Michael J. Fox nearly choked to death in the hanging scene stunt in Back to the Future III.
Long before Michael J. Fox earned a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score for his film about his experience with Parkinson’s Disease, Fox was an 80s icon, largely due to his role as Marty McFly in Back to the Future. However, while playing McFly might have earned Michael J. Fox a successful acting career, one stunt gone wrong in the third film almost cost the actor his life, according to The Things. In Back to the Future III, McFly almost dies after the bad guys attempt to hang him by his neck, a difficult stunt that almost had Fox be hanged for real, as the actor stated, “No matter how I shifted my weight, the swinging effect [of hanging] was not realistic, so I offered to try it without the support of the box.”
In Back to the Future III, Marty McFly has traveled back in time to 1885 to save Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who has been stranded in the past thanks to yet another DeLorean glitch. As luck would have it, McFly would run into the notorious outlaw Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, the great-grandfather of Biff Tannen. In an attempt to kill McFly, Tannen orders him to be hung by his neck, a scene that required a closeup of Marty, which meant that Michael J. Fox had to perform the stunt himself instead of his stunt double.
Since the scene only required a close-up of Michael J. Fox’s face, the actor stood on a safety box hidden below the frame for the first couple of takes of the stunt. However, Fox was unable to realistically mimic the swinging of a hanged man while standing on the box, so for the sake of getting a good shot, the actor offered to film the stunt again without the safety box beneath him. Although the stunt was flawlessly choreographed for the actor’s safety, a miscalculation almost killed the actor on the third take.
During rehearsals, Michael J. Fox practiced sticking his hand between the rope and his neck, so he didn’t become asphyxiated during the stunt. While this technique worked well for the first couple of takes, on the third take, Fox didn’t calculate the position of his hand properly, and the rope cinched tight against the actor’s throat. Unaware of the issue, the film crew kept filming while Fox dangled helplessly until he lost consciousness.
As it turns out, Michael J. Fox only lost consciousness for a few seconds during the stunt before writer and director of the feature Robert Zemeckis realized something was wrong. The rope had blocked Fox’s carotid artery, which had caused the actor to pass out, but the film crew was able to cut him down from the gallows and revive the actor, with everyone thinking no harm, no foul. Or so they thought.
Almost a full year after Michael J. Fox performed the dangerous stunt, he was filming another movie in Gainesville, Florida, when he woke up to find his pinkie twitching ferociously. The neurosurgeon that Fox consulted on the matter suspected that the twitching finger had something to do with the stunt gone wrong nearly 10 months prior. As Fox continued to consult with doctors, the twitching finger symptom expanded to include weakness in the actor’s left hand, achy muscles in his chest, and stiffness in his shoulder. While the actor believed these symptoms were related to the botched stunt, Fox would later learn that they were caused by the Parkinson’s he would soon be diagnosed with.
Despite the near-death experience on set, Michael J. Fox is grateful to have been a part of a franchise that has continued to be celebrated for nearly 40 years.