The name Gary Kurtz isn’t well known except among STAR WARS fans. Along with his partner George Lucas, Kurtz produced the first two films in the original trilogy, and had a lot to do with the franchise’s early success. Gary Kurtz passed away yesterday at age 78 of cancer, and as I looked back on his filmography, I found he was much more than just the “Star Wars” guy.
Gary Kurtz, like many young tyros back in the 1960’s, was a graduate of what’s known as the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking. Getting his start as an assistant director on Monte Hellman’s 1965 Western RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, cowritten by and co-starring another Corman alum, Jack Nicholson , Kurtz worked in various capacities on such Corman-related films as VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN (production manager), BEACH BALL (camera operator, assistant director, 2nd unit director), QUEEN OF BLOOD (production manager), and THE SHOOTING (assistant cameraman). You just don’t get an education like that in film school!
After working as an editor, assistant director, and production manager on the Crown-International epic THE HOSTAGE, Kurtz joined Hellman again as associate producer for 1971’s existential road movie TWO LANE BLACKTOP, starring singer James Taylor and Warren Oates. He also got an associate producer gig that same year on Oates’s ode to film noir, CHANDLER . Hooking up with young producer/director George Lucas, Kurtz was co-producer on the hit AMERICAN GRAFFITI , a nostalgic look at teenage life that spawned a 50’s music revival and led to the TV show HAPPY DAYS.
Lucas and Kurtz fought to get their next project made. No one was interested in a sci-fi film that harkened back to the days of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, but the pair persisted, and in 1977 20th Century-Fox released STAR WARS, a mega-hit that’s become a cultural touchstone for millions. Three years later, the sequel THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK became another solid success. Kurtz left the series after a falling out with Lucas, who he claimed was more interested in merchandising than advancing the story. He teamed with Muppet masters Jim Henson and Frank Oz to produce THE DARK CRYSTAL, which became a hit and has a large cult following today.
Kurtz’s later projects included the flops RETURN TO OZ and SLIPSTREAM (with STAR WARS’ Mark Hamill), the rarely seen animated THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER, and the animated Christian children’s TV series FRIENDS AND HEROES. He may not have been the most famous name in the “Star Wars Universe”, but Gary Kurtz certainly made his mark in American movies. Rest in peace, young Jedi.