Buford had a very short temper and a tendency to drool, thus earning him the nickname of "Mad Dog", a name he hated. Buford did not seem to have any fixed address, and he and his gang of three rode around the Hill Valley area, robbing, shooting and bullying the local people. For some reason, he took a dislike to Seamus McFly, warning the Irish farmer not to enter the Palace Saloon ever again. Seamus did not take much notice of Buford, though, and did not fight with him.
Little is known about Buford's family life, other than he will eventually have a son who will marry Gertrude and produce Biff's father.
Buford also had problems counting (he did not know that "7" came after "6") and shared his great grandson's trouble with mixed metaphors (at one point he said "I'll hunt you and shoot you down like a duck" instead of "dog.")
At some point between January 1 and September 1, 1885, Buford asked Dr Emmett "Doc" Brown, who had set up a blacksmithing business while trapped in 1885, to shoe his horses; Buford did not pay for this job. Later the shoe came off and Buford shot the horse.
Buford arrived in Hill Valley in the morning of September 3, 1885 - he was looking for Doc, as due to the horseshoe incident he reckoned that Doc owed him $80 ($75 for the horse that he shot, the other $5 for a bottle of "Red Eye" whiskey he had busted in the accident). He threatened Doc, who said that since Buford never paid him for the job that made them even. Buford told Doc to watch his back in the future.
Two days later on the night of September 5, 1885 at the Hill Valley Festival (celebrating 20 years of cityhood and the arrival of the new clock) Buford confronted Doc again, pushed a derringer into Doc's back, and shot him. Bleeding internally, Emmett Brown lingered in pain for two days before passing away. Clara Clayton, whom Doc had unwittingly saved from death by meeting her at the train station, erected a gravestone in memory of her true love. She had the courage to mention Tannen by name as part of Doc's epitaph, writing "Shot by Buford Tannen over a matter of 80 dollars". The stone remained in the cemetery for the next 70 years.
Luckily, Marty McFly in 1955 found the gravestone and headed back to 1885 in the DeLorean time machine to save Doc. After he accidentally called Buford "Mad Dog", Buford nearly hanged him from the courthouse - fortunately for Marty, Doc was able to save him. Buford now regarded "Clint Eastwood" (the name Marty was using in 1885) as his enemy.
At the festival two days later, Doc escaped being shot in the back by Buford, as he now knew about it from Marty. Marty saved Doc from Buford's fatal shot by throwing a pie plate from the Frisbie Pie Company in the manner of a Frisbee, deflecting Buford's shot. After hearing an unfamiliar phrase that he assumed to be an insult (it was; Marty yelled "Hey, lighten up, jerk!"), Buford challenged "Clint" to a shootout Monday morning. Marty initially started to walk away, but Buford called him "yellow". Marty, whose one weakness was an insecurity about being thought of as a "chicken", unwisely agreed to square off against Buford. Familiar with Westerns, Marty assumed that the showdown would take place at "high noon", and was surprised when Buford set the time as 7 o'clock in the morning. Buford bragged, "I do my killing before breakfast." "Mr. Eastwood" calmly responded that "I do my killing after breakfast," and got a minor concession of an hour by setting the challenge for 8 o'clock. As Seamus pointed out correctly, Marty had allowed Buford to manipulate him.
The next morning, Sunday, September 6, 1885, Buford and his gang robbed the Pine City Stage before spending the night by the lake (which would still be a popular place to spend the night a century hence). It is possible that this was their "lair" in the Hill Valley area. On Monday, September 7, 1885, they headed into town to meet "Clint" outside the Palace Saloon at 8am. Marty, hoping to get some insight as to what would happen if he actually went through with the duel, looked at the photograph of Doc's tombstone from 1955. 'Emmett L Brown' had been replaced by 'Clint Eastwood', confirming Marty's fear that he could not win a gunfight against Buford. Confronted with the very real prospect of being killed, Marty finally realized that it did not matter what Buford -- or anyone else-- thought of him. He and Doc tried escaping out a side door. Unfortunately Buford spotted them and took Doc hostage, then announced that if Marty didn't face him, Doc would be shot. Marty had to face Buford after all. As everyone in town watched, Buford commanded Eastwood to draw. Marty intentionally dropped the firearm to the ground and said, "No. I thought we could settle this like men." Buford, who was no gentleman, responded, "You thought wrong!" and dropped Eastwood with one gunshot to the chest.
