There have been a lot of famous last words spoken throughout history. John Lennon’s aunt famously told him, “A guitar is nice, but you’ll never make a living with it.” Neville Chamberlain waved the Munich Pact and declared “Peace in our time.” The Titanic was called “unsinkable.”
Then there’s this little gem: “I’m telling you, this is not the kind of face you’ll ever see on a lunchbox.”
Those words were spoken about Michael J. Fox. It might seem funny now, because few actors from today are as iconic as he is. I knew guys at school who wanted to be Michael J. Fox in the worst way, and would do their best to strike a Fox-worthy pose in their class pictures. Their wannabe-ness is hardly shocking. Michael J. Fox was (and is) a hero to a lot of people, although he’d be the first one to tell them otherwise. His early successes were like a duck paddling on a pond. Everything looks calm on the surface, while down below is a different story.
Fox started acting professionally in high school, appearing onstage in his hometown of Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia. The ironic thing was, while he thrived as a paid actor, he was failing his drama classes at school. Halfway through his senior year, Fox dropped out and came to Los Angeles, living in a postage stamp of a studio apartment. Seriously, the place was so tiny that the only sink was in the bathroom, making dishwashing an ordeal. His kitchen doubled as a closet and vice versa. Fox didn’t even have a phone–he gave out the number of a pay phone at a Pioneer Chicken as his. It didn’t matter, though. The seventeen-year old Fox was a young man on his own in LA and loving it.
At first, like everyone who tries to make it in Hollywood, Fox started slow–commercials, guest appearances, bit parts. His big breakthrough was, of course, as Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties, a role that he narrowly won. NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff, while enthusiastic about Fox’s acting, hesitated to cast him because of his height. Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross are both tall, while Fox is half an inch under five-feet-five inches, and Tartikoff thought the height difference would hurt the show. Gary David Goldberg, the creator and producer of Family Ties, stuck to his guns.
In Lucky Man, Fox said this about the first episode:
The night we taped the pilot was an unqualified triumph. The audience’s appreciation was deafening, and it was obvious and especially gratifying, given my recent tribulations, that I was being singled out for my performance…NBC loved the pilot, ordering thirteen episodes for the fall season. (Lucky Man, pg. 81)
Even so, Tartikoff still tried to get rid of Fox, but Goldberg now had audience and studio approval on his side. That’s when Tartikoff uttered those improbable last words: “This is not the kind of face you’ll ever see on a lunchbox.”
Goldberg’s rebuttal was simply, “Look, all I know is this–I send the kid out with two jokes and he brings me back five laughs.”
Alex P. Keaton was a unique fellow. He suited up decades before Barney Stinson, not because he was trying to attract the ladies, but because it was the eighties and the yuppie was king. And queen, for that matter. I remember that whenever I watched Family Ties, my eye always went to Fox even when he was surrounded by the rest of the cast. Besides the fact that he was cute, it felt as though the other actors were there supporting him instead of the show being a straight ensemble series. Not even Nick was a bigger draw, and that guy didn’t exactly blend into the wallpaper. Fox didn’t dominate every episode; he was definitely one of the group, but he always stuck out. Alex was a well-rounded character–he was both cool and intelligent at a time when many young people in sitcoms tended to be either cool or intelligent.
In the midst of Family Ties came Back To the Future. Literally. When Fox wasn’t shooting one, he was shooting the other. Being an upstart actor, Fox thought he could handle it. Twenty-five years later, he wrote:
Young, ambitious, and convinced of my own invincibility, I laughed in the face of eighteen- and twenty-hour days, undaunted at the prospect of shuttling from Paramount Studios to Universal Studios to location, and back to Paramount again.
Cut to three weeks in, and I had been reduced to a state of functioning dementia…More than once, I referred to Steven Keaton as Doc Brown and panicked before entering the kitchen set on show night when I realized I wasn’t wearing my orange, down-filled vest. (A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Future, pgs. 47-48)
It may have been exhausting, but it did pay off. I first saw Back To the Future during a family trip to, appropriately enough, Vancouver, British Columbia. I was almost ten at the time, and my parents and brother and I were there for Expo ’86. When we watched the movie, I was sitting on a pullout bed with my mom, and I’ll never forget how blown away we all were. The film had layers of suspense. It wasn’t enough to wonder if Marty would get back to 1985; we also had to wonder if he could save Doc from getting shot. Or if Marty’s parents would ever kiss. Or if Doc could keep the cable Marty had to hit plugged in. Or that Marty could start the DeLorean. Or that the bolt of lightning would strike when it was supposed to. It was a roller coaster ride all the way through.
One of the great things about the Fox and Lloyd pairing in the Back To the Future franchise was that they were Straight and Straighter. They didn’t overact the roles or make them too silly, but kept everything sincere. Lloyd played Doc Brown as this eccentric, over-the-top instigator, while Fox was the audience’s in, benefitting (or not) from his buddy’s time-travel scheme and being the fish-out-of-water. That the Back To the Future trilogy matched up two very strong actors who played off each other like Mutt and Jeff made the whole experience more than just a Saturday morning cartoons-type of outing. These two walked a fine line between believing what was happening to them and believing in it too much, which would have made the whole thing rather heavy (Yes, I said it. Marty McFly would be so proud.) Both Family Ties and Back To the Future were, as John Huston once said, casted correctly.
When Back To the Future became a hit, Brandon Tartikoff publicly admitted he had misjudged Fox, recounting his face-offs with Gary David Goldberg over who should have played Alex Keaton. Fox and Tartikoff had become good buddies by then, and Tartikoff was delighted when Fox gave him a custom-made lunchbox, emblazoned with his face and the words, “To Brandon: This is for you to put your crow in. Love and kisses, Michael J. Fox.”
Tartikoff died of brain cancer in 1997. Fox later wrote in Lucky Man, “I’m proud that, however reluctant he may have been at first, he allowed me to come along for the ride. And I am flattered that right up until the last day of his life, he kept my lunchbox on a shelf behind his office desk.”
Tartikoff was glad to be wrong about Michael J. Fox, and the rest of the world is glad, too.
That wraps up my Day Three of the O, Canada Blogathon. Ruth and Kristina have plenty more at their respective blogs. Thanks ladies, for hosting–it was fun visiting our neighbors to the north! And thanks for reading, everyone!
P.S. I’m participating in a surprise blogathon tomorrow. Hope to see you then. 🙂
Fox, Michael J. A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned. New York: Hyperion. 2010
Fox, Michael J. Lucky Man: A Memoir. New York: Hyperion. 2002.