SCOTT SIMON, host:
Michael J. Fox left high school in British Columbia to become an actor. And when a social studies teacher told him, you're making a big mistake, Fox, you won't be cute forever, Mr. Fox told him...
Mr. MICHAEL J. FOX (Actor): Maybe just long enough, sir. Maybe just long enough.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: That is Michael J. Fox, joining us from New York. And in the commencement season ahead, this man who so proudly calls himself a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks and the University of the Universal has written a small book aimed at graduates to share some lessons from his life - and remind them that education is never over. His book is called "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future."
Michael J. Fox has won Emmys, Golden Globes, People's Choice Awards for his roles in "Family Ties," the "Back to the Future" series of movies, and "Spin City," and of course founded his own foundation for Parkinson's research. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. FOX: My pleasure. Thank you.
SIMON: You have given commencement speeches. Do you ever feel a little awkward about that?
Mr. FOX: I do. I usually open them with: What the hell were you thinking?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FOX: I've always had a bit of an impostor syndrome when it comes to that because I never finished high school, although I - well, I have to correct that. I did get my GED...
Mr. FOX: ...15 years later (unintelligible) my 4-year-old at the time, who's now 20 and a college student.
Mr. FOX: But yeah, I always felt a little, kind of short, coming up short in the education department. But as I've, you know, kind of come to the conclusion we all get an education, and somehow over the years, I managed to get one.
SIMON: Yeah. You thoughtfully break your book down to specific disciplines just - almost as if it's a degree program. Now, for example, the section under economics, you talk about your experience as a young actor in L.A. You were working and successful, but the economics didn't pay off for a while, did they?
Mr. FOX: Yeah, my idea with success, I mean I think it was the first year in Los Angeles, in 1979, '80, I probably made about $50,000, but I spent about $75,000. So that was my first lesson in economics: That doesn't work. I remember being told to do something, and my limited experience didn't prepare me for this idea of withholding. And I thought, oh, I can either pay my taxes now or pay them later. Well, later works. I'm a young man. I'll be - eventually be able to do it.
I didn't really realize that within a few months, they'd be asking for that money. So that was my lesson in economics. It's kind of the idea of when you're an actor, supply and demand means you're the supply and if there's no demand, you're in big trouble.
SIMON: Yeah. And also every dollar you earned, you had to pay almost half of it to other people. I don't mean just the government, either.
Mr. FOX: No. You have agents and accountants, and there's a whole swarm of - kind of a shark, a feeding frenzy that happens around a young actor. You need all kinds of help, which - at least you're convinced you need all kinds of help, and that help doesn't come cheaply.
So - no, I was paying 20 percent to a manager, 10 percent to an agent, 5 percent to an accountant, and 50 percent to the government. So that left just enough for plain wrap macaroni and games to duck the landlord.
SIMON: And you wind up playing Alex Keaton, a young capitalist.
Mr. FOX: Yeah, a young Friedman economics major, yeah. Someone who loved money. It's ironic that now as I'm a fundraiser for a foundation, some of our biggest supporters are people on Wall Street and in the financial industry - hedge fund managers and stuff - that grew up idolizing Alex Keaton. So it's it's come around in this weird, karmic way, that these people that I was satirizing end up being my biggest benefactors.
SIMON: You were appearing in "Family Ties," which became awfully popular, while you were shooting "Back to the Future," which also became awfully popular. But your schedule is almost painful to recall from those days. What do you remember?
Mr. FOX: Yeah, I was shooting them at the same time. The same kind of way the math didn't work on the economics, the math wasn't really working in a temporal sense when I was doing both those projects at once. Because I was working from about 10 to about 5 on "Family Ties," and then from about 6 'til 4 or 5 in the morning on "Back to the Future." So it left very little time to travel to and from my apartment and get sleep.
And I was having - a Teamster would literally pick me up from bed and throw me in the shower and then at the end of the day, reverse the process. Take me and throw me into bed and turn off the lights. And I say in the book, it was kind of this idea that Einstein said that, you know, time is a conspiracy to keep everything from happening at once, so to speak. And that's kind of what was happening. I was trying to make everything happen at once.
