Few movies encapsulate the spirit of the 80s quite so perfectly as Back to the Future. The sci-fi comedy blockbuster from director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis is frequently held up as one of the greatest films of the era, if not all time: readers of this website actually voted it the number one movie of the decade.
Rev up the DeLorean and make sure you’ve got enough road to get to 88 miles per hour, as we’re about to go speeding back in time for some facts about a classic sci-fi comedy adventure.
20. Michael J. Fox is older than his on-screen father
As Back to the Future sends Michael J. Fox’s 17-year-old high schooler Marty McFly back in time 30 years to meet his own parents as teenagers, the filmmakers cast actors roughly the same age as their young lead in the parent roles, and applied make-up in the 1985 scenes to make them appear older. In reality, however, actor Michael J. Fox is older than Crispin Glover, who plays his father George in the film.
Fox was born June 9th, 1961, meaning he was almost 24 when Back to the Future went before cameras in late 1984/early 1985. Lea Thompson was born May 31st, 1961, making her just over a week older than her screen son. Meanwhile, Glover was born April 20th, 1964, making him the youngest of the McFly ‘family’ by almost three years.
19. Johnny Depp, John Cusack and Ben Stiller were all contenders to play Marty McFly
As we all know, Michael J. Fox wound up playing Marty McFly, but there were plenty of other young up-and-coming actors in contention for the role. This included a young Johnny Depp before he found fame through TV’s 21 Jump Street, and John Cusack, who soon broke big with movies like Better Off Dead and The Sure Thing.
Ben Stiller and Jon Cryer also auditioned, but the only other actor who really came close to playing Marty McFly was C. Thomas Howell. Known for his roles in E.T., Red Dawn and The Hitcher, Howell was third choice behind Fox and Eric Stoltz.
18. Eric Stoltz was fired after playing Marty for five weeks (and he may still appear in the film)
As most fans of the movie will know, Back to the Future originally started production with a different actor in the lead role of Marty McFly. Michael J. Fox initially had to turn the part down due to his commitment to TV sitcom Family Ties, so the role instead went to Eric Stoltz. However, the filmmakers soon realised Stoltz’s intense, serious approach to the material wasn’t working.
After five weeks of filming with him in the lead, Stoltz was fired, and a deal was worked out with Fox and the makers of Family Ties. All of Marty’s scenes shot up to that point had to be re-shot with the new leading man – but it’s thought that the moment when Marty dives into the DeLorean to evade the Libyan terrorists is a leftover shot of Stoltz.
17. The original Jennifer was also recast following Eric Stoltz’s dismissal
It’s often forgotten that the dismissal of Eric Stoltz also resulted in another actor being fired from Back to the Future: Melora Hardin, who was originally cast to play the role of Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer. The problem was that Hardin was cast in part based on her closeness in stature to Stoltz, who was considerably taller than Fox (5’11” to Fox’s 5’4″).
When Fox replaced Stoltz, Hardin was replaced with Claudia Wells, who was a closer match to Fox in height. Wells would in turn be replaced by Elisabeth Shue in the sequels, whilst years later Hardin would become best known for her role as Jan on US sitcom The Office.
16. Disney turned the film down over concerns about the uncomfortable family romance
Back to the Future had been in development for a few years before it finally made it to screens in 1985. Director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale (also the film’s co-writers) pitched the project to Walt Disney Pictures, who turned it down flat due to the key plot point of Marty inadvertently attracting the romantic interest of his teenage mother back in 1955.
Disney felt this made Back to the Future too dirty – although ironically, other studios initially turned the film down because they didn’t think it was dirty enough, as most teen-oriented movies of the era were more in the vein of Animal House and Porky’s.
15. DeLorean was already out of business when the movie was released
Outside of serious car enthusiasts, the only reason most people are aware of the DMC DeLorean is Back to the Future. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale picked the vehicle for their time machine because of its outlandish space-age appearance. However, by 1985 the car company named after its infamous founder John DeLorean had long since gone bust.
The DMC DeLorean was the only model the company manufactured before filing for bankruptcy in late 1982 in the face of poor sales (not to mention John DeLorean’s dodgy dealings outside the car industry). Today, around 6,500 DeLoreans are known to be in existence, and their association with Back to the Future has made them coveted collectors’ items.
