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What Might Have Been: Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in Back to the Future

October 15, 2010

It just wouldn't have been the same...

One day when I was about 10 years old, I stayed home sick from school.  My parents had a VCR, and had purchased a movie called Back to the Future.  It was the only movie in our collection I hadn’t seen yet, so I popped it in and watched it.  When I heard the click meaning it had finally finished rewinding, I pushed play again, waiting anxiously for Marty McFly to get blown back by his monstrous amps, peek through the rubble, and lift his sunglasses.  I laughed my ass off again, because when you’re a 10-year-old boy, that’s about the funniest thing you could ever see.  (It still is.)  When it ended for the second time, I began to appreciate George McFly’s personal victories a little more, realizing how difficult it had to be to stand up to someone who could whomp you.  The third time I watched it, I understood Doc Brown’s concerns about time travel and shared them myself, especially if it meant disappearing before my own eyes.  I watched it again.  And again.  And again.  I watched Back to the Future six times that day, confident that it was the best movie I had ever seen.  I also decided that I would watch Michael J. Fox in anything he made, including Teen Wolf and Light of Day.

I found out only recently that Fox was not the first choice for Marty McFly.  Eric Stoltz, whom you should remember from Pulp Fiction, Kicking and Screaming, and Anaconda (you may not have known he was “Rocky” in Mask) was Marty McFly for the first five weeks of filming.  Over a month of camera time, production costs, catering, engineering, stunts, and everything that goes into a movie; and director Robert Zemeckis has a probably sickening epiphany that Stoltz just isn’t working.  The lines should be snappier.  The scenes should be funnier.  An expression isn’t right, a voice inflection doesn’t fit.  Watch the clip, which comes from the bonus features on Back to the Future 25th Anniversary Trilogy. Zemeckis is right.  It’s not that Stoltz is bad; he isn’t.  He’s a great actor, but he just wasn’t the right guy for the part.  (If you’re a Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles fan, it’s like watching Tim Guinee instead of Dean Winters as Charlie.)  Zemeckis decides to make a “horrifying,” heartbreaking decision to replace Stoltz with Fox, and must somehow get the movie done in time.  He does.

Looking back, how could anyone else but Michael J. Fox have played Marty McFly?  Sure, had it been Stoltz we doubtfully would have said, “man, you know who would’ve been great as McFly?  Michael J. Fox!”  (Though that in itself could be a time-traveling, Many Worlds Theorem head-scratcher.)  I don’t, however, think that Back to the Future would have been the beloved movie it is.  There was just something about Fox that was perfectly, irreplaceably McFly.  And I’ll be honest: he gets a pass from me for the rest of his life for that part, kind of like the slack we’ve cut Nic Cage because of H.I. McDunnough.

I’ve watched Back to the Future maybe three times that day.  It doesn’t matter, though.  I  love it like I love friends from the old neighborhood that I haven’t seen since high school.  Maybe I shouldn’t see it again, because maybe it won’t be as awesome as it was when I still had stuffed animals.  What I can do, though, is give a big thank you to Robert Zemeckis and Stephen Spielberg for making that decision.  The kids loved it.

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