The Real Reason Eric Stoltz Wasn’t Marty McFly in ‘Back to the Future’


The Big Picture

  • January 10, 1985: Eric Stoltz was fired from Back to the Future after a month of filming, making way for Michael J. Fox to take over as Marty McFly.
  • Stoltz’s method acting and lack of comedic chops led to reservations from cast and crew, who felt he wasn’t bringing the right energy to the role.
  • Michael J. Fox joined the production last minute, juggling a full workload between filming Back to the Future and his sitcom Family Ties.

Sometimes, the movie-making process hits a snag when the filmmakers realize the casting is not quite right. In the best cases, this happens before principal photography starts. But in some cases, filming has already gotten underway when a major casting change takes place. While the unpleasant task of having to fire or replace an actor can arise for a variety of reasons, from personal matters to injuries and creative differences to public scandals, one can presume that delivering such crushing news to a performer must be unenviable at best. One such incident took place on January 10, 1985, as cameras rolled on Back to the Future. It’s really hard to imagine anyone else leading the way in Back to the Future other than Michael J. Fox, though initially, Eric Stoltz had been filming for over a month as Marty McFly. Little did he know that his time on set would soon be at an end.

Image via Universal Pictures

Back to the Future

Marty McFly, a 17-year-old high school student, is accidentally sent 30 years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his close friend, the maverick scientist Doc Brown.

Release Date
July 3, 1985

Robert Zemeckis

Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells



Main Genre

Adventure, Comedy, Family, Sci-Fi

Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale

He’s the only kid ever to get into trouble before he was born.

How Did Eric Stoltz Get the Role of Marty McFly in ‘Back to the Future’?

Once the script for Back to the Future began traveling through Hollywood circles, many young actors pursued its lead role. Up-and-coming talents like Jon Cryer, Ben Stiller, and C. Thomas Howell each threw their hat into the casting ring. But it was Michael J. Fox, at the time starring on the popular ’80s sitcom Family Ties, who caught the attention of the film’s director and producers. Due to scheduling conflicts with his hit series, however, Fox lost out on the opportunity. It was at the urging of Universal Pictures executive Sid Sheinberg, who’d taken a liking to Eric Stoltz after seeing his performance in Peter Bogdanovich‘s Mask, that the actor ultimately won the role of Marty McFly.

‘Back to the Future’s Cast and Crew Were Hesitant About Eric Stoltz

Eric Stoltz and Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future
Image via Universal Pictures

With principal photography kicking off on Back to the Future in November 1984, the film was on a tight budget and even tighter schedule considering its planned release for the following July. Having approached the role of Marty McFly with a method style of acting, Stoltz’s colleagues quickly realized that something was amiss in his performance. Co-star Lea Thompson recalls in Caseen Gaines’ book, We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, “Eric had such an intensity. He saw drama in things. He wasn’t really a comedian, and they needed a comedian. He’s super-funny in real life, but he didn’t approach his work like that, and they really needed somebody who had those chops.” Fellow actor Christopher Lloyd echoed this sentiment, praising Stoltz as a performer but noting that “he was not bringing that element of comedy to the screen.”

Despite his talent, Eric Stoltz’s overly dramatic take on the character and material simply wasn’t translating to what director Robert Zemeckis and company had envisioned. His method approach continued raising eyebrows when he insisted on being referred to by his character’s name, as he’d previously done while shooting Mask. In addition, Thomas F. Wilson took particular umbrage with the actor in a scene involving physical conflict between their characters. In playing out the confrontation between Marty and Biff in the school cafeteria, Stoltz went all out and did a number on Wilson’s collarbone after multiple takes, leaving the latter hopeful for an opportunity to get even in a fight scene that would be shot later. But as fate would have it, Wilson never got his revenge, and that scene would be shot with another actor better suited to play Marty.

Michael J. Fox Replaces Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in ‘Back to the Future’

By early January 1985, with more than a month of photography completed, the difficult decision to replace Eric Stoltz was made. Though the announcement would be a surprise to some of the film’s cast and crew, there were those who suspected something drastic was about to happen. Director of Photography Dean Cundey, also quoted in Gaines’ book, remembers, “There were signs, especially the last week or so. When we would set up a shot and we would shoot Chris Lloyd’s angle, but we wouldn’t do the reverse on Marty, I’d say, ‘Don’t we need the angle?’ and Bob would say, ‘No, no, no, let’s not worry about that.’” Likewise, production designer Larry Paull recalls being instructed not to alter one of the films 1955-themed sets, and that more shooting with it would be necessary due to “some changes.”

On the night of January 10, a few days after Robert Zemeckis got final approval to replace his lead actor, Eric Stoltz filmed his final scene on Back to the Future. After breaking the devastating news to the actor in private, the director gathered his crew during a break in shooting around 10:30 p.m. Present for the bombshell news were co-writer Bob Gale and producers Neil Canton, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, and Steven Spielberg. Zemeckis announced, “It’s probably going to be shocking — kind of good news, bad news. We’re going to have to re-shoot most of the movie because we’ve changed the cast and there’s going to be a new Marty: Michael J. Fox.”

Decades later, Robert Zemeckis said of the decision, “Eric is a brilliant actor. I simply miscast him and I learned a very serious lesson. You have to cast the movie the right way.” When asked about the experience of informing the actor he’d no longer be working on the production, Zemeckis further revealed, “It was horrible. That was the worst experience of my career. It was just horrible, you know, never want to do that again.”

‘Back to the Future’ Was an Intense Schedule for Michael J. Fox

Joining the production at the 11th hour, Michael J. Fox began work on the film just days after Eric Stoltz’s departure. Though he initially had to pass on the role over scheduling conflicts with Family Ties, the 23-year-old star of the small screen was determined to juggle the intimidating workload between the two projects. Operating on little sleep for months, Fox would put in a full day on his sitcom at Paramount Studios, working from 10 in the morning until 6 at night. He would then rush to the Universal lot and shoot Back to the Future from roughly 6:30 to 2:30 a.m. His schedule on Fridays, however, proved to be the most challenging of all. Fox would rehearse for Family Ties from noon until 5, and then shoot two tapings with a live audience until 10. From there, he reported to Zemeckis’ set and shot until 6 or 7 the following morning. Fortunately for the young actor, he didn’t work on weekends and could recharge for the following Monday. At the time of filming, he said of the experience, “I knew this was going to be a grueling schedule. But I learned to enjoy it, and besides, if I can’t handle it at this age, I might as well get out of the business!”

Back to the Future is available to stream on Peacock in the U.S.

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