COVER

THE STAR HAS RISEN

Brian D. Johnson February 9 1987
COVER

THE STAR HAS RISEN

Brian D. Johnson February 9 1987

THE STAR HAS RISEN

COVER

It is lunch hour in Hollywood, and Michael J. Fox decides he has time for a quick trip home to visit his dogs. Leaving the set of NBC’s Family Ties, he slips behind the wheel of the black Ferrari parked in the Paramount Pictures lot. The car is new but already looks lived in, with a veil of cigarette ash scattered across the transmission console. Driving fast but skilfully, Fox threads his way through traffic to the on-ramp of the Hollywood Freeway. With a feline growl, the Ferrari surges forward, sailing past other cars as if they were frozen in another time. “I love merging in this car,” grins Fox. “It’s like an extension of your legs—like being in autopia. Not utopia, autopia.” A high school dropout from Burnaby, B.C., Fox can now afford to invent the odd word or two—and more besides. He was paid $2 million for starring in his latest movie, Light of Day, which opens across North America this week. Like his car, Fox’s career is accelerating and on track. He has clearly crossed the solid line dividing Canadian fantasy from Hollywood dream.

Only 25, Fox already has enough success to cruise comfortably into early retirement. Yet he shows no signs of slowing down. Not since Toronto-born Mary Pickford became Hollywood’s first fullfledged movie star 70 years ago has a

Canadian actor risen so far so fast. But unlike many of his peers, who consider television a stepping-stone to movies, Fox has synchronized his stardom on the small and the big screens. Even after five years on the air, Family Ties is TV’s second-most popular prime-time program, after The Cosby Show. And Fox, playing the vain but vulnerable Alex Keaton, is the main reason for its enduring popularity.

Twinkle: Meanwhile, the actor has etched his movie credits into the Hollywood firmament with a single mercurial swoop. Producer Steven Spielberg’s Back to the Future, starring Fox as a teen time-traveller skateboarding through his mother’s adolescence, earned more than $350 million in revenues, becoming the top-grossing movie of 1985. In its slipstream the same year, the flyweight comedy Teen Wolf also did well at the box office. Said Back to the Future’s director, Robert Zemeckis, who plans to make a sequel with Fox next year: “Michael has an incredible comic sensibility. He’s got that twinkle that all great movie stars need to have.”

In a studio system geared to manufacturing slick, buoyant movies for young audiences, Fox is a prized talent. Onscreen he displays agile timing and infallible charm. And despite his diminutive (five feet, four inches) stat-

ure, the nimble actor with the fineboned features and slate-blue eyes has become a sex symbol for a generation of young fans.

Still, his roles have spanned a limited range: he tends to play characters younger than his age, in light, middlebrow comedies. Now, however, the actor is finding room to stretch. In his new film, Light of Day, Fox tackles a serious dramatic role for the first time (page 46). And he plays a college graduate who becomes a young executive in The Secret of My Success, a movie comedy to be released in the spring. He will also star

in a film version of Jay Mclnerney’s night-crawl novel Bright Lights, Big City, which will start shooting in April. Even more ambitiously, the precocious star has agreed to direct a feature film for his friend, producer Spielberg.

Escape: Although Fox plays a longhaired rock guitarist in Light of Day, it is his first truly adult role. And the film—crafted with cold-blooded precision by writer-director Paul Schrader—is far removed from the sort of juvenile romp through top-40 nirvana that Hollywood executives expect from movies about rock ’n’ roll.

For Schrader, Light of Day marks Fox’s “first real escape from the teen ghetto. Obviously what he aspires to is a career in the direction of someone like Jimmy Stewart, primarily light comedy but turning to heavier fare if the situation is just right.”

Schrader was initially reluctant to cast a high-profile star. And after accepting Fox, he said, he had to change the actor’s usual ground rules. “He is aggressively likable,” Schrader told Maclean's. “But I wanted to reward him for doing the job rather than for just being nice. I had to introduce a chill into our relationship.” On loca-

tion in Chicago and Cleveland last fall, the director made sure Fox’s accommodations lacked the usual luxury. “There are not going to be any special perks,” Schrader said he warned the actor. “I’m very happy for you that you’ve made all this money, but for me it doesn’t mean dick.”

