Few movies encapsulate the spirit of the 80s quite so perfectly as Back to the Future. The 1985 blockbuster from director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis is frequently held up as one of the greatest films of the era (readers of this website actually voted it the number one movie of the 80s).
Back to the Future is one of those movies that’s surely up there among the all-time favourites of anyone who was around in the 80s, but for younger viewers there’s a timeless appeal about it that keeps it fresh, funny and exciting even now.
So 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
Back to the Future sends Michael J. Fox’s 17-year-old high schooler Marty McFly back in time 30 years, where he meets his own parents as teenagers.
Rather than casting older actors and attempting to make them look younger, 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, and barely younger than Lea Thompson, who plays his mother Lorraine.
Fox was born 9 June 1961, meaning he was almost 24 when Back to the Future went before cameras in late 1984/early 1985.
Thompson, meanwhile, was born 31 May 1961, making her just over a week older than her screen son.
As for Glover, he was born 20 April 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, soon after his breakthrough role in A Nightmare on Elm Street but before he found fame through TV’s 21 Jump Street.
John Cusack was also among those who read for the part, shortly before he broke big with movies like Better Off Dead and The Sure Thing.
Ben Stiller and Jon Cryer have also reflected on reading for the role, with both actors happily admitting Fox was far better suited.
The only other actor who really came close to playing Marty McFly was C. Thomas Howell.
Howell, known for his roles in E.T., Red Dawn and The Hitcher, was Zemeckis and Gale’s 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, a couple of weeks into production the filmmakers realised that Stoltz’s more intense and serious approach to the material just 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.
However, it is widely believed that some footage of Eric Stoltz as Marty made it into the final movie.
There is one quick shot early in the movie where Marty dives into the DeLorean to evade the Libyan terrorists, which is thought to be Stoltz, not Fox.
17. The original Jennifer was also recast following Eric Stoltz’s dismissal
It’s by now pretty widely known that Michael J. Fox came on board as Marty McFly after Eric Stoltz was deemed unsuitable for the role.
However, one thing that isn’t so widely discussed is that the dismissal of Stoltz also resulted in another actor being fired from the film.
That other actor was 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.)
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 co-writer/producer Bob Gale found they had a hard time selling the project, due in part to their central themes.
They pitched the project to Walt Disney Pictures, who turned it down flat because they were worried about the hints of familial romance.
Their concern, of course, was regarding 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.
This was because Back to the Future was seen as a teen-oriented movie, and at the time most teen movies were sex comedies in the vein of Animal House and Porky’s.
15. DeLorean was already out of business when the movie was released
Unless you’re a die-hard automobile enthusiast, chances are the only reason you’ve heard of 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.
Their flagship car, the DMC DeLorean, was the only model the company manufactured between 1981 and 1983.
A reported 9,000 models were built, but the company filed 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 DeLorean
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.
Rather than a car, the first common household item they envisaged being re-purposed as a time machine was 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.
Zemeckis ultimately decided against this for fear that impressionable younger viewers might be encouraged to shut themselves in fridges in imitation of the movie.
Of course, 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, directed by Back to the Future’s executive producer Steven Spielberg.
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.
Romancing the Stone 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.
Unfortunately, this meant Zemeckis had to sit out Romancing the Stone’s 1985 sequel The Jewel of the Nile, which was instead directed by Lewis Teague.
12. The film was nearly retitled Space Man from Pluto
Studio Universal may have finally thrown their backing behind Back to the Future, but they still had their concerns about the movie.
For one thing, studio executive Sid Sheinberg was very concerned about the title, which he felt left “much to be desired.”
With this in mind, Sheinberg sent a memo to the filmmakers with his suggestion of what he considered a much better title.
Incredibly, Sheinberg wanted Zemeckis and company to release Back to the Future under the title Space Man from Pluto.
I'm fighting an ulcer due to horrific studio notes on a project I'm about to give up on.
Then, I read this. pic.twitter.com/nob2mt0CDW
— Will McCrabb (@mccrabb_will) August 27, 2016
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.
However, while Lloyd (previously seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and TV’s Taxi) was ideally cast, he wasn’t the only contender to play the Doc.
However, Goldblum’s comparative youth (he’s only nine years older than Fox, and 14 years younger than Lloyd) wound up ruling him out, as Doc’s age was considered key to the character.