And it was only that I was so young and willing and eager and ambitious that I was able to accomplish - to a great, you know, to a great success. The directors and the editors and all that stuff really covered my tracks and made it easy for me.
SIMON: Lest people think that the Teamsters have some kind of wake-up service, we'll explain - they're the union that runs the livery in Hollywood and really, most of the country.
Mr. FOX: Yeah, you can tell their kids at the playground 'cause they're the ones watching everybody else play.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: OK, I want it understood: You're making jokes about Teamsters, I'm not.
Mr. FOX: I have a lot of friends. They'll understand.
SIMON: Mr. Fox, do you learn more from success or disappointment and even failure?
Mr. FOX: I think you learn more from disappointment. But I think that success loses its sheen after a while and you begin to see that there's no such thing as absolute success, that there's always failure and there's always disappointment and there's always loss. But the secret is learning from the loss and realizing that none of those holes are vacuums.
Theyll be filled up. And if you try to fill them up with ego or a kind of immediate gratification, you're going to short-shrift yourself and you're going to lose the opportunity to find out what happens when you give the loss space to fill itself and let life kind of come in and fill the cracks.
SIMON: Yeah. We're speaking with Michael J. Fox. He has a new book out, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future." You do say in the book that youve learned from your illness.
Mr. FOX: Yeah, absolutely. For example, right as I speak to you now, I'm waiting for a pill to kick in, which is not helping me out and not kicking in. And they kind of go on their, their own schedule.
Mr. FOX: And so I have a choice: I can either kind of quit and say, well, you know, this is not ideal, I'm going to give in. Or I can just push through.
The thing about, that Im always trying to explain to people - because so much of the time, actually, my pills are working and Im feeling great. And people say, you look so good and you look so smooth, and I have to remind them and myself that when I am smooth and I am - the medication is working, thats not my natural state.
My natural state is one thats affected by the shortage of dopamine production in my brain. So my natural state is to be halting and at times tremulous and kind of just physically disturbed. I mean, thats my natural state, given the situation in my brain. But Im always as happy either way. And so when it comes to me, body language lies.
SIMON: You talk about your friend and mentor Gary Goldberg, with whom you did "Spin City." And he told you, I guess a while back - not so long ago, that he's learned how to bend time now.
Mr. FOX: Yeah, I had this really nice coffee with him one day, and he talked about being up in Vermont with his wife, Diana. And he's really slowed his output down and is not working as much, by design. And he had said he was talking about this new life he's formed with Diana, and he said exactly that. He said, we found a way to bend time. And I thought that was so sweet.
And I thought, I hope in 10, 15 years that my wife, Tracy, and I will be able to conspire in the same way to make some space for ourselves, and make a life for ourselves outside of the expectations of others and just, you know, enjoy that kind of peace.
SIMON: Mr. Fox, can I ask: Do you think people have expectations of you?
Mr. FOX: It doesnt really matter because I think they may, but Im pretty set on my path, and pretty comfortable with what Im doing. And I have enough experience to know that I seem to be pleasing the people who I most want to please. And when Im not pleasing them, Im learning from their disappointment, and it's pushing me in the right direction.
So I dont burden myself too much with others' expectations - or even my own expectations. I think your happiness grows in direct proportion to your acceptance, and in inverse proportion to your expectations. It's just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other - or doing the next right thing, so to speak.
SIMON: Mr. Fox, I can't thank you enough for speaking for us now.
Mr. FOX: My pleasure. Again, Im sorry that it's so halting. Next time I catch you, maybe the pills will be working. But I've enjoyed the conversation. Thanks.
SIMON: Gosh, it's been an honor to talk to you.
Mr. FOX: Nice to talk to you.
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SIMON: And you can read an excerpt from the new book by Michael J. Fox, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future," and hear more of our conversation with him on our website, NPR.org.
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