Michael J. Fox anecdotes highlight Back to the Future reunion

Bob Gale, Danny Vinson, Claudia Wells, and James Tolkan - Photo by Marc Parker
Bob Gale, Danny Vinson, Claudia Wells, and James Tolkan - Photo by Marc Parker

Florence, AL – During the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival in Florence this past weekend, a Back to the Future 25th anniversary reunion special event was held at the Shoals Theatre that included producer/screenwriter Bob Gale and actors James Tolkan and Claudia Wells.

Back to the Future is a comedic science fiction film trilogy written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. It began in 1985, and the plot follows the adventures of high school student Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) as they time traveled in a “modified” DeLorean automobile.

Back to the Future Main Cast:

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, Marty McFly, Jr., Marlene McFly, and Seamus McFly
Christopher Lloyd as Dr. Emmett Brown
Thomas F. Wilson as Biff Tannen, Griff Tannen, and Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen
Lea Thompson as Lorraine Baines and Maggie McFly
James Tolkan as Mr. Strickland and Chief Marshal James Strickland
Claudia Wells and Elizabeth Shue as Jennifer Parker
Crispin Glover and Jeffrey Weissman as George McFly
Mary Steenburgen as Clara Clayton

Alabama native and actor Danny Vinson, who is on the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival Advisory Board, acted as emcee for the evening, discussing the films and posing questions to the panel. Vinson has worked on over 200 commercials and his film credits include Two Soldiers, Walk the Line, Talladega Nights, and Leatherheads.

Lea Thompson was scheduled to appear during the four-day event, but cancelled due to scheduling conflicts with a new movie and television pilot. However, the actress/director pre-taped her answers to Vinson’s questions and was seen onstage via a screen set up for the audience.

The following is a few excerpts from the evening with Danny Vinson, Bob Gale, Claudia Wells, James Tolkan, and Lea Thompson (on tape):

Danny Vinson: Back to the Future has made $957,587,347 to date worldwide (the studio likes to say “almost a billion dollars”). Why have the three films been so successful?

Bob Gale: The screenplay was rejected over forty times before we finally got it made. I always tell people that whatever you’re doing, perseverance is a real good lesson to learn and we never gave up.

As to why it has the longevity that it does, we tapped into something that’s a very basic human moment in all of our lives and that’s the moment when you’re a child and you realize your parents were children, too. At some point, you say, “Good God, my father was my age at some point in time!” That is the moment that Back to the Future tapped into … a movie had never been made about that moment and I think that’s why people are still watching it today.

Claudia Wells - Photo by Marc Parker
Claudia Wells - Photo by Marc Parker

Claudia Wells: Also the script was absolutely brilliant, incredibly well written and produced. It’s amazing to me because I get five-year-olds who tell me it’s their favorite movie of all time and then their grandparents tell me the same thing. It is such a family story that everyone can relate to and it seems timeless because it’s just as exciting for people to watch it today as twenty-five years ago.

James Tolkan: I think it starts with the writing, the story, and then the choice of director … and when you win or lose the ballgame, I think, is the acting. I think that is very evident in the fact that McFly was finally played by the right actor.

Lea Thompson: I think that Back to the Future was just a perfectly made movie. It’s a joy to see three generations of people enjoying the film. It’s a blessing we never really anticipated.

Danny Vinson: Bob, what convinced you that this idea could be put into a film?

Bob Gale: Bob Zemeckis, the director, my writing partner, and good friend of many years, and I always loved time travel stories. I was back visiting my parents in St. Louis, Missouri in the summer of 1980. I found my father’s high school yearbook in the basement and discovered for the first time that he had been the president of his graduating class.

So I’m looking at this picture of my dad and I’m thinking about the president of my graduating class who was one of these “school spirit” guys I would never have anything to do with … then I’m thinking, “Gee, was my dad a jerk like the president of my class?” I’m thinking now what I would have thought of my dad to see him at age seventeen or eighteen and actually go to high school with him.

When I got back to California I told this story to Bob and he’s going, “Yeah, and what if it turned out that your mom was like the high school slut?” So, that’s what got it going. That was the germination of the idea – one picture in the high school yearbook I found in the basement.

Danny Vinson: Let me ask the actors how they became involved in the project.

Lea Thompson: I had done The Wild Life with Eric Stoltz for Universal and Robert Zemeckis said, “Who’s that girl?” I went to audition and it just fit. In my screen test I really understood Lorraine (my poor drunken Lorraine) and I remember Steven Spielberg working the camera for the screen test. Sometimes parts just fit and this one did.

Claudia Wells: Spielberg was there for my audition, too. He kicked out the cameraman and he said, “I can’t be in the room with someone else operating the camera … I’m sorry, you need to leave.”

I auditioned with a guy who was on his eleventh callback. It was either my first or second because it got down to me and two other girls for Goonies, Gremlins, Young Sherlock Holmes – it was all the same casting people. I’m so grateful I got the part in Back to the Future.

