There’s so much about “Back to the Future” that has made it an indelible piece of pop culture. It spawned two sequels, including one that actually went into the future (which in 2021 is now technically the past). When you think of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, the first characters you might think of are Marty McFly and Doc Brown. With a movie as complicated as “Back to the Future,” though, there are facts that may have slipped through the cracks. That’s especially true when the behind-the-scenes circumstances of the films are just as complicated as time travel. Hop in your DeLorean and get ready for some “Back to the Future” trivia!
Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had worked together on the 1980 comedy “Used Cars.” Not long after that, Gale was looking through his father’s old yearbook and began to wonder if he would have been friends with his dad had they known each other as kids back then. This sparked the idea of time traveling to the past and meeting your parents, the kernel at the center of “Back to the Future”
“Back to the Future” is now considered an iconic movie. It’s one of the most-popular films ever. That doesn’t mean it was smooth sailing. Zemeckis and Gale had their screenplay rejected over 40 times, including multiple times by the same studio.
There were many concerns about “Back to the Future,” but part of the problem was that Zemeckis was not a superstar director at this point. The aforementioned “Used Cars” was a bit of a flop. Zemeckis’ good friend and mentor Steven Spielberg (ever heard of him?) suggested that Zemeckis just take on a work-for-hire gig to show he could direct a successful movie. He signed on to direct “Romancing the Stone,” it was a hit, and suddenly it became easier to get “Back to the Future” made.
Zemeckis and Gale wanted to call their movie “Back to the Future.” Sid Sheinberg, an executive at Universal, had a different idea. He wanted to call the film “Space Man from Pluto,” which has nothing to do with the plot. Fortunately, Spielberg stepped in and helped Zemeckis keep the title we know and love.
Zemeckis wanted Michael J. Fox to play Marty McFly from the beginning. He was already a star on television thanks to “Family Ties,” where he played Alex P. Keaton. However, the television show had him under contract, and worried about losing shooting time with Fox. In fact, producer Gary Michael Goldberg did not even give Fox the script for “Back to the Future.” A lot of actors ended up reading for the role, including notable names like Johnny Depp and Ben Stiller.
In the end, it was Eric Stoltz who got the role of Marty McFly. He wasn’t just cast. They filmed a large chunk of the movie with Stoltz as Marty. It wasn’t really working out, though. Stoltz was a dramatic actor and a method actor. It was causing problems on set. Zemeckis still wanted Fox. The producers of “Back to the Future” and “Family Ties” were able to work out a deal that allowed Fox to take the role of Marty. Stoltz was fired after 34 days of filming.
Marty McFly wasn’t the only actor recast. The original choice for Jennifer, Marty’s girlfriend, was Melora Hardin. You may know her now as Jan from “The Office.” When Stoltz was replaced with the 5’5’’ Fox, there were concerns about Hardin being considerably taller than her new onscreen beau. Hardin was replaced by Claudia Wells.
The first time traveler in the movie is not Doc Brown, but his dog Einstein. However, Einstein was almost not in the movie. In the script, Doc had a chimp called Shemp, but Sheinberg said films with chimps never do well. He may have been wrong about “Space Man from Pluto,” but this was a good decision.
Fox really wanted to star in “Back to the Future,” and the effort he showed to make it happen is proof of that. He began filming the movie in January when he was still shooting “Family Ties” as well. Fox would film his hit sitcom during the day and then head over to the set to shoot “Back to the Future.” Often he would be filming through the night and then work on “Family Ties” the next day. That continued through April, when “Family Ties” wrapped.
Zemeckis and crew decided they wanted Huey Lewis and the News to be Marty’s favorite band, and also wanted Lewis to produce an original song for the film. Lewis was hesitant, because he didn’t want to simply write a song called “Back to the Future.” Luckily, he didn’t have to. Lewis submitted his new song “The Power of Love,” which proved a huge hit. He then added “Back in Time” for good measure. You can also catch Lewis in the film as a judge at the Battle of the Bands competition.
The DeLorean in “Back to the Future” is now iconic. We basically only remember the car with the gull-wing doors because of the film. It almost was not the choice for the time machine, though. Originally it was supposed to be a stationary device. A refrigerator was considered, but the worry was that kids would climb into fridges and get stuck. A Ford Mustang was briefly bandied about before landing on a different car, though. The rest is history.
All the work and rejection proved worth it for Zemeckis and Gale. “Back to the Future” debuted as the number-one film at the box office and held onto that spot for three weeks. It fell to second for its fourth weekend, but then good word of mouth got it back to number one for eight more weeks. By the end of 1985 it had made over $380 million, making it the highest-grossing film of the year.
“Back to the Future” was up for four Academy Awards. While it lost for Best Original Song, Best Sound, and Best Original Screenplay, it won for Best Sound Effects Editing.
The huge success of “Back to the Future” led to two motion-picture sequels and then also a cartoon in the ‘90s. That cartoon is mostly about Doc Brown and his kids Jules and Verne going on adventures. There is also the famed “Back to the Future” ride that was at Universal Studios for many years before it was replaced by the “Simpsons” ride. It was joined, inexplicably, by a restaurant called Doc Brown’s Fried Chicken.
Not everybody returned for “Back to the Future Part II.” Claudia Wells declined to return due to personal reasons, as her mom was dealing with an illness. That led to her being replaced by Elizabeth Shue. Crispin Glover did not return either as George McFly, Marty's father, because, well, Crispin Glover is kind of a weird dude. To replace Glover, they used old footage of Glover from the first movie and also cast a new actor to play him in an obfuscated way, trying to hide the fact it was not Glover. Glover was not happy about this, and filed a lawsuit saying the studio did not own the rights to his likeness. While the case was settled out of court, this led to clauses for personality rights in Screen Actors Guild contracts going forward.
Thomas Wilson plays Biff, and also “Mad Dog” Tannen, across the three films. Obviously, over the years a lot of people have come up to Wilson wanted to talk about “Back to the Future.” Eventually, this became exasperating, and Wilson started to print up cards he could hand out to people with answers to frequently asked questions about his experience.
Marty may be a musician, but Fox is not. While he learned to play “Johnny B. Goode” for the movie, he didn’t do his own singing. Instead the musician Mark Campbell provided Fox’s singing voice. He was not credited to maintain the illusion, but received a percentage of the soundtrack revenue for compensation for his anonymity.
“Back to the Future” ends with a cliffhanger, and on the VHS release of the movie they even throw “To be continued…” onto the end of the movie. However, Zemeckis and Gale weren’t actually setting up a sequel. They just thought it was a fun way to end a film. In fact, they have pointed out that, had the sequels actually been in the plans, they would have had Jennifer get in the DeLorean with Marty and Doc as well.
You may know Zane from “Titanic” or his cameo as himself in “Zoolander.” His debut came in “Back to the Future,” though, where he played Match, a member of Biff’s crew in 1955.
Have you watched “Back to the Future” countless times. Whenever it is on TV, do you find yourself tuning in. Well you are in good company. Lloyd, who played Doc Brown, has said that whenever he catches “Back to the Future” on television he ends up watching it for a while.
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