BY DAVID DALEY
The Hartford Courant
Visit Parkinson.org, the official Web site for the National Parkinson Foundation, and you'll find two stories highlighted on the front page with equal prominence.
One is about a new experimental drug that may slow down, or even prevent, nerve cell death in the brains of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's patients. The other announces that Dick Clark will host the foundation's International Gala for Hope this March, honoring Pax TV and Home Shopping Network founder Lowell "Bud" Paxson.
Even when it comes to fighting disease, celebrity sells.
When "Spin City" star Michael J. Fox announced recently that he would leave the hit ABC sitcom at the end of this season, he said he wanted to devote less time to the strains of a weekly TV series and more time to battling Parkinson's disease. Fox, 38, revealed in 1998 that he suffers from the as-yet-incurable disease, a chronic neurological condition that can cause tremors, limb stiffness and balance problems.
Fox will lend his name and fame to the fight against Parkinson's, joining the litany of celebrities who've gone public with their own afflictions in order to humanize an illness, raise money for research and hijack their media spotlight for a good cause.
In recent months alone, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf has testified before Congress about prostate cancer, talk-show host Montel Williams disclosed he has multiple sclerosis, 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole became a national spokesman for erectile dysfunction, and Nancy Reagan discussed the pain of her husband's Alzheimer's. Christopher Reeve provided updates on his struggle with paralysis at the National Press Club, Morton Downey Jr. took his anti-smoking crusade to "Larry King Live" and Jerry Lewis ran another record-breaking telethon for muscular dystrophy.
"It helps on all diseases," said Larry Hoffheimer, who runs the National Parkinson Foundation's Washington office and has coordinated Capitol Hill visits by celebrity Parkinson's patients such as Fox and Muhammad Ali.
"Celebrities have traditionally brought public attention to issues they've been concerned with. With regard to National Institutes of Health funding, Michael J. Fox was very influential and moving when he testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee," Hoffheimer said. "Does it help? Yes, it does. For whatever reason, people are moved by the stories of people they respect." Often they're moved to open their wallets or the public purse strings.
"We believe him. We see him every week. He's like family. The more familiar people are to us, the more we will intuitively see them as someone we can trust," said Mark Bennett, author of "How to Live a Sitcom Life" (TV Books, 1999).
Reeve's urgings helped convince President Clinton and Congress to appropriate more than $50 million for research into spinal cord issues. The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation actually merged with the American Paralysis Association last year, and Reeve has helped raise millions of dollars from both average Americans and at gala fund-raisers.
"Can a celebrity invoke a cure? No, but it can't hurt," said Adrian Havill, who wrote the bestselling 1996 biography "Man of Steel: The Career and Courage of Christopher Reeve." "So you get actors to come and testify when funding is needed for a certain disease. The media knows it shouldn't be used. But if it's a good cause -- and if there's something in it for them -- they will happily let themselves be used." Indeed, there's always something in it for the media. "Larry King loves to land an interview like Fox or Reeve. There's a bargain struck," Havill said. "He's using his power for good. He's single-handedly responsible for raising millions of dollars. But it's a two-way street. When Reeve directed "In the Gloaming,' he made the interview rounds and spent half the time talking about his movie and half the time talking about the progress he's making and about what is still needed.
"He gets to campaign on an issue he cares about, and he gets to keep his name in front of the public. Someone like Morton Downey Jr., that's become a way to get himself publicity." And Hollywood can be just that cynical, said Burt Kearns, who had a front-row seat to watch the machinations of big stars and the publicity machine as the executive producer of both "A Current Affair" and "Hard Copy." The story about Fox and Parkinson's, Kearns said, was broken by the tabloids during the early '90s and then continually denied by Fox's publicists until they couldn't deny it anymore. Then they carefully spun the announcement in a soft-tinted People magazine cover in December 1998.
"That's the story of the '90s with the rise of the Hollywood PR companies. They've got to control a story like this in the context of their client's career," Kearns said. "There's a pattern here. The tabloids disclose it and the celebrities deny it until there's no choice but to come forward. Then they try to wrap their own spin around it, sometimes to promote a project or protect an image. They manage it the way they want to so the actor can be a spokesman, not a victim." The audience, of course, doesn't want to see Fox or any favorite as a victim, and that helps make him an even more effective spokesman.
"It's sad that his health problem has caused him to change the way he lives his life. But we'll believe what he has to tell us now, perhaps even more than we believe our president," Bennett said.
And while that might help the cause, it's not necessarily good for science.
"Anybody well-known to the community commands attention whether they're talking about something that falls under their authority and expertise or not," said Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health.
Ross is an expert at debunking celebrity pseudo-science. Often, Ross said, the public and the media fall for stories with no scientific basis simply because there's a celebrity at a news conference.
"There are real dangers for the public if they believe somebody because
he's a great actor. Even scientists with expertise in their particular
field aren't qualified to testify on anything outside of them," Ross said.
"It's one thing when a celebrity gets on a soapbox. The public has a right
to hear pseudo-science. But understand that a great actor does not make
a great scientist."