Happy Birthday, “Back to the Future” (1985): Sending us back for 35 years…

“Well, I figured…what the hell?”

1985 saw the release of “Back to the Future”, a pop culture phenomenon that has, in the years since, become more a time capsule of 1980s pop culture than the 1950s culture it romanticized.  It is one of the most iconic films of its decade, right along with “Ghostbusters,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Gremlins,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and a few others.

Confession time: I didn’t see the film in its original 1985 summer run.  Yes, I was very much alive at the time (1985 was the year I graduated high school, in fact), but somehow I just kept missing it.  I finally did see the film on re-release in April of 1986; it was on a double-feature with the Patsy Cline biopic, “Sweet Dreams” (another movie which romanticized the 1950s).  In fact, I vividly remember coming home from that double-feature to hear the breaking news on TV about the Chernobyl disaster (!).  After that first viewing of “Back to the Future” I was hooked.  I became a bona fide fan, faithfully attending the opening night screenings of both sequels, in 1989 and 1990.

Marty (Michael J. Fox) discovers he’s landed in an alternate 1985 where his father (Crispin Glover) was killed by Biff Tannen (Thomas Wilson) in “Back to the Future Part 2” (1989).

This past week marked the film’s 35th anniversary (July 3rd), and I’ve been grappling with how best to salute it.  If you’re a subscriber or even occasional reader of this site, you know I’d normally do an end-to-end review of the movie, followed by a few personal nostalgic recollections.  However, “Back to the Future” is all about nostalgia; the entire film is structured around a yearning for days gone by, no matter how distorted or misremembered our sentiment for those times may be.  So, no review this time (not yet, anyway); the personal stuff I’d normally leave at the end of an article is going to be the focus of this one.

So for the film’s 35th birthday, I’d like to share some “Back to the Future” related sights I’ve enjoyed at various conventions over the years, as well as a few personal memories.

 

“Wait a minute, don’t I know you from somewhere?”

Over the years, at various conventions and gatherings, I’ve had opportunities to meet a few people associated with the “Back to the Future” trilogy.  Sadly, I’ve not met stars Michael J. Fox (“Marty McFly”) or Lea Thompson (“Lorraine”), but I have met the chameleonic Christopher Lloyd (“Doc Brown”), Claudia Wells (the original “Jennifer Parker”) and Al White (“Dad” from “Back to the Future, Part 2”).

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Left to right; Huey Lewis (songwriter for the original film), Michael J. Fox, Bob Gale (writer/coproducer for the trilogy), Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson celebrate the “Back to the Future” trilogy’s release on Blu Ray in October of 2015…the very month and year of the ‘future’ seen in “Back to the Future, Part 2.”  

Rewatching “Back to the Future” in its entirety just last night, it really struck me just how much the young Michael J. Fox really sells it.  Yes, he’s ably assisted by a (very) talented ensemble cast, but Fox is the engine that drives just about every scene of the film.  It’s very hard to imagine the alternate universe version of the movie where actor Eric Stoltz (“Mask” “Caprica”) had been allowed to complete it.

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Eric Stoltz’s Marty McFly meets his ‘dad’ George McFly (Crispin Glover) in a frame of Stoltz’s original unused Marty McFly footage from “Back to the Future.” 

Stoltz (an otherwise fine dramatic actor) was let go after several weeks of filming, as his portrayal didn’t have that deft comedic timing that Fox seems to generate without effort.  That version of “Back to the Future” would’ve been decidedly more science fiction than sci-fi comedy, and it’s the comedy that gives it such universal appeal.   While I’ve only seen snippets of Stoltz’s footage in the role, I’d be very curious to see all of the footage he’d shot for the film before he was recast; rumors vary that he’d shot anywhere from half to three-quarters of the film before he was let go by director Robert Zemeckis (“Contact” “Cast Away”).

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Michael J. Fox’s Marty finds himself in 1955, where the famously nonworking Hill Valley Square Clock Tower still works (!).

In the years since the “Back to the Future” trilogy, Michael J. Fox has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative condition in the brain’s nerve cells that often leads to uncontrollable tremors.  Fox has advocated mightily on behalf of those afflicted with Parkinson’s (including the late boxing legend Muhammed Ali).  Michael J. Fox has parlayed his silver-screen heroism into a real-life role as advocate on behalf of Parkinson’s sufferers, and for that he has my greatest respect.  I highly recommend Fox’s inspirational biography “Lucky Man” (c. 2002), which I read and gave to a friend of mine who was struggling with her own Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis.  She told me that reading Fox’s story really helped.  That’s a far greater legacy to give others than even the best movies or TV shows, in my opinion.

