The Surprising History Of The 'Back To The Future' Clock Tower

On This Day In 'Back To The Future' History ...

On this date in "Back to the Future" history, Nov. 12, 1955, lightning struck the clock tower in Hill Valley, Calif. providing enough power (1.21 gigawatts, in case you forgot) to send Marty McFly and the DeLorean back to the future to 1985.

While "Back to the Future" has remained a classic since its release 28 years ago, and actors like Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson will be forever linked with their characters, one important figure in the series has never really been celebrated: the clock tower itself.

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Here's a look at one of the most famous backgrounds in Hollywood history, one that has been featured with everyone from Gregory Peck to Buffy Summers, and is still an iconic setting 65 years after it was built (and 58 years after it was struck by lightning).


The clock tower presently sits in Courthouse Square on the Universal Studios backlot because it was originally built to be used as a courthouse in the 1948 film, "An Act of Murder." The film, starring Fredric March, has largely been forgotten due to being out of print, but check out the picture below to see a shot of the courthouse from the film's opening credits.

act of murder courthouse


Courthouse Square would become a beacon for small towns in 1950s schlocky horror films "Tarantula" and "It Came From Outer Space," but it wasn't until 1960 that the clock tower would play a major role again, this time as the setting for the courtroom drama, "Inherit the Wind."

It was renamed the Hillsboro Courthouse for the film, which was directed by Stanley Kramer and starred Spencer Tracy and Fredric March (who makes a return to the courthouse after his role in "An Act of Murder"). Watch the opening credits below to see the courthouse make its first appearance in the acclaimed drama.


As one of the most well-known courthouses in American literature, the clock tower also housed Gregory Peck's turn as Atticus Finch in the classic film adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird."

mockingbird courthouse

Also in 1962, Courthouse Square doubled as Gary, Indiana in the movie adaptation of "The Music Man."


"We love you, Conrad, oh yes we do!" Singer superstar and all around dreamboat Conrad Birdie comes to town and sends girls' hearts into a tizzy. In the clip below, notice the stairs where his legions of fans are standing? Look familiar?

clock gremlin

Courthouse Square once again doubles as a town square in "Gremlins," the Christmas critter classic that Steven Spielberg produced. If you look all the way to the right you'll see the clock tower, one year before it became a major part of movie history.


BONUS TRIVIA: Remember the scene where the gremlins blow up the movie theater? It's the same movie theater around the corner from the clock tower!

gremlins theatre

bttf theatre

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Here's where the clock tower finally gets its moment in the spotlight ... but then gets struck by lightning. It sacrifices itself so Marty can get back to 1985, thus becoming one of the most memorable scenes in movie history.

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Anyone who knows their flux capacitor from their Mattel Hoverboard knows that the lightning strike was not the last time the clock tower appeared in the "Back to the Future" timeline. In the second part, released four years later, Marty travels 30 years into the future, 2015 to be exact, and finds the clock tower along with Hill Valley itself looking very different:

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And then when Marty travels back to an altered 1985, the clock tower has been transformed into Biff Tannen's Pleasure Paradise.

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Once everything is restored at the end of "Back to the Future Part II," Marty travels back to 1885 to save Doc Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd) in the Wild West. While the clock tower doesn't play a big role in the third and final part of the trilogy, audiences do get a glimpse of it being built:

bttf 3 clock tower

And, of course, the heartwarming Marty and Doc photo in front of the clock, before it's placed on the clock tower:



The season two episode of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," "Becoming, Part One," which dove into Angel's past, showed audiences the first high school Buffy Summers attended before enrolling at Sunnydale. Buffy went to high school in Hill Valley? Who knew?

buffy clock tower


Courthouse Square made some cameos in '90s comedies like "Jingle All the Way" (1996) and "The Nutty Professor" (1996), but it wasn't until 2003's "Bruce Almighty" that the clock tower can (briefly) be seen in its full glory.

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Courthouse Square became the town of Grandview for the series "Ghost Whisperer," which starred Jennifer Love Hewitt. While the clock tower isn't prominently featured, the square is used often throughout the series.

ghost square

Sadly, in 2008, the Universal Studios backlot suffered a massive fire which destroyed a portion of Courthouse Square. Luckily, the clock tower was spared from the fire.

universal backlot

Courthouse Square has since been restored, and there was even a giant unveiling ceremony in 2009, during which Steven Spielberg spoke (he was one of the first to arrive at the scene when the backlot caught fire).

In the past few years, Courthouse Square has had some big screen outings ("The Campaign" starring Will Ferrell being one of them), but the clock tower itself has laid low. It will, no doubt, be the center of attention again in two years, when "Back to the Future" celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Here's to you, "Back to the Future" Clock Tower!

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