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Most teens only know you as the guy who bullied Crispin Glover and Michael J. Fox through three Back to the Future movies. What misconceptions do most people have about you?
They look at me at 6'3" and assume I must have played high school football or something. Actually, it was just the opposite. I was very sick when I was young. I had asthma and pneumonia a lot, so I was in and out of the hospital. When I was in class, I wasn't very popular. I was a geek playing the tuba who got beaten up by bullies myself. I think that shocks teens because they know me as Biff.

How do they react when they meet you?
I can't tell you how many times I hear, "Hey, Biff, make like a tree and get outta here!" It gets tiresome, but I guess that's the power of popular culture. I'd rather be known as Tom. I'm not Biff. We're nearly exact opposites. Acting teachers always say you have to find some aspect of yourself in the character in order to play it. But other than walking and breathing, there was no common ground between Biff and me.

So where did that character come from?
I did an impression of a bully who picked on me. I remember the first time Crispin Glover and I acted the scene where I was bullying him in school. He gave me a look so fearful, so cowering that I had to stop the scene. It was like I was looking at myself.

A lot of young people who get picked on wonder if it will ever end. You're living proof that it's just a phase—a painful phase, but a temporary one.
I kept growing in high school until, when I was a senior, I could protect all of my friends who were weak, sick, in the band or on the debate team. So here I am, the guy who got picked on, saying to bullies, "You wanna mess with any of the nerds, you come through me."

Has anything you learned during those days helped you later in life?
I think being sick and being an outcast in school did help me. It cured me of needing to be part of any group. It cured me of hoping that people felt a certain way about me. Instead of trying desperately to get into a clique in school, I was able to stand outside, take a good hard look and say, "I don't want to be in your group. It's an unkind group. You guys are wrong." It also helped me stand apart as a performer.

How so?
God placed me at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles for most of the '80s. It was the height of craziness in the L.A. drug culture. I did a clean stand-up act surrounded by guys doing utter filth. I actually lived with Andrew Dice Clay for a long time and, although we'd chosen very different paths, we're friends to this day. I have an open door with him, by God's grace. People say there must've been a lot of temptation in those days, but I didn't feel tempted to join the "in" crowd. In a snowstorm of cocaine and other junk, I didn't do drugs. I was who I was. Today it's more a matter of choosing what projects to do. All art makes a statement and communicates a worldview. It's not just entertainment. It matters what I do as an actor. Living my faith in this industry means making decisions the world doesn't always understand or agree with. It may cost me roles. It may not get me invited certain places. That's okay.

Kids face amazing pressures today. Have your four children adopted that attitude too, to be the person God made them to be, no matter what others say?
I think so. I hope so. Because it hurts when you're not being accepted or when the "cool" group makes fun of you. That stuff doesn't tickle when you're a kid. I try to give my children the bigger picture by pointing out the sadness and neediness of kids who tease and bully. They do it out of insecurity. Those people should be pitied and prayed for.

I can tell that you really have a heart for young people.
I do, because I was there. I love God and always have. I was the kid who went to church and youth group, and from the age of 15 or 16 played guitar in church. So to speak at conferences like this is great. I just try to be honest and let them know the real me—how I'm trying to live out my faith in a difficult environment. No matter what the world says, no matter what your friends say, it can be done.

Published August 2002

If you found this helpful, you may also benefit from these articles When Bullying Hits Home, Portrait of a Bully