What were you doing professionally prior to Back to the Future?
I was still sort of new to Los Angeles; I was a journeyman actor who had moved from New York. My first week in LA, I did an episode of Laverne & Shirley. Then a PBS show, then commercials. There is a theater scene so I was also doing workshops at the Mark Taper Forum, the major regional theater. George Wolfe of Angels in America was directing a production of The Me Nobody Knows, a 1970s musical about inner-city kids. I was in the musical when I got the call for BTTF.
For our first audition, we had to sing (a capella, which I liked most). About 10-12 guys were called. I was in pretty good shape because I was already in rehearsals for the musical.
At the same time, I had an audition for a network TV series called He's the Mayor. After that, I had a callback with [BTTF director] Bob Zemeckis. It was a 20-minute conversation—I didn't read a thing. We talked about theater, about making performance. Then I left, and it felt really good. I went home and got the call the day before New Year's Eve that they were going to offer me the role. At the same time, I got the offer from I think ABC for the lead of this TV series. My agent said it has to be one or the other and said "You've got to take this series!" I said "But it's a Spielberg movie!" [Steven Spielberg was a producer on the film.] I didn't get the series because I didn't have a "TV name," but I got the movie.
Tell me about the shoot.
January-February 1985, we were shooting the movie. Our scene in the gym was the first new thing they shot after they replaced Eric Stoltz with Michael J. Fox. It was shot at a gym inside a church (which is still there) at Franklin and Highland. It was me on stage with a live band, real musicians. When we were there but not shooting, the band and I just jammed. We had a party the entire time; the extras would dance and the crew was being entertained. When we were shooting the actual scenes, it was a wonderful feeling across the board.
The last shot of the [first] day was the phone call that I make to my cousin Chuck [Berry]. We're setting up in the wings of the gym stage. They got the bandage in the right place, makeup's done, they say action, I do the line—"Chuck! Chuck, it's Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you're looking for? Well listen to this!" Did it in one take. The crew cheered. Everybody was able to go home early! That scene has its own history.
I never saw the whole script, only my scenes. I had no idea what the whole story was. All we knew was this kid was coming back to 1955 to a dance and we're the entertainment at the dance.
How long was shooting for you?
About two weeks. They had to do the inserts, like the fight on the dance floor and, as we called it in 1985, the "$10,000 shots" of his hand disappearing.
How was the shoot?
It was "what another great gig." We all hung out in Michael's trailer. We had some beers and cigarettes. He was very friendly.
The outside scene where my hand is cut [trying to open the locked car trunk] was at the high school in Whittier, CA where Richard Nixon went.
The cinematographer said we need to have six girls [dancing in a certain spot in the audience] the whole time so I would have a focus of where I was singing to. I chose the six. (laughs)
Then Alan Silvestri [the composer of the film] asked if I wanted to lay down the song ["Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)"]. I figured they'd hire someone else. I thought I'd just be lip syncing. Went into the studio in Hollywood in March or April. We did 14 takes. I remember because my little brother came to visit. This was without knowing how the song would be used in the movie.
So you were not actually singing during the shoot?
I was lip syncing during the shoot. I had to lip sync to myself. So when they did the studio recording, that's what got put into the movie.
How often have you sung the song since?
I just was at a wedding and as a surprise, one of the bridesmaids asked if I would sing "Earth Angel." The groom was a big BTTF fan and he was crying.
Have you sung it other times?
Lots of times. All last fall we toured seven countries—in addition to the 10/24 events in LA—Buenos Aires, Argentina; Haiti; France; England; Jamaica, Cozumel, Mexico; Alabama. That's another country. (laughs) It was amazing.
Do you know how they chose those countries?
There were celebrations going over the world but these were people who got in touch with me [directly], not through Universal. They paid my way. My son came to France, my partner to Argentina, one of my former students was my handler in Cincinnati.
Had you been asked to sing the song any other time between the film and that tour?
My students have asked. I tell them it depends on how they all act. If they behave, then I will sing—at the end of the semester.
What about at other private events like the wedding?
Oh yes—a fundraiser where if someone donated a certain amount I would sing. I also sang at a graduation party.
How many of your students know BTTF?
I would say 85% know it—well.
Does someone come in every first day of class and know who you are?
Students google teachers before class starts. It's part of their ritual. They may not tell me right away because they don't know if they should. I say I know you know.
It never comes up on the first day. Usually within the second week. Someone will say "I hope it's not rude, but were you in a movie?"
What was your impression of Michael J. Fox?
Friendliest guy in the world. Very easygoing. Obviously tired all the time because he was doing Family Ties at the same time. He was smart about saving his energy.
How would he do that?
He'd say he have to go rest. He wasn't haughty, he wouldn't just leave—he'd let us know.
Did you get a chance to get to know Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, or Crispin Glover? If so, what were they like?
Never saw Christopher Lloyd.
Lea Thompson we spent some time with. She's also from Minnesota. She'd worked in the Twin Cities before she went to LA but I didn't know her then. She was very friendly. They were taking care of her. She was surrounded by production people all the time. Michael was much more accessible.
