Claudia Wells has been a familiar face to generations of film fans thanks to her appearance as Jennifer Parker, girlfriend of Michael J Fox’s Marty McFly in Back to the Future. To date, however, the 1985 classic has been Wells’ only major film appearance, and the actress noticeably did not return for the sci-fi comedy’s two sequels.

Wells was replaced in Back to the Future Parts II and III after she made the decision in 1986 to step away from acting to care for her ailing mother. Elisabeth Shue would replace Wells in the role of Jennifer Parker, while Wells would not return to acting until 2008. Wells never completely left Hollywood behind, however.

Born July 5, 1966, Claudia Wells had an unusual start to life. At the time of her birth, her American parents were living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, because her father was an expert in tropical diseases, working on a local project. After a two-year stay in the country, the couple returned to the USA with their seven-week-old baby in tow.

Raised in San Francisco and then Los Angeles, Wells made her screen acting debut aged 12 with a role on TV drama Family. More TV roles followed, including Herbie the Love Bug and Fame, before Wells landed the audition for what would prove to be her first movie: Back to the Future.

Fans of the 1985 classic will probably be aware that the film (and its sequels) have a chequered past when it comes to casting. Famously, Michael J Fox was always the first choice for the role of Marty McFly, but he was forced to drop out because of his commitment to TV show Family Ties. Because of this, Eric Stoltz was initially cast as Marty instead.

Claudia Wells (left) on sitcom Off the Rack

Although she landed the role of Jennifer, Claudia Wells was soon met with a similar problem to Fox: a prior commitment to a TV role. She had starred in a pilot episode for a comedy series, Off the Rack, for which a series was commissioned. This clashed with the production schedule for Back to the Future, so Wells was forced to withdraw from the film.

For this reason, Melora Hardin (later best known for the American remake of comedy series The Office) was cast as Jennifer instead. As it turned out, however, Hardin’s work for Back to the Future never went further than a photo shoot with her would-be screen boyfriend Eric Stoltz. Five weeks into production, Stoltz was fired for failing to deliver the funny performance the filmmakers wanted.

A deal was rapidly worked out for Michael J Fox to take the role, but this presented a problem regarding the Jennifer actress. At 5’5″, Melora Hardin was taller than the 5’4″ Fox, and (reportedly after surveying female members of the production’s staff) the filmmakers concluded that Marty McFly couldn’t be shorter than his own girlfriend.

Eric Stoltz with Melora Hardin (left), and Clauda Wells with Michael J Fox (right)

As a result, Hardin – who never shot any scenes for Back to the Future – was out, and Wells (who stands 5’3½”) was in, having by that time completed her work on Off the Rack. (The sitcom was later cancelled after seven episodes.)

Wells was 18 when she shot her scenes for Back to the Future, alongside the 23-year-old Michael J Fox. After a troubled production, the movie finally came out on July 3, 1985, two days before Wells’ 19th birthday.

Back to the Future was a massive success, making nearly $400 million at the box office. While more major movie roles followed for Fox, Wells returned to television, most notably appearing in Fast Times, a short-lived 1986 sitcom based on the 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Things took a turn for the serious, however, when Wells was involved in a car accident aged 20. The actress recalls, “my car was absolutely smashed: it was a head-on collision, and I was smashed in both the front and the back.” It wasn’t until around 30 years later that Wells began to feel the long-term effects of this, which led to her undergoing spinal surgery.

By 1988, not long after director Robert Zemeckis completed work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, ambitious plans were in place for two Back to the Future sequels to be filmed back to back. Offers soon went out to all the original film’s principal cast members to reprise their roles, Wells included. Unfortunately, life got in the way, and Wells would be nowhere to be seen in the sequels.

Before the Back to the Future sequels began production, Wells was caught in a family tragedy. Her mother, who was also her manager, was diagnosed with cancer. Doing her last acting work in 1986, Wells made the difficult decision to put her career on hold, and wouldn’t be tempted back by the Back to the Future sequels. She would care for her mother until she sadly died of the disease.

As a result, Elisabeth Shue (then best known for The Karate Kid, Adventures in Babysitting and Cocktail) took over as Jennifer in the Back to the Future sequels. The filmmakers even recreated the closing scene of the first film shot-for-shot, with Shue re-shooting Wells’ role alongside Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

Wells wasn’t the only original Back to the Future star to miss out on the sequels. George McFly actor Crispin Glover also declined to appear after a bitter contractual dispute with the producers. (Controversially, rather than replacing Glover with another actor as they did with Wells and Shue, the filmmakers instead tried to pass off an impersonator as Glover, which prompted the actor to successfully sue.)

Wells has no regrets about her decision to quit the Back to the Future sequels. “My mother had fourth-stage lymphoma,” the actress explained to the Huffington Post in 2015. “I had so much happening personally that deep down, I never considered reprising my role and deep in my soul, I knew [quitting acting] was the right choice for me.”

Credit: Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images

After stepping away from the entertainment industry, Wells moved into a different line of work: clothing retail. In 1991 she opened her own store in Los Angeles, Armani Wells, a resale outlet specialising in designer suits and men’s clothing.

The official Armani Wells site declares that Wells is ‘known for dressing the most stylish men in Los Angeles,’ and promotional images show that her clientele include Mike Tyson and Eric Estrada.

Credit: Armani Wells

Eventually, Claudia Wells give acting another go. In 2008, 23 years after Back to the Future, she finally made her second movie, appearing alongside Ian Hart in the independently produced drama Still Waters Burn. She has since taken further roles in a number of other low budget movies.

Through it all, Wells’ association with Back to the Future has endured. Happily, the actress eventually got to play Jennifer Parker again, voicing the character in the 2011 video game Back to the Future: The Game. Christopher Lloyd and Michael J Fox also lent their voices to this game, making it a reunion of sorts.

To this day, Back to the Future fans stand by Wells. In 2019, a petition was started for Wells to take over Elisabeth Shue’s Karate Kid role of Ali in TV series Cobra Kai, in order to ‘restore balance to the 1980s cosmic force.’ (This did not come to pass, and Shue reprised her role on Cobra Kai in 2021.)

Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Today, Wells is a single mother with one son named Sebastian, and she has never been married. “I always tell people I am an old-fashioned girl who lives a very modern and independent lifestyle,” she told The Lady In Red in 2015.

“I’m self-sufficient because I haven’t married for any reason, and won’t, other than, wanting to be madly in love with my husband, and having a partnership.”