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The Real Reason Marty McFly From Back To The Future Was Recast

The Back to the Future trilogy are classic films, near and dear to the hearts of millions. As you may be aware, though, there is an alternate universe in which Michael J. Fox did not star in the series; a universe in which the role was, in fact, filled by a promising young actor named Eric Stoltz. This came very, very close to occurring in our own universe. Not only was Stoltz cast in Back to the Future, but the production went full speed ahead with him, completing several weeks of filming before the decision was made to replace him with Fox, who director Robert Zemeckis had wanted from the beginning. 

Stoltz had been hired due to the fact that Fox was busy with his hit sitcom Family Ties, and the producers figured that resolving his potential scheduling conflicts would be too difficult. As it happened, the only thing more difficult than ironing out said conflicts was replacing Back to the Future's star nearly halfway through production, when it became glaringly apparent that, as good an actor as he was, Stoltz was simply not the right choice for the film Zemeckis was making.

Eric Stoltz's approach to the role of Marty was a bit too actorly

In Caseen Gaines' book We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, the movie's cast and crew remembered that Stoltz's approach to the role was a bit more intense than one might have expected for the lead in what is essentially a screwball comedy. Stoltz was a method actor – his previous role was as the severely deformed Rocky Dennis in the acclaimed drama Mask and, as far as he was concerned, it was his job to stay inside the head of his character whether he was going for pathos or laughs. He even insisted on being called "Marty" while on set, and developed such an antagonistic relationship with co-star Tom Wilson (who played Marty's nemesis Biff Tannen in the film) that the two nearly came to blows during the filming of their physical altercation in the school cafeteria (via Vulture).

Co-star Lea Thompson, a friend of Stoltz, had an idea that the role of Marty might not be a good fit for the actor. "Eric is such a different actor and he could be very difficult," she remembered. "It was a time when we were emerging from the '70s. All the young actors wanted to be like [Robert] De Niro and [Al] Pacino, which was good in a lot of ways ... But it was not the right movie to behave like that. Eric had such an intensity. He saw drama in things. He wasn't really a comedian, and they needed a comedian. He's super-funny in real life, but he didn't approach his work like that, and they really needed somebody who had those chops."

Taking over for Eric Stoltz was a challenge for Michael J. Fox

Fox, obviously, fit that bill, and by the time Zemeckis was getting ready to announce to his crew that they were basically going to have to reshoot a great deal of what they had shot so far, Universal had managed to hammer out the details of shooting around Fox's Family Ties schedule. The real problem was that the production wouldn't be reshooting everything, only the specific scenes and cuts in which Stoltz was front and center. This presented a unique challenge to Fox, who was basically tasked with bringing the energy Stoltz had been unable to bring to scenes that had already been pre-shot, his co-stars dutifully hitting their marks along with Stoltz's excised performance.

At the London Film & Comic Con Expo in 2015, Fox described this challenge to those in attendance. "I was aware that I was replacing Eric and that he had done a lot of stuff," Fox remembered. "Somebody else in the scene was reacting to Eric, and I am in there trying to do my own thing but elicit the same response that Eric got, in a way. It was strange, it was a puzzle" (via JoBlo).

Obviously, it was an issue that resolved itself when Fox returned for the sequels but, the next time you're watching the original Back to the Future, it should be interesting to keep in mind that a good deal of Fox's performance was captured in this cut-and-paste fashion.

Eric Stoltz is philosophical about his missed shot at mega-stardom

As for Stoltz, he may have never become the massive star that Fox did after Back to the Future hit screens, but he has no regrets. He's amassed a mile-long list of film and TV credits that includes memorable roles in flicks like Pulp Fiction, Jerry Maguire, The Butterfly Effect, and Her Smell. It's a filmography of which any actor would be proud, and speaking with MovieHole in 2007, Stoltz said that he rarely dwells on what might have been.

"You know, it was twenty-something years ago and I rarely look back, if at all," the actor said. "But in retrospect, I think just getting through that difficult period helped me realize how freeing it really was. I went back to acting school, I moved to Europe, I did some plays in New York and I actually invested in myself in a way that was much healthier for me. If I had become a massive star, I don't know if I wouldn't have gone into therapy."

Stoltz did feel obliged, however, to add just one small caveat to that statement. "On the other hand, I would've been exceedingly rich," he joked, "Which would've been wonderful."