Star Wars Producer Gary Kurtz Dies at 78

Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz dies at 78

It is with great sadness that must report that film producer Gary Kurtz, one of the major forces in the creation of Star Wars, has passed away at age 78 from cancer.

Kurtz was a hands-on producer for 1977’s Star Wars, shepherding George Lucas’ pet project from Flash Gordon-knockoff to problematic production to unprecedented sci-fi phenomenon. The film went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all-time, and set the pace for many of the studio blockbusters that followed. He was involved to a greater extent in the follow up, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, serving as both producer and second unit director under director Irvin Kershner in the absence of Lucas, who was busy building up the Lucasfilm empire as well as Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California. Kurtz and Lucas clashed over massive budget overruns (which Lucas had to cover out of his own pocket), forcing Lucas to secure more funding from distributor 20th Century Fox.

Fallout from the rift between Kurtz and Lucas was far-reaching for the Star Wars saga, with Kurtz growing disenchanted with plans to make the third film Return of the Jedi more toyetic and triumphant.

“We had an outline and George changed everything in it,” Kurtz told Hero Complex in 2010. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy.”

The original story involved Han Solo being recovered in the opening act, then getting killed in the middle of the story, which at the time did not involve a Death Star retread. The ending would have found the Rebel Alliance in tatters, Leia struggling with her new role as queen and Luke wandering off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns.”

Howard Kazanjian eventually took over as producer on Return of the Jedi, with Rick McCallum later taking on production duties for the prequel trilogy and Kathleen Kennedy overseeing the current run of Lucas-less Star Wars Saga movies for Disney.

Kurtz and Lucas first partnered on 1973’s seminal teen comedy American Graffiti, which revolutionized the use of music and cross-cutting of stories in film, and helped launch the acting careers of Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and Harrison Ford. Kurtz also produced Monte Hellman’s 1971 cult classic racing movie Two-Lane Blacktop, starring singer James Taylor.

Kurtz’s post-Star Wars career saw him continuing in the fantasy realm, producing Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s ambitious all-puppet 1982 epic The Dark Crystal, which did middling business but is now considered a classic and is currently getting a Netflix series follow up. He also produced Return to Oz, a dark take on L. Frank Baum’s creation that failed at the 1985 box office.

His career hit a major snag with 1989’s Slipstream, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film from TRON director Steven Lisberger starring Star Wars lead Mark Hamill. Kurtz encountered major financial problems after a messy divorce that wrecked havoc with production, eventually leaving the film without U.S. distribution.

Kurtz tried to get several other projects off the ground, including an animated version of Little Nemo in Slumberland which he abandoned. He ironically acted as producer on Patrick Read Johnson’s wonderful (though sadly unavailable) coming of age movie 5-25-77, which follows Johnson (John Francis Daley) as a teenager becoming the first person to see Star Wars and the effect it had on his life.

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