A birthday celebration: Learning from Michael J. Fox with Back to the Future

On June 9, one of Sarah’s recently-discovered “favorite movie stars” will turn 52 years old.

But in Sarah’s eyes, he’ll always be 17 – young Marty McFly from the Back to the Future trilogy, who we know and love as Michael J. Fox.

As part of an iHomeschool Network celebration of some noted June birthdays, I wanted to share today a little more about Michael, and specifically some of what we’ve learned and talked about through his first series of big hits, Back to the Future!

Unit study for homeschoolers about Michael J. Fox, advocate for Parkinson's Disease research and star of the Back to the Future series

All about Michael J. Fox

Many of the adults among us think of Michael J. Fox best as Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties. The funniest thing is, I was never a big Family Ties fan, so, like Sarah, I most often think of him as time-traveler Marty McFly!

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Michael J. Fox was actually born Michael Andrew Fox, which I think is neat because I can’t imagine ever calling him anything but “Michael J.” Even Michael Fox or Mike Fox sounds funny to me! (As if I’ll ever get a chance to address him in person, so who cares, right?) He did this because he needed a unique name to register with the Screen Actors Guild, and his own was taken, so he picked the J. reportedly as a tribute to actor Michael J. Pollard.

Anyway, he was born June 9, 1961, and holds dual Canadian-American citizenship.

Most of his acting work started in the early 1980s and continued until 2000, when he semi-retired after announcing that he has Parkinson’s disease, which he was diagnosed with in 1991; since then, he’s written three books and started a foundation to help fund and promote awareness of Parkinson’s research, and is about to make a comeback on TV with an NBC sitcom this fall.

All about Back to the Future

What if you could travel through time? What if you could see your own past – and accidentally almost erase your own future? Then,what if you went farther into the future and saw something you didn’t want to see?

That’s Back to the Future, the time-travel series of three movies that I loved when I was younger and rediscovered this year while watching them with Sarah.

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!

You’re my density!

Heavy! There’s that word again! Why is everything in the future so heavy? Is there a problem with the earth’s gravitational field?

Yes, these are things we say on a regular basis in our family.

If you’re wondering more about the movies (and the books, and the TV series, and all the other things that I didn’t even know existed until now), you could lose hours in the Futurepedia – the wiki project for Back to the Future that is almost frighteningly thorough.

I had to laugh at one thing I found while reading about the Back to the Future series. Describing his work in the films in a 2012 Parade magazine article, Michael J. Fox said “I truly thought I was terrible.” He was sure the films would never be shown, he thought he did so bad!

I guess we all do a better job than we give ourselves credit for, huh?

The Parkinson’s connection

As someone who lives with chronic illness, I’ve spent most of my adult life appreciating Michael J. Fox’s honesty and openness about his own struggles.

This interview with Ellen DeGeneres is particularly great:

One thing that Michael’s caught some hard times for is that he doesn’t always “look” like someone with severe Parkinson’s during his television appearances.

In a 2002 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, he said:

Well, actually, I’ve been erring on the side of caution — I think ‘erring’ is actually the right word — in that I’ve been medicating perhaps too much, in the sense [that] … the symptoms … people see in some of these interviews that [I] have been on are actually dyskinesia, which is a reaction to the medication. Because if I were purely symptomatic with Parkinson’s symptoms, a lot of times speaking is difficult. There’s a kind of a cluttering of speech and it’s very difficult to sit still, to sit in one place. You know, the symptoms are different, so I’d rather kind of suffer the symptoms of dyskinesia… this kind of weaving and this kind of continuous thing is much preferable, actually, than pure Parkinson’s symptoms. So that’s what I generally do… I haven’t had any, you know, problems with pure Parkinson’s symptoms in any of these interviews, because I’ll tend to just make sure that I have enough Sinemet in my system and, in some cases, too much. But to me, it’s preferable. It’s not representative of what I’m like in my everyday life. I get a lot of people with Parkinson’s coming up to me saying, “You take too much medication.” I say, Well, you sit across from Larry King and see if you want to tempt it.

