By Jennifer Armstrong
Updated February 13, 2010 at 09:51 PM EST

Agent, producer, executive, and production chief Gareth Wigan — whose wide-ranging career included key behind-the-scenes roles on Star Wars, Alien, Chariots of Fire and The Right Stuff — died today after a brief illness. He was 78.

During his half century in Hollywood, the native Londoner was known for his passion for film, his taste, his intelligence and his grace. An Oxford graduate, he began his career as a UK-based agent in the 1950s for the likes of director John Schlesinger (Sunday Bloody Sunday), then started his own agency in the ’60s with business partner Richard Gregson. His became the first British talent agency to open offices in Los Angeles and New York.

He sold the business in 1970 and moved to L.A. to become an executive for Twentieth Century Fox. There, he worked on several successful films, including Star Wars, All That Jazz, Breaking Away, Silver Streak, The Turning Point, An Unmarried Woman, and Alien. In 1979, he joined fellow executives Alan Ladd Jr. and Jay Kanter to form The Ladd Co., where he helped to develop and produce Oscar winner Chariots of Fire, Oscar nominee The Right Stuff, and the blockbuster Police Academy franchise.

The next two decades brought him to Columbia, where he oversaw Air Force One, Stuart Little, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Girl Interrupted, The Prince of Tides, Sense and Sensibility, The Age of Innocence, Postcards from the Edge, and many others. In recent years, he became a supporter of foreign films, including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Kung Fu Hustle, and Layer Cake.

“Gareth Wigan was one of the most kind and thoughtful executives I’ve ever worked with. He was a real supporter of creative talent,” filmmaker George Lucas said. “I’ll never forget the first time he saw Star Wars. It was just Gareth and Alan Ladd Jr. seeing an early cut of the film. Gareth was so moved that he cried. As a young filmmaker facing a lot of skeptics, his genuine love of the film meant the world to me. He was there for me when I needed him and I’ll always be grateful.”

Added director Ang Lee, “To my mind, Gareth Wigan was a unique figure in the movie business. He was a true English gentleman, a great soul. He made quality films, and he was also a pioneer of studio investment in foreign films. Gareth was passionate about culture and the culture of filmmaking, always supportive and full of insight. He was a role model and father figure to me and so many other filmmakers. Losing him is truly heartbreaking.”