Another contender for the part was John Lithgow, who would go on to play similarly eccentric 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.
However, once Eric Stoltz was dismissed, the Back to the Future team were able to work out a new schedule 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, as Fox worked the two shows back-to-back with virtually no rest for over three months.
The actor recalled in his 2003 autobiography, “A teamster driver would pick me up at 9:30 a.m. and take me to Paramount, where I would spend the day rehearsing that week’s show, culminating in a run-through at approximately 5:00 p.m. each afternoon.”
“Then at 6, another teamster driver would pick me up and shuttle me to Universal Studios or whatever far-flung location we were based that evening, where I would work on until just before sunrise.”
“At that point, I’d climb into the back of a production van with a pillow and a blanket, and yet another driver would take me home again – sometimes literally carrying me into my apartment and dropping me into my bed. I’d catch two or three hours sleep before teamster driver number one would reappear… then rouse me to start the whole process all over again.”
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.’
The guitar hero in question is more commonly known as Eddie Van Halen, famed as the eponymous lead guitarist in 80s rock band Van Halen.
It turns out that Van Halen the band did not consent to their music being used in the movie, but Eddie himself agreed – and he has since confirmed he recorded a guitar solo specifically for the sequence.
The guitarist told TMZ in 2012 that he was “just playing a bunch of noise,” and the recording in question has never been made available.
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.
When Marty shares this information with the 1955 Doc Brown, the Doc laughs back, “who’s Vice President, Jerry Lewis?”
On seeing the movie, Reagan himself is reported to have laughed so hard and long that the projectionist was asked to replay the reel so the President could properly watch the scenes he missed in the interim.
Famously, Reagan would go on to directly quote Back to the Future in a 1986 State of the Union speech.
The President repeated Doc Brown’s climactic line, “Roads? 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 that there are three brave heroes present in Back to the Future’s initial time travel scene: Doc Brown, Marty McFly, and the Doc’s dog Einstein.
The scene sees Einstein become the world’s very first time traveller, as the passenger in the DeLorean (which the Doc has on a remote control).
However, this scene might have played out a little differently, as the Doc was originally going to have a rather more exotic pet.
Rather than a dog, early drafts of the Back to the Future script saw the Doc own a pet 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 the highest-grossing films of Eastwood’s career, in which the actor’s 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.
The song is not to be confused with two other 80s hits of the same name, by Jennifer Rush and Frankie Goes to Hollywood respectively.
This particular song is written and performed by Huey Lewis and the News (whose music would later be memorably praised by Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in 2000’s American Psycho).
On top of The Power of Love, Huey Lewis and the News 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, this guitar didn’t yet exist in 1955: like the song itself, the ES-345 wasn’t released by Gibson until 1958.
Marty also pays tribute to a number of future guitar heroes: Pete Townshend of The Who (by kicking the amp), Angus Young of AC/DC (by lying on his back), Jimi Hendrix (by playing the guitar behind his head) and Eddie van Halen (by using the tapping guitar technique).
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 why his playing in the Johnny B. Goode scene looks so believable.
That having been said, 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 with guitar teacher Paul Hanson 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.
Campbell has also sung on the soundtracks of such movies as Police Academy, Vamp and 102 Dalmatians.
Fox would go on to do 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 viewers will doubtless recall, the film’s conclusion sees Doc Brown set off with Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer on a new adventure into the future, made all the more thrilling by the DeLorean taking flight.
This sets the scene for how things kick off at the start of 1989’s Back to the Future Part II, so it’s easy to assume that was always the plan.
However, co-writers 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.
Studio Columbia Pictures felt differently – hence for the film’s VHS release, a title card was added before the end credits which read ‘To Be Continued’ in the iconic Back to the Future font.
This prompted Zemeckis and Gale to get their thinking caps on, and the filmmakers wound up shooting 1989’s Back to the Future Part II back-to-back with 1990’s Back to the Future Part III.
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.
Look closely in the scene and you’ll spot 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.
It’s a nod to Harold Lloyd in the 1923 movie Safety Last, in which the legendary comedy actor and stuntman actually dangled off the arms of a clock tower.
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.
Cameras were already rolling on the movie when Ford contacted Universal’s product placement team with the offer.
The sum on the table was $75,000, which in today’s money works out to over $180,000: 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 Mustang!” and that was the end of it.