14. The time machine was originally going to be a fridge rather than a car
One of the most iconic details in Back to the Future is the pivotal time machine, built from that DMC DeLorean sports car. However, in the earliest drafts of the Back to the Future screenplay, writers Zemeckis and Gale had something rather different in mind for the film’s temporal transportation device: a refrigerator.
Instead of utilising lightning, the fridge was going to be taken to the Nevada test site to take the brunt of a nuclear blast in order to send Marty home. A variation on this sequence infamously made it to the screen in an entirely different film 22 years later: the notorious ‘nuke the fridge’ scene in 2007’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
13. It got made thanks to Romancing the Stone
One of the main reasons Back to the Future took a long time to get made is that its creators carried very little weight in Hollywood at the beginning of the 80s. Director Zemeckis’ first two features, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, were both flops, and he and Gale had also co-written Steven Spielberg’s disastrous and widely forgotten comedy 1941.
Happily, Zemeckis’ fortunes improved greatly when he was hired by Michael Douglas to direct the 1984 romantic comedy adventure Romancing the Stone. This proved a critical and commercial success, grossing over $115 million off the back of a $10 million budget. This success suddenly made Zemeckis a hot property in Hollywood, and earned a green light for his time-travelling passion project.
12. The film was nearly retitled Space Man from Pluto
Universal studio executive Sid Sheinberg was very concerned about the title Back to the Future, which he felt left “much to be desired.” With this in mind, Sheinberg sent a memo to the filmmakers suggesting they instead call the film Space Man from Pluto. Zemeckis and Gale were aghast, but as relative newbies in Hollywood they were concerned about rebutting the senior studio figure.
Happily, they had the even more powerful Steven Spielberg in their corner, who knew how best to respond. Spielberg wrote back to Sheinberg, “Hi Sid, thanks for your most humorous memo, we all got a big laugh out of it, keep ’em coming.” This reply left Sheinberg so embarrassed that he sent no further notes.
11. Jeff Goldblum and John Lithgow were considered for Doc Brown
Central to the appeal of Back to the Future is the interplay between the two central characters, Marty McFly and Doctor Emmett Brown. Without the everyman charm of Michael J. Fox and the wild eccentricity of Christopher Lloyd, it’s hard to imagine the movie working nearly as well. Of course, other actors were seriously considered for the part of Doc before Lloyd was hired.
Other contenders included Jeff Goldblum, who would later become synonymous with intelligent eccentric roles thanks to The Fly, Jurassic Park and Independence Day. Another was John Lithgow, who would go on to play similarly oddball roles on TV’s Third Rock from the Sun, amongst others.
10. Michael J. Fox carried on shooting Family Ties back to back with Back to the Future
Michael J. Fox had originally been forced to say no to Back to the Future because of his commitment to TV show Family Ties, but Eric Stoltz was dismissed a new schedule was worked out that would allow Fox to work on both at the same time. Any young actor would doubtless envy Fox’s good fortune – but no one in the right mind would envy his workload.
Fox worked on the sitcom and the movie back-to-back with virtually no rest for over three months. Most days he would work be picked up at 9.30am, work on Family Ties until 5pm, then from 6pm until dawn he would be shooting Back to the Future. Throughout, Fox rarely slept for more than a few hours at a time.
9. Eddie Van Halen recorded new music especially for the Walkman scene
One of the quirkiest moments in Back to the Future comes when Marty, disguised in his radiation suit, ‘tortures’ his future father George with 1980s guitar music on a Walkman. The scene’s humour hinges on the not unreasonable notion that the speed and volume of 80s-style guitar solos would sound like it came from another planet to someone from the 1950s.
However, some 80s rock fans may have pondered why the tape we see Marty insert into the Walkman is marked ‘Edward Van Halen.’ It is indeed the music of Van Halen’s eponymous lead guitarist, but it wasn’t a pre-existing recording and it has never been made available. The late guitarist told TMZ in 2012 that he was “just playing a bunch of noise.”
8. Ronald Reagan loved the movie so much he quoted it in a presidential address
Back to the Future features a number of references to Ronald Reagan – President of the United States in Marty McFly’s time, but a Hollywood actor back in 1955. On seeing the movie, Reagan is said to have loved it, and he would famously go on to directly quote its dialogue in a 1986 State of the Union speech.
The President repeated Doc Brown’s climactic line, “Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” This wasn’t the only time Reagan quoted popular movies of the day; in another presidential speech, he used a popular one-liner from the Dirty Harry movie Sudden Impact: “Go ahead, make my day.”
