Michael J. FoxMichael J. Fox turns 50 today, but he remains, like Marty McFly, trapped in time. He still looks boyish, and to watch him as a wily lawyer in recent guest spots on CBS's 'The Good Wife' is to be reminded of the two 1980s teenage roles for which he'll always be remembered: glib high school overachiever Alex P. Keaton on NBC's 'Family Ties,' and resourceful, time-traveling high schooler Marty McFly in the 'Back to the Future' trilogy. The struggle against Parkinson's disease that cut short his film career and has made his TV acting appearances increasingly rare has also preserved him in amber -- as moviegoers, we never had to watch him age.

Fox made some all-but-forgotten movies before 'Family Ties' made him an overnight star in 1982, but his film career proper really lasted just 11 years or so, from 1985 to 1996. He found his signature role in his first major movie ('Back to the Future'), then spent the next decade trying both to outgrow his teen creation and to live up to its success. He stretched a lot as an actor, trying dark, dramatic roles that fans of his sunny teen characters weren't really interested in, before settling into an easy groove as light-comic heroes who might be grown-up versions of Alex or Marty, had they encountered some tough breaks along the path to success.

The light-comic nature of Fox's best-loved roles, along with the glow of hindsight cast by his heroic battle against his illness, has made Fox's characters seem universally cheerful and upbeat, almost weightless -- and therefore, easy to dismiss. That would be a mistake, however, for two reasons. One is that there actually is a dark edge, an undercurrent of desperation and anxiety that runs throughout his work. Two, even the frothy comedy he's done is extraordinarily difficult to pull off. It takes fast footwork and a delicate touch to keep that desperate edge while maintaining a boyish charm.

Here's a look back at how Fox managed that balance in his most memorable movie roles, as well as some that were unjustly overlooked.
categories Features