Michael J. Fox could tell that the young actor was apparently really struggling with a scene on 'Family Ties.'
Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 4, 2022. It has since been updated.
Michael J. Fox considers kindness to be a very important part of his belief system. That may be why he still remembers one particular incident even after so many years. As part of PEOPLE's cover story, the retired actor talked about his surprise experience with Southern hospitality thanks to the late River Phoenix. River Phoenix tragically passed away at the age of only 23 years in 1993 from overdosing on a combination of drugs. The incident in question happened when Fox, 61, was filming "Doc Hollywood" in a small Florida town in 1991. River Phoenix and his brother, Joaquin Phoenix, used to "scoop" Fox over to their place and have a barbecue for the people filming there. River always included Michael J. Fox and made him feel welcome, just as he had done for the young actor.
"It's funny because that was an act of kindness that was built on an act of kindness," Fox recalls. He's referring to his own act of kindness toward River on the set of Fox's last television project, "Family Ties," which served as the inspiration for River's kind deed. In a previous episode, River made a short appearance on the series. Fox looked at him and could tell that the young actor was apparently really struggling with a scene. Fox said, "He really knew how to be an actor but he was struggling on this one scene."
“River would take us out. He used to come and scoop us up and take us to his place and have a barbecue. It’s funny because that was an act of kindness that was built on an act of kindness. I guess that’s why he was always so nice to me when he became a huge star” — Michael J. Fox pic.twitter.com/c92jcjUtiz— The River Phoenix Gallery (@phoenixsgallery) October 28, 2022
Fox has had a long career, that shot off from "Family Ties," landing him the "Back to the Future" franchise and many unforgettable roles in TV such as "Boston Legal" and "The Good Wife". Fox credits most of this to acts of kindness from people in the industry and maybe this is why he thought of going out there and helping River while he was struggling. So Fox did what he thought would be best for the struggling teenager.
He gave him a nice pep talk, actor to actor. "So I went up to him and I said, 'What's the problem?' And he said, 'I feel like a d---,'" Fox recalls. "And I said, 'You feel like a d---? Why?' He said, 'I feel goofy, I feel like a d---.' And I said, 'Welcome to the business. That's it. That's the highest level of accomplishment you'll get is to feel like a d---.' It's stupid. It's a stupid thing to do for a living."
Fox continued, advising the young actor on how to be an actor. He told him that actors "pretend we're other people for a living," and they "use things that we're not really using and we eat things that we're not really eating." He added, sarcastically that actors have to stand "in a place because the light's better there," calling the movie business "goofy", helping the young actor calm down. "But if you stick with it, you can find a way to tell a story that other people can't," he concluded.
Ultimately, Fox thinks Phoenix was a phenomenal actor at his time. He feels like an act of kindness from his own side propped River to be so nice to him toward the next few years. "I guess that's why he was always so nice to me when he became a huge star," he adds.
Fox, who has battled Parkinson's illness for many years, established The Michael J. Fox Foundation in 2000. Since then, the organization has raised more than $1.5 billion for Parkinson's disease research and treatments. Fox was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2010 and has won countless humanitarian awards for his work. For his efforts in Parkinson's disease research, Fox was recognized by Variety as the philanthropist of the year in 2018.
Fox has talked and written a lot about his tendency to approach difficulties, such as his Parkinson's disease, with laughter and optimism. His message has always been one of thankfulness for the care he has received from other Parkinson's patients as well as inspiration and hope for everyone who decides to take action, no matter how modest, to help progress research with the aim of finding a cure, per his foundation's website.