Buy Photo

Nancy Kaszerman/

Michael J. Fox in a 2011 photograph

People often assume Michael J. Fox is an expert on time because of his starring role in the "Back to the Future" movie franchise, he told a sold-out crowd of 700 Thursday night at Hoffmann Hospice's 20th annual Voices of Inspiration fundraising dinner.

"I don't know anything about flux capacitors. I don't know anything about gigawatts. But I did figure out a few things about time that Doc Brown didn't," he said.

Fox walked the audience through his childhood growing up as an Army brat in Canada. He had a no-nonsense father who wasn't thrilled about his son's desire to act, but still drove him to Los Angeles when Fox decided to drop out of high school to pursue his career.

It was a slow start. Fox joked that as a starving artist, he once had an apartment with a bad kitchen sink, so he took his dishes in the shower with him.

Fox gave himself three years to make it in Hollywood, and it was at the end of that third year that he landed his break out role as Alex P. Keaton on the NBC sitcom "Family Ties." It was also on that show that he met his wife, actress Tracy Pollan.

Fox said he was amazed how far he'd come three years later when he found himself seated next to Princess Diana at the world premiere of "Back to the Future."

"I was just one fake yawn and a stretch away from being on a date with the Princess of Wales," he quipped.

Incredible success followed, with iconic roles and a happy family life.

Then one morning he woke up and noticed his pinky twitching. He'd hold it down, but when he let go, it started shaking again involuntarily. The first doctor who saw him said there was nothing to worry about. It was some time later before a different doctor diagnosed early onset Parkinson's disease. The good news, the neurologist said, was that Fox probably would be able to work another 10 years.

Fox was crestfallen, he said. He was only 29.

"I was still young and dumb enough to say my work is my life," he said. "So, what, I have 10 years left to live?"

Fox, now 52, said he went through all the stages of grief, and at one point drank heavily to cope with his misery, but his wife stood by him and eventually he had an epiphany.

"As an actor, you're taught not to react to the scene before it happens," he said. "So you don't react to the pie in the face before it hits you."

Fox decided that every moment he spent worrying about what the future held was a moment robbed from the present.

"Time all of the sudden became valuable to me," he said.

Fox decided to back away from movie roles that required heavy travel in favor of "Spin City," a TV show filmed in New York, where his family lived. Health issues forced him to retire four years into the show, exactly 10 years after his diagnosis -- just as the doctor had predicted.

Later that year, in 2000, Fox launched The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, which in the years since has funded more than $450 million in Parkinson's disease research. In his new role as advocate, Fox encourages researchers to meet with Parkinson's patients.

"We're ready to be a force in our own rescue," Fox said.

Last year, Fox came full circle, in a way. The creator of "Family Ties," Gary David Goldberg, died suddenly of cancer. Fox got to spend time with him after Goldberg learned his cancer was inoperable.

Goldberg told Fox that he and his wife had "learned how to bend time" as his final days wound down.

That stayed with Fox.

"Time is what you make it," he said. "It's elastic."