Legendary Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz dies at age 78

Sad news was announced by Lucasfilm this morning, as the family of Gary Kurtz announced that the legendary producer died on Sunday after a battle with cancer.  He was 78.

It is hard to tell the story of Star Wars without Gary Kurtz.

He first collaborated with George Lucas on the surprise hit American Graffiti (1973), a film for which Kurtz (along with co-producer Francis Ford Coppola) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.  On the heels of that stunning success, George Lucas and Gary Kurtz decided to team up once again for this space movie that Lucas had in mind, Star Wars (1977).  Working closely with Lucas on the groundbreaking film on an $11 million budget, Kurtz was hugely influential in bringing the galaxy far, far away to life.  Though production wasn’t easy, Kurtz helped keep the ship afloat, all while not being afraid to challenge George Lucas when need be.  As producer, Kurtz helped see Lucas’s vision through to completion, and the rest, of course, is history.  Star Wars went on to be one of the biggest hits of all-time and has developed into a cultural phenomenon.  The film itself is often regarded as one of the best and most influential movies ever made.

Naturally, Lucas went about crafting a sequel, which Kurtz also returned to produce.  The result, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), is also widely considered one of the greatest films ever made.  The production of this movie had many more difficulties than the first one (due in part to it being much bigger in scale), with it running over-budget and past-schedule.  Kurtz, in fact, had to step in to direct some things just to keep it on schedule.  But he successfully managed to steer the film through the problems and again helped Lucas get his vision from idea to screen.

Considering some of the production problems of ESB, it may not be too surprising that Lucas and Kurtz eventually parted ways over the future of Star Wars.  Kurtz was in favor of a completely different Revenge of the Jedi, which wouldn’t end on as happy of a note and would see Han Solo’s death, but Lucas decided to go in a different direction (not killing Han off, and also adding a second Death Star).  This prompted Kurtz to leave, and he would later say that Lucas began prioritizing toys and merchandizing over good storytelling.  The split had occurred, and Howard Kazanjian (who had produced Raiders of the Lost Arc and had played a big role late in the production of ESB) was brought in to produce Return of the Jedi (1983).

Post Star Wars, Kurtz continued to produce films, including The Dark Crystal (1982) and Return to Oz (1985).  His most famous work, however, came in collaboration with George Lucas on three massive hits: American Graffiti, Star Wars, and The Empire Strikes Back.  One thing that truly helped to make those films successful was not just Kurtz’s abilities as a producer but also as a storyteller, which allowed him to challenge Lucas on some things when need be.  That was something missing from later Star Wars films, as though I thoroughly enjoy ROTJ and the prequel films, there was apparently no one like Kurtz there to challenge some things.

He was, without question, the most successful producer to make a Star Wars film until Kathleen Kennedy took over the company.  And without Gary Kurtz, who knows how Star Wars would have turned out?  George Lucas was the creator and visionary, but Kurtz was the one who truly helped him launch off into a larger world.  The Star Wars community owes him a debt of gratitude, and he is worth remembering.

Several people who worked with Kurtz on Star Wars took to Twitter to remember the legendary producer, including actors Mark Hamill and Peter Mayhew:

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