Top 10 Michael J. Fox Roles
There is no doubt about it. Michael J. Fox is one of my favorite actors. For starters, he was one of the first actors I learned to recognize for who he was – not just the characters he played. As most people know, Parkinson ’s disease cut Michael J. Fox’s career tragically short. Not only was that a great loss, but I think it has overshadowed what a great actor Fox was. By all accounts, his nice guy reputation was not just a screen persona. Most people can concur that he is a good guy in person. In fact, James Woods said The Hard Way was one of the hardest roles he ever did because he had to play angry to Fox despite really liking him. But even with a nice guy image, he still had a wide range, a ton of charisma and he was probably one of the most underrated physical comedians out there – even performing physical gags. So with The Michael J. Fox Show coming out this fall, I think it’s time to count down my favorite performances from one of my favorite actors. Since Fox has done a lot of TV alongside his film career, I am counting TV roles – and yes, even guest appearances – in this count.
10. Milo Thatch Atlantis: The Lost Empire/Stuart Little in Stuart Little – I know it’s cheating to lump these together, but for MJ, I’ll make an exception. I like both of these movies and if I made them separate items, I might end up repeating myself. Celebrities doing voiceover work is often a waste since filmmakers frequently cast celebrities just so they can slap their names on the DVD cover. (Seriously, Matt Damon is a great actor, but what’s the point of casting him for voiceover work?) But Fox is definitely one of the actors who understands voiceover work. Not only does he have a great, distinguishable voice, but he really knows how to give personality to these characters – Milo’s quirky eccentricity and Stuart’s humble charm. One of the other reasons, I made these two a tie is because I have reasons for picking both: I liked Atlantis more, but I think Fox leant more to Stuart Little. It’s hard to imagine Fox’s boyishly husky not playing Stuart Little. Incidentally, Stuart Little is the only movie where Fox has a credit alongside Steve Zahn. Maybe it’s for the better they don’t appear together (or at all since Zahn also plays a voice) since viewers might have thought they were related…
9. Dwight Rescue Me – There’s a story about this character that Michael J. Fox likes to share about this performance. Denis Leary approached him about this role, telling him “I want you to play an embittered drug addict with an attitude problem.” Fox’s response: “What part of this role makes you think me?” Leary: “Well, he’s paralyzed from the waist down.” Fox: “You know I can’t stop moving, right?” The reason Michael J. Fox ended up becoming attracted this role – and likes to talk about it – because he realizes that Dwight is exactly the kind of person he’s grateful he never became. He realizes that unlike him, not everybody who is disabled takes it well. Not everybody has an indomitable spirit. And Fox really lets that show as he plays someone who has let his handicap become… well, a handicap. Aside from being a complete 180 from the roles Fox is known for, Fox actually does bring a lot of intensity to this part.
8. Dr. Kevin Casey Scrubs – Despite only being in two episodes in the third season, this guest appearance was a big deal for me. It was not just Michael J. Fox appearing on a show I watched semi-religiously at the time. When this came out, Fox had not been seen in anything for a while. Although his last live action movie was Interstate 60 from 2002, that is kind of obscure (and I’m sorry to say, I still haven’t gotten around to seeing it). He had done some voice work including the Stuart Little films and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Those are both good movies, but I hadn’t seen them at the time for one reason or another. So, suffice to say, seeing one of my idols on ANYTHING again was a big deal for me. Even though he only appeared in two episodes, Fox’s role was very memorable. He played a doctor who just seemed a little too perfect: He was a walking encyclopedia of medical knowledge and came off like the nicest, most charming guy on the planet. However, he had a crippling case of OCD. Fox must have channeled his own knowledge of living with a disability into this role. Fox shows a lot of frustration when he is unable to stop washing his hands after an operation, but at the same time, he can’t stop doing it! He has other hang-ups too, such as his inability to use a toilet on the roof… This is Scrubs. I don’t know if this is the part that kick started it, but after this, Fox did start doing more TV roles including Boston Legal, The Good Wife, Phineas and Ferb (Yeah, more voiceover, but it was still awesome) and a hilarious turn as himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
7. The Frighteners: This was one of Fox’s last live action performances. In this film, Fox plays a psychic who is able to see ghosts and uses them to con people by having them haunt people’s homes. He then goes over to their homes and plays a Ghostbuster. Fox is able to turn his normal likability and charm on its side by using this in his con act. However, trouble brews when a deceased killer is actually murdering people from beyond the grave. Being the only person who can see ghosts, Banister must stop the killer. This is a horror-comedy blend, however unlike the aforementioned Ghostbusters, this film is a little more split. The first half is more comedy-heavy while the second half is more horror heavy. In a way, this does work. By starting off on a comedic note – and casting an actor like Fox is seen as more of a nice guy – the characters seem more over their heads when the horror scenes start. Even though this does work, I do kind of wish this movie had lived up to the first half. The idea of Fox’s con is pretty clever and it is executed well – especially with the way Fox sells it. However, as is, this is a good movie, and it does come recommended.
