Michael J. Fox & Bonnie Strauss: Turning personal setbacks into public service

Featured image
Jane Pauley talking with Michael J. Fox in 2023 about superstardom, and raising $1.5 billion for Parkinson's research.CBS.

Jane Pauley and Michael J. Fox go back 42 years, she told the room at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research Palm Beach luncheon. Still, he gave his biggest scoop to Barbara Walters!

That’s show biz.

And that’s okay. The love’s still there. So much so, Pauley moved the tape date for her CBS’ “Sunday Morning” show to moderate the program at PB’s Sailfish Club — and gave it her all.

Bonnie and Tom Strauss and Marlene and Martin Silver co-chaired. Committee members included: Louise Armour, Anita Friedman Berman and Russell Berman, Susan and Norman Fixel, David Glickman, Laurie and Peter Grauer, Holly Andersen and Doug Hirsch, Judy and Leonard Lauder, Ellen Levy, Julia and Alec Lindsay, Trish McEvoy, Ann Cook and Charley Moss, Julie and Douglas Ostrover and E. John Rosenwald Jr.

Marlene Silver, Jane Pauley, and Bonnie Strauss.

“Nobody has interviewed Michael more than I have,” Pauley told the room. “And nobody goes back further than I do. But, as I have pointed out to him, when it was really big news, he went to Barbara!” “You’re right,” he acknowledged. “I’m sorry.”

Those kinds of candid stories kept the luncheon flowing. Fox, was her “ideal” interview, said Pauley, “charming, funny, interesting. He always had something to say that would resonate in a meaningful way to the television audience. Yet, sometimes it seemed he was only talking to me.” For example, when he told her his optimism came from “just saying yes.” That hit home. Pauley had overheard one colleague tell another, ‘She always says no.’ I knew who they were talking about,” she told the room. “And it kind of stung. After that interview with Michael, I started saying yes.”

Jane Pauley interviewing Michael J. Fox on Today to promote Family Ties in 1982. NBC.

They met in 1982, during the taping of the pilot for Family Ties, the NBC sitcom where he played the conservative son of hippie parents, Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter. (Fun fact: I was its NBC East Coast publicist.) His ad lib brought laughs she told the room. It was clear he was the break-out star.

She was also there when he first felt the twitch in his pinky finger, interviewing him on the set of Doc Hollywood. “He didn’t know what it was, but he was troubled by it,” she said. “He didn’t tell me about it, but by that time I knew Michael well enough to recognize that he wasn’t himself.”

Jane Pauley and Michael J. Fox walking the halls of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

After lunch, Pauley moderated a panel with Bret Parker, MJFF Patient Council co-chair living with Parkinson’s and Rachel Dolhun, MD, DipABLM, MJFF senior vice president of medical communications.

I was seated with Dolhun and Pauley. And there we were, asking the doctor about whatever little ailments were troubling us at the moment. Rachel took it in stride. Then, got to the topic at hand. Exercise is so important she told us. We get that, we replied, but, where do we get the motivation?

Jane Pauley, Bret Parker, and Dr. Rachel Dolhun in conversation after lunch.

Seriously, though, physical activity IS the key deterrent for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

People who do exercise are 60% less likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Rachel told me. “And it’s the only thing we have that can potentially slow the progression of the disease. It eases both movement and non-movement symptoms and helps with brain function. We are working on multiple therapies and clinical trials right now to slow the progression. But, we don’t have that today.” During the panel, we learned Bret Parker, living with Parkinson’s is a marathon runner, and doing great.

Bret Parker running the NYC Marathon. In 2018, Brett decided to tackle the World Marathon Challenge — seven marathons, on seven continents, over seven straight days!

The MJFF is also making great strides. Last April one of their studies identified a Parkinson biomarker, making them very close to perfecting a test for the disease, finding better treatments and hopefully more. For now, doctors still diagnose Parkinson’s disease from symptoms. “The test we have developed is still only a research not quite a clinical tool,” Rachel explained, “but it’s completely transforming our work.”

Luncheon co-chairs Tom and Bonnie Strauss.

Money raised for dystonia research has also been transformational. Bonnie Strauss, who has lived with dystonia most of her life, was among those spearheading that effort. Dystonia affects 1/3 of Parkinson’s patients. Forty-five years ago, Bonnie was diagnosed with it.

She’s been funding dystonia research ever since, originally through her own foundation, and now, through the MJFF.

Her own story is a testament to that need. For seven years, doctors said her symptoms were psychological! “They said you just had a baby and this is probably traumatic for you,” she told me. “You’re under a lot of stress and that’s why your neck is tilting to the side. Go see a psychiatrist!’” “This has nothing to do with my head!” She insisted.

Luncheon co-chairs Marlene and Martin Silver.

“One day, I was climbing a mountain at the Golden Door in California and a woman said, ‘I think I know what you have.’” So, a woman, whose sister had it, correctly diagnosed Bonnie’s cervical dystonia when seven years of doctors visits had not. “I was so relieved to have an answer,” Bonnie remembers.

“She sent me to Dr. Mitchell Brin and we became close friends. He encouraged me to start my own foundation.” Bonnie did, funding research and medical collaboration across the country. It was a natural fit to fold her philanthropy into the MJFF. Both her mother and grandmother had Parkinson’s.

In 2021, MJFF joined Bonnie and Tom Strauss to launch the Bachmann-Strauss Fellowship in Dystonia Research.

At lunch, Bonnie met a young beneficiary of Dystonia Research. Carrie Siu-Butt, who had the disease since childhood, couldn’t walk or speak until she had an operation to install a Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) device. “Now,” she says, “I’ve run two marathons.”

Carrie Siu-Butt nearing the finish line at the 2018 NYC Marathon.

It’s inspiring: Michael J. Fox and Bonnie Strauss turned personal setbacks into public service.

“Parkinson’s couldn’t have happened to a better person,” Pauley quoted Fox. “‘It’s a gift,’ he says, ‘the gift that keeps on taking.’ That’s classic, Michael J. Fox talk.” Will this huge star be best remembered for “Back to the Future,” or for giving a future to those with Parkinson’s? Thanks to his positivity, charisma and commitment — with a treatment in sight — the latter may be his true legacy.

L. to r.: Ann Cook and Charley Moss; Julia and Alec Lindsay.
Judy Glickman Lauder and David Glickman.
Peter and Laurie Grauer, with Douglas Ostrover.
L. to r.: Susan and Norman Fixel; Ellen Levy and Louise Armour.
Holly Andersen and Fran Weissler.
Debi Brooks and E. John Rosenwald, Jr.

CAPEHART Photography

Recent Posts