Michael J. Fox in 2019’s “See You Yesterday” playing a science teacher for an interesting role-reversal. 

Even today, Fox still works in film and TV, including roles in “Scrubs” and more recently I saw him in a cameo role as high school science teacher “Mr. Lockhart” in the Spike Lee-produced sci-fi dramedy  “See You Yesterday” (Netflix, 2019) where he even had the chance to use Doc Brown’s immortal line, “Great Scott!”  While “See You Yesterday” is a lot more hard-hitting (think: “Back to the Future” meets “Do The Right Thing”), it was great to see Fox now playing the elder, mentor role (ala Christopher Lloyd) to young science wunderkind “C.J. Walker” (Eden Duncan-Smith).  C.J, much like Marty McFly, also tends to let her temper and impulsiveness get the best of her.

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Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown unveils his latest, greatest experiment to Marty.

Speaking of science mentors, there’s Christopher Lloyd as the aforementioned Dr. Emmet Brown.  Lloyd’s character is the single most important character in the entire “Back to the Future” trilogy, since it is his invention of the “flux capacitor” that makes time travel in these movies possible.  These days, I’ve seen a lot of video essays and articles about the arguably ‘inappropriate’ relationship between the elderly scientist and the teenage Marty, and while I agree it that Doc Brown unwittingly puts young Marty in considerable danger, their relationship is the same kind of mentor-pupil relationship that movies and pop culture have embraced for generations.  Doc Brown is the Merlin to Marty’s suburbanized King Arthur, or the Obi Wan Kenobi to Marty’s Luke Skywalker.  It can also be argued that Marty lacked a strong parental figure (at least in his original timeline), and so Doc Brown filled that role.  As a kid, I was well-mentored by a few of my teachers, so I don’t find Marty seeking a surrogate parent in Doc Brown to be so ‘strange.’  Despite the cinematic danger that Doc places Marty in, their relationship is otherwise completely innocent.

The real Christopher Lloyd; a surprisingly mellow, easygoing sort…very different from his famous characters. 

At last year’s NostalgiaCon80s convention in Anaheim, California (right across from Disneyland), I finally got the chance to meet Christopher Lloyd, and it was a thrill.  Lloyd’s movies and TV shows have been a big part of my formative years.  He first came onto my radar as the burned out ex-hippie “Reverend Jim” in the TV sitcom “Taxi” (1978-1983) and I’ve since enjoyed his roles in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975),  “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” (1984), “Clue” (1985), “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988) and many other films.  When I met him, I was almost taken aback by his low-key, downright humble demeanor.  I was so used to his portrayals of wonderfully over-the-top characters that it was a genuine surprise to meet a man whom I could easily imagine sipping coffee while reading on a subway in complete anonymity.  Meeting Lloyd in person gave me a whole new respect for his abilities as an actor, for he seemed to have little in common with those wide-eyed characters he plays so skillfully in film & TV.   He’s a true chameleon.

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Jennifer and Marty, in front of the ‘historic’ Hill Valley Clock Tower, which is part of the Universal backlot.  I’ve seen this ‘town’ (also the site of innumerable movies and TV shows) during tours of Universal Studios.

I also remember my encounter with Claudia Wells (the first “Jennifer Parker”) at WonderCon 2014.  Sadly, I didn’t get a photo with her, but I did get her autograph, and we had a nice conversation.  Turns out, she and I are born the same year, and I have the same first name as her son.  Gotta say, I’ve always preferred Wells’ interpretation of Jennifer Parker over Elizabeth Shue’s version in the sequels.  Nothing against the Oscar-winning Shue, but I always felt Shue’s performance as ‘everyday’ teenager Jennifer Parker felt a bit overdone and less natural by comparison.  Perhaps Wells was so natural in the role because she really was a teenager (18) at the time of filming.

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The first (and best) Jennifer Parker, Claudia Wells (who has excellent taste in first names…).

