As a highly successful television and movie actor, Michael J. Fox has played many different characters with varying dispositions during a career the spans more than 30 years, but he has avoided playing the results of having been diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease 20 years ago.
"Don't play the results" is the motto the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning actor shared Wednesday with a packed crowd in Alumni Arena on the University at Buffalo's North Campus as the People's Choice lecturer in UB's 25th annual Distinguished Speakers Series.
Fox cultivated his motto from an axiom he had been taught as a young actor.
"If you have a character who's going to end up in a certain place, don't play that until you get there. Play each scene and each beat as it comes. And that's what you do in life: You don't play the result," Fox said.
"The script of your life is not yet written," he added.
A highly regarded and popular actor since his breakthrough role as the Alex P. Keaton on the 1980s sitcom "Family Ties," Fox went on to star in a series of successful films, including the "Back to the Future" trilogy, the comedic science-fiction adventures in which he played Marty McFly.
"The question that I'm asked most often is, 'Where can I get a hoverboard,' " Fox said, referring to the fictional flying skateboard used for personal transportation in the last two "Back to the Future" films.
" 'Back to the Future' was a very important part of my life, but not for the reason you think," the actor said.
It was during the filming of the third film in the trilogy that the Canadian-born Fox first noticed a persistent tremor in his pinky that he initially attributed to a hangover.
Eventually he was forced to see a medical specialist and received a diagnosis of young-onset Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system in which there is a loss of dopamine-producing cells in the brain, the cause of which is not yet known. The result, over time, is severe impairment of motor skills in those diagnosed with Parkinson's; Fox has been able to control that impairment through medication.
Fox, who turned 50 this year, was only 29 when he received the diagnosis.
"Since the doctor had told me I had only 10 years left to work I was taking every job, I think, kind of blindly," he said.
The actor's career has, of course, lasted well beyond his physician's projection, and Fox went on to star in the TV sitcom "Spin City" from 1996 to 2000, voice the animated character Stuart Little in three films of the same name and appear as a guest star in numerous television series.
After going public with his disease in 1998, Fox created the Michael J. Fox Foundation to advance research for a cure for Parkinson's.
Fox has been married to actress Tracy Pollan, whom he met on the set of "Family Ties," for 23 years. The couple have an adult son and twin 16-year-old daughters.