The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Eric Stoltz

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The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Eric Stoltz
By Mother Brain

With the upcoming blu ray release of the Robert Zemeckis’ classic Back to the Future trilogy, various news and bits about the once popular franchise have come to light. In the 25 years since the original film’s release, fans have often imagined what the direction of the franchise could have taken had the film been completed with Eric Stoltz in the role of Marty McFly instead of Michael J. Fox. Could the film have cemented his movie star status as it did for Fox or would he have continued on the path of being a character actor? Perhaps we need to get to know him a little better in this special piece of mine.

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Born in Whitter, CA in 1961, Eric Stoltz  was raised in both American Samoa and Santa Barbara California, where by the age of 14 he was earning money by playing piano for the local musical theater productions. During the 1970s, Stoltz joined a repertory company that did 10 plays at the Edinburgh Festival. In 1979, he attended USC and dropped out in his junior year to pursue film and television roles.

After further acting studies in New York as well as landing television guest spots on The Waltons, Eight is Enough, and Knots Landing, Stoltz made his motion picture debut in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High where he played one of Sean Penn’s stoner buddies. The role may have been small, but Stoltz made a very important contact with the film’s writer, Cameron Crowe, who would go on to not only direct his own films but also frequently cast Stoltz in key roles. In 1984, his next major film role would be in Crowe’s semi-followup to Fast Times entitled The Wild Life where he played a high school grad who gets his first apartment and chaos ensues. The film was inferior to Fast Times and made little impact with critics and audiences; however, Stoltz had enough film and television work on his resume to be put into the running for a new Steven Spielberg production.

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Director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg’s first choice for Marty in Back to the Future was always Michael J. Fox. But his grueling schedule on NBC’s Family Ties prevented him from initially taking the part (Lead actress Meredith Baxter was pregnant and the producers relied heavily on Fox to carry the show for most of the beginning of the season). Stoltz would beat out C. Thomas Howell for the role and production began in the fall of 1984. But 5 weeks into shooting, Zemeckis and Spielberg found themselves unhappy with his performance. Stoltz had given an admirable performance but could not deliver the energy and humor that Fox would ultimately bring to the role. He moved on while Back to the Future became cinematic history.

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Fortunately, Stoltz would receive the recognition he deserved in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1985 biopic, Mask, where he donned a prosthetic makeup to play Rocky Dennis, a boy with a massive facial skull deformity whose tough but troubled mother, played by Cher, tries to give him as normal of a life as possible. It became an underrated classic that showed the kind of warmth and likability he could have as a character and the performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Then there was John Hughes’ 1987 romantic dramedy, Some Kind of Wonderful, which was the premise of Hughes’ earlier hit, Pretty in Pink, with the sexes changed. Stoltz played a blue collar boy yearning for the popular girl in school (ironically played by Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson) while ignoring the feelings of his tomboy friend (Mary Stuart Masterson, another highly underrated actress of the day). While not as memorable as Hughes’ Sixteen Candles or the classic Breakfast Club, Wonderful was always a guilty pleasure on cable. The rest of the 80s mostly consisted of Stoltz playing forgettable roles in films such as the sci-fi flop, Lionheart, and The Fly II.

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In the 1990s, Stoltz worked consistently as a character actor and jumped all around various films (Memphis Belle, Singles, Naked in New York, Jerry Maguire, Mr. Jealousy), television, and the stage. But no real stand out roles came his way until he found himself caught up in the growing indie scene in films such as Roger Avery’s Killing Zoe and most notably Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The latter, where he plays a heroin dealer, became a universal hit that became considered one of the greatest movies ever made. He would become a favorite for many independent filmmakers to work with and he also took stabs at everything from producing to even production assistant!

The new millennium showed a great deal of versatility in Stoltz’s acting choices: Child molester (2004’s The Butterfly Effect), serial killer (TV’s Grey’s Anatomy), and a ton of love interest parts. Today, Stoltz is one of the stars of the Battlestar Galactica prequel series, Caprica, playing Daniel Gladstone, the creator of the evil Cylons. Fortunately, he still remains active in show business despite having made dozens of forgettable films. He’s an actor always looking to challenge himself in parts that Hollywood refuses to give him and is very content in delivering quality performances than collecting big paychecks (save for The Honeymooners movie adaptation!).

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