The inspiration for “Back to the Future” is one of those serendipitous Hollywood stories. After the middling comedy “Used Cars,” co-screenwriter Bob Gale was visiting his folks when he happened upon his dad’s high school yearbook. Leafing through the pages, he was struck by the notion: Would he and his father have been friends if they went to school together?
Over the next four years, that kernel of an idea became the screenplay for “Back to the Future,” Gale’s next film with his friend and regular collaborator Robert Zemeckis, who directed “Romancing the Stone” and achieved his first hit after the poor commercial performance of “Used Cars.” Once the project was greenlit, they set about finding a young actor suitable to play Marty McFly, the Californian teenager who gets zapped back to the ’50s in a time-traveling DeLorean.
Many actors were considered including Johnny Depp, who had caught the eye with a memorable death scene in “A Nightmare on Elm Street;” and Ralph Macchio, who was hot from the huge success of “The Karate Kid.” Zemeckis and Gale wanted Michael J. Fox because they were impressed by his comic timing on “Family Ties,” for which the actor won three Emmys. The show’s producer was less than enthusiastic about sharing his star and reportedly never gave Fox the script.
Out of the long list of potentials, two names emerged as the frontrunners: C. Thomas Howell, who had just made “Red Dawn” with Patrick Swayze; and Eric Stoltz, whose impressive turn in “Mask” was later nominated for a Golden Globe. Universal CEO Sidney Sheinberg preferred the latter, so Stoltz got the part, reasoning that they could always re-shoot later with another actor if things went wrong.