At his foundation’s annual gala at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, high-profile guests like Katie Couric, Julianna Margulies and Willie Geist reflected on the impact of celebrities going public with the disease.
On Saturday night, Michael J. Fox, Julianna Margulies, Katie Couric, George Stephanopoulos and others gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria for the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s annual Funny Thing Happened on The Way to Cure Parkinson’s gala.
Despite this year’s event falling just days after the end of the contentious 2016 presidential campaign, host Tom Papa hoped that he could get the audience to laugh and enjoy themselves.
“It’s kind of been a strange week and I did my first set two nights ago so I’ve already gotten the ‘is this going to be weird?’ out of my system, and you know when people show up at these things, they want a release, they want to enjoy themselves so I’m going to kind of keep that tone and keep it going,” Papa told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Saturday night’s event. “Look, this organization has been around through how many administrations. And that’s the great thing about these kind of events is they just have independent people doing really good stuff and that just doesn’t change.”
Fox, meanwhile, said he was hopeful that the Trump administration would support funding for Parkinson’s research.
“We hope that — whoever the government is — we’re hoping that the NIH funds Parkinson’s research. So we don’t yet know what the environment is going to be with the new administration,” Fox added. “We had support from the Obama administration but that doesn’t directly affect the NIH. It’s kind of agnostic in a way. We hope to get support from the government, whoever they are, and hope the government funds Parkinson’s research.”
Fox also reflected on the 2016 deaths of Muhammad Ali and Janet Reno, both of whom dealt with Parkinson’s disease in the public eye. Fox said both were particularly influential to him in the early days of his foundation.
“Janet Reno I talked to a few times and really was an amazing person,” Fox told THR. “Muhammad Ali was really supportive of us in the beginning. He and [his wife] Lonnie came to events and we did public service announcements together. So they’ve always been important to the foundation. I would say that having people that the public can identify with is really important. You don’t wish anybody to get Parkinson’s so it’s kind of odd. You’re grateful for their support and that they put a face on the disease for people but of course you’re not happy they have it. It’s been a sad year in that regard.”
Fox’s former Good Wife colleague, Julianna Margulies, who regularly attends the Fox Foundation gala, said that knowing people who have Parkinson’s can serve to motivate people to support the cause.
“I think it’s very difficult unless it’s happened to you to get passionate about something so when you know people who are afflicted with [Parkinson’s], you have to act and you have to raise money and awareness and do everything you can for the research,” Margulies told THR.
Sometimes those people with Parkinson’s can be public figures, with Geist whose dad has had Parkinson’s for roughly as long as Fox has, saying that Fox really put a face on the disease.
“I think Michael has done it. For 25 years, people now know what Parkinson’s is, they know what it looks like, they know what it does to people, they know that it’s debilitating, they want to help, because he’s put himself out there,” Geist said. “Your instinct, I think, when you get Parkinson’s is to be a little more self-conscious and pull back a little bit because you don’t want people to wonder about you and think ‘Oh my God, he’s not the same person he used to be.’ But he’s done the exact opposite. He’s put himself out there to the great benefit of so many people with Parkinson’s and put a face on it. And he’s been so brave and courageous and cared about his life and his career and been a great dad and husband and shown that you keep going if you have Parkinson’s.”
Geist, who’s now spending his weekday mornings on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and hosting NBC’s Sunday edition of Today, recently left the third hour of weekday Today when Billy Bush joined the program. But now that Bush has left, in the wake of his involvement in a leaked, lewd conversation from 2005 with Donald Trump, Geist indicated he wouldn’t necessarily be returning to Today’s 9 o’clock hour.
When asked if there had been talks about him returning to the NBC morning show, Geist said, “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I honest to God haven’t had any conversation about it. I do Morning Joe five days a week, which has been a little busy with the presidential election, and the Sunday show, which I’m absolutely loving; we’re able to shape it and mold it and do big long profiles and interviews. Honest to God, I’ve had no conversation about that. I’m pretty happy doing what I’m doing.”
But two other guests at Saturday night’s gala, Susie Essman and Alexandra Wentworth, both had new TV projects in the works. Wentworth is preparing for the debut, on Wednesday, of her new show Nightcap, which takes viewers behind-the-scenes on a late-night show. The actress, who attended with husband and ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, said she drew on some of her own personal experiences backstage at The Tonight Show and on other programs in coming up with ideas for story lines, pointing out that the idea of shooting Michael J. Fox out of a cannon was something that was actually pitched to Fox on a press tour and that she’d seen wild things happen backstage when animals were mingling with actors.
For Essman, she was about to embark on filming the ninth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, saying that she was set to start shooting her scenes on Monday.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “And now I have all new stuff to be angry about that I can sublimate, take it out on co-stars Larry [David] and Jeff [Garlin].”
But Saturday night, Essman, whose brother has Parkinson’s disease, was focused on support.
“It’s a really important thing for us to focus on how we can help one another I think as opposed to all of the divisiveness that’s out there right now,” she said.