‘Proud’: Despite the harsh treatment, Fox says he developed a deep respect for the director. “I’m really proud of the film,” he said, “although I don’t expect it to be a universal success. It will be sold like Teen Wolf, with my picture blown up 20-feet high on Sunset Boulevard. But it’s not real-

ly a Michael J. Fox movie. Of course, the marketing people will never understand that.”

rox peels off Hollywood Boulevard and guns the Ferrari down a twisting road to his home in Laurel Canyon, 15 minutes from Hollywood in a good car. Turning into the hillside driveway of a cedar bungalow, he parks on the grass next to a black Jeep, his second car. Landscape workers are busy remodelling the lawn and the front steps. The house—where Fox lives alone with a Dalmatian and a pit bull, Bosco and

Burnaby—is “a work in progress,” he explains with a trace of embarrassment. Fox still seems to have difficulty taking the trappings of celebrity seriously. The house is small by moviestar standards, but well-appointed. The sunken living room is dominated by a large TV screen. The master bedroom and bathroom are separated by a partition with televisions on either side—one facing the bed, the other a jet-black Jacuzzi that looms like a ceramic oasis at the end of the room.

Message: The actor picks an Export “A” Light out of one of several well-stocked cigarette boxes strategically placed around the house. “Never did develop a taste for American cigarettes,” he says. A heavy smoking habit —undercutting his wholesome TV image—has become a point of controversy among some of his fans. But Fox is reluctant to quit just to preserve his status as a role model.

Said Fox: “You can’t pretend to be something you’re not—where every time someone under 12 is watching you do exactly what Mr. Rogers would do. But you try to be a good guy, and that’s the ultimate message.”

Although U.S. fans embrace Fox as an all-American boy, he constantly stresses his Canadian citizenship. And one of the more indelible aspects of that identity is his passion for hockey. A faint scar across the bridge of his nose testifies to his childhood experience on the ice—he played organized hockey until his mid-teens. He still plays in pickup games with Canadian friends in Los Angeles, including actor Alan Thicke. And last month Fox scored three goals in a charity match before 12,000 fans in Minnesota, where he enjoyed the thrill of skating on a line with former Chicago Black Hawk centre Stan Mikita.

Brutal: In his living room, Fox slides a video cassette into a VCR. It is a twohour collection of fights taped from hockey telecasts—given to him by a friend on the set that morning. Fox glances at the tape with perverse glee. Some of the clips are especially brutal, but as a relentless montage they take on a surreal quality. One player bangs an opponent’s head on the ice. Another is kneed in the groin. “Boy, some of this is vintage stuff,” cries Fox.

Fox has more than a casual interest in hockey violence. In fact, he recently wrote and directed a short film parody on the subject. NBC’s Late Night host David Letterman gave him $40,000 to produce it. Titled The Iceman Hummeth, it features Fox portraying both

a hockey player and a symphony violinist. While the team plays on the ice, the orchestra performs in the stands. Suddenly a fight stops the game, but the players soon end up dancing to the music. Then a brawl breaks out in the

orchestra. As Fox the musician trades punches, Fox the hockey player sighs, “I swear to God, violence is tearing the heart out of this symphony.”

On the strength of the film, Spielberg agreed to let Fox direct his own feature. “There are so many things to do and places to go,” he says, racing the Ferrari back to the set of Family Ties. “I’ve probably lived about a third of life already. I know it sounds clichéd, but not to feel challenged would be like death.”

Born in Edmonton, Fox traces his adventurous outlook back to his gregarious childhood as what he calls “an army brat.” His father, Bill Fox, worked as a dispatcher for the Canadian Army signal corps. Fox’s family—including three sisters and a brother, spanning ages 22 to 36—lived on army bases in Chilliwack, B.C., and North Bay, Ont., before finally settling in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby when Michael was in Grade 5. In primary school he was a keen student with good grades. But by the time he reached high school, his interests lay elsewhere.

Like his character in Light of Day,

Fox played guitar in a rock band. On stage he played songs by such Canadian groups as The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive. “We had this real strong Canadian identity,” he said. “The maple leaf on the guitars

and everything.” But Fox’s rock dreams faded when he “realized it’s a lot of work rather than a lot of money and women.” Besides, unlike the other band members, “I didn’t have a vision—I’d just get up and play.”

He found his vision in drama. At 15 he landed a role as a 10-year-old boy in the short-lived CBC sitcom Leo and Me, which starred Brent Carver. Short for his age, Fox soon found there was a demand for an actor who could be convincing in a younger role. At 17 he made his professional stage debut in The Shadow Box at the Vancouver Arts Club—playing a 13-year-old. “He was a natural,” said the theatre’s artistic director, Bill Millerd. “In one scene he had to cry, and the tears just flowed. He was so focused and always knew what he wanted to do.”

