alex keaton

We had this thing we did, back in middle school, and rubbing our necks with an ostentatiously placed hand was the least of it. For one effect, we’d toss off a one-liner while sipping a (pretend) coffee cup and leaving the room. For a fuller effect, we would place our butt squarely on the nearest kitchen-counter-height counter and say, “aw, Mallory.” For the fullest effect, we would stand with one very outstretched arm to a friend’s shoulder, and then do this sort of rolling motion to move in for a hug as though curling ourselves into the huggee.

We loved pretending to be Alex Keaton. And this was before, I said before, Back to the Future came out. Before I saw that film in ten different theaters before the end of 1985.

And WAY before I found out that my son would be afflicted with a severe, chronic disability and I would find myself looking to, above all other celebrities, Mr. Michael J. Fox for his examples of courage, equanimity, and fortitude.

What was it about Alex Keaton? Was it his (often playful) refusal to bend to the touchy-feely liberal precepts of his parents? Was it his mannerisms, his comic timing, his bluster? Was it Michael J. Fox’s adroitness in two-hander scenes with Michael Gross? Was it Fox’s smooth looks paired with that sometimes-mischievous grin? Was it the coiled, barely suppressed energy that made him seem like something was vibrating on the balls of his feet?

Yes, it was all that, but I want to make a case for that voice. Does anyone else sound like Michael J. Fox? If he called you on the phone and said, hi, this is John Smith – would you believe him for a second? Most star-actor male voices trip over each other for manliness, for hitting those low notes. Fox sounds like a tenor – whether or not he sings tenor isn’t the point – yet with a remarkable fullness. (And we know this is his real voice; we’ve seen him on talk shows and before Congress.) His voice is like a soufflé – light, yes, but not thin, not tinny or reedy, but instead a rich, sumptuous feast. And there’s some kind of gritty ingredient in the middle of the cream – for all his boyishness, you sense Fox’s backbone.

Perhaps I’m projecting – in my life, my 6-year-old has never spoken. I can’t hope he’ll ever sound like Fox, but if some future technology lets me choose his voice the way you choose the voice of your GPS or Siri, sign me up for Fox’s.

No one in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983) has a voice like Fox’s. No one in the Brat Pack, and not Robert Downey Jr. either. Mostly, they’re too mannish, too precocious, too worried about gravitas. They’re not obviously comfortable using their boyish charm for laughs that might come at their own expense. I mention those actors because I see why Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Steven Spielberg needed Fox to play Marty McFly…needed to the point of throwing away six expensive weeks of production. It’s certainly not because they didn’t have other options.

Picture a young Downey, or a young Tom Cruise, or a young Emilio Estevez, or yes, a young Eric Stoltz, saying:

“Are you telling me you built a time machine…out of a DeLorean?”

“Are you saying this sucker is nuclear?”

“I came here in a time machine that you invented. Now I need your help to get back to the year 1985.”

“You’re not gonna be picking a fight, Dad. Dad. Daddy-o.”

(spit-take) “Geez, you smoke too?”

It would have been all mannerisms, all furtive glances, all ways of signaling the audience that a young Brando or young DeNiro is here, a tough guy who’s somehow better than the Hill Valley situation. But Fox doesn’t scan as tough, not exactly. He scans as wholesome with a certain core of non-angry bemusement.

Matthew Broderick might have gotten away with playing Marty McFly. Ralph Macchio, maybe. Anthony Michael Hall, I give him a 20% chance. (Where were the non-white young actors then? Outside of Eddie Murphy, who seemed 30 when he was 20, the studios had no interest.) And yet…perhaps the most important piece of dialogue in the script, the one that all of Back to the Future leads up to – in the moment that made Disney reject the film project – is actually about performance:

“You ever in a situation where…you know you have to act a certain way…but you’re not sure if you can do it?”