6. Mike Flaherty Spin City – Between most of his films being flops and his Parkinson’s becoming harder and harder to ignore, Fox decided to make a return to television. In his first book Lucky Man, Fox commented that the reason he was having a hard time finding good film scripts was because the good scripts were being used on TV. Looking at the state of movies and TV, he really called that one… Either way, Spin City was a really funny show, and a lot of that was because of Fox’s performance as Mike Flaherty. Although being the youngest district mayor in New York made him far from an everyman (In fact, plots involved him being voted New York’s sexiest man and dating Heidi Klum), Fox still had that everyman quality to him. Flaherty didn’t just give out funny one-liners (though he did have funny lines), he had a lot of responsibilities. Working for the mayor of one of the biggest cities in the world had a lot of responsibilities. Aside from realistic problems like having to lay off city workers, the show presented comical problems such as a city statue being a middle finger, and trying to convince a kid Santa is real. One of the show’s other strengths was its supporting cast: The childish Mayor, the selfish Paul, Stuart the rake. Fox had great chemistry with all these characters, and you get the feeling that he was the glue holding them together. No matter how crazy the situation, no matter how crazy his staff was, Flaherty kept his head above water and carried his staff through the tough times. Of course, this role will always have an extra dimension for Fox fans. It was this time that Fox finally opened up about his Parkinson’s. In fact, in later seasons, he had to hide his hand to conceal his shakiness. Eventually, the Parkinson’s became too much and Fox eventually bowed out. He stayed on as an executive consultant, and made a comeback appearance in the sixth season. But for many fans, it looked like the end. It wasn’t creative differences. He wasn’t McCleaned. He was stopped by Parkinson’s.
5. Lewis Rothschild The American President – Ranking this one was not easy for me. No doubt it would be on the list, I just had a tough time comparing it to the other performances on this list. On one hand, it is one of the best movies on this list. On the other hand, it is Fox’s only supporting film role on this list so Fox does not have as much time to shine. However, this is a great example of Fox playing against type. Fox plays Lewis Rothschild, the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. Rothschild works for a President who has started dating again, and that brings a surprising amount of controversy. Working for the leader of the free world can’t be an easy job, and with his popularity declining – especially with a Republican Candidate breathing down his neck. Suffice to say, this is a character who loses his temper more than once. One of the reasons The American President is such a good movie is that Aaron Sorkin wrote a great screenplay that examines how the public reacts to every little thing the President does. And Fox’s part reflects that – He comes off a little gruff at times, but he is just trying to help the President make the decisions that will help get him elected. On a final note, I have to ask: How did this movie sneak away with a PG-13 when there are three uses of the F-word?
4. Dr. Benjamin Stone Doc Hollywood – Despite his nice guy image (which from all accounts is not too far from the truth), Michael was actually pretty good at playing cocky. I suppose a lot of that can be chalked up to his likability because it allowed him to play arrogance without losing touch with his ability to relate to the audience. I bring that up because Doc Hollywood shows the two sides of this face. Fox starts out as an arrogant doctor who is moving to LA to become a plastic surgeon. However, a car accident sidetracks him in a hick town where he does his community service by acting as the town’s doctor. This leads to some pretty funny scenes as Stone has to deal with crazy patients who bring in spiders and make him read letters from family among other things. Even though Fox mainly plays straight man to these characters, his reactions are pretty funny which really help sell scenes like this. While in town, Stone strikes up a relationship with a local resident (Julie Warner) with whom Fox has a lot of chemistry. There are a lot of sweet moments between the two such as their dance at the town fair. This is another character where Fox shows a lot of conflict. On one hand, the small town life proves to be a humbling experience and he learns to appreciate it. On the flip side, he still wants his luxurious job in California. (Then again, who wouldn’t?)
