Back in the summer of 1985, audiences of all ages were thrilled by a tale of a modern-day teenager leaping back to 1955 in a plutonium-powered DeLorean, trying to get his parents to meet and fall in love. Back to the Future was fun for kids who could relate to the teenager, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), and for their parents who could reminisce about their own 1950s childhoods.
It certainly helped boost the film careers of both director Robert Zemeckis and Fox, the two true stars of the show. But the original film featured many other actors with mixed fates. Some have been quietly working constantly, one has mounted a comeback after a long absence, and one has a weird tie to Michael Jackson. Plus, stick around for a couple of bonus honorable mentions.
You don’t need a souped up DeLorean to find out Where are they Now? The Cast of Back to the Future.
13 ROBERT ZEMECKIS (CO-WRITER/DIRECTOR)
After scoring his first big hit in 1984 with the adventure comedy Romancing the Stone, director Robert Zemeckis was able to make a little more of a passion project, the first big-budget movie he co-wrote: Back to the Future. Obviously, it turned out to be a science-fiction-comedy classic, and it very much defined the rest of his enormously successful career.
He has used the combination of comedy, adventure, science fiction and innovative special effects constantly. As a follow-up, he brought cartoon characters from different studios together, along with live-action actors and settings, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There were more crazy special effects and dark comedy in 1992’s Death Becomes Her before he struck Oscar gold with Forrest Gump in 1994, which also sparked a collaboration with Tom Hanks that evolved into films like Cast Away and The Polar Express – the latter being the first entirely motion capture feature film. Coming up, Allied will hit theaters in November, a World War II thriller starring Brad Pitt.
12 HARRY WATERS JR. (MARVIN BERRY)
Harry Waters Jr. had one of the classic moments in the original Back to the Future. We knew Marvin Berry and the Starlighters were the band playing the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in 1955. But we didn’t know he was a Berry until Marty stepped on stage, grabbed a guitar and pulled some Chuck Berry licks, leading to Marvin calling Chuck and exclaiming, "Chuck, Chuck! It's Marvin! Your cousin, Marvin Berry! You know that new sound you were looking for? Well listen to THIS!"
After the first film, and a brief appearance in the second, Waters got some work, mostly guest parts on sitcoms like Amen and 227, but nothing major, though he did voice Tweedle Dee in 100 episodes of an early '90s cartoon called Adventures in Wonderland. He’s concentrated mainly on writing, teaching acting, and theater work, appearing in the first production of the Tony Award winning Angels in America back in 1991.
11 DONALD FULLILOVE (GOLDIE WILSON)
If you’re a Back to the Future fan, you probably already know one Michael Jackson connection: his appearance on the Cafe 80’s restaurant TV in 2015 in Part II. But did you know that actor Donald Fullilove, who played 1955-busboy/1985-mayor Goldie Wilson, voiced the cartoon version of Jackson in the 1971 show Jackson 5ive in his first acting job at the age of 13?
The awesomely named Fullilove continued to be the consummate character actor through the years, constantly popping up in bit parts on TV and on the big screen, including the 21 Jump Street TV show and the film White Men Can’t Jump. Lately, though, he’s been almost exclusively a voice actor, with his dulcet tones popping up everywhere from Pixar classics WALL-E and Up, to American Dad!
10 WENDIE JO SPERBER (LINDA MCFLY)
When Back to the Future hit screens in 1985, Wendie Jo Sperber, who played Marty’s sister Linda, was one of the better known supporting actors in the cast. She was well known for her hilarious role in the early Tom Hanks cross-dressing sitcom Bosom Buddies and appeared in the TV version of Private Benjamin.
She continued to act in similar roles, often as the goofy friend in sitcoms. While she couldn’t return for Part II because she was pregnant, she was in Part III. Sperber starred in a sitcom about three…er, not skinny…women called Babes in 1990-91, as well as the John Ritter sitcom Hearts Afire a couple years later, while also popping up with Ritter on 8 Simple Rules. Sadly, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. While she fought valiantly and became a breast cancer activist, she passed away in 2005 at age 47.
9 JAMES TOLKAN (MR. STRICKLAND)
As Mr. Strickland, veteran character actor James Tolkan lived up to his character’s name as the super-strict vice principal at Marty’s school. He wasn’t afraid to shove Marty (he’d most certainly be fired for that these days) and call him a slacker. He had a reputation for playing tough, strict authoritarian characters in various movies and TV shows leading into Back to the Future, and that didn’t change afterwards.
