Why We Can't Get Enough of Biff From Back to the Future
Thomas F. Wilson played Biff, Griff, and Buford Tannen in the iconic Back to the Future trilogy. Despite Biff Tannen's notoriety, Wilson is far more than a one-trick pony.
In addition to being an actor, Thomas F. Wilson is also a comedian and singer. Although he's most recognized for being the man everyone loves to hate from Back to the Future, you've probably seen and heard him elsewhere. These are the highlights of his entertaining life.
Childhood Experiences Prepared Him for Playing Biff
Biff Tannen may be a loud and proud bully, but Wilson revealed that his inspiration for performing the character came from vulnerable personal experiences. In real life, Wilson was often the smallest kid in the classroom, and he was a frequent victim of bullying. He thought back to the way he was treated to portray Biff.
While the three Tannen men all resemble each other in personality as well as looks, Wilson also made sure to give son Griff and great-grandfather Mad Dog their own unique foibles.
High School Prepared Him for a Life in the Entertainment Industry
In high school, Wilson was heavily involved in extracurricular activities. He developed his oratory skills as an avid member of the debate team and began to take an interest in music during his teen years.
Wilson used his free time to learn how to play the tuba. He got to experience taking center stage when he served as a drum major for the Randor High School marching band. Learning to play music and speak in a strong voice would prove to be vital for his long Hollywood career.
Standing Up to College Life
Wilson's love of the arts led him to apply for college at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. While attending school, he got a taste of the New York City fast life. He studied the arts in college by day, and he made his own art at night.
New York City provided plenty of opportunities for Wilson to try his hand at stand-up comedy, and comedy club audiences loved his jokes. Although he is known for acting today, the world of stand-up is where he found initial success as an entertainer.
Los Angeles Leads to Opportunities
As most Hollywood hopefuls do, Wilson moved to Los Angeles after college. Instead of performing in comedy clubs, he began to perform in front of casting directors. Ironically, his first roommates in L.A. — Yakov Smirnoff and Andrew Dice Clay — became famous stand-up comedians.
Wilson was still in the stand-up scene himself, but he always had dreams of using his talents as an actor. Like many others before and after him, he went on countless auditions and struggled to land any roles.
Striking Comedy Gold
What do Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and Thomas F. Wilson have in common? All three famous comedians spent some of the earlier years of their respective careers performing at The Comedy Store, one of LA's most iconic comedy clubs.
A laundry list of comedians who have risen to household name status got their big breaks performing at The Comedy Store, and Wilson has carried on the legacy. Even if he hadn’t transitioned to acting, he probably could have made it even bigger in comedy.
Wilson Makes His Rounds on the Late Night Circuit
Wilson and his funny roommates were quite the buzz in the Los Angeles comedy scene, and he got his first taste of being in front of a national audience when he was invited to perform a set on The Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson was hosting.
Over the years, Wilson returned to the show during Jay Leno's tenure. He also did stand-up on Late Night with David Letterman. More recently, he made a comedic appearance on Conan O'Brien's late-night talk show, Conan.
He Was in an Episode of Knight Rider
Wilson’s first acting credit was on the show Knight Rider. He played Chip, one of two valet attendants who chase after Michael in one scene. The role lasted only a single episode.
However, it was still a real step into professional acting and a big deal for Wilson. It seemed to suggest that he could have a future in the business. Sure, enough, he soon picked up minor appearances in The Facts of Life and L.A. Streetfighters, and one year later, he was in Back to the Future.
He Thought He Would Be Fired
When Wilson joined the cast of Back to the Future, he was overjoyed but also terrified. It was his biggest role to date, yet it wasn’t clear at the time if it would be his for long. He later confessed to being worried that he’d be fired the entire time.
This was more than just new job jitters, as the casting directors had already fired the original Marty McFly (Eric Stoltz) because they did not think he was funny enough. With far less acting experience, Wilson felt that his firing was imminent. Thankfully, his fears were never realized.
When Wilson Realized He Was Famous
Wilson knew that he was in an exciting movie, but he had no idea that the Back to the Future trilogy would be so well-received by audiences around the world. After the first movie was released in theaters, he and co-star Crispin Glover went out to eat.
They were used to being regular patrons who could eat without being noticed, but that suddenly changed. Several people came up to them during their meal and mentioned the movie. Since then, it seems that Wilson will always be associated with Biff Tannen.