I then asked Wells “the question” that probably every fan who meets her asks; why didn’t she return for the two “Back to the Future” sequels?  She told me (without the slightest hint of exasperation that she no doubt felt from repeatedly answering this same question) that when the sequels went into production, she was caring for her cancer-stricken mother and was not able to return to the role.  She told me her mother eventually recovered, much to her relief (and mine, as a fellow cancer survivor).  Wells then chose not to pursue her acting career, and would go on to create the high-end clothier “Armani Wells”, which she still personally manages.   She graciously signed my “official” Back to the Future trilogy book (c. 1990) by mentioning my “beautiful name” (we both had a nice laugh over her excellent taste in first names).  I wished her well, and left.

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Al White in “Back to the Future Part 2”:  He ain’t gonna be terrorized!

Next up was Al White (“Airplane!” “Back to the Future Part 2”), whom I’d actually met on several occasions; the first time was at San Diego Comic Con in 2006, when he signed my DVD copy of “Airplane!”  White had played one of the two ‘Jive Guys’ in that film (the other being Norman Alexander Gibbs), whose 1970s-style soul brother dialogue (all improvised by the actors) was hilariously subtitled like a foreign language.  I remember asking White about his character’s return in “Airplane 2: The Sequel” (1982) where he had to swear in as a witness for the trial of “Ted Stryker” (Robert Hays). White told me that he insisted the director swear him in on the US Constitution, because White refused to swear on a bible (a man of conviction!).   In “Back to the Future Part 2”  White had a brief but memorable role as the angry “Dad” living in McFly’s former house in the “Biff-horrific” version of 1985 (aka 1985-A), who swings a bat at Marty after he breaks into his old bedroom, now the bedroom of White’s teenaged daughter in the film.

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The Jive Guy and I: meeting Al White (again) in 2015 for a longer chat.

White and I met again at WonderCon 2015, where we had a nice chat about his classical theater training, his 1976 cultural exchange tour of Moscow, Russia (back when Russia was the core of the Soviet Union), and how he and “Airplane!” costar Gibbs improvised all of their ‘jive dude’ dialogue with only minimal direction from the directors (Jim Abrams and the Zucker Bros).  We also talked about his appreciation of “Airplane!” fandom, and he told me that even if he were only recognized for his “Airplane!” role, it’d be enough for him just to see the laughs and joy it brought to fans like myself.  I ran into White yet again at San Diego Comic Con 2017, and he remembered me from WonderCon (understandable, since I was once again wearing my “Fred Flintstone” costume).  We had another quick chat, and he even threw some jive talk my way (“My momma don’ raise no dummy, I dug yer rap!”).   Talking with Al White was a genuine pleasure.

 

“If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”

At various conventions, including San Diego Comic Con, Anaheim WonderCon, Comic Con Revolution in Ontario and most recently at the newly minted NostalgiaCon80s (again in Anaheim), I’ve seen so many first-rate replicas of Doc Brown’s famed DeLorean time machine.  There’s even a DeLorean club here in SoCal where you can rent a DeLorean (either a stock model or “Back to the Future”-modified versions).

A few standard issue DeLoreans (no modification) grace the Anaheim Convention Center at NostalgiaCon80s last September.

With its stainless-steel finish and gull-wing doors, the Irish-manufactured DeLorean was quite the futuristic-looking car for the mid-1980s, though it’s rumored to be somewhat temperamental (this is a familiar anecdote from a few DeLorean owners/drivers I’ve talked with over the years).  DeLoreans went out of production following a 1982 cocaine trafficking scandal charged to company founder John DeLorean.  Ultimately DeLorean’s company went bankrupt in 1984, right during production of the first film.

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Gull wing doors open, flux capacitor….fluxxing.

And, of course, if you attended a large number of sci-fi conventions (my wife and I were attending anywhere from 8 to 10 conventions a year before the COVID-19 pandemic struck), you’re bound to see at least a couple of DeLorean replicas from “Back to the Future” here and there, some with the original movie’s 1985-era plutonium atomic power plant, and others with the 2015-modified “Mr. Fusion” retrofitted onto the car’s rear.

Call the number on the bumper if you want to try out one of these temperamental time machines; consequences to the fabric of spacetime may vary.  

As said above, some of these DeLoreans are actually rentable, though I have no idea how much it would cost to do so.  I’m also pretty sure traveling through time isn’t an option yet, since radioactive rods of plutonium still aren’t available at “corner drug stores” just yet (contrary to Doc Brown’s 1955 prediction).

This model came fully loaded, with hoverboard and power-laced Nikes thrown in at no extra charge.

