When Michael J. Fox woke up one morning in 1990 and told his wife Tracy that his little finger was shaking she said it was the side-effect of a hangover. "I guess you're right," Fox said and went back to sleep...
But the shaking finger didn't go away. It got worse. Six months later, the shaking had spread up the arm to the shoulder and Michael and Tracy went to see a specialist who diagnosed Parkinson's Disease, an incurable degenerative disease normally associated with old age. Michael J. Fox, one of Hollywood's most charismatic stars, was just 29 years old.
His 1986 movie Back To The Future, the highest-grossing picture of the year, in which he played a 17-year-old time-traveller, had made him a millionaire. He and Tracy — who had been his on-screen girlfriend in the TV sitcom Family Ties — and their two children, lived in style in a Hollywood mansion. Everything was perfect. And now this.
I'm not going to let this thing spoil our lives, Michael told Tracy and swore her to secrecy. "I don't want anyone to know. Will you promise me that? I'll know when it can't be a secret any more. Tracy promised. She kept the heartbreaking secret for seven long years. Put on medication which disguised most of his symptoms, Michael J. Fox went back to work and for seven years filmed the TV sitcom Spin City in front of a live audience without anyone being any the wiser.
He was in denial, Tracy remembered. "He developed tricks to disguise his condition, anchoring himself to the furniture, sitting on his hands and hiding behind props. Once he got so frustrated he punched a hole in his dressing-room wall. It was heartbreaking."
It was in 2000 that Michael Fox finally admitted in public that he was a victim of Parkinson's. He told his five-year-old twins that his brain worked differently to most people's and that he was going to write a book. Is it about you being shaky, dad, one asked. They soon got used to me being different, Michael told a friend. "But what it's doing to Tracy I dread to think. It had all started so differently. Michael would remember. "Although we worked together on Family Ties we didn't date or anything because we were both with other people.
"Then two years later we were again working together on the movie Bright Lights, Big City and I asked if she had a boyfriend and she said they had split. I said 'Let's have lunch' and by the time the movie was finished we were more or less together. We married a few months later."
When we married, that was it. We were in love then and we are now and we planned to stay married whatever happened — but we couldn't possibly have imagined what would happen. From the beginning the couple were publicity-shy. They kept out of the spotlight and were seldom seen at Hollywood shindigs.
It was a privacy that enabled us to weather the serious storms ahead, Michael said. If we'd always been in the gossip-columns we wouldn't have kept my illness secret for seven years. For Tracy being married to a Parkinson's sufferer was a painful learning process. It was hard to predict when the medication would kick in. If the drugs hadn't taken effect, Michael would be seized by tremors and stiffness. When they had. they could cause what Michael called "rocking, dipping and diving." He told a friend: "I never quite know what's going to happen each day and nor does Tracy. "No one should have to do what she does but she is always calm, loving and uncomplaining. I am married to a saint. As the disease progressed, he continued to work, starring in such movies as The American President, opposite Michael Douglas and Tim Burton's sci-fi comedy Mars Attacks.
Tracy remembered: "We'd go to the studio together and he was still keeping his illness secret. I would try to delay filming while Michael lay on his dressing-room floor, rolling around and waiting for his medication to kick in." Today, after 25 years of marriage Tracy and Michael Fox are devoted and deeply in love. Still surprisingly active, Michael runs a foundation campaigning for more research into Parkinson's disease and presses for more government help for victims.
But they still have time for each other. "Michael's always so sweet," Tracy says. "He took me to Paris for our silver wedding anniversary . It was a wonderful surprise."
"I look at Tracy sometimes and have two feelings, Michael Fox said recently. "One is that she becomes more beautiful every second and, more important, I look at her and say to myself: 'Damn, you were smart, boy. You certainly made the right choice!'"