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Friday, February 17, 2012

Michael J. Fox Was Alex P. Keaton

You know, one actor's story that has always inspired me is that of Michael J. Fox.

Unless you've lived in isolation on a deserted island for the last thirty years (and if you were, you likely wouldn't have access to a blog or know even what a blog is for that matter), you probably know who Michael J. Fox is.

Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on June 9, 1961, Michael Andrew Fox was the son of an actress/payroll clerk mother and a police officer father. Because Michael's father was a member of the Canadian Forces, it wasn't unusual for Michael and his family to move frequently, and often with very little notice. And, for the first ten years of Michael's life, he lived in several places all over Canada. In 1971, his father retired from the police force, and the family settled in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, a suburb of Vancouver.

At the age of fifteen, Fox starred in the Canadian television series 'Leo and Me', which aired on CBC, and when Michael turned eighteen, he left home and moved to Los Angeles, California, hoping to make it big in show business. After arriving, he had a chance meeting with producer Ronald Shedlo, who was impressed by his talent. And shortly after that meeting, he was cast in his first American production, a made for television movie titled 'Letters From Frank'. On that particular movie, he was credited under the name 'Michael Fox', and he had hoped that he could continue using the name professionally.

Not so.

In Michael's own words, according to his autobiography 'Lucky Man: A Memoir', he found that when he registered to be a member of the Screen Actors Guild, there was already a veteran character actor named Michael Fox (d. 1996) who was already registered under that name.

And in the Screen Actors Guild, no two actors can share the same exact name.

(Mind you there are some exceptions to this rule, as there's a funny story involving Vanessa “Save The Best For Last” Williams and Vanessa “Melrose Place” Williams. Maybe I'll talk about it in a future blog entry.)

So, Michael decided to try going under a different name. Michael A. Fox sounded a bit weird. And, he didn't particularly like the idea of performing under the names Andrew Fox and Andy Fox. So, he decided that he would adopt the fictional initial, “J”, as an homage to Michael J. Pollard.

Thus, Michael J. Fox was born.

And, shortly after changing his professional name, Michael J. Fox ended up getting the role that would make him famous.

By all accounts, 'Family Ties' was one of the most successful television sitcoms of the 1980s. Debuting in September 1982, the show ran for seven seasons, ending its run on May 14, 1989. It was a sitcom that had a very interesting premise. You had Elyse and Steven Keaton (Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross) who were among the very first of the baby boomers to be born.  They were as liberal as liberal could be, even becoming hippies at one point.  They made love, not war.  They promoted peace, not hate.  They were basically the parents that all of us kind of wish we had.

Flash forward to the 1980s, and our hippies now hold adult jobs.  Elyse works independently as an architect, while Steven worked at a television station as station manager.  Still, they hold a rather laid-back approach to parenting and family life.  They are strict when they need to be, but are mostly easy to talk to.  They still hold their liberal political stances though.  Which wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that their children are NOTHING like them!

Well, okay, maybe I shouldn't say that.  Their youngest child (well, for the first few years at least), Jennifer (Tina Yothers), seemed to appreciate the values that Steven and Elyse lived by, and as a result was probably the most well-rounded of the Keaton kids.  The eldest two could not be more unlike Steven and Elyse.  Take Mallory (Justine Bateman), for instance.  For someone born to two parents who practically shunned most material things to live the hippie lifestyle, the fact that Mallory ended up as a materialistic mall princess who spent more money on cosmetics and clothes in an hour than Elyse did in a whole year must have drove them crazy.

And, then there was the role that Michael J. Fox played.

Alex P. Keaton was everything that his parents weren't.  Alex was a Republican supporter.  Steven and Elyse weren't.  Alex is really interested in economics and wealth, subjects that Steven and Elyse really didn't want much to do with.  Alex even reportedly had a lunchbox with Richard Nixon's face on it!

Now THAT'S hardcore.

To further demonstrate the wide divide between Alex and his parents, Alex's favourite television show isn't a cartoon series, prime time drama, or funny sitcom.  He enjoys watching 'Wall $treet Week'.  And instead of comic books and mystery novels, he has a subscription to 'The Wall Street Journal'.  Even his music tastes are pretty much old-fashioned, as he enjoys music from the big band and swing era (though he secretly likes rock music as well).

