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Petaluma Profile: On the screen, on the stage, upside down

What’s Next?

Jeffrey Weissman’s upcoming films and projects include taking part in the upcoming Drive-Thru Dickens Faire in Daly City (Dec. 4-19), The New Jersey Horror Con and Film Festival (Nov. 12-14). He’s written a one-man-show about Mark Twain, and was recently featured on a streaming program titled “Becoming Mark Twain,” hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

For local actor Jeffrey Weissman — this year’s guest judge for the Argus-Courier’s annual Scary Story fiction-writing contest — scaring other people, mainly through his many on screen performances, has always been fun, and often genuinely exciting — even if he is unable to watch many horror movies himself.

“Ten minutes into watching ‘Alien,’ I ran out of the theater,” Weissman admitted. “It took me four tries to get through the whole movie, which I really wanted to do because I was such big fan of John Hurt.”

It is therefore a bit ironic that among Weissman’s many screen roles is that of an airline passenger in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” widely believed to be the scariest part of the 1983 “Twilight Zone” movie. The segment, directed by George Miller (creator of the “Mad Max” movies), starred John Lithgow and involved a monstrous creature terrorizing and airplane flight during a lightning storm.

Weissman’s experience of making the movie was complicated when he was scratched by his girlfriend’s kitten, and came down with a case of cat scratch fever. Three shots of penicillin later, in an airplane fuselage designed to pitch and drop, still fighting the infection, his looks of terror in the finished film might not have been just good acting.

And acting, pointed out Weissman, is the only career he ever wanted.

“Ever since I could remember, I’ve wanted to act,” he said. “I think I came out of my mother’s womb wanting to act.”

He took it to the next level in seventh grade when he started performing in school productions.

Like most people pursuing a career in the arts, Weissman, born and raised in Southern California, was warned about the struggles of making a living in the film industry.

“My parents didn’t really want me to be an actor,” he admitted. “My mother was in the business of bail bonds. She bailed Lenny Bruce out of jail several times. So it wasn’t a career my parents wanted for me..”

Weissman, undeterred, trained in theater arts at UCLA and San Francisco State University, and studied at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. After graduation, he began working in the film industry, initially in background parts. After multiple smaller roles in television, commercials and films, including 1978’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” and ”Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,“ and in Bette Midler’s ”The Rose,“ in 1979, he won a substantial role as a rancher’s son in Clint Eastwood’s 1985 western “Pale Rider.”

Then he landed his first official blockbuster when he was approached to take over the role of George McFly in the “Back to the Future” sequels in 1988.

“I was a big fan of the first movie, and of Crispin Glover, who originally played George, so when I was offered the role, I had to pinch myself,” Weissman said.

One of the most memorable parts of shooting the sequels, and one he is often asked about by those fans who do know about his involvement in the films, was hanging upside down for days while filming a scene in which a 77-year-old George floats around the house, dangling from a hovering machine by his feet.

“That scene took about two weeks to shoot,” Weissman recalled, adding that days of shooting required him to remain in the harness for as much 26-hours at a time, taking breaks lying back on a special board rigged so he could more-or-less sit up. “Sometimes, they’d go out for a coffee, and leave me there in the harness because it would take so much time to get me out of it.”

Weissman admitted that his uncannily spot-on appearance in the films — replacing Glover so effectively that the actor sued the filmmakers — is still a matter of controversy in the industry. Sometimes, at fan events and movie cons, he’s had to convince people that it was he, and not Glover, who appeared in the the sequels. Through such conversations, he said, he’s won a number of fans around the world, many of whom he remains in touch with.

“All of them have given me so much love and accepted me with a lot of warmth,” he said.

In addition to appearing at such fan conferences all over the country, Weissman maintains his connection to the “Back to the Future“ films by participating in fundraising events for the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s Team Fox, founded by the BTTF star to support Parkinson’s disease research. Weissman charity work has included several visits to hospitals as part of the Make a Wish Foundation, plus local work with COTS, the ”Every 15 Minutes“ drunk-driving education program, and Mentor Me, for which he once appeared as the Mad Hatter for the nonprofit’s Mad Hatter’s Ball benefit event. In 2015, with his wife, Kimbell Jackson, he put together a Team Fox fundraising cruise with seven other "Back to the Future” cast members.

What’s Next?

Jeffrey Weissman’s upcoming films and projects include taking part in the upcoming Drive-Thru Dickens Faire in Daly City (Dec. 4-19), The New Jersey Horror Con and Film Festival (Nov. 12-14). He’s written a one-man-show about Mark Twain, and was recently featured on a streaming program titled “Becoming Mark Twain,” hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

Throughout his career, Weissman has expanded into coaching, teaching, directing and writing. He’s done his share of live theater as well, including a performance at Igor in Spreckels Theatre Company’s 2013 production of “Young Frankenstein: The Musical.”

“The stage is a very difficult platform because there are no retakes or second chances,” Weissman said. “For stage performances, you have the luxury of rehearsing a month or so more before you go on to opening night in front of a live audience. You can read the mood of the room, see the audience’s reactions, and alter your performance accordingly. You know whether they’re crying, laughing, cheering, or applauding. And there you get instant gratification.”

When shooting films and television shows, it’s the on-set crew that is an actor’s primary audience.

Weissman came to the Bay Area in 1978, and found himself feeling immediately at home here, eventually participating in the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Novato and the Great Dickens Christmas Faire in San Francisco, among other popular events.

“I’m a funny, eccentric guy,” Weissman laughed. “And the Bay Area embraces that.”

After moving back to Los Angeles for a while due to its proximity to work, Weissman returned to the Bay Area in the early 2000s, and soon found a home with Kimbell in Petaluma.

“The traffic in L.A. was turning me into a monster,” he said, and with Kimbell establishing a career in viticulture, Petaluma turned out to the perfect spot for them, to settle.

Halloween is a favorite time of year for the couple, Weissman said, recalling the time Kimbell built a dementor costume for a Harry Potter-themed event at Santa Rosa’s Tudor Rose.

“I played Gilderoy Lockhart and Kimbell played Professor Umbridge,” he explained. Partway through, he would leave and change into the dementor costume. “I’d come back in and drag Unmbridge away.”

Clearly, the veteran actor is far more comfortable frightening others than he is being on the receiving end of a jump-scare.

Some years, he’s taken to visiting D Street on Halloween, and putting on what he calls “a hideous looking ”dufucello“ mask” — an adaptation of a classic Puccinello mask commonly used in Comedia Del Arte theater — and walking down the street amongst the families trick-or-treating. He admits that on more than one occasion the sudden appearance of Dufucello has somewhat startled some of the children.

“But,” Weissman said, “it makes the adults laugh.”

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