The Lost Roles of ‘Back to the Future’

One of the most popular movies ever made and one that seamlessly fused sci-fi and comedy, Back to the Future turned 25 just over two years ago. In honor of the film’s 27-year-and-3-month anniversary, we’re looking at some of the potential casting choices that almost happened back when Back to the Future came out two decades (plus seven years and 3 months) ago. Most movies and TV shows go through an exhaustive casting process before production begins, but Back to the Future is unique in that part of the movie was filmed with different actors in some of the main roles before the filmmakers decided it wasn’t working and started over with fresh faces. The key to the film’s success is the unlikely pairing of two sitcom actors (Family Ties’ Michael J. Fox and Taxi’s Christopher Lloyd), each of whom had yet to star in a major Hollywood movie yet were able to hold their own here and find great chemistry together.

So, let’s raise a glass of plutonium-infused beer and wish Back to the Future a Happy 27 ¼th Birthday, as we run through the actors and actresses who almost made it into the movie (and the ones who were cut out altogether).

Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly

Michael J. Fox was the first choice for the part of Marty, but due to his obligation to the NBC sitcom Family Ties, he was initially unable to take the job. Writer/director Robert Zemeckis opted for his second choice, actor Eric Stoltz, who had impressed him with his performance in a preview screening of Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask. Five weeks of shooting took place with Stoltz as Marty, but Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg felt he was giving a dramatic performance instead of a comedic one and opted to start over with somebody new. By that time, Michael J. Fox had become available and was able to split his time between Family Ties and Back to the Future.

Snippets of the unseen Eric Stoltz footage were released on a 25th Anniversary Back to the Future DVD/Blu-Ray, and they’ve been cut together into this video:

Jeff Goldblum as Doc Brown

According to writer/producer Bob Gale, Jeff Goldblum auditioned for the part of wacky inventor Doc Brown but lost the part to Christopher Lloyd. Goldblum has probably played more eccentric scientists than just about any actor ever (most notably in The Fly, Independence Day, and in a fun riff on this as an eccentric mathematician in Jurassic Park), but he was a little young to play the character of Doc Brown as he came to be known. Jeff Goldblum is 14 years younger than Christopher Lloyd, to the day (weird, right?), and Lloyd’s character being an older guy is part of what makes it work so well.

John Cusack as Marty McFly

Fresh-faced teen actor John Cusack was amongst the many actors considered to play Marty, according to Bob Gale. At the time, Cusack was a third-string member of Hollywood’s Brat Pack, playing minor supporting roles in movies like Sixteen Candles and Class, but after being passed over for Back to the Future, he scored a series of major hits as a leading man with The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead…, and One Crazy Summer.

Melora Hardin as Jennifer Parker

Melora Hardin, probably now best known for playing Jan on The Office, was originally cast as Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer in the Eric Stoltz version of the film. Once Stoltz was recast with Michael J. Fox, Hardin was let go too because she would have been taller than Fox and Claudia Wells was slid into her place.

CORRECTION: The adjacent photo is of Claudia Wells, not Melora Hardin.

C. Thomas Howell as Marty McFly

Along with Eric Stoltz, C. Thomas Howell (Red Dawn, The Outsiders) was a finalist for the lead role. Stoltz was chosen over him, but C. Thomas Howell would soon find himself traveling back through time to the 1930s to film the blackface comedy Soul Man and then traveling back to 1986 to release it upon an unsuspecting public.

John Lithgow as Doc Brown

In addition to Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow was considered to play Doc Brown. At the time, Lithgow was just coming off of back-to-back Supporting Actor Oscar noms (for The World According to Garp and Terms of Endearment), so he was in high demand at the time. Just prior to Back to the Future, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum, and Christopher Lloyd all starred alongside each other in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, making for a rare on-screen union of Hollywood’s top mad scientist types.

Johnny Depp as Marty McFly

A few years prior to his big break on 21 Jump Street, future King of Hollywood Johnny Depp tried out to play Marty McFly. Writer/producer Bob Gale had this to say about Johnny Depp’s audition: “I looked through the notes, and I said, ‘Geez, I don’t even remember that we read Johnny Depp!’ So whatever he did, it wasn’t all that memorable, I guess!” If Bob Gale ever goes missing, I suggest checking the dungeon of a certain A-lister’s mansion.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Lost Roles of ‘Back to the Future’