He Had a Recurring Role on Ed
In the early 2000s, Wilson had a five-episode arc on the comedy series, Ed, a show about a recently separated lawyer who moves back to his hometown and turns a bowling alley into a law firm. Wilson played a minor role as a character named Sean Nowell, a local firefighter who plays one of Molly's two love interests.
Ed isn’t the only show where Wilson has made a guest appearance, however. With recurring roles in everything from Two and a Half Men to Ghost Whisperer and one-offs in Reba, House, George Lopez and more, Wilson might be on your television more than you might expect.
He’s Also a Prolific Voice Actor
Wilson has also had a successful career as a voice actor. He’s had roles in Cartoon Network shows such as Adventure Time and Johnny Bravo as well as in cartoons aimed at an older audience such as Stripperella and Family Guy. Other cartoon credits include DreamWorks Dragons, Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia and more
He’s also done work for video games, including classic games like the Wing Commander series and Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Vortex as well as modern ones like Star Wars: The Old Republic. However, that’s just the beginning of his voice-acting resume …
You've Probably Heard Him on SpongeBob SquarePants ...
Some of Wilson’s most noteworthy voice acting has been for SpongeBob SquarePants. He tends to play deep-voiced Bikini Bottom residents who more often than not sound like the Tannens from the Back to the Future trilogy.
Among other roles on the show, he played the Tattletale Strangler, a criminal who tries to retaliate against Spongebob for turning him in to the police, and Fats the Flounder, a bigger fish who threatens Spongebob in boating school. He’s been in 13 episodes overall.
… Various Superhero Cartoons ...
Wilson has also voiced characters in several superhero shows and video games. He joined the Batman franchise as Tony Zucco in Batman: The Animated Series and Catman in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold television show and video game.
He played Stan Carter in six episodes of The Spectacular Spiderman and Electro in the video game Spiderman: Shattered Dimensions. He also made appearances in Superman: The Animated Series and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and nine episodes of DC Legends of Tomorrow as Hank Heywood.
… And as a Banana Named Banana
Wilson has worked on various children’s shows, but one of the most bizarre was Pig Goat Banana Cricket, which unsurprisingly chronicled the adventures of Pig, Goat, Banana and Cricket in the whimsical town of Boopelite.
He played the lazy and mischievous Banana. Critics praised the show’s distinctive art design and compared it favorably to Ren and Stimpy. However, while it gathered a cult following, it went off the air after two seasons.
Freaks and Geeks
After the Back to the Future trilogy, Wilson might be best known as Coach Fredericks on Freaks and Geeks. While the show was canceled after one season, it had always received strong critical reviews and gained a cult following years after its premiere. The drama followed a group of nerdy teenage boys, the geeks, and their misfit older siblings, the freaks.
Coach Fredericks was a gym teacher who terrorized students and served as a positive role model for them in equal measure. Fans of the show still ask Wilson to sign DVD sets of the series.
A Boston Man
Thomas F. Wilson has made some of his more serious appearances on two shows that take place in Boston. He played the one-time role of Jefferey Bass in a Boston Legal episode that tackles racism, police brutality, and xenophobia.
He also appeared on Boston Public for a lighter role as Paul Stanton. Wilson was one of the famous guest stars in an episode where the late Whitney Houston came to Winslow High School for prom.
He Was the Star of a Broadway Production
Although most of his career has taken place on camera, Wilson has also appeared on the stage. He was the main character, Ben Rumson, in the off-Broadway adaptation of the book Paint Your Wagon.
After his daughter found gold dust, Rumson became co-founder of a booming mining town. One critic found Wilson’s performance of the song "My Little Girl" to be "a quietly affecting portrait of parental love. The show ran in Brentwood, California from 2004 to 2005.
Working With Arthur Egeli
In between being a pop culture icon, Wilson has found time to launch a rather successful career in art. In his early days as an artist, he worked as a studio assistant for Arthur Egeli, a contemporary American impressionist artist.
Egeli is renowned in the world of fine arts. Although he paints a variety of subjects, sunsets and people in and around water are common in his collections. The fact that Wilson was able to work with Egeli is a testament to his talents.
Where Can You See Wilson's Work?
Today, Wilson is a well-known artist himself. Many of his recent paintings falling under the pop art genre, which seeks to challenge conventional art by drawing on images from pop and mass culture and making it more accessible to ordinary people.
He’s had exhibitions at both Disney and Nickelodeon studios. The California Museum of Photography and the San Jose Museum of Art also have some of his art featured in permanent galleries. At times, his art has even been featured on popular morning shows like Good Morning America and Today.
What Is Pop Fugue?
