In 1985, Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, director Robert Zemeckis, and writer/producer Bob Gale gave the world an all-time classic motion picture, Back to the Future. Four years later, they tried to pull the wool over everyone's eyes. Back to the Future Part II had a little secret, one the participants tried to keep from being discovered. It was slightly easier in that pre-internet time. As it turned out, a key actor from the original, Crispin Glover, decided not to return for the sequel. Since the character of George McFly was fairly prominent in the follow-up, that presented a rather large problem.
Their solution was unique, but it also got them entangled in some unpleasant legal action. Essentially, the filmmakers recreated Glover's face with prosthetics, then put it on another actor. They wanted to make it seem as though Glover was in the sequel when, in fact, he was not. Glover was none too happy about this, so he sued everyone involved.
That's the short version. The more detailed version is a fascinating tale of an actor desperate to protect his image, filmmakers desperate to protect their franchise, and the clash these dueling desires created. It's also an account of a watershed moment in cinema history, when it became clear that modern technology was making it easier to "steal" someone's likeness. The impact of Crispin Glover's Back to the Future Part II case continues to reverberate today.
Rumors abounded for years about why Crispin Glover declined to reprise his role as George McFly in the Back to the Future sequels. The actor cleared it all up in a 2013 Den of Geek interview, in which he outlined "moral" objections to the movie's planned finale.
"It had to do with money, and what the characters were doing with money," Glover explained. "I said to [director] Robert Zemeckis I thought it was not a good idea for our characters to have a monetary reward, because it basically makes the moral of the movie that money equals happiness."
Speaking of money, that was a factor as well. In the same interview, the actor said he was being paid less than co-stars Lea Thompson and Tom Wilson, both of whom had comparably sized roles.
From a filmmaking perspective, the problem with Glover not returning was as obvious as it was substantial. The last third of Back to the Future Part II loops back on the original, with Marty revisiting events from the portion of the story that takes place in the 1950s. The plan was to reuse certain footage from the first movie, then supplement it with some that was new. Since these familiar scenes were occasionally shown from a different point of view, it was crucial that George look like Glover.
To solve the problem, the filmmakers turned to molds that had previously been made of Glover's face. They created prosthetics from those molds, which were then put on replacement actor Jeffrey Weissman, who was roughly as tall as Glover and generally of the same build. The effect gave him the intended resemblance to Glover.
Back to the Future Part II works overtime to pass Weissman off as Glover. Once you know the same actor is not playing the role, it becomes easy to notice the tricks director Robert Zemeckis used to prevent audiences from scrutinizing the character's appearance too closely. One of the movie's most prominent scenes with old-man George has him suspended upside down the entire time. That helped obscure the fact that it's not Glover on screen.
Other times, simple blocking tricks were utilized. Several shots have multiple characters up front, while George is deep in the background. The audience's attention is therefore drawn to those who are closer. Another trick is having George turned slightly away from the camera, so his face isn't completely visible. All of these things were done to make viewers believe they were again watching Glover.
The replacement of Glover by Weissman was hard on Lea Thompson. According to the book We Don't Need Roads by Caseen Gaines, the actress had grown close to Glover during the filming of the original BTTF. To now share scenes with an imposter was not something she relished.
"I was kind of annoyed that Jeffrey Weissman was doing those scenes with me, to be perfectly honest," Thompson told Gaines. "That was a little hard for me, just because Crispin was so fantastic. He was a genius in Back to the Future, so it was hard that he wasn't there."
Weissman told the author that Thompson essentially gave him the cold shoulder during filming as a result of her discomfort:
Lea never called me by name. When we were in the makeup chair in the morning, she rarely addressed me. After the shoot, she brought her mother up to Universal to see the tour. I went to speak to her and she introduced me as "the actor who played Crispin." She didn't remember my name.