Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging
July 03, 2015 03:00 PM

Marty McFly’s girlfriend Jennifer Parker has been the dream girl of many a Back to the Future fan for 30 years. But for Claudia Wells, the actress who originally played her, the journey through the decades has been filled with a fair share of twists.

Having racked up several TV credits by the time she was 18, Wells was initially cast by director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg in the classic film, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer, to play opposite Eric Stoltz, who was originally cast as Marty. “We even did girlfriend/boyfriend pictures together that were going to go in his wallet,” she tells PEOPLE. But when a sitcom she was committed to went into production, she had to give up the role, replaced by Melora Hardin, future star of The Office and Transparent.

“When I had to let it go, I had no qualms,” Wells, 48, remembers. “And normally, if I didn’t get a part that I wanted, I would have a lot of anxiety. But for some reason, I just felt a sense of peace. Like, ‘It’s okay – everything’s going to work out.’ ” She was right: When Stoltz was ultimately replaced in the role by Michael J. Fox, the 5’7″ Hardin was deemed too tall to be paired with the actor. Meanwhile, Wells’s series had wrapped. “I’m 5’3½”, and Michael’s 5’4″, so I got my part back! How cool is that? It’s absolutely fate.”

She vividly remembers her first meeting with Fox, then star of the hit sitcom Family Ties. “He was so sweet – he gave me a great big hug,” she says, “and onscreen, we fit together, immediately. The first time he put his arm around me – I always wanted somebody to do this – he put his hand in my back pocket of my jeans. I’d always wanted to experience that. I was like, ‘Whoa!’ He was great to work with. I adored him.”

The film’s subsequent box office success rocketed her career forward, including a stint on a TV version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High in the role originally played by Phoebe Cates (with whom she frequently vied for roles, along with BTTF costar Lea Thompson, Sarah Jessica Parker and Elisabeth Shue). She admits she didn’t immediately grasp the enormity of the film’s impact, though. “I didn’t get it at all. I got the movie, but I didn’t get any of the big deal or the fame. That didn’t ever hit me.”

When it came time to shoot back-to-back sequels four years later, Hollywood success was the furthest thing from her mind: Her manager mother was dying of breast cancer. “Life was very, very difficult and stressful,” she says. “I just didn’t have it in me to do anything but deal with the stress and the emotions that were going on as a result of my mom being in the process of dying. I just wasn’t in a place to be able to think about my career or the film or anything other than what I was doing with my own life.”

She reluctantly turned down the offer, and the role was recast with her old audition rival Shue. “When I found out she was cast, I was actually very flattered and honored because I think she’s an amazing actress,” says Wells. “And funny enough, [the lead role in] Adventures in Babysitting was between her, me and Phoebe Cates I have nothing but respect and praise for her – and I still have not met her.”

The death of Wells’s mother upended her life, and it took her a long time to work through her grief, which she did with the help of a cancer support group led by Gilda Radner (“It was just a small group of us, and she was talking to us in a living room of a sweet, little house,” she says), plus the compassion of her Herbie the Love Bug TV series co-star Dean Jones and his wife, who introduced her to Christian faith as a teen after her mom died. She searched and sought for quite a while, but always with the intention to return to acting one day.

In the meantime, she opened a high-end menswear re-sale shop, Armani Wells, in Studio City, California. “I opened it partially because I wanted a financial base, so I could go back to acting on my terms, where if a role isn’t right or if it’s not a project I want to do, I could say no – I wouldn’t be desperate or hungry,” she says. And the store flourished; it’s currently celebrating its 23rd year in business in the same location. “I happened to discover I had a great knack for styling men and making them gorgeous,” she shares.

In the past few years, acting roles have regularly been coming her way again, and she’s become a fixture of the convention circuit, meeting fans of Back to the Future all over the world. “When they realize I was Jennifer Parker, it’s the same reaction, no matter how old the guy is – it’s girls sometimes too,” she says. “They blush and then they’re like, ‘I always wanted to meet you – you were my dream girlfriend.’ I wish I’d known that in high school!”

But it’s Marty McFly who still holds a special place in her heart. About eight years ago at a Back to the Future convention, she encountered Fox once more. “When he put his arms around me and I hugged him, I promise you: It felt like no time had passed at all since I was 18 and he was 24,” she says. “It’s like no years had gone by, and it was just one moment later in terms of our physicality and our connection and our chemistry. It was like a time warp had taken place!”

Maybe she had Doc Brown to thank for that.

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