According to Bob Gale (the main screenwriter) in The Cutting Room Floor (a 1994 book), it was actually Kathleen Kennedy (not Steven Spielberg) who failed to convince Gary David Goldberg (one of her TV/college friends) to let them cast Michael J. Fox. Location-scouting included a Pasadena street that was being used for Teen Wolf. In this 2011 article, Jeph Loeb claimed that the Back to the Future producers were looking for an actor to replace Eric, so they asked the Teen Wolf producers to send some rough footage of Fox. This means that he was a last resort than the first choice.
I don’t buy that Gary wouldn’t allow him to work outside of Family Ties because of his contract, since Fox was already oscillating between that and Teen Wolf. In an article for the Los Angeles Times (September 4, 1994), Eric indicates that Robert Zemeckis (the director) was hanging him out to dry so as to increase the market share (albeit he expresses this in a passive-aggressive way): “Zemeckis told me I was giving a good performance in a film he didn’t want to make – contemplative and thoughtful instead of comedic. I felt I could have done the part had he pointed me in that direction.”
Eric still would’ve been fired if he acted funny, but the excuse would be that he was trying too hard. He was interviewed by Ron Base (who isn’t off base) for a 1994 book titled If the Other Guy Isn’t Jack Nicholson, I’ve Got the Part. Ron’s account of the official story differs from others in that Family Ties was slightly struggling in the ratings department prior to the casting change (thus the novelty of a sitcom star starring in a Sci-Fi multiplex movie). Eric said something which suggests an awareness that making movies is logistically more akin to the stock market than school plays: “It is such a fickle business; not kind to talent.”
According to a 2007 interview for the Voices from Krypton website, Gale (also one of the producers) mentioned that Sidney Sheinberg (the chief operating officer of MCA) forced the film-makers to work with Eric because of Mask (an Oscar baiter that was produced and distributed by Universal). Sid believed that Eric would be known as the world’s greatest actor and biggest movie star. Gale claimed that C. Thomas Howell tested better. In 1984, Grandview, U.S.A. confirmed his rising star stature to the youngsters whereas Tank made him more familiar to the oldsters. Cher and Eric attended the premiere of the former because she was invited to play the main character but backed out when the studio wouldn’t cast Eric as Howell’s character.
Irregarding Gale, Sid described Howell as chicken poop versus Eric’s chicken salad. Sid boasted that if he was wrong then he would allow the producers to restart. In 2003, Crispin Glover (who attended the same L.A. acting class as Eric) refuted Gale’s claim in a Zap2it article (what he said about Eric reminds me of what John Hughes said when explaining why Anthony Michael Hall gave the best audition for Sixteen Candles): “I did all of the screen tests with all the people that went up for the role. Eric Stoltz came in and the scenes were playing better. It wasn’t quite as light or comic, but he was a better actor.”
In We Don’t Need Roads, Sid backtracked by claiming that he was adamant about Eric because he was under the impression that Robert wanted an actor who was like James Stewart. This is interesting given that Roger Ebert (an esteemed film critic) compared the movie to Frank Capra (of whom Stewart was a stalwart as can be seen in You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life). This calls into question why there has been no footage released of Stoltz speaking. Jimmy’s characters had a particular way of speaking that, when taken out of context, would give the impression that Eric had trouble remembering his lines (i.e. shy, soft-spoken and stuttering).
Despite what Gale claimed, Bob Schmelzer (skateboarding double) claimed (at a 2012 cinema screening) that Fox couldn’t ride a skateboard to save his life. Also contrary to the claims of the other Bobs, Schmelzer claimed that Eric had the chops. Gale should have got Schmelzer to sign a nondisclosure agreement. At literally any rate, John Hughes could have salvaged Eric’s reputation by having his character in Some Kind of Wonderful be capable of skateboarding. In an issue of Chicago Tribune (September 17, 1992), Lea Thompson (who previously acted with Eric in The Wild Life) also defended him by saying it was like: “…replacing James Dean with James Cagney.”
On The Sam Roberts Show circa 2012, Christopher Lloyd expressed how shocked he was that Eric was canned despite giving a very good performance. He went so far as to say that it wasn’t like he was lousy. Lloyd likened the atmosphere of the announcement to that of a wake. Zemeckis failingly tried to refute this (in a 2015 book) after saying it was heartbreaking for everybody (in a 2010 documentary). Lloyd claimed that his firing wasn’t something to be cheered about. He even started to doubt his own performance. This counteracts what Thomas F. Wilson said to Chris Hardwick in 2011 about Eric being bad. Chris heard Lloyd’s polar opposite opinion in a 2013 interview: “He wasn’t being fired because he was a bad actor or he didn’t do it well. He was wonderful.”
