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