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|Also Known As:||George Walton Lucas Jr.||Died:|
|Born:||May 14, 1944||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Modesto, California, USA||Profession:||Producer ... director producer editor|
Arguably the most important innovator cinema history, George Lucas pushed the envelope ever since his early film student days. Considered a wunderkind by his contemporaries, he initially had difficulty communicating his vision to studio executives, who did little to support "THX 1138" (1971) or "American Graffiti" (1973), his first two features. Lucas again struggled to find a studio to take a risk on his sci-fi epic "Star Wars" (1977), although its monumental triumph both set the standard for the blockbuster film and established Lucas as a titan in the industry. When he teamed with fellow boy genius Steven Spielberg on "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) and its sequels, his stature was secured. In addition to overseeing the continuing adventures of Luke Skywalker in various forms, Lucas acted as executive producer on several projects throughout the 1980s and became the industry's premier innovator of theatre and film technology through his companies ILM and Lucasfilm . While merchandising from "Star Wars" continued to earn him millions, Lucas continually tinkered with the existing trilogy, often angering diehard fans. "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999) and its two prequels ruled the box office, but fan and critical reaction was tepid. Another long-awaited project "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (2008) also made money, but ultimately left viewers cold. Consequently, Lucas' legacy would be one of conflicting emotions from generations of ardent fans who simultaneously felt inspired by and betrayed by the once infallible creative genius.
Born May 14, 1944, this son of a Modesto, CA retail businessman grew up tinkering with cars and dreaming of glory at the racetrack until a near-fatal auto crash derailed his driving ambitions, forcing him behind the scenes as a mechanic. He had already begun experimenting with both still photography and 8-mm movies, when an assignment to help build a racing car introduced him to its owner, distinguished cinematographer Haskell Wexler, with whose encouragement he began to pursue filmmaking seriously. At University of Southern California, he studied animation before moving to cinematography and excelling at editing, making eight student films ranging from one minute to 25 minutes. As the winner of a Warner Bros. scholarship, he came into contact with fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. The two quickly became allies and close friends, with Lucas serving as "general assistant," assistant art director, production aide - basically, a general "do everything" - on Coppola's feature, "The Rain People" (1969). When Coppola opened his American Zoetrope production company in a San Francisco warehouse, with its ultra modern editing equipment, Lucas was named its Vice President by his mentor.
An expanded version of Lucas' award-winning short "Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138: 4EB" (1968) was Zoetrope's first film, but Warner Bros. - on whom Coppola depended for financial backing - despised "THX-1138" (1971), withdrawing their support of Zoetrope and demanding the return of their money already invested. This move signaled the end of the production company for the time being. Lucas never forgot this strong-arming, and the memory of it would inform his future studio collaborations. Thankfully, Warner Bros. did end up releasing the picture, but they cut five minutes and provided half-hearted promotion - all to mixed reviews. Almost universally praised as a "dazzling technical achievement" with "stunning visuals and sound," "THX-1138" scored no points with critics for its Orwellian theme of the individual asserting himself against an authoritarian society policed by robots. Though the overall effect was cold and sterile and the zombie characters incapable of stirring sympathy, it was an extremely professional first film; one which its director re-released in 1977 with the missing five minutes restored. THX would famously live on as the name of the Lucas company which designed sound for theaters and home entertainment systems.
Wanting to break the industry's conception of him as a "science-fiction guy" with "stainless steel in my veins," Lucas decided to make a crowd-pleasing comedy, proving with "American Graffiti" (1973) that a warm, nostalgic film with an emphasis on personalities was well within his capabilities. More importantly, the movie was filled with his first love: fast cars. His vision was once again at odds with the studios, but Universal finally agreed to make the film, with a screenplay inspired by Lucas' conversation with producer Gary Kurtz and written by Lucas with Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. With Coppola and Kurtz co-producing, Lucas filmed "Graffiti" on the cheap for $780,000 in just 28 days while on location in two small towns near San Francisco - one being his hometown of Modesto. Not surprisingly, he worked himself into a state of exhaustion. The largely then unknown cast - a veritable "who's-who" of later 1970s cinema and television, including Richard Dreyfuss, Suzanne Somers, Cindy Williams, Ron Howard and Harrison Ford - met all the director's demands, despite acting in a film where the real stars were 1960s sports cars. Shooting almost entirely at night with very low light, the filmmaker achieved a "curious golden radiance" that would distinguish the picture, according to its entranced film critics.