Lloyd was misquoted as derisively mocking Eric’s method acting by saying “Well, who’s Eric? I thought his name really was Marty” after hearing the news. After hearing the quote, he claimed that it was apocryphal. Other apocryphalness: Sid claimed in The Ultimate Visual History that it wouldn’t have made sense for himself to concede the possibility that the actor who he was pushing for may be wrong for the role. He also stated that Zemeckis and Spielberg didn’t have to cast Eric if they saw fit that he was the wrong fit. Rob was quoted in July 7, 1985 (for Chicago Tribune) as saying that his firing had nothing to do with his talent, but to do with him not being in sync with the tone.
Helen Sugland, Eric’s agent, alluded to him being sold down the river by claiming (for Daily Variety on January 17) that Rob’s decision was a 180 degree turn since he had nothing but positive feedback prior to the dismissal. Five days later, this was mentioned in the New York version of D.V. In the Chicago Tribune article, it’s fascinating to point out that Romancing the Stone wasn’t really intended as the means to the end for reigniting interest in BTTF. By the time that Zemeckis became a popular director, he was already set on directing a Goldie Hawn star vehicle called First and Goal (which went on to be known as Wildcats). He only directed BTTF after Goldie retired his services when the script revisions were going nowhere.
Crispin had the following to say (in 2010 and 2012) about Eric supposedly not fitting in: “It was not known, and it was surprising. I’d shot most of my scenes with Eric Stoltz. I’d worked with him before. We’d done a Bayer aspirin commercial. We played brothers. I’d known him a bit, and I liked him. I thought he was a good actor. If you shoot a number of months, and then in the middle of the shooting there’s a large replacement like that, it’s unnerving. He was fired right before Christmas vacation. We had shot about six weeks, and the last thing that we shot with him was the alternate return to the future.”
Fox claimed that Gary approached him about BTTF before the Christmas break. Like Crispin, Lea claimed that the Stoltz shoot lasted for 6 weeks. Tom claimed that it was almost 7 weeks. James Tolkan also said 7 weeks. Claudia Wells said 8 weeks. When interviewed for the Ain’t It Cool News website, Lloyd also said 8 weeks. He then said it had to be at least 6 weeks. Be that as it may, Tom said that filming was nearly wrapping to the extent that there was discussion about what the cast were going to do after completion. The visual history book journals Eric’s time on the set as 7 weeks. In 1985, Fox’s time was journaled as 7 weeks.
Officially, BTTF began filming in November’s final week. In spite of this, Fox claimed (in his Lucky Man memoir) that it was set to begin in late October (the screenplay was revised on 10/21/84). The assistant director who told him this, during the aforementioned scouting, didn’t say “later this month” or “later next month” because the location scouting took place in August (as mentioned in The Ultimate Visual History). Fox knew at this point that Eric was the star. News articles have proven to be more contradictory as time goes on. According to the December 1989 issue of Orange County, it was 6 weeks. In 1992, it was said to be 2 weeks. In 1994, it was meant to be 3 weeks. By 1999, it was 4 weeks.
First, it was claimed that only a few scenes had been filmed; then it was the first act. Eventually, it was said to be the first half. As time went on, people believed that three quarters of it were filmed. Tom implied that 95% of the film was in the can. As to why he lied by saying 5 weeks, Robert disclosed to Newsweek in 1986 that he spent 6 weeks filming the Fox version. His comment can be found in a 1991 book titled Risky Business: Rock in Film. Eric being axed midway through a 12 week schedule is an implication that his firing was long anticipated. In recent years, the Bob pair stated that they only re-filmed the shots where you can clearly see Eric.
This would mean that a week was needed to film the non-Marty shots in the ground zero version. If it was unearthed that so much footage had been filmed with Eric, Robert would be forced to answer why it took so long to change gears (since he was meant to be editing the film as he was filming). He would also be forced to answer why they didn’t film the scene where Biff pulls Marty out of the car. Due to the animosity between Eric and Tom, the only way that it would’ve been filmed would be if they used stand-ins when filming either actor. The official schedule of the Fox version was 3 months (despite the 3 fortnights as reported in issue 97 of Starlog).