Pop Fugue is the name of one of Wilson's most popular collections. The paintings in it are an attempt to make sense of his relationship to fame and how it has had both a positive and destructive influence on his life.
"I've painted a response to being a pop icon," says Wilson on his website as an introduction to the collection. "After thirty years, I've become Pop Art, something that people look at, recognize, and remember. I've tried to respond with art. I hope you enjoy it."
Wilson the Writer
Audiences remember Wilson for his roles in front of the camera, but he has also done some behind the scenes work throughout his career. He has held writing positions at studios including Fox, Universal and Disney.
With a background in comedy and debate, Wilson was able to come up with the right words to bring characters and scenes to life. He received writing credits on The Last Ride and Seven Deadly Sins, and he’s also published short stories in American literary magazines.
Publishing His First Book
The largest literary work that Wilson is responsible for is his memoir, The Masked Man. The book details his experience as a friend of Clayton Moore, the actor who starred in The Lone Ranger television series.
Both Moore and Wilson became known for playing a single character despite lengthy careers in the entertainment industry. In addition to telling a piece of his own story, Wilson also gives readers a glimpse into Hollywood history when he recounts stories that the late Clayton Moore told him.
He Has His Own Website
The best way to keep up with Wilson is to visit his website or subscribe to his YouTube channel. His website provides a detailed description of all his endeavors. from art to acting.
Back to the Future fans will be pleased to know that he includes behind-the-scenes footage of himself and his co-stars from the trilogy at various fan conventions. His YouTube channel also provides an inside look at the world of voice acting. He currently has over 20,000 subscribers.
"Butthead" Was an Improvisation
Throughout the trilogy, Biff Tannen and his family members often called the McFlys "buttheads." If they weren't using their iconic insult, they were ominously telling them to "make like a tree and leave."
In interviews, Wilson revealed that neither of the two terms was originally in the script. They first popped up as an ad-lib that he did without thinking. Directors loved the phrases so much that they added them throughout the rest of the trilogy.
Biff Tannen FAQs
Thomas F. Wilson became so synonymous with Biff Tannen that he started handing out the answers to frequently asked Biff-related questions on a business card. He started the card as sort of a joke, but it has served a valuable purpose.
To this day, many people ask Wilson about his relationship with his co-stars and whether or not he fell in real manure. Instead of giving the answers over and over he can simply questioners a card. Only a comedian would come up with such an eccentric way of interacting with fans!
He Has a Viral Question Song
If his FAQ business cards aren’t enough for curious fans, Wilson also has The Question Song to fall back on if all else fails. It includes, as one would expect, answers to common questions Back to the Future fans ask.
Here's a sample of the song: "Was that real manure? No, it wasn't. Wasn't that real manure? No. Was that real manure? It's a movie! Stop asking me the question!" Of course, his expressions as he sings make the lyrics even funnier.
He Has a Song for Hecklers
In his post-Biff life, Wilson has gone back to doing a lot of stand-up comedy, and like most comedians, he gets hecklers from time to time. Unlike other comedians, he handles them by singing them a song.
He calls it The Heckler Song. In it, he imagines what life would be like if he and a heckler traded places. He speaks, as the heckler, of being embarrassed by a comedian who was stronger and smarter than him. The playful diddy keeps audiences laughing.
Bigger Than You Comedy Special
In 2009, Thomas F. Wilson released a comedy special called Bigger Than You. After years of focusing on other aspects of his craft as an entertainer, he returned to his roots in comedy. The majority of reviews for the hour-long stand-up special are mostly positive.
Wilson's entire hilarious routine is family-friendly. He weaves punchlines into entertaining stories using his signature comedic style. Fellow comedian Dan Dion makes an appearance in what would otherwise be Wilson's one-man show.
He Released an Album
Wilson was raised a Catholic, and his faith is still very important to him. According to a post on his website, he and his wife both play music in their local church. They also have religious speaking engagements at various church retreats.
As a teenager, Wilson's family was involved in the Charismatic Catholic movement that happened in the sixties. Wilson has also released a gospel album called In The Name Of The Father. Rather than including original songs, the album features Wilson making contemporary covers of classic Christian songs.
His Son Plays Professional Baseball
In addition to his many professional and artistic accomplishments, Wilson is also the proud father of four children. One of them, Tommy, is famous in his own right.
After a successful collegiate career as a baseball player at California State University Fullerton, Tommy Wilson was drafted by the New York Mets. He currently plays for the St. Lucie Mets in the Florida State League. He hopes to one day play for the major league outfit of the New York Mets organization.