True to form, when Universal executives first saw the film at a crowded preview - despite the enthusiastic response of the test audience - they hated it. Many later surmised that the studio brass felt threatened by Lucas' prodigious talent, and because "Graffiti" was so different from the cookie-cutter movies they were comfortable with, it scared them. Swooping in once again, Coppola pulled out his checkbook at the preview and offered to buy the film. Executives refused, preferring instead to torment Lucas with a plan to bypass a theatrical release and show it on TV. Considering the nostalgia boom it spawned, it was difficult to understand the executives' fears, but its reliance on rock "oldies" for its structure seemed hopelessly B-movie to them at the time. They did not realize that Lucas was, for the first of many times, ahead of the curve, anticipating the nostalgia zeitgeist. By setting his film in 1962, he was evoking "the end of a political era, a sociological era." After humiliating Lucas with an over four minute cut, Universal finally relented and released "Graffiti" at the end of the summer. It was an immediate word-of-mouth hit with its target Baby Boomer audience, eventually grossing more than $100 million.
"Graffiti" was the last time Lucas would relinquish final cut, but it would not be his last war with a studio. Critical respectability and box office success had not made him bankable when pushing his own projects, so he inevitably had a difficult time interesting anybody in his proposed throwback to "Flash Gordon" B-movie action serials with high-tech special effects. After hearing his pitch, three studio chiefs told him to get lost. Only Alan Ladd, Jr. at 20th Century Fox believed in his vision, green-lighting "Star Wars" in 1974 for about $10 million. But Ladd would endure a running battle with the Fox board, all of whom insisted it was not going to be commercial enough right up until its blockbuster opening. With "Star Wars" - a project he firmly believed in and knew would not come cheap - Lucas flabbergasted Fox executives by forgoing his option to receive an additional $500,000 for directing the movie, but wisely taking the merchandising and sequel rights.
Lucas set about creating his own world, inventing a future that smacked of the past while figuring out a way to strike the archetypal jugular of his audience. In order to come up with his own nonsectarian "Star Wars" mythology, he studied the work of Joseph Campbell, among other sources, and took structural elements from many different myths, combining them into an epic story which filled the moral void left by the demise of the traditional Western. Borrowing heavily from his film school canon, his "Star Wars" drew inspiration from, among many other things, Kurosawa's "Hidden Fortress" (1958) for the lightsaber duels; Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927) for C3PO's metallic form; and Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" (1935) for the film's victorious closing ceremony. Cast as the wise Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, British actor Sir Alec Guinness, in a way, reprised his role from "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and lent a sense of authenticity to a project that was being scoffed at by Fox execs during its pre-production.
Shot on location in Tunisia (for the desert planet of Tatooine) and at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England, "Star Wars: A New Hope" was an arduous shoot, with everything that could go wrong, inevitably doing so - from the malfunctioning R2-D2 unit falling over or stalling mid-roll, to creating special effects that did not yet exist, to a grumpy British crew who thought their young American director was quite insane - to say nothing of the apprehensive studio breathing down Lucas' back. Despite the apprehension of many involved, no one doubted the passion the man had for his silly fairy tale in space. One of Lucas' best decisions resulted in the casting of the relatively unknown lead trio of actors: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. In addition to their chemistry onscreen, their bond was obvious off screen as well, with the threesome collectively teasing their director that "you can type this sh*t, George, but you can't say it" after rattling off inane dialogue like "Kid, I've flown from one end of this galaxy to the other" to "I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board." It was no wonder that, at one point, Lucas checked himself into a hospital for a possible heart attack and also began losing his hair in clumps.