In spite of Tom’s claim, Arthur Schmidt (one of the editors) denied that Eric is the Marty who punches Biff. One of the questions that has been asked is why Fox isn’t wearing the same white T-shirt that Eric wore (the U.S. patent of a guitar). I believe that it was done to prove that they weren’t using Eric’s footage (Crispin’s clothes in these comparison shots support this very notion). I asked Kevin Pike (the special effects supervisor and the designer of the film’s DeLorean) why Robert changed it. He said: “I don’t know. He asked the wardrobe gal to make Marty’s outfit resemble the kinds of clothes that I wore.”
The trilogy’s publicists, Marsha Robertson and Michael Klastorin, misquoted Eric as telling Peter Bogdanovich in a phone call after the first forenight that he was wrong for the part (albeit Tolkan quoted Eric as saying “Well, they can’t fire me now” on the last day of the shoot). If Eric felt misplaced, he wouldn’t have gone on record by saying that the firing was brutal. In the August 2003 issue of Stuff, Crispin went on record as saying that Eric made the scenes better than Fox (now you can see why he doesn’t look enthused with Fox in the above and below stills).
In 1999, Nicholas Moenssens (a projectionist and dailies processor operator who had been working in the film industry for over 35 years at that point) had this to say on a message board:
“Stoltz’s agency at that time was Landmark Entertainment. Eric was actually very good in Back to the Future. Spielberg did have some creative ideas AFTER the fact, and since M.J. Fox was hot at the time, the change was made. Universal agreed that the film could be a bigger money maker with a name in the lead role. But let’s make one thing clear – Stoltz was not BAD in the part. I understood from some people at Landmark (who I was doing some production work with around the time he was replaced) that Eric was devastated. He is a very nice person and it was really a bad shake that he was sold out of the film.”
Spielberg was absent during Eric’s time on set because he was too busy working as a producer and uncredited co-director on The Goonies. If you read the 1984 script, you will notice that there are ideas absent from the Stoltz version because Steven had yet to be deeply involved. About Eric being very nice, Lloyd had mentioned in the AICN interview that what made his firing so poignant was that he wasn’t a bad guy. With Eric being a Trekkie, he asked Lloyd about his experiences on Star Trek III: The Search for Spock circa 1983. They definitely had chemistry! Even Tom admitted that Eric is nice. Casey Siemaszko (who played 3-D) had this to say: “It sucked when Eric was replaced. He is a nice guy. I didn’t get it at the time.”
In July of 2007, Gale claimed that the footage wasn’t exhibited because they were sparing Eric’s feelings. They contradicted themselves with the biasedly brief clips used for the 2010 Blu-ray release. Gale said that the footage wasn’t thrown away because it has historic significance. Despite people claiming otherwise, Eric said in an April 2007 interview that he would like to observe all of the footage. It was reported here that he didn’t want the footage to be shown. A male fan provided this July 2007 anecdote:
“I saw Robert Zemeckis at the San Diego Comic-Con when he was promoting Beowulf and someone asked him about the Stoltz footage ever seeing the light of day. Zemeckis said it would be impossible as Stoltz put a legal hold on it and promised to sue Universal if it was ever released. Personally, I don’t see how that’s possible as Universal owns this footage and should be able to do with it what it likes, but Zemeckis did sound serious when he explained the situation.”
The strange thing about this claim is that Gale said that Eric doesn’t have the power to authorize this. Even Eric said this. Obviously, the Bob duo are hiding the fact that there is a commercial initiative regarding why it’s taken so long for the footage to be seen. The Blu-ray release was a way of testing the waters to see how much interest there was in the footage. The bittersweet irony is that most people only purchased the Blu-Ray because of the footage. This courtesy was extended to the 2015 books. The burgeoning interest in Eric has resulted in Gale recanting his claim of the star participating in 5 weeks of filming. He’s now saying it was 6 weeks. Gale isn’t much of a raconteur. The incongruities of the Stoltz story are second to only the firing of Jean-Claude Van Damme from Predator (the level of incongruity truly rivals Rashomon).
Gale boasted that this was the first time that an actor had been replaced after filming so much footage. However, this had already (and coincidentally) happened in the fifties. Tyrone Power died after shooting half of Solomon and Sheba (whose reshoots cost 6 million); which brings us to the first book mentioned in this article (as a way of coming full circle). Gale justified the firing decision by referencing 3 unrelated incidences (namely Lawrence of Arabia, Brainstorm and The Crow). He would have come off better by using just one example – Aliens. Using more than one irrelevant example gives the telling impression that the previous attempts at justifying were rendered null.