Star Wars producer clashed with Lucas
The survey cards filled out by the test audience were not uniformly positive. ‘‘I have one still framed,’’ Gary Kurtz recalled. ‘‘This guy – I think he’s 22 years old – he said, ‘This is the worst film I’ve seen since Godzilla versus the Smog Monster.’ ’’
The movie was Star Wars and Kurtz was its producer and the creative partner of George Lucas, the director. While confident that the film would woo enough sciencefiction fans to recoup its $11 million budget, Kurtz fretted that it would not have mainstream appeal.
When filmgoers were still lining up outside cinemas two weeks after its release in 1977, ‘‘we realised that we had the potential of doing better than we thought’’, he recalled in his characteristically low-key manner.
Star Wars took $775m at the global box office, creating a multibillion-dollar franchise and a cultural phenomenon. Kurtz received a cool $25m in residuals within two years of the release of the film.
Far from a stereotypical brash and ostentatious Hollywood producer, Kurtz studied religion, had an Amish-style beard, was pensive and gently spoken; one friend compared him to the wise Jedi knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi.
He made notable contributions to the visuals, stories, dialogue and lore of Star Wars, including the core concept of ‘‘the Force’’. He did not always see eye-to-eye with Lucas, however, and they split after the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back
Kurtz met Lucas, a fellow University of Southern California film school graduate, in the early 1970s through a mutual friend, the director Francis Ford Coppola, who produced Lucas’ directorial debut feature, THX 1138 (1971), an Orwellian vision of the future.
Kurtz and Lucas first collaborated on American Graffiti
(1973), a nostalgic coming-of-age comedy set in the early 1960s with a budget of $750,000. It became exceptionally profitable and took $140m at the box office.
With limited resources, the Star Wars shoot had to be fast and organised, although some of the actors were unruly. Kurtz said he rebuked a pre-stardom Harrison Ford when the actor, who would later portray Han Solo, showed up to shoot a driving scene while excessively refreshed. ‘‘Don’t show up like this again,’’ Kurtz warned.
Lucas and Kurtz had failed to buy the rights to the Flash Gordon comic strip in 1971, but they were still eager to make a science-fiction ‘‘space opera’’. After a rejection from Universal Pictures they successfully pitched Star Wars to 20th Century Fox, although the studio took some persuading over the cost of the special effects. The screenplay drafts, Kurtz later conceded, were ‘‘gobbledygook’’.
Tapping into his academic interest in religion, Kurtz developed an essential element of the Star Wars universe, the concept of ‘‘the Force’’, with Lucas.
The two men spun a medieval Christian blessing, ‘‘May God go with you’’, into one of the film’s most celebrated lines, ‘‘May the Force be with you.’’
The film won seven Academy Awards, but lost out to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in the best picture category.
Kurtz directed the second unit on the critically lauded The Empire Strikes Back, taking over from John Barry, who collapsed and died from meningitis during filming. His death was one of several setbacks for the production and Lucas blamed Kurtz for going over budget as the shoot dragged on. Their clashes included a disagreement over a glitch-ridden shot of the Millennium Falcon landing, with Lucas concerned that there was not enough time to perfect the special effects, but Kurtz successfully insisting it be done again.
Creative differences emerged before the third film, Return of the Jedi (1983), and Kurtz wanted a fresh challenge. ‘‘[Lucas] changed the story outline for Jedi and we had a kind of mutual parting of the ways, because I just didn’t want to do another attack on the Death Star,’’ he told the author Chris Taylor in 2014.
Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker, is said to have remarked it was ‘‘like mom and dad getting a divorce’’.
Kurtz claimed that Lucas grew obsessed with thrills after the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the 1981 Steven Spielberg adventure film with Ford as Indiana Jones, a character created by Lucas. ‘‘He became convinced that all the audience was interested in was the rollercoaster ride, and so the story and the script didn’t matter any more,’’ Kurtz said in an interview with IGN.
Underwhelmed by the prequel trilogy (1999-2005), The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and
Revenge of the Sith, Kurtz accused the studio, Lucasfilm, of being more interested in merchandising revenue than in the quality of its films. ‘‘They make three times as much on toys as they do on films,’’ he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010.
‘‘It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films. The first film and
Empire were about story and character, but I could see that George’s priorities were changing.’’
Lucas today has an estimated net worth in excess of $5 billion.
Kurtz joked that he would like to work with Lucas again, but only on a story about two people on a picnic in the country ‘‘with no robots or wind machines’’.
Gary Douglas Kurtz was born and brought up in Los Angeles, the son of Eldo Kurtz, an engineer from Iowa, and his wife, Sara (nee Briar), an interior designer. He married Meredith Alsup in 1963. She planned the wrap party for The Empire Strikes Back; they divorced in 1983. A second marriage the following year, to Roberta Jimenez, a television producer, ended in divorce in 1992.
He was married again, in 2003, to Clare Gabriel, who survives him with two children from his first marriage – Melissa, a production manager and producer, and Tiffany, a film editor – and a son, Dylan, from his second marriage. The young Tiffany and Melissa had small roles in Star Wars as diminutive hooded figures known as Jawas.
After graduating from film school in 1963, Kurtz worked in a variety of roles for Roger Corman, a director dubbed the ‘‘B-movie king’’. In the mid-60s he was an assistant director on Ride in the Whirlwind, a western starring an up-and-coming actor named Jack Nicholson, and he worked on two science fiction films featuring Basil Rathbone, Queen of Blood and Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.
In 1966 he put his Hollywood ambitions on hold when he was drafted into the US Marine Corps – filming, rather than fighting. A conscientious objector, the pistol in his holster had no bullets during his time in Vietnam.
After The Empire Strikes Back
he sated his desire for a new challenge by collaborating with Jim Henson, the creator of The Muppets, as producer and second unit director of The Dark Crystal
(1982), a technically complex fantasy with animatronic characters that gained a cult following. In 1989 he reunited with Hamill for a poorly received postapocalyptic yarn, Slipstream.
Kurtz knew Britain well: Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back
were mainly shot at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. He moved to England and spent half a million pounds buying and renovating a home in Buckinghamshire, but endured an acrimonious and costly divorce from his first wife.
It was reported in 1986 that four homes he owned in California and another in British Columbia had been seized by an American bank.
That year a bankruptcy court in London heard that his royalties from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back amounted to millions of pounds, but that he owed £3.3m after investing in flops such as Return to Oz (1985), as well as a failed publishing business.
Kurtz, then living near Primrose Hill in north London, told the court that he had only £100 in assets.
In later life, Kurtz produced several low-budget, independent films. In May this year he revealed his involvement in a forthcoming film about the Elizabethan playwright and poet, Christopher Marlowe.
He was among the producers of 5-25-77, a coming-of-age story. The title refers to May 25, 1977: the day Star Wars was released in America. – The Times
‘‘I just didn’t want to do another attack on the Death Star.’’ Gary Kurtz, above, on why he parted company with Star Wars director George Lucas
Co-producer Gary Kurtz, left, and director George Lucas on the set of the film American Graffiti in 1973. It was the pair’s first collaboration.