When the space fable set "in a galaxy far, far away" was released on May 25, 1977, no one - not even Lucas - could have anticipated the public fervor for a movie which came to define the summer blockbuster. Even Lucas' close friend, director Steven Spielberg, who had scored box office gold two years prior with his record-breaking "Jaws" (1975), conceded defeat when "Star Wars" overtook his shark tale as the No. 1 moneymaker of all time. Simply put, the film became a worldwide pop culture phenomenon on a scale Hollywood had never seen before. Young and old crowded theaters for repeat viewings. Dialogue from the film found a permanent place in the public lexicon - "May the Force be with you" being the most oft quoted. Thankfully for Lucas, who had wisely retained merchandising rights in exchange for a paycut, there was a limitless market for any and everything related to "Star Wars" - Kenner action figures and playsets, licensed books and comics, video games, a chart-topping LP of the famed John Williams score, Topps bubble-gum trading cards, bubble bath, bedding, clothing and even "SW"-themed cereal - were all snatched up en masse. In 2005, Forbes magazine estimated the overall revenue generated by the entire "Star Wars" franchise over the course of its history at nearly $20 billion dollars, making it one of the most successful franchises of all time. But it was the first of the series that changed Hollywood expectations forever, influencing countless future filmmakers to follow their dreams. More importantly, the film and its subsequent sequels provided a kind of magical universe as the childhood backdrop for every kid lucky enough to have come of age in the 1970s.
Worn out by the monumental ordeal of coordinating hundreds of cast and crew members - to say nothing of overseeing special effects while in the midst of shooting on location - Lucas retired from directing after "Star Wars," retaining control of the script as executive producer and hiring directors like Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand to complete his "Star Wars" trilogy. Post-"Star Wars," he would later pour his fortune into Skywalker Ranch, a secluded, 3,000 acre, Victorian-style work paradise surrounded by groves of eucalyptus and redwoods in Marin County, CA, just north of San Francisco, where he and his team would forge technological breakthroughs which served the editing and production process. Conceived as a complete filmmaking operation, Skywalker Ranch would later become the headquarters of Lucasfilm - companies with an estimated worth in excess of $5 billion, employing 1,200 people. One of those companies, Industrial Light & Magic, would, after the success of "Star Wars" in 1977, house the loyal special effects crew willing to relocate from their modest San Fernando Valley office in L.A. to Northern California's San Rafael to work on the second installment of the hit franchise.
It was inevitable. The public demanded a sequel to the biggest moneymaker of all time and three years never took so long to tick by for so many. Developed by Lucas and co-written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) was a darker tale than its predecessor, serving as the difficult second act, which not only developed the romance between Han Solo (Ford) and Princess Leia (Fisher), but saw Luke Skywalker (Hamill) through his training as a Jedi Knight and introduced two new characters to the fold: Yoda (Frank Oz), the wizened gnome-like Jedi Master and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Han's backstabbing buddy and smuggler-turned-Cloud City administrator. Most importantly, the film raised the question of the year - was the evil Sith lord Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) really Luke Skywalker's father?
Filmed in Finse, Norway for the Hoth planet sequence, and on double the number of Elstree Studio soundstages as the previous film, Lucas selected American film director Irvin Kershner as his replacement. It proved a wise choice, as "ESB" would later be regarded as the trilogy's best film overall, both with critics and fans - thought this appreciation would not happen for years. Upon its May 21, 1980 release, critics took it to task, calling it too dark and depressing with no discernible ending. Young fans seemed ticked off, having never seen a true onscreen cliffhanger before. Despite the lukewarm reviews, business was brisk, to say the least. Rabid fans with lightsabers in hand, waited in line for hours - most making return trips like they had three years before. Suffice it to say, no other release that year came close. "ESB" was the top moneymaker of the year and Lucas - who, in a move for studio independence, had essentially financed the film himself, via bank loans and his "SW" profits - became an even wealthier man. However, because the film had gone $10,000 over budget and the bank had threatened to pull his loan, Lucas was forced to make a deal with Fox to secure the loan in exchange for paying the studio more money, but without the loss of his sequel and merchandising rights. A wise move yet again, as all "ESB" merchandise tie-ins continued to fly off the shelves as they had three years prior.
