. He won three Golden Globes for the role and one Emmy; adding to the three Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe he won for his portrayal of Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties.
Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 and went public in 1998. Since that time, he has been a tireless campaigner for awareness and increased Parkinson’s research. You can read more about his organization: The Michael J. Fox Foundation For Parkinson’s Research HERE.
Though he retired from his full-time role on Spin City in 2000, Fox has continued to work in television, taking both comedic and dramatic turns in popular shows such as: Boston Legal, Scrubs and Rescue Me.
He is the author of two books, both of which express the same tone and attitude that he has lived his life with, and that has made him such a successful, well-liked, and in-demand actor. His 2002 memoir, Lucky Man, was a New York Times and national bestseller. He wrote a second book, entitled Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, which debuted at number two on the New York Times bestseller list in March of 2009.
Take a look at this excerpt from Always Looking Up, which is so indicative of the man, his message, and his life:
At the turn from our bedroom into the hallway, there is an old full-length mirror in a wooden frame. I can’t help but catch a glimpse of myself as I pass. Turning fully toward the glass, I consider what I see. This reflected version of myself, wet, shaking, rumpled, pinched, and slightly stooped, would be alarming were it not for the self-satisfied expression pasted across my face. I would ask the obvious question, “What are you smiling about?,” but I already know the answer: “It just gets better from here.”
Whatever he does, Michael J. Fox leaves his audience feeling lighter for it. It’s a subtle gift, and also a powerful one. In keeping with honoring this man and his unique contributions to the world of entertainment, I leave you with this:
Sources: The New York Times And The Michael J. Fox Foundation For Parkinson’s Research