Fox made some all-but-forgotten movies before 'Family Ties' made him an overnight star in 1982, but his film career proper really lasted just 11 years or so, from 1985 to 1996. He found his signature role in his first major movie ('Back to the Future'), then spent the next decade trying both to outgrow his teen creation and to live up to its success. He stretched a lot as an actor, trying dark, dramatic roles that fans of his sunny teen characters weren't really interested in, before settling into an easy groove as light-comic heroes who might be grown-up versions of Alex or Marty, had they encountered some tough breaks along the path to success.
The light-comic nature of Fox's best-loved roles, along with the glow of hindsight cast by his heroic battle against his illness, has made Fox's characters seem universally cheerful and upbeat, almost weightless -- and therefore, easy to dismiss. That would be a mistake, however, for two reasons. One is that there actually is a dark edge, an undercurrent of desperation and anxiety that runs throughout his work. Two, even the frothy comedy he's done is extraordinarily difficult to pull off. It takes fast footwork and a delicate touch to keep that desperate edge while maintaining a boyish charm.
Here's a look back at how Fox managed that balance in his most memorable movie roles, as well as some that were unjustly overlooked.
The Origins of Marty McFly
A key to understanding Fox's career is recognizing his love of movie history. That extends even to his stage name; forced to modify his given name because there was already a Michael Fox on the Screen Actors Guild rolls, he added a J. in homage to character actor Michael J. Pollard. But his chief idol was James Cagney, another small, scrappy, fast-talking, quick-dodging, boyishly-grinning leading man. Early in his career, Fox received some encouragement from the legendary star, and he had long hoped to star in a Cagney biopic, but the project fell through.
Watch Fox in the 'Back to the Future' movies again, and it's easy to imagine a young Cagney as Marty. Fox is a fluid blur of motion, practically dancing his way out of danger as he skateboards through town, fast-talking his way out of scrapes. The two great overarching jokes of the franchise are that a) Marty, an underachiever from a family of underachievers, finds himself the coolest guy in town when he travels into the past, and b) the Oedipal dilemma of having displaced his father and attracted the sexual attention of his mother, a situation he must remedy in order not to negate his entire existence. That Fox is able to play this skeevy series of events without seeming creepy is the reason the films work; imagine if the filmmakers hadn't fired the original Marty, Eric Stoltz, another subtle actor whom the filmmakers nonetheless found too intense. It's even more miraculous that he was able to run through the same scenarios three times, with slight variations, and still keep it fresh and funny each time.
The same year as the first 'BTTF,' Fox also appeared in 'Teen Wolf.' Another actor might have played up the horror connotations of a boy transformed by puberty into an especially hairy jock, but Fox again blunted any darker tones and played the dilemma strictly for laughs. (Even the new MTV version is darker than Fox's, though if his hadn't been memorable, there never would have been a TV remake.)
Fox did try to go darker and more dramatic in his next several roles, as a hard-luck rocker in 'Light of Day,' as an aspiring New York writer on a cocaine bender in 'Bright Lights, Big City' and as a Vietnam War soldier who refuses to participate in a gang rape in 'Casualties of War.' Fans rejected Fox as miscast or out of his depth in these roles, but he actually acquits himself in all three. Particularly in 'Bright Lights,' where you wouldn't be able to accept his druggy desperation and dark-night-of-the-soul descent if he didn't maintain his likability.
Star Roles in the 1990s
Still, after 'Casualties,' Fox backed away from the dark side, never to return. He seemed to have accepted the judgment of his fan base, so he gave them what they wanted, while still managing to move out of teen and young adult roles into parts as real grown-ups. In 1991, the year he turned 30, he parodied the life of a pampered Hollywood star in action comedy 'The Hard Way,' and he embarked on the romantic-comedy leading man phase of his career with 'Doc Hollywood,' as a selfish plastic surgeon who falls in love with a small-town gal and small-town life.
Fox had actually tried romantic comedy before, with 1987's 'The Secret of My Success,' a sex farce disguised as a yuppie satire. The role, in which he played a mailroom clerk posing as an executive made the most of his quicksilver ability to pivot on a dime, while the sex farce plot found him seduced by an aunt-by-marriage (shades of 'Back to the Future's' borderline-incest plot), but he still seemed like a kid playing dress-up. In his early '90s comedies, however, he finally seemed like a grown-up man with grown-up problems.
Still, Fox failed to connect with audiences in his two underrated 1993 comedies. In 'Life With Mikey,' he played a former child star (not a stretch for the 'Family Ties' alum) who, as a talent agent for kids, matches wits with a pint-size actress who's as good a con artist as he is. For all its showbiz in-jokes, its a surprisingly edgy piece about a man hounded by failure and wasted potential; it's like a Disney version of 'Broadway Danny Rose.' The other, 'For Love or Money,' features Fox as a hotel concierge whose efforts at sweet-talking a mogul into bankrolling his dream hotel collapse when he falls for the mogul's mistress. It's also a surprisingly sharp and pointed piece, in which a Fox character is finally called to account for all his scheming and scamming. Fox is never less than sympathetic in either role, but it's no wonder audiences found both movies too glum.
Bitterest of all, perhaps, was 1994's dark comedy 'Greedy,' in which Fox starred as the only member of his extended clan who is principled enough not to debase himself in order to suck up to his family's wealthy, manipulative patriarch (a sly Kirk Douglas), only to learn that he's no better than his relatives because he, too, has a price. With no likable characters, it's no wonder this bleak farce didn't do well.
With his leading-man career flailing, Fox was smart to settle into a groove as a character actor in supporting roles. He aced his brief turn as an idealistic White House aide in 1995's 'The American President' and scored laughs as an ill-fated TV newsman in Tim Burton's all-star 'Mars Attacks!' (1996). His last on-screen leading role was in Peter Jackson's 'The Frighteners,' playing another con artist, one who can wheedle and plead with both the living and the dead. Though it was full of the visionary touches and special-effects set pieces that Jackson would become known for as director of the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, the 1996 horror-comedy was too tonally strange for many viewers, and Fox's typically protean performance was overlooked.
Fox had also begun a parallel career in voiceover roles in kids' movies, playing a bulldog in the two 'Homeward Bound' movies. As his return to TV in 'Spin City' (from 1996 to 2000) and his struggle with Parkinson's (he was diagnosed with it in 1991 but didn't go public about it until 1998) sidelined him from movies, he returned to the big screen only in voiceover roles. He played a typically mousy Fox underdog hero in 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' and an actual mouse in the 'Stuart Little' movies.
Michael J. Fox Today
These kiddie roles brought him back full circle to the boyish appeal that first made him famous, even as he was playing cranky, troubled middle-agers on his occasional TV guest spots on such shows as 'Boston Legal,' 'Rescue Me' and 'The Good Wife.' It'll be interesting to see him as Larry David's irritable neighbor on the upcoming season of HBO's 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' a show that requires of its actors quick-wittedness, subtle humor, and a bit of a dark edge. It should be right up Fox's alley.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.