WASHINGTON — Washington -- Possibly in some dank and musty Canadian attic corner, under a scrap of mossy velvet, there leans a portrait of a once beautiful young man, now hopelessly corrupted by age, his skin a sea-floor of fissure and faults, his eyes rheumy and vacant, his chin displaying a turkey-like bouquet of wattles underneath it. It would have to be called . . . "The Portrait of Michael J. Fox."
But in the flesh, no whisper of the grave attaches itself to Fox, who is, after all, a complete grown-up at 32. He looks easily 22, however, still cuddly and perky, a crackly, lively sprite of youth and enthusiasm, eyes as clear as a Wisconsin lake, flesh as taut and rosy as a Heisman Trophy winner's, hair thicker than the oil the Valdez spilled.
Yet now and then . . . a shadow, like a cloud sliding across the sun, may be seen flicking across his eyes. Though he's nominally come to a Washington hotel to chat up his new film "For Love or Money," sometimes it seems his heart isn't truly in it. Can it be this eternally youthful man is feeling just the merest tremors of mortality, has begun to understand that golden lads and lasses must, as chimney sweeps, turn to dust?
Again and again the topic of the great wheel of life comes up.
"I had a hard year," he says. "I lost my father, I had a son. It gets you to thinking."
And Fox will concede that his last two films were, in some sense, haunted projects.
In "The Hard Way," he played a vain and silly actor trying to locate a sense of reality by hanging out with a tough New York street cop, and in "Life With Mikey" an ex-child star trying to scrabble out a living at the outer precincts of show biz by hustling other kid acts.
" 'Life With Mikey,'" he says, "was like a ghost out of Dickens, acknowledging what can be. I do notice stuff like that and I have seen a lot of kids go that way. And 'The Hard Way' was a caustic look at the elements of fame, and how it isolates you."
He pauses and grimaces.
"Oh, and both were great successes!" he says with bold irony. "Last time I go on the couch in a movie!"
Youth and its peculiarities have always had peculiar poignancy for Fox. It is his very youthfulness that set him off on his career.
A Canadian, he was living in Vancouver, the fourth of five children, just beginning to act. Since Vancouver's performance culture was small, he soon found he was getting half the parts on TV and in ads that called for teen-agers.
"The other half went to a blond kid, a friend of mine. There were so few actors, we had the market cornered. You wanted a blond, you went to him; you wanted a darker kid, you came to me."
But then an American TV movie came to the city, and it needed a teen-ager -- a dark one, fortunately.
"So I got the part, and after it was over, literally three people -- the director, the casting director and the producer -- came to me and said exactly the same thing: 'We never do this, but we have to tell you -- if you go to L.A., you will work.' "
The reason wasn't merely his talent -- it was that his almost freakish youthfulness meant that he could play kids much younger than he was. At 17, he was exempt from the excessively complex and costly matrix of child labor laws that govern the use of child actors in California. Thus, if he could play 15, he had a natural advantage over a 15-year-old in that hiring him was much more cost-effective.
"I got my first part in a weekend," he recalls.
Shortly thereafter came "Family Ties," which made him famous and probably wealthy.
"I got the whole enchilada at once. I went from student poverty to tremendous luxury."
And then of course, almost by accident -- another actor was fired -- he got the part in "Back to the Future."
"I have a I'm-happy-to-be-here mentality. I was happy to be on TV. I never planned on film. I never picked a character on basis of age. One matures in spite of one's best efforts."
And that gets at another difficult aspect of Fox's life: that he's had to grow up on screen, and try to bridge the gap from his teen pictures to roles as an adult.
"The key is not to think about it. There's all kinds of sides to this. When you make the transition, it's smoothest if it's not forced or plotted out."
Thus, for a time, he picked almost randomly, without conscious attention to image: a working-class rock musician in "Light of Day," a Vietnam grunt in "Casualties of War" ("I love that I made it," he says).
Now, after a year off ("Nothing could move me out of the beach chair," he says) he's returned with three movies in a row, all of them comic, which will almost certainly be his niche.
"Having worked with Garry Goldberg [on "Family Ties"] was a crash course at Komedy Kollege. In my mind I even used to spell it that way, with the K's. You can use comedy to sneak up on things, real dilemmas, personal progress. That's what it's about if you do your job well, and it looks effortless.
"I'm not a trained dramatic actor. To do it, I have to get to the big issues. I couldn't carry one of those things where I stand on a roof with an M-16 and order the other cops to get the sniper. What challenges me is a guy in a predicament I can connect with."
Which leads, of course, to "For Love or Money," in which he plays a hotel concierge trying to woo a powerful businessman into investing in his scheme for a new hotel while falling in love with the man's mistress.
"For some reason I was fascinated with the character -- he was catalytic, had a lot of drive. That's what attracted me. He is slick, smooth. He has the ability to do something considered but appearing spontaneous. There was a lot of energy. But most interesting moments are the calm, quiet ones."
Asked if that's the true him, he says, "I wish. A lot of times when I see the movies, I think, damn, I wish I was like that! I wish I could always think of what to say and had those great clothes and so forth."
L But he says the true Michael J. Fox has never been revealed.
"In a sense, my sense of humor has never been expressed. It's been really great but I'm lucky: I'm an Irish Canadian kid who has an ear for Judeo-American comedy rhythms. I even do them when I'm home. 'Mom, what's with the phone you're still on?' -- that sort of thing. But that's someone else's humor and style."
Now, at last, he's found a way to express himself. Working with two writers from "The Simpsons," he's developing a script he will direct.
It's about someone getting old. Turning 30.