Buford laughed as he walked up to Eastwood, intending to finish him off with a second gunshot. He, and the whole town, were surprised when Eastwood kicked the gun out of his hand and, very much alive, stood up to the would-be killer. Buford threw a punch at Eastwood and his fist smashed into metal. Marty had used the cover of a stove as a form of bulletproof vest (as foreshadowed in 1985A while Buford's descendant, Biff was watching A Fistful of Dollars in his hot tub). Eastwood punched Buford Tannen, and even used the stove cover as a weapon, before delivering a third punch. Knocked out cold, Buford fell face first into a cartload of manure, beginning a family tradition of sorts that his great-grandson would continue by repeatedly crashing his car into manure trucks. Buford was then arrested for robbing the Pine City Stage and led away. It is implied by Marshal James Strickland's deputy that Buford would be hanged for his crimes. Whether this happened in 1885 or not, Buford sired Biff's grandfather before his death. Marty returned to 1985 to find that Biff had not been "erased from existence" by the events of September 7, 1885.
Behind the scenes
- Buford's role in the trilogy is foreshadowed twice in the previous film. While in 2015 and meeting Buford's 3rd-great-grandson Griff - Marty plays the video game Wild Gunman. The main character of this game is named Mad Dog. When Marty returns to the 1985 that Biff Tannen has altered by way of time travel and a sports almanac, he finds that Biff now has a museum dedicated to his life. A documentary makes mention of Buford Tannen. Buford's picture is also seen briefly and appears noticeably different than he does in the third film, sporting a large beard, as producers had not yet decided what Buford would look like in the third film. The simplest explanation is that Buford had shaved off his beard sometime prior to the events of the third film (or grew it sometime after).
- Wilson has said his performance as Buford was inspired by Lee Marvin's character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
- The animated series reveals him to have a brother, Thaddeus Tannen, and a sister, in 1875, although this is not taken as canon by many fans.
- The actions of Marty and Doc apparently did not change the history of the Tannen family, as Biff Tannen had the same personality and relation to the McFly family as he did. This has led some fans to believe that Buford is not actually a direct ancestor of Biff, but a relative with the same last name, or possibly that Buford's son was already born before the events in Back to the Future Part III took place. The latter is more likely, as a documentarian in Back to the Future Part II confirms that Buford is in fact Biff's great grandfather. It is not unreasonable to assume his son was already born at this time, this would have made the son at least 70 in 1955 and therefore Gertrude being approximately the same age.
- In the original version of Back to the Future Part III, Buford also shot Marshal Strickland while Strickland's son was present. This would have been what Tannen was arrested for at the end (and why Buford is arrested by Strickland's deputy not Strickland himself). This scene was cut, though, for not being suitable for a Back to the Future movie.
Doc picks up Clara from 1885 to take her back to 1991, and Buford is bothering her. She kicks him and pulls his hat over his head before getting in the DeLorean and heading home.
- Back to the Future Part II (Mentioned only)
- Back to the Future Part III
- Back to the Future Part III novelization
- Back to the Future: The Animated Series
References and notes
| The McFly Family|
Marty McFly | George McFly | Lorraine Baines McFly | Jennifer Parker | Seamus McFly | Maggie McFly
Dave McFly | Linda McFly | Martin McFly, Jr. | Marlene McFly | Arthur McFly
| The Brown Family|
Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown | Clara Clayton Brown | Jules Brown | Verne Brown | Einstein
| The Tannen Family|
Biff Tannen | Buford Tannen | Griff Tannen | Irving "Kid" Tannen
| The Strickland Family|
James Strickland | Roger Strickland | Irene Strickland | Edna Strickland | Gerald Strickland
Match, Skinhead & 3-D | Goldie Wilson | Douglas J. Needles | Marcus Irving