Legendary Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz has passed from cancer at age 78. Condolences to friends, family, fans and colleagues. He was a realist, a great fellow, a true creative and a straight-shooter.
I was lucky enough to have met and interviewed Kurtz once, about 19 or 20 years ago. It was actually a tag-team interview with Film Threat‘s Chris Gore. It happened in a lobby of some Burbank office building. Kurtz had become one of my heroes after I read his disparaging comments about grand poobah George Lucas, whom he parted company with sometime after the release of Empire and before principal photography began on Return of the Jedi. Kurtz repeated these observations and more during our chat.
Wiki excerpt: “Kurtz claimed that after Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, Lucas became convinced that audiences no longer cared about the story and were simply there for thrills and entertainment, and began to deviate from the originally planned plotlines for Return of the Jedi, at which point Kurtz quit the series.
“Kurtz has also claimed that Lucas changed the emphasis from storytelling to prioritizing toy merchandising. In a 2010 interview for the L.A. Times, Kurtz revealed that he had become disillusioned with what he saw as the commercially-driven direction the franchise was taking, as well as the related changes that Lucas made to the plot of the third movie, which was originally much darker, and supposedly included the death of Han Solo.
“‘I could see where things were headed,’ Kurtz said. ‘The toy business began to drive the empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business but that’s not the best thing for making quality films.'”
“As all true Star Wars fans know, Jedi was a kind of tragedy as it strongly indicated to anyone who was halfway hip that Star Wars creator and Jedi producer George Lucas had sadly evolved into a shameless hack and that the Star Wars series was effectively over and would never again deliver the power, gravitas and coolness of The Empire Strikes Back.
“I knew this instantly after seeing Jedi with some friends at the all-media screening at Leows Astor PLaza, which happened maybe 8 or 9 days before the 5.25.83 debut. What a curious bummer that night was. There was this awful queer feeling in the room as the closing credits played and people kind of half-looked at each other and muttered ‘what’s up with those little fuzzy-wuzzies? What are they called…Ewoks? And that forced happy ending with everyone laughing and hugging around the campfire?’
I wrote my review for The Film Journal a day or two later, and I began my summary by saying that ‘the great finale falls short.” What I meant was that the great finale more or less blew chunks. It still does today. I know that I’ll never watch it again.
From 2010 Geoff Boucher L.A. Times interview: “The ending of Jedi that Kurtz preferred ‘would have shown the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns.’
“But after helping to create the first two Star Wars films, Kurtz ‘became disillusioned with Lucas just before Return Of The Jedi, when he noticed that Lucas’ priorities had shifted away from story and character toward selling toys.
“Eventually the two decided they couldn’t work with each other anymore, especially after finding themselves unable to come to an agreement over what form Jedi should take — particularly given Lucas’ idea of framing it around a second Death Star, which Kurtz felt was ‘too derivative.’
“Things apparently came to a head over the ending, which Lucas completely rewrote because, as Kurtz avers, it might have affected the merchandising.
“’The emphasis on the toys, it’s like the cart driving the horse,’ Kurtz says. ‘If it wasn’t for that the films would be done for their own merits. The creative team wouldn’t be looking over their shoulder all the time.'”
My basic HE conclusion was that this dovetails into my oft-repeated feelings about Lucas, which are basically that he’s the devil, which is to say a very real metaphor for total corruption of the spirit.
He began as Luke Skywalker, having been described by biographer Dale Pollock as a kind of a brave and beautiful warrior when he was under the gun and struggling to make it in the ’60s and into the early ’70s. But once he got fat and successful he slowly began to morph into an amiable, goiter-necked, corporate-minded Darth Vader figure. I’ve been saying this since the late ’90s.
(l. to r.) Irvin Kershner, Frank Oz, Jim Henson, unknown female puppeteer (?), Gary Kurtz during filming of The Empire Strikes Back.