Crispin Glover—as weird as he is in the movie, he's that weird in real life. "We'll just let you be who you are and we'll be over here." He would be standing at the edge of the stage staring at things. He wasn't really approachable. He was in character, I guess.
What did you think of the Chuck Berry joke?
They did not have permission to do "Johnny B. Goode" till literally the day before we shot the scene because Chuck Berry had not said yes. There was a moment when they said we don't know if we can do this.
Did they have a Plan B?
Not that I know of.
What did you think of your now-famous line?
I thought I'm going get a whole lot of shit for this—[suggesting that] Chuck Berry music came from a little white boy! (laughs) But I've done more outrageous things on stage.
Was there pushback on the line?
Yes, lots of people wrote articles saying it was disrespectful, etc. It didn't come at me, came at the producers. It was 1985 so it was a different kind of scrutiny then. Now there'd be even more backlash.
Did you attend the premiere, and if so, what was that like?
Yes. It was phenomenal. I did not know what they were going to do with the song. I was like "Is that my voice?" Silvestri did an amazing job. It was the first time I saw the completed film. It was so cool! Best movie ever! When it opened [in theaters], it was so amazing that people cheered and that it generated huge laughs.
How did you feel the summer of 1985 when the film was heading toward legendary pop culture status at 88 mph?
I was still an actor. I auditioned for a TV show called What a Country! with Yakov Smirnoff and got it. It was about an American citizen class. Being in BTTF was a great negotiation tool. This was 1986—before Fox—so it aired on an independent channel [syndication]. I couldn't compete with Don Knotts, our principal in the series. It lasted only 26 episodes.
Are you still in touch with anyone from the BTTF cast?
Most everybody else is still in LA. Donald Fullilove, who played Goldie, got me started going to the comicons and BTTF events. He's been doing it for years. Claudia Wells has also been around [the BTTF circuit]. She has a men's clothing store in Burbank. Jeffrey Weissman who played George McFly in 2 and 3—he's the host of a lot of BTTF events. Some of the bigger connections come through DeLorean car shows—they invite BTTF people to those shows.
Meet and greet?
Yes. They can bring their own pictures for us to autograph. Sometimes there's a car from the Fox Foundation as a way to raise money. They have two. People can put in money instead of garbage [which is what fueled the time machine after Doc Brown's first trip to the future].
Are you related to the singing Waters family (Julia, Maxine, etc.) who appear in the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom?
Yes I am! My grandfather and their father were brothers. There were nine brothers! It happened out of the blue that we're all in the business. I have not met them face to face.
Do you have any photos from the BTTF set, wrap party, premiere, etc.?
No. No cell phones then!
What are you doing these days?
I teach at Macalester College, a small liberal arts college in St. Paul. I'm a tenured professor in the theater/dance department. I'm the chair as of this moment. It's a small department. Our fine arts is pretty burgeoning. It's been a great last 12 years. I am also active in the Twins Cities—acting/directing and working with community artists. Minneapolis is #2 behind NYC in per capita performance for dance, music, and theater.
Minneapolis. I left California for the Twin Cities after '96, then I went back to grad school in 2000, then got hired at Macalester.
Tell me about your kids.
I have two sons, one is almost 22 and the other is 25. The younger one is a visual artist. He likes making comics/graphic novels. The older one is an actor/dancer/videographer. He and I have made a couple of theater pieces together, one of which was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. It's called "AKA Fathers/Sons" and it's about fathers and sons talking about sexuality and masculinity, [a conversation you don't often hear about]. It's a performance piece. We call it performative conversations, the two of us and a friend who is a rapper. We take it to groups of young men. We've had an amazing response. With permission, we then use some of those responses in future performances.
What kind of groups?
We go to schools, rec centers, coffee shops.
What is your sons' take on your role in BTTF?
It's just what dad does. (laughs) Their friends say "Your dad was in BTTF?" It's a plus and a minus. I'm going to leave [the reasons why] to the imagination because they're young people.
How often do you participate in a BTTF-related event (convention, documentary, etc.)?
The first time was five years ago. They invited me to the 25th anniversary in Los Angeles. At that time Donald said you could be going all over the world. I had no idea!
We were in London last summer—40-50,000 people at a comicon. I did the Cincinnati comicon. I've been invited to several, but because I'm a chair and teaching, I couldn't just take off for all of them.
Do you enjoy conventions?
Yes, so much fun. People have an emotional connection to BTTF. People told me "Earth Angel" was the song they got engaged to, or played at their wedding, and some said it was my version. People would hand me their cell phones, hit record (or call a friend), and ask me to sing. They were crying. It's priceless. This one thing I did 30 years ago is so meaningful to people.
Do strangers ever recognize you from BTTF?
Not so much.
Do you have any mementos from the shoot, such as the script?
There may be some things in storage in California, 15 years ago. I didn't keep the bow ties, the microphone, and like I said, I didn't get the whole script.
Have you been interviewed before about this specifically?
Oh yes. It's come up quite a number of times, especially the last year. And I've been interviewed for a couple of books.
How do you look back on your BTTF experience?
One of the most positive experiences that I've had in my career. Really thankful.
Anything you'd like to add?
I'm looking forward to the 40th anniversary. I'm hoping I'll be still around and can still sing the song.