So, you'd think that with Alex having a completely different political affiliation and belief system as the rest of his family, that he would be completely opposed to spending time with them, and that he would often get into terrible fights with them every single episode.

I certainly won't lie to you, there were some instances in which Alex has clashed with his family a number of times.  In the very first episode of the series, Alex clashed with Steven when he wanted to go on a date with a woman...which happened to take place at an elitist, restricted country club.  In another episode, Alex actually impersonates Steven in order to play the stock market, but ends up losing quite a bit of money in a really bad deal.

And, it's hard to forget the whole Scrabble scandal when Alex claimed that "uushnu" was a word after Steven played the word "zoquo".  Steven claimed that zoquo was a water sport, and Alex claimed that the word uushnu was a term for drying off.

Hence the phrase, "After I zoquo, I like to uushnu."

(Of course, according to Jennifer, Alex would always hoard all the U's so that nobody could use the letter Q...)

Even when Alex's little brother Andrew (Brian Bonsall) wasn't immune to Alex's greedy nature, with Alex even launching a protest against the preschool Andrew attended because of their values, which included sharing and cooperation!

So, some ways, Alex could be stuck-up, selfish, and looked out only for himself.

But in so many other ways, Alex proved that he could put his own needs aside to be there for his family.  And, yes, I have lots of examples of this.

Take the 1988 episode 'Heartstrings' when Steven ended up suffering a heart attack in the Keaton living room.  Naturally everyone in the family was worried about him, but Alex was right there with the rest of his family, keeping them calm, and surrounding them with love.  And, I think Alex realized that he really needed the support of his family during what must have been a very scary time.  Fortunately, Steven pulled through, and all was well.

Then there was the time in which Alex decided to take on a job at the mall during the Christmas season.  He dressed up as Santa Claus, and at first, he isn't exactly enjoying it.  But after meeting a young girl named Michelle, who only wants her father to come home for Christmas, Alex is visibly moved.  Here's a little clip of the show for you to watch, to see what I mean.

Alex also had some instances in which he was forced to re-evaluate everything that he had believed in, and where one event made Alex question everything about himself.  In the 1987 episode, 'A, My Name Is Alex', Alex had to deal with the after effects of losing his best friend Greg in a car accident.  The Keaton family is devastated by the news, but Alex seemed to be upbeat about it.  It wasn't unusual for Alex to have differing feelings from the family, but even this was weirding everybody out.  It wasn't until later in the episode that we realized that Alex was supposed to be in the car with Greg when it crashed.  Turns out that Greg had asked Alex to help him move, but Alex said he was too busy.  So, when Greg crashed the car and ended up dead as a result, the guilt weighed very heavily on Alex's mind.  He tried to hide it with humour and wisecracks, but when he kept seeing Greg's ghost pop up, encouraging Alex to keep living, he eventually has a full-fledged breakdown, questioning why he was still alive when Greg was dead.

The last part of the episode was structured in a way that was quite creative for a sitcom.  In it, Michael J. Fox as Alex was on a blank soundstage, talking to an off-screen therapist about his thoughts and feelings about Greg's death.  But, it also provided some insight over how Alex got along with his family as well.  I only wish I could post a link to the episode so I could show all of you what I mean, but I can't seem to find a link to it at all.  But, if you wanted to find it, just search for episodes that aired during season five.  It's included in that season.  Some highlights of that episode include the following though;

- Alex explaining that walking into the kitchen when Elyse was there was the equivalent of walking into a hug. It is explained that Elyse was there trying to comfort him when Alex was complaining that Nixon was being set up in the Watergate scandal (which as you know resulted in Nixon's presidency abruptly ending).

- Steven attempting to teach Alex how to play catch in an effort for him to make friends and fit in more.  When Alex keeps dropping the ball, Steven kept reassuring him that as long as he was trying to catch it that it was good enough for him.

- Mallory telling Alex that he shouldn't worry about Greg dying, because she believes that he will be reincarnated just as Shirley MacLaine was, and Alex admitting that he really admired Mallory's simple way of looking at the world.  He had always felt pressure to be the best at everything from teachers, and as a result of this, it effectively isolated him from his peers.

