Fox’s first feature film roles were Midnight Madness (1980) and Class of 1984 (1982), credited in both as Michael Fox. Shortly afterward, he began playing “Young Republican” Alex P. Keaton in the show Family Ties, which aired on NBC for seven seasons from 1982–89. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon in April 2014, Fox stated he negotiated the role at a payphone at Pioneer Chicken. He received the role only after Matthew Broderick was unavailable. Family Ties had been sold to the television network using the pitch “Hip parents, square kids”, with the parents originally intended to be the main characters. However, the positive reaction to Fox’s performance led to his character becoming the focus of the show following the fourth episode. At its peak, the audience for Family Ties drew one-third of America’s households every week. Fox won three Emmy awards for Family Ties in 1986, 1987, and 1988. He won a Golden Globe Award in 1989. Brandon Tartikoff, one of the show’s producers, felt that Fox was too short in relation to the actors playing his parents, and tried to have him replaced. Tartikoff reportedly said that “this is not the kind of face you’ll ever find on a lunchbox.” After his later successes, Fox presented Tartikoff with a custom-made lunchbox with the inscription “To Brandon: This is for you to put your crow in. Love and Kisses, Michael J.” Tartikoff kept the lunchbox in his office for the rest of his NBC career. When Fox left the television series Spin City in 2000, his final episodes made numerous allusions to Family Ties: Michael Gross (who played Alex’s father Steven) portrays Mike Flaherty’s (Fox’s character’s) therapist, and there is a reference to an off-screen character named “Mallory”. Also, when Flaherty becomes an environmental lobbyist in Washington, D.C., he meets a conservative senator from Ohio named Alex P. Keaton, and in one episode Meredith Baxter played Mike’s mother. As a result of working on Family Ties, as well as his acting in Teen Wolf and Back to the Future, Fox became a teen idol. The VH1 television series The Greatest later named him among their “50 Greatest Teen Idols.”
In January 1985, Fox was cast to replace Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly, a teenager who is accidentally sent back in time from 1985 to 1955 in Back to the Future. Director Robert Zemeckis originally wanted Fox to play Marty, but Gary David Goldberg the creator of Family Ties, which Fox was working on at the time, refused to allow Zemeckis even to approach Fox as he felt that as Meredith Baxter was on maternity leave at the time, Fox’s character Alex Keaton was needed to carry the show in her absence. Eric Stoltz was cast and was already filming Back to the Future, but Zemeckis felt that Stoltz was not giving the right type of performance for the humor involved. Zemeckis quickly replaced Stoltz with Fox, whose schedule was now more open with the return of Meredith Baxter. He was considered for the role of Mark Kendall in Once Bitten, but it eventually went to Jim Carrey. During filming, Fox rehearsed for Family Ties from 10 a.m to 6 p.m, then rushed to the Back to the Future set where he would rehearse and shoot until 2:30 a.m. This schedule lasted for two full months. Back to the Future was both a commercial and critical success. The film spent 8 consecutive weekends as the number-one grossing movie at the US box office in 1985, and eventually earned a worldwide total of $381.11 million. Variety applauded the performances, opining that Fox and his co-star Christopher Lloyd imbued Marty and Doc Brown’s friendship with a quality reminiscent of King Arthur and Merlin. The film was followed by two successful sequels, Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1990). During and immediately after the Back to the Future trilogy, Fox starred in Teen Wolf (1985), Light of Day (1987), The Secret of My Success (1987), Bright Lights, Big City (1988), and Casualties of War (1989). In The Secret of My Success, Fox played a recent graduate from Kansas State University who moves to New York City, where he has to deal with the ups and downs of the business world. The film was successful at the box office, grossing $110 million worldwide. Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun Times wrote; “Fox provides a fairly desperate center for the film. It could not have been much fun for him to follow the movie’s arbitrary shifts of mood, from sitcom to slapstick, from sex farce to boardroom brawls.” In Bright Lights, Big City, Fox played a fact-checker for a New York magazine, who spends his nights partying with alcohol and drugs. The film received mixed reviews, with Hal Hinson in The Washington Post criticizing Fox by claiming that “he was the wrong actor for the job”. Meanwhile, Roger Ebert praised the actor’s performance: “Fox is very good in the central role (he has a long drunken monologue that is the best thing he has ever done in a movie)”. During the shooting of Bright Lights, Big City, Fox co-starred again with Tracy Pollan, his on-screen girlfriend from Family Ties. Fox then starred in Casualties of War, a dark and violent war drama about the Vietnam War, alongside Sean Penn. Casualties of War was not a major box office hit, but Fox, playing a private serving in Vietnam, was praised for his performance. Don Willmott wrote: “Fox, only one year beyond his Family Ties sitcom silliness, rises to the challenges of acting as the film’s moral voice and sharing scenes with the always intimidating Penn.” In 1991, he starred in Doc Hollywood, a romantic comedy about a talented medical doctor who decides to become a plastic surgeon. While moving from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, he winds up as a doctor in a small southern town in South