Thirty years is a long time. As Back to the Future hits its Pearl Anniversary, its performers have finally caught up with the ages they played in the 2015-set sequel. Forget the fact that we still don’t have those promised hoverboards (unless… ), or gigantic 3D billboard things, or ovens that actually react to the phrase “Hydrate Level Four, please” – the fact that we ever had the Back to the Future trilogy remains a thing to cherish. Just ask its stars…
Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly)
Star of hit sitcom Family Ties, Canadian actor Michael J. Fox won the role of Marty McFly after previous actor Eric Stoltz proved… unsuitable (the most comprehensive account yet of this famous tale is now on Vulture). Since winning over millions in his breakout film role, Fox hasn’t looked back – although beloved roles in the likes of Teen Wolf and The Frighteners have never overshadowed his small screen efforts. Despite being a bona fide movie star in the ’80s and ’90s, Fox always remained one of television’s greatest sure things, with five Emmys, four Golden Globes and two SAG awards on his mantelpiece for shows from Family Ties, to later vehicle Spin City, to guest spots all over the place in Scrubs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rescue Me and, most recently, The Good Wife. Note that after his high-profile Parkinson’s diagnosis in 1991 (made public in ’98), Fox “retired” in 2000 yet continued to work tirelessly. In between his surprisingly prolific output, of course, he’s a well-known charity campaigner, with three best-selling books, a very famous political campaign and even a more recent sitcom – casually normalising Parkinson’s! – under his belt. What a man. What an icon.
Christopher Lloyd (“Doc” Emmett Brown)
Christopher Lloyd’s first film role was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Shortly after showing the world what he could do as a somewhat violent mental patient, Lloyd moved onto classic sitcom Taxi, winning two Emmys as Revd. Jim Ignatowski. Only a Klingon role in Star Trek III separated him from the major stardom of Doctor Emmett Brown – and then, the world was his. Lloyd continued, through the ’80s and ’90s, to cement his reputation as one of the most beloved character actors of the period – Clue, The PageMaster, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and of course the huge punches of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Addams Family (and its fantastic sequel) and Anastasia. Lloyd’s distinctive voice has served him well elsewhere, of course – the DuckTales film, for instance, and Hey Arnold! The Movie. Lloyd has worked constantly, racking up 99 film credits since Doc Brown put him on the map, including recent work on Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and A Million Ways to Die in the West. Heck, just this year he was nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Where, then, is Christopher Lloyd now? Everywhere. Being awesome.
Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen)
Tom Wilson only acts occasionally these days, preferring to stick to his pre-Back to the Future job as a cult comedian. But the franchise’s most underrated asset continues to make a solid living from his live shows, guest appearances and radio spots (most notably for the popular Bob & Tom Show). Wilson’s smarts served him well as the various Tannens, making each of these abrasive and goofy jocks distinct characters, yet all clearly the same essential person: young Biff, old Biff, humble-old-Biff, alternative-universe old Biff, elderly Biff, Griff and Mad Dog – all played on this impressive tightrope of bumbling hilarity and genuine (homicidal; somewhat rapey) villainy. So too have the last three decades of Wilson’s career been imbued with a straightforwardness and a passion for comedy that have allowed him to embrace the shadow of his biggest role. A recurring part in the beloved Freaks and Geeks; recent appearances in films such as The Heat and Soderbergh’s The Informant!; and, crucial to Wilson’s legacy, countless voice roles in everything from SpongeBob to Rio to Batman to Pinky and the Brain – all just ways to fund his love of comedy and podcasting. Check him out on Nerdist.
Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines/McFly)
Lea Thompson’s biggest role since playing Lorraine has been late-’90s sitcom Caroline in the City, for which she won stellar reviews and a People’s Choice Award. Aside from that, her career has had little of the star power hinted at in her breakthrough film – though thankfully, Thompson has always appeared with the grace and charm curiously absent from her actual debut, Jaws 3D. It’s possible that the quiet nail in her filmography’s coffin was George Lucas’ godawful Howard the Duck in 1986, in which the following occurs. Luckily the Back to the Future sequels followed this bizarre disaster, salvaging Thompson’s career somewhat. The veteran performer’s more recent roles have included parts in Left Behind and Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, as well as an ongoing starring role in sitcom Switched at Birth. She also came dangerously close to the final of 2014’s Dancing with the Stars – here she is, awesome as ever, Cha Cha-ing to you-can-probably-guess-what.
Crispin Glover (George McFly)
Crispin Hellion Glover remains a fantastic role model. Actor, writer, director, artist and musician, responsible for some of the most unsettling pieces of work produced in the last three decades. Glover’s relationship with the franchise that made his name is a complex one: it is claimed that after a minor question over the original film’s politics, Bob Gale became quietly tyrannical towards his young actor and ultimately offered him half the salary of his co-stars to film Parts II and III. An insulted and bullied Glover left – though the producers used his unlicensed likeness anyway, leading to a landmark court case won by the actor.
Not that this has harmed Glover’s career at all; it is just another crazy story for this legendary oddball, who has since kept his passion for avant-garde art-making financially afloat with high-profile appearances in films such as The Doors, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Hot Tub Time Machine and – even bigger – Charlie’s Angels, Alice in Wonderland and Zemeckis’ Beowulf (no hard feelings, then). But what about those art projects? Glover fans are well aware of the man’s insane noodlings as a director (What Is It? and It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine), his touring ‘Big Slideshow’ and his notorious in-character appearance on Letterman – but his greatest personal achievement has to be his album The Big Problem Does Not Equal the Solution, The Solution Equals Let it Be, which is a beautiful exercise in sheer lunacy that is either fantastic, or should never have been allowed to happen.
Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker)
Claudia Wells was another of the franchise’s big cast-shuffles, though in her case it happened twice: first, in a Fox-style twist, she was drafted five weeks into production to replace Melora Hardin (rumour has it once Stoltz was replaced, Hardin was too tall for her new love interest); subsequently, when filming for the sequels rolled around, Wells’ mother was diagnosed with cancer leaving this original Jennifer with no choice but to leave the franchise (she was, of course, replaced with Elisabeth Shue). In the wake of Back to the Future‘s success, Wells was cast in a brief and largely unsuccessful CBS series entitled Fast Times – a miniseries remake of the popular Cameron Crowe film. It was, however, with her mother’s diagnosis that Wells stepped away from Hollywood, essentially never returning. Still, her Studio City shop Armani Wells has done well for the last quarter-century, and the erstwhile Jennifer Parker was rightfully cast in 2011’s well-received video game adaptation of the series. If you’re gonna have one role, you may as well make it an enduring one.
James Tolkan (Principal Strickland)
Tolkan had a solid career before Back to the Future (Serpico, The Amityville Horror, WarGames… and he played Napoleon in Woody Allen’s Love and Death!), and he’s worked regularly since. Immediate post-Future roles included Top Gun, Masters of the Universe, Family Business and Dick Tracy. Largely retired since the 2000s (well, he is 84), Tolkan’s most recent job was HBO’s award-winning TV film Phil Spector – the man’s clearly no slacker. Here’s hoping Mr. Tolkan’s well-deserved retirement is a tad calmer than Principal Strickland’s in alternate 1985…