The next year he had a hard-nosed part in Top Gun, as Captain Tom “Stinger” Jardian. On Remington Steele, he had a recurring role as a tough character out to prove Steele was a fraud. And, of course, he returned for the BttF sequels, most notably as Strickland’s grandfather, Chief Marshal James Strickland in the third flick. Now 84, he hasn’t worked a lot since the turn of the century, but was a regular on the A&E series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001-02), even directing two episodes, and last appeared in the western Bone Tomahawk in 2015.
8 CLAUDIA WELLS (JENNIFER PARKER)
After appearing in the bookends of the original Back to the Future as Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, Claudia Wells was thrust into superstardom. Or not. Leading up to her big break, she was a regular as a teen actress in a short-lived Herbie, the Love Bug TV show. Just after the movie, she was in another short-lived show, playing the Phoebe Cates role in a TV version of Fast Times. But then she went quiet.
She chose not to play Jennifer in the sequels (more on who did later) due to her mother’s unfortunate diagnosis with cancer, along with the lingering effects of a car accident. However, after a 22-year absence from acting, she appeared in a low-budget 2011 sci-fi film called Alien Armageddon, as well as provided the voice of Jennifer in Back to the Future: The Game. She also appeared in an episode of The Mentalist and continues her comeback in a number of low budget films with awesome titles like My Cousin’s Ghetto Wedding and Break Dance Revolution. Oh, and how could we forget: she sells autographed Back to the Future t-shirts and photos on her website.
7 TOM WILSON (BIFF TANNEN)
In his first major film role, Tom Wilson played the bully everybody loved to hate, Biff Tannen, in Back to the Future. While it didn’t thrust him to superstardom, it did lead him to a long, continuing career as a character actor, stand-up comedian and musician. Obviously, he reprised his role as Biff, as well as his ancestors and offspring, in the sequels.
From there, he took supporting roles in films like the Carl Weathers vehicle Action Jackson. On TV, you’ve seen in as a coach on Freaks and Geeks in a recurring role, plus Ed and many others. But much of his work has come off-screen, as a voice artist on animated shows, from SpongeBob Squarepants to The Spectacular Spider-Man and various Batman series, plus video games (including Back to the Future titles). A well-rounded artist, he’s a somewhat successful painter and has had a podcast called Big Pop Fun.
6 CRISPIN GLOVER (GEORGE MCFLY)
Quirky character actor Crispin Glover has a strange relationship with the Back to the Future franchise. While he memorably starred as Marty’s father (both young and awkward in 1955 and older in ‘85), he did not reprise the role in the sequels, though the character returned. Glover says he had issues with the ending of the original movie and refused to participate in the sequels. So they used another actor, Jeffrey Weissman, in Glover-like makeup.
Glover is notoriously considered an odd bird, and his acting choices reflect that. He actually starred opposite Michael J. Fox in a couple of episodes of Family Ties, and shortly after Back to the Future, played a memorable role in the film River’s Edge. Since then, he’s played supporting roles all over the map, from little-known indie films to distinctive performances as Andy Warhol in The Doors, the silently evil Thin Man in Charlie’s Angels, the Knave of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland and the lead role in the creepy rat movie Willard. These days, he continues to straddle the line between mainstream and independent weirdness. He writes and directs his own films like What Is It? (2005), a surreal film starring actors with Down’s Syndrome. While he’s got another film in post production, on the other side of the industry, he’ll star as Mr. World in the American Gods TV series next year, based on Neil Gaiman’s novel.
5 LEA THOMPSON (LORRAINE BAINES-MCFLY)
Remember that whole theme in Back to the Future where Marty’s mom totally wanted to get it on with him? Yeah. It was funny, no doubt, but also super creepy. Just for a second, guys, imagine a young version of your mom flirting with you. We apologize if we just ruined your day. Anyway, onward. Lea Thompson was certainly a fetching Lorraine, as the young version in 1955, then aged with makeup for 1985. Many a teenage boy fell in love with her, where Marty did not…in that way.
It was Thompson’s breakthrough role, leading to key parts in films that were just so '80s, like Some Kind of Wonderful and Casual Sex? By 1995, she moved to “Must See TV” on NBC for four seasons, following Friends and Seinfeld as the lead in Caroline in the City, about a cartoonist looking for love in the Big Apple. In the mid-2000s, she starred in a long-running series of Hallmark Channel movies called Jane Doe. Most recently, she has been a regular on the ABC Family series Switched at Birth, which will wrap up with a final season in 2017 on the Freeform network. Now 54, Thompson has also caught the directing bug in recent years, trying her hand with a couple of installments of Jane Doe and two Switched at Birth episodes.
