Michael J. Fox was watching CNN with his daughter recently when its The History of Comedy docuseries aired a segment on comedy in the 1980s. That was the decade Mr. Fox became a star – on TV as Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties and in film as Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
"They devoted quite a bit of time to me. She was sitting on the couch next to me and she looked at me and said, 'I had no idea,'" Mr. Fox recalled. "I said, 'You had no idea that I was on television in the '80s?' She said, 'I didn't know people watched it.' I said, 'Yes, I was kind of a big deal there for a while.'"
Mr. Fox recounted the story to The Globe and Mail a few hours after the announcement that he will receive a Governor-General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement this year – Canada's sesquicentennial and the 25th anniversary of the awards.
When he learned he would be receiving the honour, the first call he made was to his mother.
"I said, 'What are you doing in June? Do you want to go to Ottawa?'" Mr. Fox said Thursday. Did she cry? "My mom cries at the opening of an envelope – she's an Irish mother."
Mr. Fox, 55, was born in Edmonton and raised in Burnaby, B.C. He made his debut as a professional actor at 15 on CBC's Leo and Me. At 18, he moved to Los Angeles. When he landed the role on Family Ties, he became a star. He was starring on another hit sitcom, Spin City, when he revealed the stunning news that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease – after living with it privately for seven years. He left the cast to focus on his health and created the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, which bills itself as the world's largest non-profit dedicated to funding the development of drugs and therapies for Parkinson's.
He has won Emmys, Golden Globes and even a Grammy Award. But receiving this kind of recognition from back home gave him a special feeling: "grateful," "honoured" and "humbled" are words he used to describe it.
Fox is a dual citizen but still identifies strongly as a Canadian.
"I became an American citizen … mostly because I had children and I wanted to vote and I wanted to have a say in what's going on, which as you can see is very crucial right now," he said. "But … let's put it in these terms: When I watch hockey and it's Canada against the U.S., it's no question – I'm cheering for Canada. I have the red and white on. And my references are all Canadian and my influences are all Canadian, so I think of myself as Canadian first."
Childhood heroes include Bobby Orr (Mr. Fox still roots for the Boston Bruins) and former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Mr. Fox said he was honoured to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the state dinner in Washington, where he and his wife, Tracy Pollan, sat with the Obamas and the Trudeaus.
"We talked about Back to the Future," Mr. Fox said of his conversation with the Prime Minister. "And we talked about Canada and the goals that he had and has, and it's quite impressive. I can't speak for how it's going at home for him, but certainly from this sense, he seems to be doing a great job and he's a really personable, great guy."
A condition of Thursday's interview was not to ask about U.S. politics, but Mr. Fox went there nonetheless when asked about Canada's model for arts funding.
"Canada is in so many ways a beacon for other countries right now. Canada plays a very important role. Its special qualities, in areas like allowing refugees in and the way they've been greeted and helped, is really amazing. And the arts. There's a reverence for the arts and a special appreciation of the arts that's uniquely Canadian, and I don't see it the same way in other countries."
There was a great Canadian moment at the Academy Awards this year when presenters Seth Rogen and Mr. Fox, both of whom grew up in Metro Vancouver, emerged from a DeLorean. Talk about time machines.
"He's from Kitsilano, I'm from Burnaby," Mr. Fox said. "We did have a moment – not too extended, but just a brief acknowledgment that things were completely whacked out, that we've stepped into other lives somehow. It was an amazing moment. … We were aware of our Canadianness, for sure."
Looking at the characters Mr. Fox is most famous for, they seem, well, rather un-Canadian: Family Ties' young Republican Alex P. Keaton; Spin City's deputy mayor of New York and chief string-puller Mike Flaherty; all-American teenager Marty McFly; even the manipulative, malevolent Louis Canning on The Good Wife.
When asked whether his Canadian upbringing influenced these roles, Mr. Fox (who started and ended the interview saying, "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha") said: "I think it gives me a distance on things. … There's a kind of thread that runs through a lot of Canadian performers who have had success in the States and worldwide, and it's just a simple appreciation for humanity. It's just not mean-spirited. So whenever I approach a role, I think my Canadian sentiment, temperament and disposition come into play because I think I come at things differently."
He said he's enjoying his semi-retirement from acting but will continue to jump at opportunities as they come up.
"I feel great and it hasn't slowed me down and it hasn't interfered with my life with my family and my work experiences to a great degree yet. We're just working away at the foundation for some answers and drug treatments and possibly some cures."
He is heavily involved in the foundation, he said – in touch pretty much daily. "I'm kind of in charge of inspiration and intuition. I don't have the intellect that's necessary to pose these questions and find answers for them, but I can certainly cheerlead and try to gather the best people possible to get the job done. … I'm confident we'll come up with something soon."
Other 2017 Governor-General's Award laureates announced Thursday include SCTV and Saturday Night Live alumnus Martin Short; prolific Québécois film and TV director Jean Beaudin; the artistic director of the National Arts Centre's French Theatre, Brigitte Haentjens; and pioneering First Nations writer, director, filmmaker and actor Yves Sioui Durand, who founded Quebec's first French-language Indigenous theatre company.
The awards will be presented at a gala in Ottawa in June. Mr. Fox will be there along with his wife, sisters – and of course his mother.
"I'm looking forward to being in Canada and seeing Ottawa in June," he said. "This will be fun."