Back to the Summer of ’85: When Michael J. Fox ruled the box office.
By Jeff Pfeiffer, ReMIND Magazine
Can you picture a timeline in which Michael J. Fox did not portray Marty McFly? It almost happened.
On July 3, 1985, moviegoers ready for some Fourth of July holiday fun got that in droves when they were introduced to Back to the Future — the Oscar-winning time-travel comedy that not only quickly became one of the most beloved films of the ’80s, but also remains regarded as an all-time great movie that has entertained multiple generations.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine the blockbuster succeeding as well as it did without its perfect casting — especially Fox as lead character Marty McFly.
Fox’s ability to combine dramatic and emotional moments with impeccable comic timing — honed during the years he had already spent as a TV star headlining the sitcom Family Ties — helps make his Marty especially relatable to audiences.
Believe it or not, though, as much as Marty risks accidentally creating other futures in the BTTF films, our actual reality was briefly headed toward an alternate history in which it was Eric Stoltz, not Fox, who played Marty.
Although Fox was director Robert Zemeckis’ first choice for the role, the actor’s Family Ties commitment made it challenging for him to also do a movie. So, by late 1984, filming got underway with Stoltz as Marty. Stoltz is certainly a fine actor, especially in dramas like 1985’s Mask, but you can see how Zemeckis may have found him too serious in his approach.
Eventually, Fox was able to reconcile his TV and film work, the proper timeline was restored with him as the Back to the Future lead, and the rest is history.
But the summer of 1985 was not done bringing audiences Michael J. Fox crowd-pleasers. In August, the actor headlined Teen Wolf. Despite not-so-great reviews, it did reasonably well financially, perhaps buoyed by audiences who had already enjoyed Fox’s charisma in Back to the Future. Teen Wolf opened at No. 2, behind the still-dominant BTTF.
Despite his big-screen success, Fox stayed with Family Ties until the series ended in 1989, balancing it with other film work: Light of Day and The Secret of My Success (both 1987), Bright Lights, Big City (1988) and Casualties of War (1989). He returned to play Marty (and other roles) in Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Part III (1990).
The following decade, Fox had notable features like Doc Hollywood (1991) and The Frighteners (1996), then led another sitcom, Spin City, from 1996 to 2000. Since his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease in the early ’90s, he has focused more on voice work versus onscreen roles, though he tried a return to television with The Michael J. Fox Show in 2013-14.
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