It’s the question anyone who watches Back to the Future today ends up asking themselves — whatever happened to Claudia Wells?
The time travel adventure comedy was, of course, the biggest box office hit of 1985, and led to superstar status for leading man Michael J Fox.
While most of the cast — including Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, Tom Wilson and James Tolkan — have popped up in countless film and TV roles since then, one of the film’s stars has been conspicuous by her absence.
Claudia Wells won plenty of hearts as Jennifer Parker, Marty McFly’s impossibly beautiful girlfriend. But in Back to the Future II, she was nowhere to be seen (her part was recast, with Elisabeth Shue stepping into the role).
In fact, aside from a role in Fast Times (1986), a short-lived TV adaptation of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Wells didn’t appear on screen again until the 1996 independent film Still Waters Burn — and she didn’t appear in anything after that until 2011’s Alien Armageddon.
So, what’s the story?
Well, as so often happens, life got in the way. When Wells’ mother was diagnosed with cancer, she put her career on hold so she could care for her. By the time she began pursuing acting roles again, she had opened her own successful high-end men’s fashion store, Armani Wells, in Studio City, California, which continues to be her top priority.
But she also makes a number of appearances at fan conventions around the world every year, meeting Back to the Future fans who have loved the film — and Jennifer Parker — all their lives.
She’s in Brisbane this weekend for the Supanova Pop Culture Expo, and she took some time out to chat with us about the making of Back to the Future, the difficulties of being a carer, and whether or not she’d be down with appearing in a Back to the Future revival.
Most fans at Supanova will obviously know you from the original Back to the Future, but you almost had to drop out of the movie. What’s the story there?
Actually, it’s more than that, I did drop out of the original film! I officially dropped out at one point.
What happened was, I had done a pilot the previous season with Ed Asner and Eileen Brennan called Off the Rack. Then I got the role of Jennifer Parker in Back to the Future. Spielberg’s people spoke with [television network] ABC to find out if my pilot was going to get picked up, and ABC said they loved the series pilot but they were going to go with a different show. And then, after I was cast in Back to the Future, they changed their minds and decided to pick up Off the Rack. It was a three-camera show that was going to be filmed in front of a live audience, and it was at the exact same time that I was supposed to be doing Back to the Future.
I was actually cast in Back to the Future at the same time that Eric Stoltz was originally cast as Marty McFly, but ABC would not allow me to be in the film. I remember Ed Asner was on set saying to the producers, “Would you just let the kid do the movie? She wants to work with Spielberg! Let her do the movie!” And they said, “No, Ed, we want her to do this and we’re not letting her go”. People were fighting on my behalf so I could leave the series and do the movie, or at least do both, but they wouldn’t let me go.
My first contractual obligation was to the show, so I backed out and had to excuse myself from Back to the Future. They recast my role.
You know, I’ve always believed in fate, and the idea that things are the way they are meant to be. So I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t depressed. I loved acting, I loved working, and I had a beautiful experience with Ed Asner and Eileen Brennan working in front of a live audience. I really loved doing that show. So I enjoyed the entire process; I didn’t have any hard feelings or sadness at all.
In the meantime, they filmed Back to the Future for about eight or nine weeks with Eric Stoltz in the Marty McFly role. That was a big secret for about 20 years, but these days I guess everyone knows that brilliant actor, Eric, was eventually let go. By that time, I was done with the six or seven episodes that I shot of Off the Rack. They hired Michael J Fox to play Marty McFly, and blessedly, they let go of the girl that they had hired to play my role.
I’m not going to say anything, but for whatever it’s worth, she happened to be tall. I happened to be short. Michael’s 5’4”, I’m 5’3”, she was 5’7”… let’s just call a spade a spade. I got my part back, and praise God for height, or lack thereof! I always said I liked being short.
Do you remember the first time you met Michael on set? Because obviously, even though Back to the Future hadn’t happened yet, he was still a big TV star at the time.
Oh, I remember it like it was yesterday. Yeah. I remember it exactly. I was at Amblin [Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s headquarters], and they said, “Do you want to come over and meet Michael now so you can get to know each other?” Of course I wanted to!
He was filming the dance sequence at the church, the Hollywood United Methodist Church at the intersection of Franklin Avenue and Highland Avenue in Hollywood Heights, where they filmed the ‘Enchantment Under the Sea’ dance scenes. My mother and I drove there, and we were in the parking lot, and the AD [assistant director] came out and said, “Let me go inside and get Michael”. He came out and introduced himself to me, and we gave each other a great big hug. He seemed so sweet and completely down to earth. We chatted for a few minutes. It was great.