As Marty, Fox saying that line is so perfectly squeamish, so exactly fish-out-of-water, that the incestuous kiss that follows seems utterly alien. We never lose identification with Marty even while Marty’s not there with his mom. It’s harder to pull off than it looks.

marty in city center

Maybe another actor, Broderick, could have made it work. But the essence of the Fox persona – and he alludes to this in his Inside the Actor’s Studio interview with James Lipton – is reactive. That’s why you’ve seen the above photo a thousand times, why the minute that he staggers slack-jawed around the Hill Valley city center is tattooed on your brain forever. Fox is a brilliant reactor. As Alex Keaton he reacted to the 1960s and 1970s, as Marty he reacts to the 1980s and 1950s. Broderick is just a shade more of an instigator, even in WarGames. He needs a slight comeuppance; Fox doesn’t. All Fox does is react exactly the way we would, preserving our sanity as we would. That’s all, and that’s everything.

Brat Pack actors were often either bullies or nerds. Which is Fox? Well, one of the clevernesses of the BTTF script is that Marty’s not actually badly dressed, but everyone in the 1950s says he is, cueing me and my badly dressed nerd friends to love him. There are other movies where the cool outsider (plays guitar, waves to exercising women from his skateboard on way to being late to school) comes to the defense of nerds against bullies, but the way that Fox embodies a certain un-naïve kindness – maybe it’s his Canadian roots – make it seem less like he stood up to bullies and more that he simply transcended them. Not sure Ralph Macchio could have convinced us of that.

(Sidebar: we know Fox isn’t all that far removed from Alex and Marty; this we know from tales on set of him introducing himself to everyone, this we know from his biographies, one of which says “Incurable Optimist” on the cover.)

After BTTF, the movies never knew quite what to do with the Fox persona. He had to begin instigating, as in Bright Lights Big City and The Secret of My Success, and it sometimes came off as smarmy. (He was an outstanding reactor to Sean Penn’s savagery in Casualties of War, but by 1989 that film was a casualty of Vietnam-film fatigue.) Where to put Fox – Doc Hollywood? For Love or Money? Too many comeuppances for a guy who shouldn’t have needed them – kind of like Tom Hanks before he played the drunk coach in A League of Their Own. Hanks and Fox are both James Stewart-y, in their way.

Sometimes I wonder if Fox was ever in the running for the lead role in the film that has somehow superseded BTTF as Robert Zemeckis’ most-seen film: Forrest Gump. Tom Hanks did absolutely nothing wrong in the role, but I think Fox could have rocked it. And if he had, America’s best-known film about disability – and let’s face it, a very strange one, where Gump casts off a physical disability, retains an intellectual one, and deals with Lieutenant Dan’s seething disability-related resentment for the second half of the film – would have all these other connotations today, having starred the person who became America’s most famous disabled person.

One last para on Fox’s career: I want to pause to thank George Stephanopoulos for existing and somehow becoming famous during Bill Clinton’s campaign and first year as President. Oh, are you telling me that if Stephanopoulos, born in the same year as Fox (1961), hadn’t been Clinton’s famous – and let’s face it, diminutive, boyish, and just a bit roguish – communications director, that Rob Reiner (after The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, and A Few Good Men, when he was ROB REINER) would have cast Fox anyway as the young communications director in The American President (1995) starring Michael Douglas? Really? Well, good luck thinking that. As surely as Ron Howard’s role in American Graffiti led to his role in Happy Days, Fox went from The American President to a similar role in Spin City, and we got five more prime years of the best reactor on TV until his illness caught up with him. (Damn you, Parkinson’s. Not only do you restrict the lives of millions, but you also extended the careers of Heather Locklear and Charlie Sheen.)

All this, before I knew that I’d be living with chronic illness for the rest of my life. And as the truth of our son’s diagnosis became clear to us, as we dealt with reminder after reminder that our dreams for him almost certainly could not come true, I did think of Michael J. Fox. Not because Parkinson’s and autism are comparable, not really, but because disability happened to him like – well, like a bolt of lightning. Please excuse the crudity of this model, but Fox provided a model of how to get on with things after the reality of that lightning bolt has sunk in. You react. You bear up. You remain stoic. You get up every day and you do what has to be done. Sometimes you fight. Sometimes you speak. Sometimes you do this in front of Congress.

And so I’m sorry if I cry every time I watch that. But I love Michael J. Fox. And I thank him for remaining strong, for retaining that core of bemusement, for reacting for all of us. When it comes to planning a life of disabilities, Mike, thanks for having my Back, so I can make a map To The Future.

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