It’s only fitting that Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan met on a show called Family Ties.
A lot of care went into picking the right actress to play Alex P. Keaton’s girlfriend, wanting to find a strong young woman to match wits with the college Reaganite. Enter Pollan, who at 25 was asked to play 18-year-old brainy dancer Ellen Reed, opposite Fox, who at 24 was playing 19 on the seminal ’80s sitcom.
“People got tired of all those glitzy, power-hungry people jumping in the sack,” Pollan told People in 1986. “Alex and Ellen have an old-fashioned relationship. It’s unjaded and optimistic with the sweetness of a first love.”
As it tends to go in real life, Alex and Ellen didn’t last—but Fox and Pollan found their forever match.
Not right away, though…
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In fact, the two rarely spent time together off set because, as Pollan also told People, “I fly home to Kevin the second filming shuts down.”
Kevin being Kevin Bacon, her boyfriend of five years, whom she’d met doing a play in New York and with whom she shared a Manhattan apartment and a Connecticut farmhouse.
“We will probably marry, but I feel like we’re kids still, and marriage is such a grown-up thing,” Pollan said. At the same time, she added, “I’m gushingly in love.”
Of his co-star, Fox said, “Tracy is really a fish out of water in L.A. She’s so unassuming and natural that it is hard for her to fit in.”
Meanwhile, he had become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood thanks to a little 1985 film called Back to the Future, so life had become a whirlwind for him, with movie offers pouring in to supplement his full-time job on Family Ties.
“Before Tracy and I started seeing each other, I was this boy prince of Hollywood,” Fox told Oprah Winfrey for O Magazine in 2002. “I had a Mercedes and a Ferrari and a Range Rover, and I was really nuts.”
Moreover, he was in a longterm relationship with Facts of Life actress Nancy McKeon.
“I always thought [Tracy] was cool,” Fox told People years later, “but it was like a couple of married people who worked together and liked each other.”
Yet by the time Fox was rumored to be romancing Courteney Cox, who was playing Alex’s new steady girlfriend Lauren Miller, he and Pollan were an item.
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“It’s really funny,” the actor told People in December 1987. “People always want to read there’s romance when it’s just two actors having a good time working with each other. I’m having a great personal relationship with Tracy and a great professional relationship with Courteney.”
Fox and Pollan’s relationship is said to have blossomed on the set of the movie Bright Lights, Big City, which came out in 1988—not long after Lemon Sky, the TV movie on which Bacon met the love of his life, Kyra Sedgwick, premiered. (Everyone is friendly these days.)
Pollan told Winfrey about Fox in 2002, “From the beginning, I loved his sense of humor and that brain of his. He’s so smart.”
“It sounds really horrible, but it was one of those things,” Fox told People in 1989. “Someone goes, ‘Did you hear that so-and-so aren’t together anymore?’ and you go, ‘Hmm, that’s too bad. Where’s the phone?'”
He proposed on Dec. 26, 1987, seven months after they started dating. “I wasn’t really worried that she would say no,” he recalled. “The toughest part was trying to figure out when to get married, and then to figure out how nobody else could know about it.”
They had cause for concern. Pollan and Fox had started to get threatening letters—up to 15 a day—in February 1988 from a young woman who was eventually charged with making terroristic threats and locked up in a psychiatric facility for nine months while awaiting trial. The frightening messages prompted Fox to tighten security everywhere he went, and Pollan started using an alias when she traveled.
But they were determined not to put their life on hold. The couple married on July 16, 1988, seemingly out of the way at West Mountain Inn in Arlington, Vt.—and though the paparazzi found them anyway, sending helicopters and everything, they had a blast.
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When Pollan got pregnant, Fox squeezed Lamaze classes into his shooting schedule. Their first child, son Sam Michael Fox, was born on May 30, 1989. “…Tracy had a really good pregnancy, and it was a good delivery. Thank God, she was healthy and Sam was healthy,” Fox told People in December 1989. “We did the whole womb music deal, where we put the headphones on Tracy’s stomach and played everything from Vivaldi to the Allman Brothers.”
