‘Back to the Future’: Replacing Eric Stoltz With Michael J. Fox ‘Made Me Miserable,’ Said Steven Spielberg

Movie buffs may be aware of the folklore attached to Back to the Future. From its Simpsons-like ability to predict America’s future president to the Ford versus DeLorean discussion, fans could sift through BTTF mythology for days. And then there’s the fact that Michael J. Fox replaced Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly. Producer Steven Spielberg once admitted that letting go of Stoltz was a tough decision.

‘Back to The Future’ with Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown and Michael J. Fox as Marty, 1984
‘Back to The Future’ with Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown and Michael J. Fox as Marty, 1984 | Film Publicity Archive/United Archives via Getty Images

‘Back to the Future’ writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis fired Eric Stoltz

Fire may be a harsh word, but when it comes down to it, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had to axe Eric Stoltz from the film. As filming for Back to the Future continued, they found that the actor’s take on Marty was too serious. He wasn’t a good fit for the energetic comedy. In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Gale explained how it went down.

“The craziest thing that happened was the cast change six weeks into production when Eric Stoltz was replaced by Michael J Fox. The humour just hadn’t been coming through with Eric,” he said. “The studio weren’t happy exactly, but they’d seen the footage so they bit the bullet. Scheduling became quite complicated because Michael was doing his TV series Family Ties during the days.”

Zemeckis echoed that Stoltz was a phenomenal actor but just not right for the part. He told the CBC that delivering the blow was the worst experience in his entire career.

Steven Spielberg spoke about casting Eric Stoltz and Michael J. Fox

From the get-go, the Back to the Future team wanted to cast Michael J. Fox as the lead. His obligations for Family Ties caused a scheduling conflict, but a window opened after co-star Meredith Baxter-Birney went on maternity leave. Meanwhile, production chose not to go on with Stoltz. Steven Spielberg was one of the producers working behind the scenes on the movie involved with the decision.

During his 1985 interview with Rolling Stone (accessible here), Spielberg briefly mentioned how he would have handled things differently with the casting.

“That was a real hard call. That made me miserable,” he said. “And I’m still miserable — not about the decision, which was right, but what I should have done, which was allow Bob Zemeckis and Gale to wait until the first of the year, when Michael was available. Michael was our first choice. He was not available due to Family Ties. I should have waited, and yet I wanted the film out for the summer. And for the record, I think Eric Stoltz is a marvelous actor, in the same league with Sean Penn, Emilio Estevez and Matthew Modine.”

Lea Thompson recalled Stoltz on the ‘Back to the Future’ set

During a chat with Pop Goes the Culture TV, Lea Thompson described the cast’s first read-through of the script. She said everyone was laughing and expressing how much they loved the story, but when they asked Stoltz for his opinion, he called the tale a tragedy. Thompson said it kind of brought the room down when he explained that Marty’s memories weren’t the same as his family’s, and he found it sad.

She also said his creative process could be very method, and he preferred that people call him by his character’s name. Thompson admired and complimented Stoltz as a wonderful actor, and said his firing was upsetting for her because they were good friends. But ultimately, the powers-that-be didn’t believe he captured the teen idol tone they preferred for Back to the Future.

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