Gary Kurtz, who produced Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, passed away Sunday following a year-long battle with cancer. He was 78 years old.
Kurtz's death was confirmed this morning by a statement posted on Facebook by the The Kurtz/Joiner Archive.
"Gary Kurtz was considered by many as a pioneer in the film industry and a master of the art of filmmaking," the statement reads, in part. "He found any opportunity to share his expansive knowledge of the film industry with budding filmmakers and those seeking knowledge. He was a real humanitarian and a gentleman; some have said that he is one of the gentlest souls in the film profession, modest and humble, and a very unique man."
Kurtz, whose early credits include Ride in the Whirlwind, Queen of Blood, Chandler and Two-Lane Blacktop, began his collaboration with George Lucas with 1973's American Graffiti, a sleeper hit for Universal Pictures that earned widespread acclaim, including an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Their partnership continued with 1977's Star Wars, which not only launched the iconic franchise but also changed the business of Hollywood.
Production of Star Wars famously, and immediately, fell behind schedule, leading Kurtz to create a second unit and direct some scenes, including the opening fight sequences aboard Princess Leia's ship; he also oversaw much of the work of the special effects miniature unit. Kurtz returned to produce the 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back, and hired Irvin Kershner to direct what's widely considered the most beloved chapter in the franchise.
The professional relationship between Lucas and Kurtz ended with Empire, as the two had clashing visions for the future of the franchise (the producer turned down what would become Return of the Jedi, believing its script too derivative of the 1977 original). Kurtz seldom shied away from criticizing the path Lucas took with Star Wars, and in recent years poked holes in franchise "myths," including the idea that episodes I-III were planned from the very beginning, and just how much influence Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces had on the original.
After his split with Lucas, Kurtz went on to produce such films as The Dark Crystal, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Return to Oz, and Slipstream, which reunited him with Mark Hamill.
Kurtz is survived by Clare Gabriel, Tiffany Kurtz, Melissa Kurtz and Dylan Kurtz.