Gary Kurtz changed the galaxy. Sure, that may sound a bit over-the-top, but the 78-year-old film producer who died in 2018 following a battle with cancer is one of the primary forces who helped make George Lucas‘ Star Wars the pop culture-altering force that it is today.
Beginning his career in the early 1960s, Kurtz served various roles on productions ranging from Ride in the Whirlwind to Beach Ball, before temporarily leaving Hollywood to serve in the Vietnam War. Upon his return, he worked on films like Two-Lane Blacktop before encountering hungry young filmmaker George Lucas — and the pair soon collaborated on the nostalgic blockbuster American Graffiti. In the aftermath of that film’s success, they again teamed up to bring Lucas’ dream project to life…a science fiction picture heavily influenced by fantastic motion pictures from their childhood.
When Star Wars hit theaters on May 25th, 1977, it was an immediate sensation. But for Lucas, the production of the film was stressful, so he decided to pass on the opportunity to direct a follow-up, although he still maintained a guiding presence behind the scenes. Together with director Irvin Kershner, Kurtz’s peerless producing skills helped make The Empire Strikes Back arguably the best sequel in movie history, and certainly the one with the biggest impact on entertainment.
Although Kurtz and Lucas’ partnership ended after Empire over creative differences, the producer went on to work with visionaries Jim Henson and Frank Oz on their groundbreaking 1982 fantasy, The Dark Crystal. Later projects included the surprising 1985 Disney sequel Return to Oz and the Mark Hamill-starring 1989 sci-fi effort Slipstream.
As movie fans, including ourselves, mourn the passing of Kurtz, we are more than grateful for the contributions he has given us. The above interview footage of Kurtz and Hamill was recorded at the MidAmeriCon a year before Star Wars was released. We can think of no better tribute to Gary Kurtz than to share it with you, to illustrate his charming persona and give you a look at the life of a man who helped truly shape cinema.
This article originally ran in 2018, we are reprinting it as part of our Star Wars Day celebrations.