For many, Gary Kurtz was a name in bright blue on a field of stars.
His producer credit floating in the void of space amid triumphant fanfare at the end of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back was a testament to his critical role bringing George Lucas’ operatic space saga to the screen, and he went on to produce such ’80s childhood classics as The Dark Crystal and Return to Oz.
When Kurtz died of cancer on Sunday at the age of 78, he left behind a legacy of making far-off, unimaginable realms seem true and real.
His first partnership with Lucas was producing the 1973 car-culture coming-of-age film American Graffiti, earning him and fellow producer Francis Ford Coppola an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. And he was vital to persuading 20th Century Fox to take a chance on Lucas’ follow-up idea: an updated version of the old Flash Gordon serials — but faster and more intense.
Universal Pictures, which released American Graffiti, passed on Star Wars. So did United Artists. Kurtz was a vital part of persuading Fox to take a chance, and even then the studio was only willing to gamble on a budget of $10.1 million. Even then, that was tiny for a film that was pushing the boundaries of visual effects and trying to tell an old-timey story on a vast new canvas.
Initially, Kurtz told Fox they could make it for $7 million, but got an extra three by the time production was underway. Still, at the end, Kurtz was the one pleading with studio boss Alan Ladd Jr. for an extra $50,000, according to Chris Taylor, author of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe.
Otherwise, they wouldn’t have had the shot of Rebel soldiers taking position on the blockade runner before Darth Vader’s entrance.
Lucas made it work against impossible odds, turning the story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and two mismatch droids into one of the biggest blockbusters of all time. Star Wars earned Kurtz another Best Picture Oscar nomination. Star Wars changed moviemaking forever, with repercussions still felt today.
Kurtz was credited with coming up with the sequel title — The Empire Strikes Back — and with Lucas stepping back to a more supervisory role, Kurtz joined filmmaker Irvin Kershner as a second unit director.
It was another gargantuan hit, but the strain of creating it led to bad blood between Kurtz and Lucas. When Return of the Jedi went into production, Kurtz was no longer in the credits.
“The first movie was like a comic book, a fantasy, but Empire felt darker and more compelling,” Kurtz told Hero Complex reporter Geoff Boucher in 2010. “It’s the one, for me, where everything went right. And it was my goodbye to a big part of my life.”
He remained silent for most of his life about the rift, but in later years he said he thought Lucas had lost focus on story and character and became too interested in toys and merchandise.
Kurtz went on to work with Jim Henson and Frank Oz as the producer of 1982’s The Dark Crystal, which used puppetry and animatronics to tell the story of a “Gelfling” on a quest to heal his blighted, supernatural world.
He was producer of another atmospheric fantasy, 1985’s Return to Oz, which imagined Dorthy’s return to that “somewhere over the rainbow” place to save it from devastation at the hands of a new tyrant.
The Dark Crystal was a modest hit, but Return to Oz was a bomb. Both movies were renowned for scaring kids as much as enchanting them, although they each retain devoted cult followings decades later. The Dark Crystal is even being revived as a series on Netflix next year.
Kurtz was reportedly driven to financial ruin while producing the 1989 sci-fi film Slipstream, which featured Star Wars icon Mark Hamill as a bounty hunter and pilot in a post-apocalyptic Earth besieged by massive winds. It was a critical failure and box office bomb in the U.K. and was never released theatrically in the United States. The film was so unloved, no one has bothered to maintain ownership and it is now in the public domain.
He went on to produce the 1995 computer hacker thriller The Steal, the animated 2007-2009 Bible cartoon series Friends & Heroes, and the 2007 drama 5-25-77, named after the release date of the original Star Wars, about a kid from rural Illinois who becomes inspired to make low-fi special effects movies with his friends.
Here’s how Star Wars luminaries remembered Kurtz upon news of his death:
Original Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew:
Luke Skywalker star Mark Hamill:
Industrial Light & Magic, which grew from the original visual effects team on Star Wars:
Daniel Logan, who played young Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones:
Lucasfilm story group member Pablo Hidalgo: