As near-perfect a scifi comedy-adventure trilogy as Back to the Future is, one theme that plagued the production was casting. Over the course of the trilogy, several actors were replaced: Crispin Glover’s George McFly was recast with Jeffrey Weissman in the sequel, as was Claudia Wells’ Jennifer (whose role was taken up by Elizabeth Shue). Actually, Jennifer was originally cast as The Office’s Melora Hardin, who never got to film a single scene.
But perhaps the most infamous recasting took place mid-stream during the first movie, as Marty McFly himself was fired and replaced.
As the well-known story goes, the creators originally wanted Michael J. Fox as the lead, but Fox couldn’t commit due to his role on Family Ties. So the team went with Eric Stoltz (Anaconda, The Fly II), who gave a rather more intense spin on the teenage time traveler.
After a while, it was clear to everyone that Stoltz simply wasn’t working in the role. He was fine, but not nearly as funny as the character of Marty needed to be. And so the $3 million decision was made to recast and reshoot all of the finished scenes as well as the unfinished ones with a different actor (who ended up being Fox after all).
What’s crazy about this isn’t the replacement — that sort of thing does happen, even to a lead actor — but how much of the movie was actually filmed. The production team had spent five to six weeks shooting scene after scene with Eric Stoltz, which must have been a good chunk of the film. Presumably there was so much raw footage out there that some fans have petitioned an Eric Stoltz cut of the movie.
That, of course, will never happen. Co-creator Bob Gale explained, “Seeing the Eric Stoltz footage, it’s not very good. When someday you see that, you’ll say, ‘Oh, okay. I understand why they recast him.’ He came to work. He did the best that he could. We made a mistake and we cast the wrong guy. We were able to rectify that, but we don’t want Eric Stoltz to go down in history, his biggest claim to fame, like Pete Best and the Beatles, he’s the guy who wasn’t in Back to the Future.”
Still, with a movie series as famous as this, Eric Stoltz has a small claim to fame that has endured. Thomas Wilson, who plays Biff, even claims that there is one brief moment in the released movie that kept Stoltz’ performance. “It’s my belief that Eric Stoltz’ fist punches me in the ’50s cafe,” he said. “‘Cause I do not think we reshot that.”
While the studio hasn’t released the full amount of this footage, a few clips of Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly were shown in Back to the Future documentaries and are viewable to this day. Very, very brief clips, I might add. They don’t feature Stoltz talking, but you can see him in familiar scenes like Marty encountering his dad for the first time, talking with Doc about 1.21 jigawatts, and running across the town square. What strikes me is how different he looks in this part: much taller than Fox and wearing a completely different (and much more muted) ensemble.
There’s also a teaser trailer for the film that contains Stoltz walking up to the DeLorean and preparing it for a trip into the future, although this, too, was repurposed with Fox.
One fan, filmmaker David Guy Levy, actually created a six-part comic book series that reimagined Back to the Future with Eric Stoltz instead of Michael J. Fox, but that’s as close to a real product as we’ll ever get with that combination.
I believe Bob Gale when he says that Stoltz wasn’t right for the part, but you know what? I’d still like to see a rough cut of that movie anyway. Fans of Back to the Future are always hungry for more, especially considering how little the franchise has grown since the early 1990s.