Great Scott!: Back to the Future Hit Screens 35 Years Ago

The classic sci-fi comedy is still full of surprises.

An illustration of a Delorien car, like the one from back to the future.

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Some films catch lightning in a bottle; this one caught lightning with a clock tower. Thirty-five years ago, Back to the Future shrugged off troubled early filming (which led to the lead actor being replaced) and went on to become one of the most beloved comedies of all time. It was a massive hit, launching a franchise that included two sequels, an animated series, theme park rides, comic books, video games, and a stage musical while inspiring other shows like Rick and Morty. In honor of the 88 mph that Doc Brown’s DeLorean needs to achieve to time travel, here are eight things about Back to the Future that might have been erased from your memory.

1. Starring … Eric Stoltz?

When shooting commenced on Back to the Future in November 1984, Marty McFly was played by Eric Stoltz. The acclaimed young actor, known in the 1980s for such films as Mask and Some Kind of Wonderful, took the job because Michael J. Fox’s Family Ties commitments kept him tied up. That situation was exacerbated by the fact that Fox’s TV mom, Meredith Baxter Birney, was on maternity leave, necessitating more time in front of the cameras from the rest of the cast. However, a few weeks into filming Back to the Future, director Robert Zemeckis felt that Stoltz, while turning in fine work, was playing the comedic part too dramatically. Stoltz also had misgivings about his own casting, and he agreed to depart the project. Zemeckis went back to NBC, and the producers agreed to a situation whereby Fox could make the film while continuing to work on Family Ties; this meant that Fox spent many weeks filming scenes for the sitcom during the day and shooting the movie at night.

2. Huey Lewis Is Judgmental

The video for “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & the News. (Uploaded to YouTube by hueylewisofficial)

During the early scene where Marty’s band, The Pinheads, auditions for the battle of the bands, the nerdy bespectacled judge is played by musician Huey Lewis. Huey Lewis & the News contributed two songs to the film’s soundtrack, “The Power of Love” and “Back in Time;” in fact, a more metal, distorted version of “Love” is Marty’s audition song. “Love” became the band’s first No. 1 on the Hot 100 and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

3. The DeLorean: The Punchline That Time Forgot

The Back to the Future DeLorean
The famous DeLorean car from Back to the Future (Dan Jamieson / Shutterstock.com)

Zemeckis and his BTTF co-writer and producer Bob Gale chose to make the time machine from a DeLorean as because its already futuristic appearance would sell the joke of the car being mistaken for a UFO. The car functioned as a secondary punchline at the time because the DeLorean Motor Company had gone bankrupt a couple of years earlier, and its founder, John DeLorean, had been acquitted in a high-profile drug trafficking trial less than a year before the film opened. During the run of the film in theaters, DeLorean was indicted on fraud and tax evasion charges related to his company’s bankruptcy, but he was acquitted in those cases as well.

4. The Town Square Was Shot ’50s First

Zemeckis shot BTTF’s Hill Valley Town Square scenes on the backlot at Universal Studios. All of the 1950s scenes were shot first, with the set dressed for the period and painted to have a shiny, new quality. When those scenes were wrapped, the set was redressed in a more run-down, ramshackle appearance to capture the decline of the town for the 1980s scenes.

5. Chuck Berry Was Already a Hitmaker

The “Johnny B. Goode” scene from Back to the Future. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips)

The film gives the comedic impression that Marty McFly helped invent rock-’n’-roll and ignite Chuck Berry’s career when he plays “Johnny B. Goode” during the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance on November 12, 1955. The truth is that Berry already had a hit with “Maybelline ” earlier that year; with song sold a million copies. In fact, though it wasn’t released until 1958, Berry wrote “Johnny B. Goode” in 1955 as well; the opening riff on that tune was, well, swiped from Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman .” Mark Campbell of Jack Mack and the Heart Attack provided Fox’s singing voice in the scene.

6. Biff Seems a Little Bit Familiar (Especially in Part 2)

Thomas F. Wilson played uber-bully Biff Tannen in different incarnations in Back to the Future and its two sequels. However, the adult millionaire Biff from the darker, altered future in the second film was based directly on a real, very familiar person. In an interview with The Daily Beast , Gale was asked about similarities between Biff and the 1980s public persona of a certain current president. Gale said, “We thought about it when we made the movie! Are you kidding? You watch Part II again and there’s a scene where Marty confronts Biff in his office and there’s a huge portrait of Biff on the wall behind Biff, and there’s one moment where Biff kind of stands up and he takes exactly the same pose as the portrait? Yeah.”

7. Stoltz Wasn’t The Only Actor Switched in the Series

It’s not entirely uncommon for parts to be recast as a series of films unfolds. However, the BTTF films had two other significant roles recast for completely different reasons. Crispin Glover memorably played George McFly in the first film, but couldn’t reach an agreement about a contract for the sequels. Actor Jeffrey Weissman was brought in as George, but make-up and other techniques were used to suggest a resemblance to Glover. Footage of Glover from the first film was repurposed in the second. Glover filed suit on the grounds that the producers used his likeness without permission. The case changed the way the Screen Actors Guild negotiates, with contracts now including sections that bar filmmakers from faking a likeness or resemblance without permission or compensation.

The other significant change was the role of Marty’s girlfriend and eventual wife, Jennifer. Claudia Wells played her in the first movie. Unfortunately, Wells’s mother was diagnosed with cancer ahead of the back-to-back shooting of the sequels. She declined the part so she could be available for her family. Elisabeth Shue signed on and played Jennifer in II and III.

8. BTTF Directly Inspired Rick and Morty

The extremely popular Adult Swim animated series Rick and Morty owes its existence to Back to the Future. The show was created by Justin Roiland (who voices both leads) and Dan Harmon (creator of Community). Harmon also co-founded Channel 101, a monthly nonprofit festival for short films; they pair met at an installment and later collaborated on The Real Animated Adventures of Doc and Mharti, a filthy parody of Doc Brown and Marty. When Adult Swim approached Harmon about creating a show for them, Roiland suggested that they take their Doc and Mharti dynamic and repurpose it, dubbing the new versions Rick and Morty. An in-joke in the series is that while they frequently hop between dimensions and alternate reality, Rick often comments that he refuses to do time travel.

Featured image: Thiago Melo / Shutterstock

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