I had already known Eric as Marty, because Eric Stoltz and I had taken pictures together already as Marty and Jennifer at Universal Studios, because there was a picture of Marty and Jennifer in Marty’s wallet in the first sequence in the movie. He and I were supposed to get to know each other at a Universal party, that’s how we were supposed to get acquainted to play Marty and Jennifer. He used to call me and ask my mum to talk to Jennifer, which was always confusing, because my sister’s name was Jennifer. It was a little strange. My mom would say, “Well, son, Jennifer lives in San Francisco with her father, but Claudia’s home?”
But yeah, I remember all the time I spent with Michael. He’s such a good guy. Even when I saw him last August in London when we all did that big reunion, it was like no time had gone by at all. We were all just looking at each other and talking and it was just like… talk about going back in time. It was like time travel. It was like only a few moments had passed since we last saw each other. It was amazing.
Yeah. Obviously, every Back to the Future fan knows that you weren’t in Back to the Future II and III, which was because you left acting for a while to take care of your mother. Was that a difficult decision, or was it an easy choice to make?
It was a no-brainer. You know, it wasn’t like, “Here’s Back to the Future II and III, do you want to do the movies or do you want to take care of your mother?” My mom was sick before Back to the Future II and III ever came up. That process had already begun.
That sort of family turmoil… you know, it really takes over your life. I had lived with my mom, just the two of us, since I was 10 years old. Everything we did was just the two of us. It was a very enmeshed relationship, typical of the mom-daughter ‘momager’ dynamic. I didn’t know how to separate from that. That was my world. So that type of sickness… it’s a family sickness. I didn’t know how to extricate myself from that. That was just the way it was.
My life was over when her life started to end, and that’s that on that.
I left acting the minute she got sick. I left my life the minute she got sick. My life was no longer my life. My life became her life. And what that involved, the emotional turmoil and drama and trauma… it took a long time for me to get over that. It took me years to get over all that. So, no, it wasn’t something I had to think about. It was a non-issue. And I don’t regret it!
It is what it is, and my life today would not be what it is if things hadn’t happened that way. It made me the woman I am today. All of my decisions made me the woman I am today.
It’s interesting, because in those sequels, Jennifer doesn’t really do much anyway. I think it was [screenwriter] Bob Gale who said that she was only there because she was in the DeLorean at the end of the first movie, and they didn’t know how to write her out. Had you been able to continue in the role, do you think Jennifer might have been given more to do?
You know, I think you’re the first person to ever ask me that point-blank. I was told, prior to pulling out, that it was going to be a big role. It was going to be the two of us, me and Michael, going through a lot of things together. So I think maybe, to make it easier on the audience, so the change of actor wouldn’t be so distracting, they probably reduced the role.
Back to the Future fans are so specific and intelligent. They’re smart. They’re just smart people, and they dissect every single moment of the film, so I think reducing that role was a wise way of taking some of the focus off that change, so nobody was like, ‘Hey, what are you trying to do?’ I can’t speak for Bob Gale or [director] Bob Zemeckis, but I know that role was not what I had been told about.
But then again, when we did the first movie, nobody was told that there was going to be a second movie. Ever. I will say that when I was sitting in the audience for the first movie, my mom ribbed me with her elbow and said, “You know there’s going to be another one!” And I was just like, “Mooooooom, they haven’t said anything yet…”
Obviously, we’ve seen a lot of movies lately like The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Fury Road, these movies that are bringing back these old franchises. Not rebooting them, but bringing them back with the old characters and the old continuity intact.
Since Back to the Future is built around time travel, it seems like there’s a lot of possibilities there for a continuation of the story. Christopher Lloyd looks the same as he did in the film. Michael J Fox is still working.
Do you think it would be a good idea to revive Back to the Future? Would you want to be involved in that?
I would love to be involved in it. You know, now that Michael is working more… everyone always says there’ll never, ever be another one, but I’ll tell you what, if there is, count me in!
I am a huge, huge cheerleader for the entire franchise. I am so grateful to that franchise and I love everyone involved in it. They’re my family, and I will be loyal to that franchise forever. It is just such a blessing in my life. The people I’ve met, the ability to bring joy into people’s lives, and the joy that Back to the Future fans have brought into my life… it’s indescribable.
It’s part of my life every single day. Literally.
Claudia Wells will appear at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo with Nathan Fillion, Jason Mewes, Lucy Hale, Natalia Tena, Michelle Gomez, Karen Fukuhara, Greg Grunberg, John Jarratt, Billy West, John DiMaggio and more at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre from Friday 11 November to Sunday 13 November. For more information and tickets, visit supanova.com.au.