Back To The Future: The Legal Impact

Find out why this matters.
Find out why this matters.

The Back to the Future series not only had a lasting impact on popular culture but it also made a significant change in regards to screen actors’ rights.  Find out the whole story after the break, and why you might not have realized that George McFly was played by two actors.

It all started when the original movie was such a success the production team decided to make not one, but two sequels.  And to do so they gathered the whole gang together.  One of the original stars, Crispin Glover, made outlandish requests and asked for more money than even Michael J Fox would receive.  Years later he claimed that he had been disappointed with the ending of the original movie and the emphasis on the McFlys having more money leading to their increased happiness.  (Although he’s mentioned some other reasons too, one of which Tom explored in his excellent essay on the first movie’s ending.)  That seems an odd point to protest by, you know, asking for more money.  But this is Hollywood and Glover might have asked for so much he knew the producers would refuse.  That’s…oddly logical in Southern California.

Faced with not having one of the main actors appeared, the producers did what they could.  They minimized George McFly’s role, even going so far as to killing him off in a major timeline, but there was no denying that they needed George McFly for the movies.  While including him in part 3 was a Big Lebowski rug, he was truly essential for the scenes in part 2 when Marty would revisit key moments from the first film.  What to do?

While special effects went a fair way towards replacing the absent Glover, the team also needed an actual replacement.  Enter Jeffrey Weissman, an actor who did an impressive Crispin-Glover-as-George-McFly impression.  And who looks like this:

Like we said, not Crispin Glover.
Like we said, not Crispin Glover.

Great vocals aside, Weissman looked nothing like Crispin Glover.  And special effects being what they were in the late 80s they couldn’t just use computers and 3D models to make the swap.  Instead, the team created a variety of ways to disguise Weissman.  They went so far as to cover him with makeup, prosthetics, and then hang him upside down.  Because science has proven that if you hang someone upside down while they do a wicked Crispin Glover impression your mind will see Crispin Glover.  Don’t argue with science.

When Back to the Future 2 came out and Crispin Glover saw the results, he probably saw the impressive special effects replacement work and thought “Wait, they can do that?” before marching to his lawyer and asking “Wait, can they do that?”  Glover wasn’t in the movie and had express reasons for not wanting to be in the movie but to everyone else he was in the movie.  The audience was being tricked into thinking Crispin Glover was still in the role–a trick that wasn’t being pulled for other roles that switched actors.

Ever go on a babysitting gig so adventurous you swapped timelines with another actress?
Ever go on a babysitting gig so adventurous you swapped timelines with another actress?

There is a body of law called Rights of Publicity that actually has a fascinating set of cases describing its history.  I won’t get into that now because it’s just too long, but the bottom line is that celebrities are entitled to control their name, image, and likeness when they are being used for commercial purposes.  Here was a bit of a grey area in that it wasn’t exactly Crispin Glover being shown but someone certainly trying to trick the audience into thinking Glover was in the movie.  Glover sued the studio and, like the vast majority of Rights of Publicity cases, later settled with the studio for an undisclosed sum of money.  Which promptly did not make Glover happier.

What did likely make Glover happy was when the Screen Actors Guild changed their standard contract so that production companies would no longer be allowed to usurp an actor’s likeness for future movies.  Producers are free to recast but if they’re working within the system they aren’t allowed to make up the new actor to look like the old actor anymore.  And every time an actor signs on to a new movie, comfortable in the knowledge that they can’t be replaced without everyone knowing it, they can thank Back to the Future.




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Ryan Garcia

Father of two boys, husband, attorney for Dell (Social Media, Retail, Gaming), Broadway geek, comic book geek, science fiction geek, gadget geek.

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