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Thomas Wilson knew exactly how to go about portraying the quintessential bully Biff Tannen in Back to the Future: He drew from real-life experiences where he was on the other end of the torment.
In a rare interview with The Hollywood Reporter, shortly before Back to the Future Day on Oct. 21, 2015 — the date Marty travels to from 1985 in Back to the Future: Part II —Wilson talks about how Biff was created, why he seldom attends franchise functions and much more.
“A thin and sickly kid, I was pushed around and beaten up by bullies throughout my childhood, until I grew bigger than everybody and it stopped,” Wilson tells THR via email. “I knew very well how they operate, and specifically the joy they take in scaring people. I’d stared them in the face so often that it wasn’t particularly challenging to do an impression.”
But that is not to say bringing Biff to life was simple. It wasn’t, Wilson says.
“Underneath the tsunami of pop iconography is a performance of a difficult role that I worked very hard on, and I’m very proud of,” he says, which is the main reason the married father of four is seldom seen at Back to the Future events.
“The fact is, I’m a far better actor and artist at work, than I am a ‘legendary icon,’ ” Wilson says. “I’m also working very frequently and am unavailable to appear at events.”
Through the years, Wilson has appeared on stage and in numerous films and TV shows — including The Heat, The Informant, Franklin & Bash and Ghost Whisperer — as well as voiced many supporting characters on Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants and Pig Goat Banana Cricket. Wilson also is a musician, stand-up comic and an artist, who trained at the Art Academy of Los Angeles and the Art Institute of California.
Bottom line: Wilson is no more an actual incarnation of Biff than Michael J. Fox is Marty or Christopher Lloyd Doc Brown. But that hasn’t stopped a barrage of repeating questions through the years about the films and his villainous character. It got so mind-numbingly repetitive, Wilson finally wrote a song for his stand-up act to answer all time-traveling queries once and for all. So far, it has more than 3.7 million views on YouTube.
Making movies is exhausting, but Back to the Future was even harder on Wilson, Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover who had to reshoot a month’s worth of work when the original actor cast as Marty — Eric Stoltz — was replaced with Fox.
Fox was the actor the production originally wanted for the lead, but he could not commit at the time because he was on Family Ties. So Stoltz was hired, according to previous interviews with director Robert Zemeckis. About four weeks into shooting the film, Zemeckis and executive producer Steven Spielberg made the decision to dump Stoltz and make it work for Fox.
“I was agreeable to the idea of replacing Eric Stoltz, and Michael and I got along well,” Wilson says. “The shoot, with many, many days of special effects makeup, was very exhausting, and the hours on a movie set are incredibly taxing to begin with, but I was up for working hard and performing the role as well as I possibly could. I’m happy with how it turned out.”
After the films became a mega success, being typecast was never a concern for Wilson, he says.
“I pay no attention to that whatsoever,” he says. “Of course, I’ve been offered the opportunity to harass, beat up or kill people in myriad projects that I didn’t do. But I don’t pay attention to what I don’t do, I only pay attention to what I do.”
Much like his co-star Lloyd, Wilson said he never thought his work would become a cornerstone of pop culture.
“I certainly had no idea that the movies would tap such a vein in the American imagination, but they have held their place in people’s hearts for decades, and continue even today,” he says. “Fans approach me often, and I am gratified.”
And as for any insight into a possible Chicago Cubs victory in the World Series, as predicted by the second installment of the films, Wilson said: “I am a Phillies fan. Cubs Schmubs. That’s all I have to say about that.”
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