Carolina. Michael Caton-Jones, from Time Out, described Fox in the film as “at his frenetic best”. The Hard Way was also released in 1991, with Fox playing an undercover actor learning from police officer James Woods. After being privately diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 and being cautioned he had “ten good working years left”, Fox hastily signed a three-film contract, appearing in For Love or Money (1993), Life With Mikey (1993), and Greedy (1994). The mid-1990s saw Fox play smaller supporting roles in The American President (1995) and Mars Attacks! (1996). His last major film role was in The Frighteners (1996), directed by Peter Jackson. The Frighteners tells the story of Frank Bannister (Fox), an architect who develops psychic abilities allowing him to see, hear, and communicate with ghosts. After losing his wife, he uses his new abilities by cheating customers out of money for his “ghost hunting” business. However, a mass murderer comes back from Hell, prompting Frank to investigate the supernatural presence. Fox’s performance received critical praise, Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times wrote; “The film’s actors are equally pleasing. Both Fox, in his most successful starring role in some time, and [Trini] Alvarado, who looks rather like Andie MacDowell here, have no difficulty getting into the manic spirit of things.” He voiced the American Bulldog Chance in Disney’s live-action film Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and its sequel Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco, the titular character in Stuart Little and its two sequels Stuart Little 2 and Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild, and Milo Thatch in Disney’s animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Spin City ran from 1996 to 2002 on American television network ABC. The show was based on a fictional local government running New York City, originally starring Fox as Mike Flaherty, a Fordham Law School graduate serving as the Deputy Mayor of New York. Fox won an Emmy award for Spin City in 2000, three Golden Globe Awards in 1998, 1999, and 2000, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards in 1999 and 2000. During the third season of Spin City, Fox made the announcement to the cast and crew of the show that he had Parkinson’s disease. During the fourth season, he announced his retirement from the show. He announced that he planned to continue to act and would make guest appearances on Spin City (he made three more appearances on the show during the final season). After leaving the show, he was replaced by Charlie Sheen, who portrayed the character Charlie Crawford. In 2004, Fox guest starred in two episodes of the comedy-drama Scrubs as Dr. Kevin Casey, a surgeon with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. The series was created by Spin City creator Bill Lawrence. In 2006, he appeared in four episodes of Boston Legal as a lung cancer patient. The producers brought him back in a recurring role for season three, beginning with the season premiere. Fox was nominated for an Emmy Award for best guest appearance. In 2009, Fox appeared in five episodes of the television series Rescue Me which earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series. Starting in 2010, Fox played a recurring role in the US drama The Good Wife as crafty attorney Louis Canning and earned Emmy nominations for three consecutive years. In 2011, Fox was featured as himself in the eighth season of the Larry David vehicle, Curb Your Enthusiasm. David’s character (also himself) becomes a temporary resident of the New York City apartment building that Fox resides in and a conflict arises between the two, whereby David believes that Fox is using his condition (Parkinson’s disease) as a manipulative tool. Fox returned in 2017 for a brief appearance, referencing his prior time on the show. On August 20, 2012, NBC announced The Michael J. Fox Show, loosely based on Fox’s life. Fox starred in the show. It was granted a 22-episode commitment from the network and premiered on NBC on September 26, 2013. The show was taken off the air after 15 episodes and was later cancelled. Fox has made several appearances in other media. At the 2010 Winter Olympics closing ceremony in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, he delivered comedy monologues, along with William Shatner and Catherine O’Hara, in the “I am Canadian” part of the show. Despite a sound-alike, A.J. Locascio, voicing his character of Marty McFly in the 2011 Back to the Future episodic adventure game, Fox lent his likeness to the in-game version of Marty alongside Christopher Lloyd. Fox made a special guest appearance in the final episode of the series as an elder version of Marty, as well as his great-grandfather Willie McFly. In 2018, Fox was cast in the recurring role of Ethan West on the second season of the ABC political drama Designated Survivor. Fox appeared in five episodes of the show. His character was described as “a Washington attorney with significant connections and a history of great success”who was hired to investigate whether the president of the United States was fit to continue in his position. Fox’s memoir, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, was released in November 2020. In the memoir, Fox stated that he was once again retiring from acting. He noted that “‘not being able to speak reliably is a game-breaker for an actor'” and added that he was experiencing memory loss. Fox wrote: “‘There is a time for everything, and my time of putting in a 12-hour workday, and memorizing seven pages of dialogue, is best behind me … I enter a second retirement. That could change, because everything changes. But if this is the end of my acting career, so be it.'”