Movie Legends Revealed: How Did 'Back to the Future Part II' Change Actors' Rights?

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Crispin Glover sued the studio that produced “Back to the Future Part II,” leading to a change in actors' rights.

With "Back to the Future Day" a week away, I figured I'd spotlight a legend about the 1985 hit film and its sequels. Crispin Glover co-starred as Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox) father George McFly, whom Marty meets when he accidentally travels to the past from 1985.

The movie was such a success that Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment decided to make a sequel (heck, they decided to make TWO sequels, which were film consecutively to save money). Glover, however, wasn’t happy with the amount of money that they offered him for the sequel, so he ultimately decided not appear (as you might imagine, Glover and the film's producers have differing ideas about who was being unreasonable over the financial terms).

In the second film, “Back to the Future Part II,” screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale partially explained away George's absence for part of the film by using a plot that involved an alternate timeline in which George had been killed.

However, there were two other parts in which George showed up: One was in the future and the other in the past, when Marty returns to the setting of the first film.

In both sequences, they used actor Jeffrey Weissman as the new George. In the future scenes, they distracted audiences from the change by having George appear in scenes upside down. When you add in the "old man makeup," it’s easy to confuse the two actors.

In the past sequence, however, they went even further: They were already reusing old footage from the original film as part of the plot in which Marty returns to the past. So Glover would appear in some of these scenes through footage from the 1985 film. As a result, they needed to make Weissman look as much like Glover as they could, so they had him wear prosthetics; in addition, they made certain to obscure his face as much as possible.

Glover took issue with this and sued Universal Pictures over what he felt was, in effect, an infringement of his rights. The studio was using his likeness without his permission. We did an old TV Legends Revealed involving Vanna White that also dealt with this "publicity right," the right to control how your image is used by others in commercial endeavors.

Nowadays, you can’t do what filmmakers did in “Back to the Future Part II” did. However, while Glover's lawsuit was certainly the inspiration for the change, I think there’s a clear misunderstanding that Glover won the lawsuit that led to the change. That’s not the case.

Glover and Universal settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed cash payment to Glover. SEPARATE from the case, the Screen Actors Guild added clauses to its collective-bargaining agreement that states filmmakers can’t use an actors' likeness in their film without his or her permission.

So Glover certainly deserves credit for bringing the issue up for discussion and almost certainly leading to the Screen Actors Guild making the change.

Therefore, I feel that the legend is...

STATUS: Basically True

Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of films.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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