Some of the “Back to the Future” DeLoreans I’ve seen at conventions also include replicated props from the films as well, including recreations of Marty’s “borrowed” 2015 hoverboard, and pairs of power-laced Nikes.  Nike had apparently developed real-life power laced Nikes, but they didn’t quite work as smartly or efficiently as their cinematic counterparts.  As for hoverboards?  There are hoverboards sold in the US, but they didn’t ‘float’ on air; they’re more a large, Segway-styled, gyroscopically-balanced skateboard.  Oh, and they once had a nasty habit of catching fire.  It was a fad that came and went, though you can still buy them from certain retailers.   Sadly, true anti-gravity or repulsor-lift technology is another “Back to the Future” prediction for 2015 that never came to pass (in our version of 2015, anyway).

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With the doors open, you could peek inside and see Marty’s “portable video unit” (a 1980s VHS camcorder), a vintage 1980s skateboard, and the DeLorean’s remote control, which was used to send the car on a one-minute jump into the future (with Doc’s dog Einstein aboard).

As I’ve said before, I’ve seen custom DeLoreans with the “Mr. Fusion” power plants, which were supposed to be ‘home fusion generators’ (much as the late 1970s and early 1980s saw microwave ovens enter common household use).  Sadly, home fusion power is another fanciful prediction that never came to be, as cold fusion (room temperature atomic fusion reaction, with no radioactivity) remains as elusive as ever.  Though I do see many more homes with clean, renewable rooftop solar panels.  Renewable energy sources are something we can definitely use more of if we hope to have a sustainable planet for our real future.

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This DeLorean had the barcode license plate and “Mr. Fusion” power plant seen in “Back to the Future Part 2.”  
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This was a beautiful replica of the “Back to the Future, Part 2 & 3″ model DeLorean at Comic Con Revolution in Ontario (Ontario, California, not Canada).  This was the first one I’d ever seen signed by the cast and crew.  Some of the signatures on the vehicle’s glove compartment included Christopher Lloyd, Claudia Wells, writer/producer Bob Gale, and director Robert Zemeckis.  The wear and aging on this DeLorean was very realistic, as were its perfect replica clocks and “time circuit” controls from the film.  I almost wondered if this was, in fact, a screen-used prop.  A general rule of thumb at conventions; if an item is worn or slightly imperfect in some way, it’s more likely to be authentic.  Fan reproductions are usually too perfectly pristine. 
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This model looked the most authentic, due to its wear and slight aging.  In addition to the very detailed flux capacitor behind the driver’s seat, there was also a few props from the film, including Doc’s future visor display, Marty’s 2015 iridescent ball cap, his 1980s aviator sunglasses, as well as a copy of the infamous “Gray’s Sports Almanac” (the “damn book” that disrupts an entire timeline).

 

“How about a ride, mister?”

“Are you a sight for sore eyes…let me look at you.”

At NostalgiaCon80s in Anaheim, they even had a pristine version of Marty McFly’s 1985 ‘dream’ Toyota truck, including banners, adverts and flags straight from the fictional “Statler Toyota” dealership in Hill Valley.

 

“The future.  Unbelievable.   I gotta check this out, Doc.”

At San Diego Comic Con’s “Profiles In History” collectibles booth and auction display, you can see actual, screen-used props and miniatures from many popular movies and TV shows.  On a few occasions, I’ve seen some real gems from the “Back to the Future” trilogy.

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Under glass was an actual hoverboard prop used in “Back to the Future Part 2” (its the wear and tear that gives it away; fan replicas are usually too pristine and perfect).  There’s also an actual, screen-used copy of the infamous “Gray’s Sports Almanac” (half-visible on the left).  Underneath the hoverboard you will also see a clapboard used during the production of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975).  Spielberg, of course, was also an executive producer on the “Back to the Future” trilogy as well.  Part 2 even made a reference to “Jaws” as Marty passes a holographic ad for “Jaws 19” directed by Steven’s son “Max Spielberg” (the real Max Spielberg, like “Back to the Future” also turned 35 this year).
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Michael J. Fox’s screen-used Nikes with “power laces” (offscreen wires); judging by the wear and tear of the rubber soles, I’d say these are definitely genuine.  Screen-used props are one of the rare times when a less-than-pristine condition often implies greater value, as it denotes authenticity. 
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An actual screen-used miniature flying DeLorean model used by the special effects maestros at Industrial Light and Magic for motion-control work in “Back to the Future Part 2.” You can see the DeLorean’s normal stainless steel exterior has been dulled down to a diffused gray to avoid reflecting unwanted ‘spill’ light from the blue-screen motion control stage.  Green-screen is the more commonly used industry standard today.  Motion-control miniature photography, which uses programmable camera moves for multiple composited passes, is rapidly becoming a lost art.  There was roughly 30 year (or so) span of time when motion-control was the only practical way to shoot large spacecraft, or flying cars, or who knows what.   