- Alex having a memory of Jennifer breaking a bottle of perfume in her room that Alex bought her, and how the scent of the perfume reminded Alex of the day that he and Greg first met.

By the end of the episode, Alex has come to the conclusion that Greg's death wasn't his fault, and that he resolves to become a better person.  After all, with the visuals that Alex experienced during his therapy session, he realized that his family had a lot of faith in him, and that maybe he should reciprocate that faith back.

Again, it was a lovely episode.  You really should watch it.

I guess one final example of Alex really being there for his family came at the end of one season where Alex ALMOST achieved his dream.  Throughout the first couple of seasons, Alex was an overachieving high school student who was desperate to get into Princeton University.  He worked hard at getting good grades, and he participated in everything he could to pad his application.  He was almost there.  He had gotten the on-campus interview where the dean of admissions would decide whether Alex was Princeton material or not.  And, knowing Alex, he most likely would have been a shoo-in to make it into the school.

The one variable he DIDN'T count on?  Mallory.

You see...Mallory was on her way to surprise her ex-boyfriend Jeff (who happens to attend Princeton), hoping that she may be able to rekindle the relationship.  But when she finds that he has moved on, Mallory realizes that she hasn't, and is broken hearted.  So broken hearted that she actually interrupts Alex's interview!  So now Alex has to make a choice.  Will he stay at the interview while Mallory is clearly distraught, or will he support Mallory through her heartache, knowing that he could very well be walking away from his dream?

Tell you what.  Why not watch the episode here?  It's called Go Tigers.  The first word links to part one, the second to part two!

Now, my goal was to demonstrate how Alex P. Keaton was a lot more well-rounded than people may have given him credit for, and I hope that I succeeded in that.  But, I think that was part of the charm with Michael J. Fox.  He really had the acting ability to really make audiences feel a whole plethora of emotions regarding Alex.  At times he could be obnoxious, but he could be so sensitive as well.  He could be so smart, but make really stupid choices.  He could be cocky, but he could also be vulnerable.  Michael J. Fox did it well.  Alex P. Keaton is still widely considered to be one of the most-loved sitcom characters of the 1980s...and perhaps all time.

Of course, 'Family Ties' was just one of the roles that made Michael J. Fox famous.  As everyone also knows, he starred in the Back To The Future trilogy (which if I do a blog entry on those movies, I'll talk about them then), which catapulted him into super-stardom.  He also appeared in a series of movies during and after filming 'Family Ties'.  Teen Wolf, Doc Hollywood, Greedy, and The American President, to name a few.  He also starred in the sitcom 'Spin City' from 1996-2001, as it was produced by the same people who created 'Family Ties' (and had guest appearances from Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter).  He even took on voice work during this time.  He was the voice of Stuart Little when the popular book's film adaptation was released in 1999, and also held roles in the animated feature Atlantis, and the two Homeward Bound movies.

These days, Michael J. Fox has now taken on a new role.  Health activist.

Although he started showing symptoms of Parkinson's Disease in the early 1990s, it wasn't until 1991 that he was given the official diagnosis.  With the support of his wife, Tracy Pollan (who played one of Alex P. Keaton's love interests on 'Family Ties'), Michael managed to create his own foundation, 'The Michael J. Fox Foundation', which was designed to hopefully find a cure for the debilitating disease.  Although when he first got word of having the disease, he began to drink heavily as a way to try and forget about it, he did seek therapy and with some help, steered away from the alcohol for good.

He kept the the fact that he had the disease a secret until 1998, when he admitted that he had the disease publicly.  By then, the tremors associated with the disease became too noticeable for him to keep it quiet.  But, Michael J. Fox has done so much in raising awareness for Parkinson's Disease, as well as really trying his hardest to find a cure for the disease.

I suppose in some way, I could probably picture Alex P. Keaton doing exactly the same thing if he was in the same position.

After all...both Michael J. Fox and Alex P. Keaton are both two very strong people.

1 comment:

  1. I'm 14 years old and watch Family Ties every day on T.V. I guess that's how you tell the great shows from the good ones. Their pure entertainment is timeless.