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Scott Huver
July 04, 2015 11:10 AM

Thirty years ago, Back to the Future debuted and made Michael J. Fox a major movie star, but an alternate timeline where the film starred an entirely different actor – and the movie would likely not have become an instant classic – nearly existed.

Hot off the success of Romancing the Stone, director Robert Zemeckis was eager to find a bright young lead to play Marty McFly in his comedic time-travel adventure, and he’d set his sights on Fox, then 23 and emerging as the breakout star of the sitcom Family Ties.

But with then-pregnant costar Meredith Baxter briefly scaling back her role and Fox shouldering more of the series, the show’s creator Gary David Goldberg wouldn’t part with his hot young star. He even asked his friend Steven Spielberg, a producer on Back to the Future, to keep the script away from Fox.

“Michael had always been our first choice, but we couldn’t get him out of his TV series,” screenwriter and producer Bob Gale tells PEOPLE, “so we kept pushing the start date back several times.”

According to Caseen Gaines’ new book We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, a host of Hollywood’s up-and-coming young talents – including Johnny Depp, Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, C. Thomas Howell and future Scandal star George Newbern – vied for the part. But it was Eric Stoltz – then hot off his moving, endearing performance in 1984’s Mask – who was heavily favored by the studio, Universal.

Eric Stoltz
Ron Galella/WireImage

But as shooting began, it became apparent that, while Stoltz was a fine actor – Method to the point of wearing his McFly wardrobe home and asking to be called “Marty” on and off the set – he lacked the light comic touch the filmmakers were seeking. “We started shooting with Eric Stoltz, and the comedy just wasn’t working out with him,” says Gale. “We thought he would be okay, and we were wrong.”

Realizing they had a problem, Zemeckis and Gale turned to Spielberg with the weeks of footage they’d shot with Stoltz, and he agreed the star’s chemistry was off. “Steven wisely counseled us,” says Gale. “He said, ‘You can’t fire him until you get somebody to replace him because you don’t want to shut down the movie. If you shut down the movie, you may not get it started [again].’ ”

The filmmakers turned back to Family Ties‘ Goldberg, “begging him, practically” to allow them to hire Fox. By this time, months had passed, Baxter was back from maternity leave and the show was nearing the end of its season, so Goldberg was considerably more amenable as long as the film shot around Fox’s TV schedule. Fox was shown the script, loved it and quickly signed on, willing to devote his nights and weekends to shooting the film until the sitcom wrapped. All that remained was the delicate and painful issue of making the change.

“I was having no problem with Eric Stoltz,” Christopher Lloyd, who was cast in the soon-to-be-ionic role of Emmett “Doc” Brown, who’d been so convinced by Stoltz immersion into character that he actually thought his scene partner’s name was, in fact, Marty. “He’s a very good actor, and we seemed to work off each other. It seemed fine. [But when] they made the announcement, it was like a wake.”

Lloyd remembers that Stoltz, apparently already informed, wasn’t present. “It was a shock, of course, but being the self-centered son of a bitch I am, I thought, ‘Oh my God ‘ I started worrying about me.”

Lloyd didn’t need to worry – once he was paired with Fox, everything started to click. “[Their chemistry] jumped right off the screen – it was immediate,” says Gale. “There was a sigh of relief. As soon as Michael’s first take, everybody went, ‘Oh, it’s going to be okay.’ ”

“Everything just happened so easily with Michael,” agrees Lloyd. “He has a comic flair, very spontaneous, had wonderful energy. It just all came through. And the chemistry we had between each other, I felt, we never had to work for it. It simply existed, which was great casting.”

“He knew exactly how to get a laugh where he needed to get a laugh,” says costar Lea Thompson, who played the ’50s and ’80s versions of Fox’s mother in the film. “He just knew how to pick up the pace and move things along and get a laugh falling down when he needed to. He just was really skilled, and he bumped up the tone of the movie.”

RELATED VIDEO: Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson Talks About Her Iconic Role

Stoltz weathered his release with grace by all accounts and has fared well through a long career that’s included such films as Some Kind of Wonderful (opposite Thompson), Pulp Fiction, Little Women and Caprica, the spin-off of TV cult favorite Battlestar Galactica.

When the film was finally released in 1985, it became an instant sensation, spending eight consecutive weeks as the top of the box office and catapulting Fox into the upper echelon of Hollywood stardom. He would go on to star in two Back to the Future sequels and a long string of further big screen hits including The Secret of My Success and Doc Hollywood. Family Ties ratings also soared, Fox won several Emmys for the show and later headlined a second hit sitcom, Spin City.

Since the actor announced in 1998 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he has been highly praised for guest stints on Scrubs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rescue Me and, most recently, The Good Wife despite slowing his acting output. All the while, he’s earned a reputation as a tireless and very public advocate for those sharing his condition.

“I’m a very proud ‘mama,’ ” says Thompson of her on-screen son. “The fact that he’s doing so much for so many people, is remarkable. And he’s still so bright about the way he expresses things – he’s such a funny guy I love the way his mind works.”

“It was love at first sight,” aggress Lloyd. “He’s an amazing person, what he’s been through and going through. And to have a humor and humanity about him, doing what he does, I think it’s remarkable.”

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