7. Doc’s pet was originally going to be a chimp
Viewers will remember the Doc’s dog Einstein, who becomes the very first time traveler as the passenger in the DeLorean which the Doc has on a remote control. However, in early drafts of the script Doc was originally going to have a rather more exotic pet: a chimpanzee named Shemp (presumably in honour of one of the Three Stooges).
However, this was vehemently opposed by Universal executive Sid Sheinberg, who claimed that films featuring apes never made money. The irony is, Back to the Future arrived only a few years after Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way but Loose and its sequel Any Which Way You Can, two of of Eastwood’s biggest hits, in which his co-star is an orangutan.
6. Power of Love singer Huey Lewis cameos in the film as a teacher
Almost as iconic as the film itself is Back to the Future’s unforgettable theme song, The Power of Love. Not to be confused with two other 80s hits of the same name (by Jennifer Rush and Frankie Goes to Hollywood), this particular song is written and performed by Huey Lewis and the News, who also provide another track prominently featured in the movie, the aptly-named Back in Time.
Did you know that vocalist Huey Lewis actually appears in the movie, in the scene featuring Marty’s high school dance audition? In a humorous touch, Lewis is the teacher who rejects Marty’s band The Pinheads as “too darn loud” – despite the fact that they’re playing a rendition of Lewis’ own song!
5. Marty’s guitar didn’t exist in 1955
One of the most memorable moments in the movie sees Marty playing lead guitar and vocal on a rendition of Johnny B. Goode at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in 1955. The joke of this scene is that Chuck Berry didn’t write and record that song until 1958, and it’s suggested that the rock’n’roll legend ‘stole’ his sound from Marty.
The fact that Marty plays a song three years before it was written isn’t the only anachronism in the scene. Marty is playing what would become Chuck Berry’s signature guitar: a cherry red Gibson ES-345. However, like the song itself, the ES-345 wasn’t released by Gibson until 1958.
4. That isn’t Michael J. Fox singing Johnny B. Goode
Fans of Michael J. Fox know that the actor is indeed a guitarist in real life, hence his playing in the Johnny B. Goode scene looks so believable. However, it isn’t really Fox’s guitar playing or vocals that we hear in that iconic scene. The guitar in the sequence was actually performed by professional musician Tim May, though Fox trained to match May’s finger-work as precisely as possible.
Marty’s singing voice, meanwhile, was provided by Mark Campbell, who went uncredited to further the illusion that Fox was singing himself. Two years later, Fox did his own guitar playing and singing in the 1987 movie Light of Day, in which he starred opposite rock legend Joan Jett.
3. The ending was never meant to set up any sequels
For many who saw the film on release, Back to the Future’s final scene felt like an amazing cliffhanger ending, as Doc, Marty and Jennifer head to the future in a now-flying DeLorean. This sets the scene for 1989’s Back to the Future Part II, so it’s easy to assume that was always the plan.
However, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale have long since admitted that they hadn’t originally planned to make a sequel, and simply thought the flying DeLorean would be a cool image to end on. Audience expectation and studio demand prompted them to get their thinking caps on, leading the filmmakers to shoot not one but two sequels back-to-back.
2. The first shot subtly foreshadows the climax
The central theme of time is represented very directly in Back to the Future’s very first scene, as the camera travels slowly through Dr Emmett Brown’s workshop, which is filled with clocks. You might not have noticed that this sequence also drops a clear hint of what will happen later in the movie – when we see a clock that depicts a man dangling off its arms.
This foreshadows what Christopher Lloyd’s Doc will do in the explosive Back to the Future climax, as he tries to send Marty back home. Not only that, but the scene – and the clock – are a direct homage to a classic scene from early cinema, 1923 Harold Lloyd film Safety Last.
1. Ford offered $75,000 for the filmmakers to use a Mustang as the time machine
Much as there were other contenders for Back to the Future’s lead roles, there was also stiff competition for the film’s pivotal vehicle. The filmmakers were offered a sizeable chunk of change to use a Ford Mustang as their time machine: $75,000, which in today’s money works out to over $180,000.
This was not an inconsiderable sum, given the movie’s budget was $19 million (almost $46 million today). However, Bob Gale reportedly insisted, “Doc Brown doesn’t drive a f***ing Mustang!” and that was the end of it.