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How Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West is a Stealth Back to the Future Spinoff
We're still geeking out about it all these years later!
Back to the Future Part III celebrates its 30th anniversary this week, but I don't want to talk about the western-inspired conclusion to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale's iconic sci-fi trilogy (all three films are now available to watch on Peacock). Well, that's not entirely true. Rather than discussing Part III itself, I want to talk about its far-reaching influence on a much smaller film (one that's fast slipping into obscurity) called A Million Ways to Die in the West.
The movie — which is also streaming on Peacock — marked the second live-action directorial effort of Seth MacFarlane. Co-written by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild, A Million Ways is an R-rated, Blazing Saddles-type parody of the western genre, centering on Albert Stark (played by MacFarlane), a put-upon sheep farmer with a Deadpool-like knack for calling attention to the horrific lethality of the frontier in the latter half of the 19th century.
But that's not the point of this piece. No, I want to fast-forward to the tail end of the film's second act when Albert, on his way home from a date, spots a strange blue light flickering from the town's livery. He heads over to poke his head inside the building, and who should he see but Christopher Lloyd's Doctor Emmett L. Brown, tinkering with his famed time-traveling DeLorean. Alerted to Albert's presence, a flustered Doc covers up the car with a tarp and insists that he's simply working on a "weather experiment" (the famous excuse he used for his clocktower setup in the original movie). Confused, but seemingly satisfied, Albert accepts the story and leaves. Marveling at how close he came to being discovered as an anachronism, Doc lets out a "Great Scott!"
A few bars of Alan Silvestri's twinkling Back to the Future theme carry us over into the next scene, and that's that. Doc's character is never mentioned again — and never mind that A Million Ways takes place in 1882 (not 1885, as in Part III) in the town of Old Stump (not Hill Valley). The sequence runs for less than a minute (yes, I timed it) of the film's 116-minute runtime and has no bearing on the overall plot. It's pure fanboy indulgence on the director's part, but damn, is it absolutely perfect; a wish-fulfillment kind of moment you never knew you wanted to see until you see it — like John Hurt reprising the Alien role of Kane in Mel Brooks' Spaceballs.
It wasn't Back to the Future Part IV, but it didn't need to be. Enough of the accurate details (like Doc's cumbersome ice maker and flowing mane of white hair) are there to spark delight in the audience. Even Lloyd, who was around 76 years old at the time of A Million Ways' production, proved that he hadn't lost any of his manic magic.
MacFarlane effectively brought a franchise — one everyone thought was finished for good — back to the big screen in a fun, new way. I'd expect nothing less from a major Back to the Future acolyte who has parodied the series multiple times throughout Family Guy's 18-season run and owns a perfect replica of the DeLorean driven by Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly.
"When Christopher Lloyd was on the set, everybody came out. There was this buzz of excitement because 'Oh my god, Doc's here. Doc Brown's here,'" the writer-director says in a behind-the-scenes featurette about the small tribute to Part III. "He was great. He was just an affable, kind, pleasant guy, who really loved being there. The other thing that was nice to hear was, we were told that he loves that character, and that's refreshing to me because oftentimes you see actors who are identified with iconic characters and all they wanna do is distance themselves [from them]. He has embraced that character and loves it as much as we do, so that was one of the most fun days on set during the production of the movie."
"To kind of be back in that, to see Doc Brown again, to see that car, it's like seeing an old buddy from your childhood where you're like, 'Oh my god, it's so great to see you again,'" producer Scott Stuber adds in the video. "The 12-year-old in every one of us kind of came out that night."
"It was as if we had some form of royalty visiting the set and everybody must have a picture with Chris," producer Jason Clark concludes.
Lloyd's bit appearance turns an OK movie into an extremely memorable one, but it's not something anyone could have pulled off.
After delivering two hit TV shows (Family Guy, American Dad) and the highest-grossing original R-rated comedy in history (Ted), MacFarlane had some serious clout and influence in Hollywood that allowed him to give in to his wildest impulses on A Million Ways to Die in the West. Nothing was off limits, no ask too big, and it shows in the star power the film was able to attract, even if it meant a one-word or non-verbal role. In addition to Lloyd, the film features cameos — big and small — from Ewan McGregor, Patrick Stewart, Bill Maher, Jamie Foxx, Gilbert Gottfried, and Ryan Reynolds.
In terms of licensing, the fact that Universal Pictures owns both properties probably didn't hurt either.
Compared to the success of Ted, MacFarlane's second big-screen outing was an unfortunate cinematic misfire. It wasn't all that loved by critics (case in point: a 33 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes) and couldn't crack $90 million at the global box office against a modest $40 million budget. I myself discussed a number of the movies' shortcomings in a review for my college newspaper and closed things out by suggesting that MacFarlane try his hand at sci-fi instead. It turns out I inadvertently predicted The Orville, but that's a discussion for another time.
Six years later and I'm still geeking out over Doc Brown popping up in A Million Ways to Die in the West. Sure, I'm also a little sad and bitter that the epic cameo was ruined for me in one of the promotional trailers. Nevertheless, viewing it for the first time, even in trailer form, blew my mind, prompting me to turn to my friends in the darkened theater and whisper, "Did you see that?!" I don't recall what movie that teaser played in front of, but I sure do remember that moment of wide-eyed excitement. That's the power of the scene for you — or rather, that's the power of love.
Originally published May 25, 2020.