Gary Kurtz, a veteran movie producer behind the first two “Star Wars” films, died Sunday after a battle with cancer. He was 78.
He was remembered by his family as a “magnificent man who will be hugely missed.”
“Gary was a beloved husband, father, grandfather, friend, colleague, and mentor, whose work and talent spanned filmmaking, photography, music, and cinema history,” a statement from his family read. “He was a Marine, a world traveler, an outdoorsman, and a kind, compassionate human being.”
Kurtz kicked off his career as a production manager on a pair of low-budget sci-films, 1965’s “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” and “Queen of Blood” in 1966.
He left Hollywood after “Queen” for a stint in the Marines during the Vietnam War, but, according to ABC News, was a conscientious objector and refused to carry a loaded weapon despite threats he’d be thrown into jail.
Kurtz’s career really took off when he met George Lucas, a fellow USC film school grad, through mutual friend Francis Ford Coppola in the late ‘60s. In 1973 they teamed up for the ’50s-set comedy “American Graffiti,” which earned them a handful of Oscar nominations. Lucas served as director, while Kurtz was a co-producer.
The duo paired up again in 1977, this time with Kurtz as producer, for the outer-space adventure “Star Wars” – a huge success entirely unexpected by its creators and its studio, 20th Century Fox.
“We had no idea what we were starting,” Kurtz told the Los Angeles Times in 2010 about first brainstorming the idea with Lucas. “That simple concept changed Hollywood in a way.”
It was Kurtz who came up with the title for the film’s 1980 sequel “The Empire Strikes Back,” though he left the franchise after the movie’s release amid disagreements with Lucas. Kurtz has said he was turned off by Lucas’s commitment to commercializing the franchise, and felt he was focused more on selling “Star Wars” toys than perfecting plots.
“The first film and ‘Empire’ were about story and character but I could see that George’s priorities were changing,” he said.
Kurtz and Lucas never worked together again in a professional capacity. He did, however, reunite with “Star Wars” star Mark Hamill in the 1989 sci-fi flick “Slipstream.”
The producer weighed in on the path the “Star Wars” films had taken without his guidance in 2010, and said he thought Lucas did a “good job” with the prequels even though he didn’t like the idea.
“I just wished the stories had been stronger and that the dialogue had been stronger. It gets meek. I’m not sure the characters ever felt real like they did in ‘Empire,’” he said.
Post-“Star Wars,” Kurtz worked as a producer on Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal,” as well as the box office flop “Return to Oz.”
Kurtz was remembered on Twitter by members of the “Star Wars” family, including Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew, who praised the producer’s contributions to a galaxy far, far away.
“A great filmmaker and man has just passed. Without him there would have been no “force”. You will be remembered in the incredible films you made that touched the lives of millions,” he wrote.
Mark Hamill, meanwhile, wrote that he had lost a “lifelong friend” in Kurtz.