4 CHRISTOPHER LLOYD (DR. EMMETT BROWN)
Before starring as frantic inventor Dr. Emmett Brown, Christopher Lloyd had made a name for himself as the hilarious burnout Reverend Jim on 84 episodes of the sitcom Taxi. And just before Back to the Future, he buttered himself up to science fiction fans as Klingon Commander Kruge in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Since his iconic turn as the manic, white-haired, bulgy-eyed Brown, Lloyd has been everywhere. First of all, though, don’t confuse him with the immensely successful producer Christopher Lloyd, whose credit you’d see on Modern Family, Frasier and Wings. No, our Lloyd has been everywhere as a character actor – and when we say everywhere, we mean everywhere, with 211 IMDB credits and counting. While he’s never really taken another star turn, he did notably reunite with Michael J. Fox on Spin City and The Michael J. Fox Show in guest spots, and has voiced Doc Brown in video games and on Robot Chicken. Plus, for the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future last year, he and Fox reprised their most famous roles for a spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live! He still works consistentlyistantly at age 77.
3 MICHAEL J. FOX (MARTY MCFLY)
Hot off his starring role on the hit sitcom Family Ties, Michael J. Fox was Zemeckis’ first choice to play the lead role of Marty McFly. Only one problem: the show’s producer, Gary David Goldberg, wouldn’t let Fox take time off to shoot the movie. Notoriously, they shot a good chunk of the movie with Eric Stoltz as Marty, but he just wasn’t nailing the comedic parts of the role. So Zemeckis went back to Goldberg and successfully begged for some of Fox’s time.
The film made Fox a superstar. Hot on its heels, Teen Wolf was another big hit for him, and he continued to light up box offices throughout the late '80s and early '90s in The Secret of My Success, the Back to the Future sequels (obviously), and Doc Hollywood, while providing the voice for the animated hit Stuart Little in 1999. In ‘96, he turned back to TV with another hit, Spin City, winning an Emmy in 2000. But as the third season aired, he revealed that he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
He quit the show to deal with his health issues, and has become a major spokesman for the disease, founding the Michael J. Fox Foundation, while popping up in guest spots and recurring roles all over the TV world, from Scrubs to Boston Legal and, most recently, a long run on this past season of The Good Wife. There was also his short-lived starring vehicle, The Michael J. Fox Show in 2013-14, inspired by his own life, as a popular news anchor diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
2 BONUS: ELISABETH SHUE (JENNIFER PARKER)
Like we said in the previous “Jennifer” entry featuring actress Claudia Wells, she wasn’t able to return for the sequels. So we had to give Elisabeth Shue an honorable mention for taking the role and running through both sequels. She was a hot young actress at the time, having already starred in big hits like The Karate Kid, Adventures in Babysitting and Cocktail. For Part II, they even re-shot the ending of the original, where the sequel starts off, with Doc Brown finding Marty and Jennifer on the driveway.
Curiously, after the sequels, her career cooled off a bit, and she had trouble finding another hit. That is, until 1994’s Leaving Las Vegas, which netted her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She’s worked pretty steadily ever since, in films big and small, even producing a soccer movie called Gracie with her soccer-playing brother Andrew Shue, of Melrose Place fame. In 2012, Shue joined the cast of CSI for 71 episodes until it ended last year.
1 BONUS: MARY STEENBURGEN (CLARA CLAYTON)
Like Shue, veteran actress Mary Steenburgen also played a big enough role in the sequels to get an honorable mention here. She broke out as an Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress in Melvin and Howard in 1980, and never looked back. In Part III, she played Clara Clayton, a schoolteacher in 1885, who turned out to be the love of Doc Brown’s life.
Of course, she didn’t need a measly Back to the Future sequel to boost her career. She was fine before, and has been fine ever since, with major and supporting roles in TV and film, notably Elf, Joan of Arcadia, Justified and Orange is the New Black. Married to Ted Danson since 1995, these days she’s part of the ensemble on Fox’s The Last Man on Earth, as the often drunken Gail. Coincidentally, the Back to the Future DeLorean appeared in the recent season finale, though she didn’t get to take it for a spin.
Which BttF alum's career path surprised you the most? Let us know in the comments.