Lucas' next monster hit came to fruition while he and buddy Spielberg sat on a Hawaiian beach, building sandcastles in May 1977. Trying to escape the "SW" furor, Lucas pitched to Spielberg his idea of a swashbuckling archeologist, in the vein of 1930s cliffhanger serials of his youth. Both agreed Lucas would produce and Spielberg would direct. Fast forward to three years later, and the power duo - along with lead stars Harrison Ford and Karen Allen - traveled to Tunisia; Kauai, Hawaii; and Elstree Studios in London to film the action-adventurer, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). Although Lucas originally wanted TV star Tom Selleck in the lead role, he eventually came around to the charms of Ford as the daredevil Indy; his only concern being that Ford was too identifiable as Han Solo. Lucas need not have worried, since Ford's portrayal of the wise-ass, fedora-sporting adventurer who hates snakes and loves bullwhips, became the most iconic of the actor's career.
Released in theaters on June 12, 1981, "ROTLA" was an immediate monster hit, easily earning the top moneymaking spot in a competitive year, which also saw the release of popular crowd-pleasers like "Superman II," "Arthur" and "An American Werewolf in London." The film earned eight Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture and won four (Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration). It also won a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing, bringing the total Oscars to five - a feat both Spielberg and Lucas shared equally, with neither one taking more credit than the other for their first collaboration. "ROTLA" was such a pop cultural phenomenon in its own right, it went on to spawn two sequels - "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984) and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989) - with the former being deemed so violent, it helped change the movie rating system, adding PG-13 to the line-up.
Hot off the success of "Raiders," Lucas returned to his galaxy far, far away, to begin work on the bittersweet final chapter of his interstellar franchise. After working on the script with Kasdan, Lucas enlisted British director Richard Marquand as director of the third outing. In January 1982, "Revenge of the Jedi" began covertly filming under the title "Blue Harvest" at Elstree Studios and on location in Yuma, AZ and the redwood forests of Northern California, near Crescent City. Rumors that Lucas had to become a co-director, as Marquand had little experience shooting special effects were rife, with Lucas later admitting that he did indeed pick up some slack. Marquand later said that directing "ROTJ" with Lucas conspicuously nearby, was "rather like trying to direct "King Lear" with Shakespeare in the next room." The plot, which did confirm Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker's dad - not to mention Princess Leia as Luke's twin sister - wrapped up Skywalker's journey toward his mastery of the force. By film's end, he had finally become a Jedi Knight. To the delight of fans, "ROTJ" offered just enough eye candy, including a high-speed speeder bike chase, a vile slug named Jabba the Hutt, and Princess Leia in a skimpy metal bikini. Although a hit with the kids at the time, the furry denizens of Endor, the dreaded teddy bear-like Ewoks, would, in hindsight, be judged much more harshly than they had been at the time of release; in fact, they would provide foreshadowing for the juvenile spirit of Lucas' prequels over a decade later.
Although regarded in hindsight as the weakest of the three original films, "ROTJ" nonetheless made major box office bank upon its May 25, 1983 release date, eventually and not surprisingly being the year's biggest moneymaker. At the time of its premiere, it had been renamed "Return of the Jedi," owing to the fact that Lucas felt a Jedi would never take revenge. Having wrapped up his inspirational franchise, Lucas took a two-year break before returning to producing high-profile features. His first foray was less than well-advised. In fact, "Howard the Duck" (1986), the live-action adaptation of the Marvel comics about a duck brought to Cleveland by a laser experiment gone awry who battles an evil alien spirit intent on destroying Earth, was so bad and bombed so spectacularly, that it became synonymous with the movie flop.
Lucas next lent his executive producing talents to a variety of projects, including the Jim Henson-directed and puppet-centric fable, "Labyrinth" (1986); the Michael Jackson 3-D short made for Disney theme parks, "Caption EO" (1986); and the fantasy epic "Willow" (1988), directed by Ron Howard. In 1988, Lucas left the comfortable sci-fi/fantasy world he had ensconsed himself in for the last decade to executive produce a historical tribute to the maker of the Tucker '48 automobile, Preston Tucker. Directed by old mentor Coppola, "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (1988) did not fare well as the box office, despite a stellar cast that included Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen. For the film, Lucas not only loaned his state-of-the-art sound facilities to Coppola, but his own expertise in filmmaking as well. Regardless, the film did not resound at the box office.