“It’s been a pretty busy 10 years. It’s felt like 30,” the actor added. (Soon after, the accused threat-maker, Traci Marie Ledbetter, pleaded guilty to three counts of making terrorist threats and was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to stay away from the family.)
But Fox and Pollan loved being parents.
“I kind of shut the door and said to everyone we love who wanted to see the baby, ‘Just give us a little bit of time to get used to it ourselves,'” he said. “What’s interesting is that the parental instinct just kicks in. The next thing you know, you’ve got a sore hip because you’re holding him all the time.”
And for the time being, wherever Fox went, his family joined him.
“Sam doesn’t get it,” he said. “You can’t explain to him that I’m doing a movie. He doesn’t really care. All he knows is that he’s being dragged someplace. When he was 3 months old, he flew to Canada, then to New York City, then drove to Martha’s Vineyard and Vermont, then flew from New Hampshire back to L.A. He’s seeing the world, and it all looks the same to him. When you’re that age, it’s as exciting to go to Van Nuys.”
Asked if they thought about having more children, Fox said, “Tracy and I kind of have an agreement. While we’re still changing diapers, we don’t even talk about it. But I think it’s likely; we both come from big families.”
Whether or not they looked to their own still-married parents as inspiration, he added, “A lot of that is unspoken. We don’t say, ‘We’re going to be together forever.’ It’s not that Pollyannaish. We just say, ‘This is a cool thing. Let’s not talk about it—and maybe it won’t go away.'”
Strangely enough, life was about to blindside the couple, though not in a way they could have ever prepared for.
“I thought I’d hurt my shoulder doing some stunt because I had a twitch in my pinkie,” Fox said on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2015. “And the doctor said, ‘You have Parkinson’s disease.’ He said, ‘The good news is that you have 10 years of work left.'”
Fox was 29 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an incurable degenerative condition of the central nervous system that affects motor function over time, in 1991. At the time, however, no one could really tell, so he opted not to share the news outside of a trusted inner circle. His family handled it quietly, but eventually Fox fell into a depression and started drinking heavily and it would be awhile before he got a handle on his new reality.
“I used to drink to party,” the actor recalled on The Howard Stern Show in 2013, “but…now I was drinking alone and to just not be [present]. Every day.”
“So once I did that,” he continued, “then there was about a year of, like, a knife fight in a closet, where I just didn’t have my tools to deal with it. Then after that, I went into therapy and it all started to get really clear to me.” He realized he had no choice but to take life “one day at a time.” Once he figured that out, “then everything started to really turn the other way. My marriage got great, and my career…”
In hindsight maybe Fox was purposely trying to earn as many paychecks as possible, because he had multiple movies come out every year between 1991 and 1996, when he returned to TV as the lead in Spin City, an ABC sitcom about the goings-on behind the scenes at the New York City mayor’s office. Already a three-time Emmy winner for Family Ties, he quickly found himself back in the running every year, eventually winning again in 2000.
By then, the secret was out. After undergoing brain surgery to help relieve tremors caused by the condition, Fox publicly revealed that he had Parkinson’s in 1998—a shocking moment for anyone who counted themselves a fan of the star, or who even just remembered him as the forever-young Marty McFly or Alex P. Keaton, and a turning point for Parkinson’s visibility.
From that day forward Fox became the celebrity face of the cause and he and Pollan have worked tirelessly since to raise money for research and awareness through the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which has become the largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s research in the world.
“The reason I wasn’t telling was that I wondered if people would still laugh if they knew I was sick,” Fox told Winfrey. “Can you laugh at a sick person [on TV] and not feel like an a–hole? I finally thought, Let me not worry about that. What other people think is none of my business. I just have to have faith in the audience. If it’s funny, they’ll laugh.” He left Spin City in 2000 to focus on his foundation.
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Later on, Howard Stern suggested that maybe Fox’s marriage “got great” after he realized that Pollan wasn’t going anywhere after his diagnosis.
“Exactly,” Fox agreed.
The actor had quipped to Oprah in 2002, “When Chris Rock did a benefit for our foundation, he talked about the marriage vows. He said, ‘What do they mean when they say, ‘For richer’? Of course a woman will stay with you if you’re rich! The vows should ask, ‘Will you stay with me if I’m sick and broke?’ If the woman says yes, then you’re in.”