 

 

“Who knows if they have cotton underwear in the future?”

One of my favorite elements sci-fi/fantasy conventions are the cosplayers, and “Back to the Future” is often well represented at events such as San Diego Comic Con, WonderCon Anaheim, Comic Con Revolution Ontario and NostalgiaCon80s.

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1985 Marty McFly, with period-accurate “life preserver” jacket, and red-striped Nikes.  And the suspenders…ah yes, suspenders.  Even I got caught up in that craze for a while before I realized that belts are just better.  Suspenders sometimes came undone when I rode motorcycles, too. This guy also had a 2015-vintage hoverboard, too.
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Full-on 2015 Marty McFly, complete with inside-out pockets, hoverboard, power-laced Nikes (with LED lights), the self-drying jacket and even the iridescent ball cap. 
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That same cosplayer appeared a year or so later, this time with his kid (“Something’s gotta be done about your kids!”).   While the cosplayer’s child rocks the 2015 Marty McFly look, the former Marty now dons the 2015 Doc Brown look, complete with wild white hair, visor display and an October 21st 2015 copy of USA Today detailing the arrest of a coerced, bullied Marty McFly for an unspecified crime.  That future, of course, was altered by Doc’s plan, and Griff Tannen (grandson of Biff) rightly went to jail instead.
“Clint Eastwood never looked like this, Doc.”  Doc Brown’s wildly inaccurate period costuming for Marty’s trip from 1955 to 1885 in “Back to the Future Part 3” (1990).   It’s a bit rare to see a cosplayer donning a look from the often overlooked third movie.

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a fan!

During his “Evening With Neil deGrasse Tyson” live stage show at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium (which my wife and I attended in Pasadena in January of 2016) famed pop scientist and director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium Dr. Neil deGrasseTyson singled out a 14-year old audience member during the Q & A portion of the panel who hadn’t yet seen the movie, and teased the child’s parent for neglecting to introduce their kid to this classic film!

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Tyson, during his talk on movie physics, singles out a 14-year old audience member who’d not yet seen “Back to the Future.”  Great Scott!

Tyson skewered the movie’s physics, talking about the paltry sums of energy gained from radioactive decay or even fusion, which wouldn’t even be remotely enough to (theoretically) propel a vehicle back and forth through time, if time travel were even possible.  Though Tyson did admit to being a huge fan of the film, nevertheless.

Reunited Apart, with Josh Gad

Actor/comedian Josh Gad’s coronavirus-friendly Zoom series, “Reunited Apart” reunites cast members from his favorite films.   The YouTube series’ second episode reunited the cast from “Back to the Future,” which was perhaps the best birthday gift possible during these difficult times.  The episode featured Zoom appearances from cast members Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Mary Steenburgen (“Clara Clayton”) Elisabeth Shue and a last-minute appearance from Claudia Wells (yes, both Jennifer Parkers on one Zoom call!).

Also featured were Huey Lewis (“The Power Of Love”), director Robert Zemeckis, writer/producer Bob Gale and mega-composer Alan Silvestri (“Forrest Gump” “The Abyss” “Contact” “The Avengers”).   Another last-minute addition to the call included director/producer J.J. Abrams (“Lost” “Star Trek” “Star Wars”), who has no direct connection to the “Back to the Future” films, other than he is a huge fan of the series.  Enjoy!

 

COVID-Safe Viewing.

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Three for the road!

The entire “Back to the Future” trilogy is currently available for streaming on Netflix, as well as YouTube and Amazon Prime Video streaming rentals for $3.99 (download purchase prices vary).  The DVD and Blu Ray trilogy box sets are also available for contact-free purchase & delivery from Amazon.com.

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To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic.  The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States have surpassed 132,000 as of this writing.  Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet.   Yes, businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe.  So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly  crowded outings as much as possible.

Take care!

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Images: Universal, YouTube, IMDb, Author

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