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Gary Kurtz, producer on the original Star Wars trilogy, dies at 78

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Sep 24, 2018, 12:25 PM EDT

Gary Kurtz, legendary producer on the original Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), has died at the age of 78. His death was confirmed by a Facebook post by the The Kurtz/Joiner Archive, a film preservation organization. 

According to the official statement, Kurtz passed away Sunday afternoon after battling cancer over the last year. The announcement was followed by a descriptive account of the producer's career, ending with a list of surviving family members. 

Born in Los Angeles in the summer of 1949, Gary Douglas Kurtz got into the entertainment business in the 1960s as an assistant director on the 1966 Western film Ride in the Whirlwind with Monte Hellman. His career was put on hold when he joined the Marines and was shipped off to fight in Vietnam. 

In the early '70s, Kurtz went to work for Universal and became attached to a project about youth in the early '60s, from a young writer/director by the name of George Lucas. This movie was, of course, American Graffiti, which became an instant success and kicked off a fruitful collaboration between Kurtz and Lucas. 

When it came time to make Star Wars later in the decade, Kurtz was a driving Force behind the mystical religion of Lucas' ambitious sci-fi universe. If you look at the posters for the first two films in the original trilogy, Kurtz's name is prominently featured. 

"Kurtz studied religion extensively in his early years," reads the Facebook post. "In the early stages of development on Star Wars, he suggested to Lucas that he might give the film a sufficiently universal religion to help to give it more depth. That led to Kurtz working on the Star Wars screenplay and developing 'The Force' which would go on to influence generations of fans."


Credit: 20th Century Fox

It was also Kurtz who convinced 20th Century Fox to produce the cinema-changing movie for $11 million, and when filming became cumbersome, he established a second unit and shot a lot of the pick-ups himself. These are said to be "most of the cockpit dog fighting scenes, and most of the Star Wars opening scene interior fight sequences on Princess Leia’s ship."

In 1980, he returned as a producer on the sequel, reportedly even coming up with its title, The Empire Strikes Back, at least according to his IMDb pageHe did not produce Return of the Jedi in 1983 and wasn't impressed with it, either.

While speaking with Hero Complex in 2010, he revealed that creative differences pushed him to leave. In the initial outline for the trilogy capper, Han died in the middle of the story and the film ended on more bittersweet note, with a shattered Rebel movement, Luke walking off like a Western hero, and Leia settling into her role as queen. Lucas decided he wanted a more upbeat ending and kept Han alive, while also adding in the Ewok celebration on Endor.

"There's a lot of undercurrent in Star Wars that, if you take it on the surface, a four-year-old can really enjoy it — but there's a lot else going on, under there. In that sense it's multi-layered, and Empire is as well," Kurtz once remarked in a 2002 interview with IGN. "That's the thing that bothered me a bit about Jedi and certainly about Episode I, is that those layers, those subtexts — they're all gone. They're not there. You accept what's there on the screen — it either works for you as a surface adventure, or it doesn't. But that's all there is. There's nothing to ponder."

Aside from Star Wars, Kurtz produced a number of other movies that came to define the 1980s like The Dark Crystal and Return to Oz

Kurtz is survived by his third wife, Clare Gabriel, and three children: Tiffany Kurtz, Melissa Kurtz, and Dylan Kurtz. His final projects as producer were The Chimeran and Offbeat