Pollan did find out sooner than she bargained for what “in sickness and in health” means, but it never occurred to her to not be married to Michael J. Fox. She quipped that her husband’s diagnosis instantaneously cured her own hypochondria, but acknowledged to Winfrey that she “absolutely” had to adjust to his disease.
“A lot of my adjustment has been dictated by Michael’s point of view,” she said. “He’s so relaxed and so accepting of where he is, and that makes it easier for me, the kids, and everyone around him.”
Fox and Pollan welcomed twin daughters Aquinnah Kathleen Fox and Schuyler Phyllis Fox on Feb. 15, 1995, then daughter Esmé Annabelle Fox was born on Nov. 3, 2001.
“When I was first diagnosed, my line to Tracy was ‘It’s going to be okay’—but I was really freaking out,” Fox told Winfrey. “I had no idea what Parkinson’s was, and I was in denial. After the diagnosis I didn’t even get a neurologist. You’ve probably read in People that I’m a nice guy—but when the doctor first told me I had Parkinson’s, I wanted to kill him. I thought, ‘What a s–ty thing to say to somebody!’ I just knew it was a mistake.
“So I started drinking a little more to keep from looking at it. I finally got to a pivotal point where I really worked on understanding it. About three years after I’d been diagnosed, I was okay—and that’s when life got much better.”
“After that,” he recalled, “Tracy said to me, ‘You showed up again. Your sense of humor was back, and you were just there.”
Pollan said that she of course had tougher days than others, but those were mostly during the time when he seemed unsure of what she was going to do, and that manifested in his erratic behavior.
“Through it all we’ve loved each other,” Fox said. “And that love never died,” Pollan added. “We had a solid foundation to begin with.”
“I think she always was the rock,” Fox’s Spin City co-star Alan Ruck told the New York Post in 2013. “I think that’s why she and Michael got married; I think that’s why he fell in love with her —because that’s the person she is. I didn’t see any big transformation in Tracy. She was just Tracy. She was always there for him.”
When Winfrey asked if he felt Parkinson’s had been a gift for their marriage, giving them no choice but to become stronger and more in sync if they were to keep on going, Fox said, “I’ve often referred to Parkinson’s as the gift that keeps on taking. It’s a gift in that it really gave me a whole different appreciation for life. I discovered that I wasn’t me minus Parkinson’s. I was me plus it. I have been enriched by what it has opened up for me. It hasn’t allowed me to take anything for granted.”
Before the diagnosis, “I had been constantly taking care of this and making sure that was okay, and now Tracy and I are just in it.”
Meanwhile, that was 18 years ago, and Fox and Pollan are still “just in it.”
“It’s like dog years!” Pollan said of their then-27-year marriage in 2015, telling People that “giving each other the benefit of the doubt” has been a huge serenity-preserver in their marriage. They were at the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s annual benefit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cure Parkinson’s.
“There are so many times when you have arguments, when you have things come up, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with what he did, or said—it’s how I am projecting that onto myself,” Pollan continued. “A lot of times he’ll just say to me, ‘You know who I am, would I ever say anything to try to hurt your feelings? Just give me the benefit of the doubt.'”
And then, of course, “He’s an amazing father…he’s one of the smartest people I know…and he’s pretty cute still!”
Pollan took the occasional acting job during the ’00s, guest-starring on Law & Order: SVU and Medium and playing the lead in a TV movie adaptation of James Patterson‘s 1st to Die. Her brother is writer and professor Michael Pollan and Tracy collaborated with food writer mom Corky and sisters Dina and Lauri on a cookbook, Pollan Family Table.
Fox slowed down in the ’00s to work on Parkinson’s-related causes but had scene-stealing guest arcs in Scrubs, Boston Legal and Rescue Me, the last of which won him his fifth Emmy. A return to TV with his own eponymous sitcom in 2013 only lasted for one season, but he’s since had meaty recurring parts on The Good Wife and Designated Survivor. And, he joined the elite group of actors who’ve had a chance to play a jackass version of themselves on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Most recently he reprised the role of cocky attorney Louis Canning on The Good Fight.
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The couple remain based in New York, where Pollan is from, and Rabbi Peter Rubenstein at Central Synagogue in Manhattan told the New York Post in 2013 that the Fox-Pollan family were regulars during the big Jewish holidays and had held the kids Bar and Bat Mitzvahs there.
“They do it no differently than any other family would do it,” Rubenstein said. “They don’t ask for special attention in any way.”
Fox told Good Housekeeping in 2011 that he was “always grappling” with faith and spirituality. “If spirituality is that you’re humble in the face of forces greater than you and you believe that those forces are more inclined toward being good than being bad, then I’m a spiritual person,” he said.
And though he hales from Edmonton, Alberta, in normal times Fox is happy to cheer on the New York Knicks and Rangers at Madison Square Garden, especially at games with son Sam.
“Life is what you put into it and how much you take out of it,” Fox told Good Housekeeping in 2011. “You put in more than is expected, and you take out less than you want. Everything is cause and effect. If you don’t move, nothing will move with you, and nothing will move toward you. And so that involves risk and also resiliency. But I think I just really want my kids to enjoy life as much as I do.”
“Part of what I get very strongly from my dad is just not worrying about the things that worrying isn’t going to help,” Sam told Avenue in 2015. “He tries to teach that as his mindset but if it’s not your mindset it’s very hard to wrap your head around. My sisters, my mom, are optimists too, but they are not the same kind of roll-with-the-punches optimists that my dad and I are. Luckily, I haven’t had too many punches.”
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Sam, now 31, talked about his work with the Michael J. Fox Foundation and its grassroots Team Fox initiative, which focuses on smaller donations and getting people involved at the non-gala-benefit level. He had gotten into Stanford but dropped out to work for various websites, including onefinestay, an upscale Airbnb. He also shares his dad’s love of music and plays bass and guitar.
Though they’re all close, the kids weren’t afraid to leave the nest. The twins even parted ways for school, Schuyler enrolling at Pomona College and Aquinnah at Duke. Esmé just graduated from Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in the Bronx, and for now still lives with Mom and Dad in the family’s Upper East Side apartment.
The intrepid baby of the family started a business called Cookie Crazie to benefit her dad’s foundation when she was 9, and her recipe for s’mores cookies can be found in The Pollan Family Table. At 15 she got really into crossword puzzles, Fox told AARP. Never mind that she didn’t know the answer to “Michael’s role in Family Ties.”
The hardest part about having kids, Fox told Good Housekeeping, “is that they grow up. And also realizing that there’s some stuff that’s their stuff. I spent so much time just walking them to the store, monitoring their every move. Now my 16-year-olds [the twins at the time[ have to be able to go to their friend’s house and not text me every five minutes and tell me what they’re doing. They need the freedom to do that.”
Speaking of freedom, he said that he and Pollan made a point of taking a trip just the two of them every year and try to save gift giving for birthdays and Christmas—but sometimes he slipped up and bought his wife things for Valentine’s Day.
“You know, when our twins were born, they were induced, and we had a choice between February 14th or 15th, and we decided the 15th, because we didn’t want to never be able to have a Valentine’s dinner because it’d be the girls’ birthday,” Fox said. “So she carried that weight around an extra day so we could have Valentine’s Day.”
More than 30 years since Back to the Future put Fox on the map, date nights also still include trips to the Emmys and the Oscars—but he and Pollan make a point of enjoying each other’s company everywhere, whether it’s in another country or on the couch watching TV.
And they deal every day with Fox’s condition, but always together, as a team.
“Tracy wasn’t sentimental or romantic about it at all,” he told AARP magazine last year about how his wife reacted to his Parkinson’s diagnosis all the way back in 1991. “No terror. No big windy…” he searched for the right word.
“So, no exhibition of grief and fear. Tracy was just like, ‘You’ve got a stone in your shoe. We’ll do what we can until you can get it out. In the meantime, if you limp with the stone, that’s all right. You can hold my hand, and we’ll get over that.'”
For their 32nd anniversary, Fox posted a throwback photo of the two of them with the confident caption, “32 years. I think it’s working. Love of my life.”
(Originally published July 16, 2018, at 3 a.m. PT)