I admit that’s a hard issue for me, in large part because it’s one I’ve struggled with personally related to health issues.

I did like hearing that when Michael appeared before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee in 1999 to talk about research funding, he purposely did not take his medication. I think that’s fair and relevant, and I think I support his decision to potentially “overmedicate” under high-pressure situations as well!

Other Michael J. Fox movies in our collection

  • Teen Wolf: We got a big kick out of finding this movie on Netflix and watching it. Sarah thought it was hilarious, and much like Back to the Future, it had a lot of themes about “the little guy” and success or failure by public standards that were neat to talk about.
  • Doc Hollywood: I had forgotten about this movie until I started working on this post, but my mom and I had watched it and loved it! So we’re trying to find a copy to show Sarah.
  • Stuart Little: These were childhood favorites of Sarah’s, and I didn’t pay attention enough to realize until now that Michael J. Fox is the voice of Stuart!

Read more about Michael J. Fox

Ideas for discussion

Now this is what it’s all about, for our family. We love to learn through books and movies, and we don’t really differentiate between “educational” movies and books and “noneducational” ones.

Some movies, though, really spark a lot of discussion even when they don’t purport to be traditionally educational, and the Back to the Future series is a great example of this. Some of the things it led us to talk about include:

  • Stem cell research: This is one of the key treatments proposed for Parkinson’s disease, and Michael J. Fox is an outspoken advocate in favor of it. When we started talking about what Parkinson’s is with Sarah, when she asked what Fox had starred in recently, we talked a little about what this is and what the controversy is surrounding it.
  • Time travel ethics: This was HUGE, in large part because we are also big Star Trek fans. Is it “right” to travel through time, assuming it’s possible? How do you know if you’ve changed the future or the past? This is the key plot of Back to the Future, but it’s neat to talk about even outside of it!
  • Types of people in history: Back to the Future kind of portrays that every time period has its bullies, its “bosses,” its victims and its oddballs. When we stopped to think about it, it’s pretty true, and it was neat to see how those things changed depending on how the characters changed, and to talk about how we shape our own time.
  • Bullying and egos: So much of the Back to the Future series deals with bullying – and with one character hating one particular insult so much that, in one scenario, his response changes his life tragically forever. It’s a good chance to talk about what you’re willing to give up to “win.”
  • How your parents met: On a cute note, Sarah loves hearing the story of how Chris and I met, and that’s a fun thing to share when you watch these movies, since the parental McFlys’ romance is such a big part of the plot.
  • Predictions for the future: In Back to the Future, the “future” is 2015. But what if we were going 30 years into our future? What would that look like? (Sarah is still holding out for the flying skateboard “hoverboards” seen in the movie to become commonplace in the next two years; we’ll have to see!)

Join the birthday party

If you’re interested, there are many more cool “June birthday” lessons from my fellow iHomeschool Network bloggers. Click the image below to check them out!

And thanks for stopping by to help me wish Michael J. Fox a happy birthday in thanks for all the smiles and laughs he’s brought our family!

You can check out more posts in our Learning Party series here!

6 thoughts on “A birthday celebration: Learning from Michael J. Fox with Back to the Future

  1. I cannot believe that Michael J Fox is going to be 52!
    I loved the Back to the Future movies, but we haven’t watched them as a family yet…I need to put them on our list!
    My father-in-law has Parkinson’s. Of course, he is a fair number of years older than MJF.
    I agree with Phyllis…very thorough post 🙂

    • We were definitely fans, Susan – I hope you guys will enjoy them together as much as we did! You know, they hold up surprisingly well; we were expecting them to seem much more dated than they did.

  2. I love Michael J. Fox and like Susan, I can not believe he is going to be 52! When I am at work, I sit in a chair with wheels and sometimes to get over to another side of the reference area (I’m a librarian) I push back like Michael J. Fox in the intro to Family Ties and I always think of that scene!

    I so admire Michael J. Fox and how public he’s been. <3

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