One of the major forces behind Star Wars has died: Gary Kurtz, producer of the 1977 original and its 1980 sequel. The legendary industry player had been battling cancer for the last year, Variety reported. He was 77.
Like Lucas, Kurtz wasn’t always mainstream. He was part of the “New Hollywood” tribe who cut their teeth through the ’60s and took over the industry in the ’70s, giving it true grit. Kurtz began as an assistant director on Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind, a stark, existential, low-budget Western from 1965 starring and written by a pre-fame Jack Nicholson. Kurtz then broadened out, serving as a production manager, a camera operator, and an associate producer on a number of films, including Hellman’s 1971 cross-country racer Two-Lane Blacktop, starring Warren Oates, James Taylor, and Dennis Wilson.
By 1973, Kurtz became close with George Lucas, with whom his name would be intertwined for the rest of his life. Kurtz produced American Graffiti, Lucas’ first hit. He then helped the director shop around his idea for a retro sci-fi fantasy swashbuckler, which studio after studio thought was dumb. The two persisted, and the rest is history.
Kurtz departed the series relatively early. He jumped ship during Return of the Jedi, fuming when Lucas ditched his original, darker idea for the trilogy’s closer in order to make it more family-friendly. Kurtz felt Lucas just wanted to sell toys.
The producer lit out on his own, though he often returned to the fantasy genre. He produced The Dark Crystal for Jim Henson and Frank Oz, as well as 1985’s Return to Oz, the belated loose, non-musical sequel to the 1939 classic that was really more of a straight adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s books. Both films were dark, and were criticized for that at the time — this during an age when parents were a lot less protective than they are now.
Among the many who paid tribute to the departing filmmaker were his Star Wars star Mark Hamill.