Elsa Raven, a character actress perhaps best remembered for a small but crucial role in the hit 1985 time-travel comedy “Back to the Future,” in which she establishes a pivotal plot point by lobbying to preserve the local clock tower, died on Monday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 91.
Her agent, David Shaul of the BRS/Gage talent agency, confirmed her death.
Ms. Raven had dozens of film and television credits and appeared on New York and regional stages. She built a steady career of Everywoman roles. The film and television characters she played sometimes didn’t even have names; she was just “Maid” or “Prenatal Nurse” or “Mom” (as in the Season 6 “Seinfeld” episode “The Mom and Pop Store”).
Perhaps none of those performances made a bigger impression than her role as “Clocktower Lady” in “Back to the Future,” the top-grossing movie of 1985. Early in the film her character interrupts the young lovers played by Michael J. Fox and Claudia Wells in mid-kiss, urging them to “save the clock tower.” The mayor, she tells them, holding out a donation can, wants to replace the clock.
“Thirty years ago, lightning struck that clock tower, and the clock hasn’t run since,” she explains. “We at the Hill Valley Preservation Society think it should be preserved exactly the way it is, as part of our history and heritage.”
Later, Mr. Fox’s character, who has traveled back in time to 1955, uses a lightning strike on the tower to propel himself back to his own time.
Ms. Raven was not in the two “Back to the Future” sequels, but she did participate in reunions of the cast and crew from the original film, including one last year at the Hollywood Museum, at which she spoke about the lasting impact of the movie.
“We didn’t know how significant it was going to be,” she told United Press International then. “We knew it was a good, solid movie. Of course we were delighted when it was such a big success. It’s an evergreen. It’s not today. It’s any day.”
Elsa Rabinowitz (she took “Raven” as a stage name) was born on Sept. 21, 1929, in Charleston, S.C., to Louis and Rosalie Rabinowitz. She began her acting career in New York — her family said she worked with Joseph Papp to bring free Shakespeare to Central Park beginning in the late 1950s.
Her first television credits were in small roles in 1963. One of her first larger roles was in the 1979 haunted-house film “The Amityville Horror,” in which she played the real estate agent who sells James Brolin and Margot Kidder’s characters the ill-fated dwelling.
“You’re going to be very happy,” she tells them. “It’s a wonderful house.”
She had recurring roles on the NBC sitcom “Amen” and the CBS crime drama “Wiseguy” in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and on the soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” Her other film credits included “The Moderns” (1988), in which she played Gertrude Stein, “In the Line of Fire” (1993) and “Titanic” (1997).
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Ms. Raven made three appearances on the long-running drama “Quincy M.E.,” which starred Jack Klugman as a medical examiner who investigates suspicious deaths.
In 1985, she had another chance to work with Mr. Klugman, this time onstage at the Lawrence Welk Village Theater in Escondido, Calif., in Bernard Slade’s play “Tribute.” Mr. Klugman played Scottie, a man with cancer; she played (as The San Diego Union-Tribune put it) “a doctor who endures hemorrhoid jokes while dragging Scottie off for chemotherapy.”
Ms. Raven, whose four siblings died before her, is survived by 15 nieces and nephews.