Although it is a very good movie, Doc Hollywood does have a sad story behind it. It was on during the production of this movie that Michael J. Fox noticed his pinky would not stop twitching. The rest, as they say, is history. (Also, like The American President, I wonder how this movie snuck away with its PG-13 rating since it has multiple F-bombs AND nudity!)
3. Eriksson Casualties of War - This was made during a time when Fox was trying to branch out from typical lighthearted comedies. Even if the attempt was not the most successful at the box office, on a creative level, it was. To be fair, as far as making a move toward drama goes, this seemed like the perfect compromise for Fox. Casualties of War is a very serious film set during the Vietnam War about a group of soldiers who kidnap a Vietnamese villager. Fox plays the one soldier who is opposed to what the rest of his platoon is doing. Even though this list is about Fox’s performance, I must talk about his co-star Sean Penn because the two do play off each other well. As one would expect, Penn brings a lot of intensity in his performance. The intensity of his performance seems to compliment Fox’s performances. Fox – especially back in 1989 – was often viewed as very boyish. This is a character that is in the middle of a war and even his fellow troops are against him. Fox’s character in this movie has a lot of pain and his pain is obviously internalized. He is in a constant struggle with wanting to do the right thing while not suffering the wrath of his troops. When he can, he does show a lot of the kindness to the captured villager. Sadly, this movie was a flop. Although critics did give it some love, it never reached the heights of Platoon (for example). In fact, all of Fox’s dramatic films were flops – which was too bad because he definitely had more to him than just comedic nice guy parts. (Though as his role on Rescue Me proved, some people do let him flex his acting muscle.)
2. Marty McFly The Back to the Future Trilogy – Anybody who knows me well enough probably saw this one coming… 88 miles away (yuck, yuck, yuck). For those of you who do not know, Back to the Future is my favorite film franchise. Between the three movies, I have seen them more times than I can count. This is the only live action movie where Michael J. Fox reprised his role so we saw a lot of this character. Marty has a lot thrown at him: He finds himself stuck in 1955, he meets his parents, visits the future, has a gun fight in the Old West. There is something about the fact that his reactions come off as realistic. He can be overwhelmed but never brought down. Not to mention the fact that Fox’s hilarious reactions really add weight to the situations Fox is in – his mother hitting on him, being spooked by a holographic Jaws (“shark still looks fake”). He has his flaws, but still comes off as sympathetic. True, he doesn’t like being called chicken. Does anybody like being called a wimp? It has dire consequences, but who wouldn’t be tempted to try Marty’s intended scheme with the sports almanac? It also goes without saying that Fox had great chemistry with Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown (“Doc, you’re not gonna believe this: We have to go back to 1955!” “I don’t believe it!”)
So, what could possibly top my favorite character from my favorite movie franchise?
1. Alex P. Keaton Family Ties – What gave away the fact that this would be number one? The fact that this is one of Fox’s most iconic roles? The fact that Marty McFly is a tough act to follow? The fact that this is the part that made Fox a star? Or maybe it is the fact that my name is Alex. Either way, Alex P. Keaton was a truly great character. In his autobiography Lucky Man, Fox was told to make the character likable. And he asked himself, “How do I make a tie-wearing teenager likable?” Amazingly, he found a way. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Alex Keaton was a character who had A LOT of faces to his personality. He was conservative to the extreme – His hero was Nixon. He was rarely seen wearing anything besides a button-up shirt and tie. Last, and certainly not least, he loved money. One of my favorite lines was when his father Steven claimed Alex cried when he saw that his station was non-profit. At the same time, he was smart – really smart. In one episode, it was revealed that he handled his parents’ taxes even at a young age. And when his sister Jennifer went on trial for writing a report on Huckleberry Finn. That was among the moments that showed that even if he did some unscrupulous things, Alex Keaton still had a good heart. Keaton also had his share of insecurities. Although I’ve talked about it before, one of the best episodes is “A, My Name is Alex” where Alex essentially examines his life and his insecurities. We also learn he is a closet Doors fan. Naturally, the character was funny, but this was another role where Fox had room to show some physical comedy. In one episode, he dove across his kitchen counter when he learned of a cash prize in a contest. Family Ties was one of the most popular shows of the 80’s, and it is easy to see why this is the part that made Fox a household name.
So, that’s my list. But one question remains, with The Michael J. Fox Show coming out, will I need to amend this list?
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