Drive: While Fox became enamored with acting, he neglected his studies— even failing his drama course. But when he asked a teacher for advice, he recalled, “I was told, ‘Look, you’re not going to be cute forever.’ ” That sort of comment, which continues to nag him, only fuelled his drive. “It was so dumb—he completely missed the point of why I wanted to be an actor, so I

just said, ‘Right. I’m outta here.’ ” Fox’s parents tried to persuade him to reconsider, but as his father, now retired, points out, “I couldn’t hide the fact that I’m a dropout myself.” Instead, just before his son turned 18, Bill Fox drove him to Los Angeles to find an agent.

Michael had received strong encouragement to take his talent south from veteran actors Art Carney and Maureen Stapleton, who had played his parents in Letters from Frank, a TV movie shot in Vancouver. In 1979 he moved to Los Angeles after winning a role in Disney’s campus comedy,

Midnight Madness.

Teeth: Madness was unmemorable, but during the filming Fox had a close encounter with stardom: he auditioned for Robert Redford, who was casting Ordinary People.

On learning that Fox had been up all night shooting Madness, Redford told him, “Everybody’s up all night in Hollywood.” Recalled Fox: “He just sat there flossing his teeth during my reading. It was the first time I’d got all pumped up about something and seen it crumble before my eyes.”

Ever resourceful, Fox soon found other options. In 1980 he landed a regular role in Palmerstown, U.S.A., a TV family drama set in a racially torn southern community. Then he played a good-natured student in the gruesomely violent Class of 198k, filmed in Toronto. In that movie, Fox looks uncharacteristically chubby: in an effort to grow, he had tried overeat-

ing, but grew out instead of up.

During the next year Fox slimmed back down—from lack of work and money. He was $35,000 in debt and ready to move back to Canada when he auditioned for Family Ties in 1982. He

failed the first audition. But the casting director convinced the new show’s executive producer, Gary Goldberg, to give Fox a second chance. Then, Goldberg had trouble convincing NBC executives that Fox was worthy. The network’s chief programmer, Brandon Tartikoff, told him, “The kid’s good, but can you see his face on a lunch box?” But Goldberg won the argument, and Fox got the job. After Family Ties became a hit, he had a Michael J. Fox lunch box made and added a note: “Dear Brandon, this is for you to put your crow in.”

Strain: Between seasons of Family Ties, Fox made TV movies, including Poison Ivy and High School U.S.A. But when producer Spielberg first tried to recruit Fox as Back to the Future’s Marty McFly, Fox was busy with Family Ties. Instead, Spielberg cast actor Eric Stoltz—only to fire him halfway through the filming. He finally persuaded Goldberg to let Fox do double duty, spending days making the TV series and nights shooting the movie. The strain of working 18-hour days “kind of fuelled me,” recalled Fox, “but there are scenes in that movie that I don’t even remember shooting.” With Back to the Future and Teen

Wolf, both released in the summer of 1985, Fox became a certifiable movie star. In Teen Wolf he portrayed a boy who wins popularity at high school by turning into a well-mannered werewolf. Although Fox had completed the film before Back to the Future, producers of the low-budget comedy cleverly delayed its release until the Spielberg film had blazed the box-office trail. While Family Ties made Fox a household icon— seen by 60 million viewers a week—Back to the Future catapulted his career to another realm. “Doing television,” he said, “you get recognized in a certain way. But when you have a film, people want to take bits of your body home with them.”

Cheer: Clearly, Fox values the instant recognition that comes with stardom. Wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, he can remain incognito in crowds. “But you know,” he admitted, “if you just flip the glasses off, you might get asked for that obligatory autograph.” Aside from benefits to the ego, however, Fox also takes obvious delight in using his celebrity to spread good cheer. “You can blow some kid away by doing nothing,” he said, “just by talking and saying ‘How are you? Nice bike you got there. I used to have one like it when I was a kid.’ ”

Although Fox has spent much of his career acting like a kid himself, he balances his sense of fun with paternal compassion, both on

and off the screen. Keeping strong ties with his family in Vancouver, he said that marriage and having children of his own is “definitely a goal”—when he can find the time. Meanwhile, he does not have a steady girlfriend: “I’m dating,” he said, savoring the old-fashioned flavor of the word.

On the wall above the mantle in Fox’s house is a large antique school clock with Roman numerals. He said he likes “the idea of having a clock that kids used to look at, waiting for it to turn three.” Unlike Back to the Future’s Marty McFly, Fox cannot travel back through the years. But as an actor, he has managed to work both sides of the generation gap—combining adolescent spirit with adult stability. And the prospect of slipping from stardom as he grows older does not seem to bother him. “It’s like that feeling you get when you go to Disneyland,” he says. “And right away you’re on the Matterhorn. So maybe you can get to Thunder Mountain and that would be cool too. But it doesn’t matter—I’ve got one prime ride under my belt.”

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

JANE O’HARA