I did the Lorraine scene where she was drinking and smoking. I read for Jennifer, but they wouldn’t let me read the script and wouldn’t tell me what the part was. So I just auditioned.

I had finished a pilot with ABC called Off the Rack with Ed Asner and Eileen Brennan. ABC said they loved the show but weren’t going to pick it up. So I got to accept the role of Jennifer Parker in Back to the Future. Then a few weeks later ABC changed their minds and decided to pick up the series for six episodes. It was going to take place when I was supposed to be filming Back to the Future.

James Tolkan - Photo by Marc Parker
James Tolkan - Photo by Marc Parker

ABC wouldn’t let me go and I remember Ed Asner campaigning for me. He said, “Let the kid go do a movie … it’s Steven Spielberg, let her do a movie.” But, they wouldn’t let me go so I had to extricate myself from my part in Back to the Future. They recast it with Melora Hardin who stars in The Office and a bunch of different things and I did six episodes for ABC.

Then it didn’t work out with Eric Stoltz (the original Marty McFly) who had the part when I got my part so they let him go. I guess some of the women on the crew thought it was not right for Marty to have a girlfriend who was so much taller than him. So, I got my part back!

James Tolkan – I was in New York doing a play by David Mamet called Glen Gary Glenn Ross. After playing in it a year I got a call from Robert Zemeckis about Back to the Future and they sent me the script. I thought this may be my opportunity to go to California and see what it’s all about there. I think Bob said they had seen me in a movie called Prince of the City and that was the motivation for asking me to do the movie.

Danny Vinson: James, what’s it like to have a character like Mr. Strickland on your resume which carries with it the permanently-etched-into-pop- culture phrase, “slacker?”

James Tolkan: Well, I don’t mind being called a slacker everywhere I go. It’s all in fun. Ironically, you know, slacker has been used on the floor of the United States Senate. This movie has influenced America one way or another!

Danny Vinson: I could understand George and Biff McFly being slackers maybe, but I really pulled for Marty. What made him a slacker?

James Tolkan: Well, he comes from a long line of slackers. Strickland sees his parents and grandparents come through and they’re all slackers so he just assumes that Marty McFly can’t be anything but a slacker!

Danny Vinson: Okay, think of a good Michael J. Fox story. Tell us about him.

Bob Gale: What always amazed me about Michael … he had sitcom training versus Christopher Lloyd’s theatrical training, was that Chris had memorized all of his lines for the whole script. Michael never memorized anything because he was so used to having the sitcom script change every day and he’d have to relearn everything.

So it was amazing to me that Michael was such a quick study that he never learned his lines until ten minutes before he was going to shoot them. But, he always made them his own and brought something to the stage … something that really put his own personal imprint on it, but was still Marty McFly.

One of the good anecdotes (think it’s on the gag reel on the DVD) is when Michael and Lea were doing the scene in the car where she lights up a cigarette, then pulls out a flask of booze. For one of the takes, the prop guys put real booze in the flask. So, the camera is running and we’re all waiting to see what happens and Michael drinks, spits it out, then realizes what it was and starts drinking.

Fan sitting in the DeLorean time machine replica - Photo by Marc Parker
Fan sitting in the DeLorean time machine replica - Photo by Marc Parker

Lea Thompson: Well, I was a friend of Eric Stoltz who he replaced so I was a little snobby about Michael. I thought he was a “sitcom actor” which of course, is a great thing … I turned into one. But, at the time I was a little snobby.

Michael and I shared a trailer and one day I couldn’t get out of the trailer because the entire thing had been wrapped in paper by these fans – all of these girls that were just so madly in love with him. Then I realized who I was dealing with. He was a huge star at the time and he still is. He is always such a kind and funny person. He really taught me a lot about comedy.

James Tolkan: After we’d done all three movies my agent called and said that Michael J. Fox is directing an episode of Tales from the Crypt and he wants you to be in it. So I had the opportunity of being directed by Michael and it was very special. He was so much fun and so appreciative … almost everything I did he roared with laughter and that’s what I’d like to remember about him.

Claudia Wells: He was shooting Family Ties at the same time he was doing Back to the Future, but he was always up and awake, positive, and a pleasure to work with.

Michael Scheffe, construction supervisor for the DeLorean time machine used in the films, was also in attendance that night as was a replica of the famous vehicle. It was built by husband and wife team Oliver and Terry Holler of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and was carefully erected to match the original one seen in the movies.

For a small fee, fans could sit in the car and pretend they were blasting off into another time dimension. All monies from the exhibit were donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Article by Melissa Parker

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2 thoughts on “Michael J. Fox anecdotes highlight Back to the Future reunion”

  1. Oh, hell no, Julie! BTTF rocks… I’ve seen all three movies no less than thirty times– each– and they still remain my favorites after 20 years.

    BTW, my name is also Julie…

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