By the late 1980s, "Star Wars" fans, long dormant after growing up and moving on, began inquiring about a possible prequel that Lucas had at one time promised. But the timing was not right for the filmmaker, whose visual effects company ILM continued though the years to up the ante by providing awe-inspiring special effects for such films as "Back to the Future" (1985); "The Abyss" (1989), which featured the first computer-generated 3-D character; "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" (1991), featuring the first partially computer-generated main character (the T-1000); "Jurassic Park" (1993), the first time digital technology was used to create a complete and detailed living creatures (dinosaurs); and in 1996, the first completely computer-generated main character, Draco, in "Dragonheart."
While ILM flourished with its contracted projects with other directors like James Cameron and Spielberg, unbeknownst to fans, Lucas' day-to-day activities include the covert management of the "Star Wars" story, which was probably the most carefully tended secular story on Earth. Everyone in the content-creating galaxy of "Star Wars" had a copy of some version of the finite story - the expanding chronology of all the events that have ever occurred in this particular universe, by way of films, books, CD-ROMs, comic books, et al. Not surprising, the guardian of that universe had the last word on all creative decisions. When Bantam Publishing wanted to do the backstory of Yoda, Lucas nixed the notion because he wanted the character to remain a mysterious figure. Taking advantage of the ever-growing interest in his myth from Seventies children coming of age, Lucas re-released digitally enhanced versions of the three "Star Wars" movies as "Special Editions" in 1997 to a staggering box office. The 20-year-old "Star Wars" alone earned $35.9 million its opening weekend on 2,100 screens, as opposed to $1.6 million on 43 screens during its 1977 opening.
Almost by equal parts popular demand and good timing, Lucas returned to the director's chair after 20 years calling the shots on the sidelines to helm "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999). The colossal buzz preceding the prequel's release unfortunately proved anticlimactic when it finally hit theaters. Despite the PR boon of fans camping out for months ahead of time and although the movie generated huge box office grosses, original die-hards came away disappointed that despite all of Lucas' breakthroughs in digital technology, he seemed to have lost step when it came to storytelling. Most importantly, he failed to create characters as iconic and compelling as those in the original trilogy. Despite some canny casting - including Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ewan MacGregor and Natalie Portman - and many captivating visual elements - such as the climactic lightsaber battle and the demonic look of the villainous Darth Maul - Lucas took the full heat for the film's mostly lugubrious pace, the weak performance of child actor Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker, and particularly for the annoying, digitally-created alien Jar Jar Binks.
The director was unbowed and, instead of handing off to a new director, proceeded to helm the next installment as well - "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" (2002). Though much better received by critics and fans, the sequel also suffered from laughably wooden dialogue, a mostly charmless performance by the new adult Anakin (Hayden Christensen), and a preponderance of CGI effects, lending an unreal video game-esque environment to the film. However, some fans were pleased by the lessening of Jar Jar's role and the new all-digital version of Yoda created for a lightsaber battle. Lucas concluded the series with "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" (2005), well reviewed and widely accepted as the best of the prequels. Through the film was filled with brilliant visual concepts, spectacular special effects, better acting and plotlines ripe with potential, Lucas the screenwriter still fell short of delivering a finalized story and dialogue as dramatic and compelling as those in his initial trilogy. Nevertheless, the hype and anticipation factors were high, and the film broke the single-day box office record with a $50 million haul.
Although press reports claimed Lucas originally conceived his universe as a cycle of nine movies, Lucas decided that the "Star Wars" saga would not exceed six, claiming that he would be roughly 80 years old when he might revisit the franchise and doubted that he would have the energy to further it. Instead, he announced plans to continue "Star Wars" on television, first by expanding animator Genndy Tartakovsky's spin-off series "Clone Wars," which began airing three-minute-long segments on the Cartoon Network in 2003 into full 30-minute episodes; and secondly with a planned 100-episode live-action series set between Episodes III and IV. In 2002, Lucas, Spielberg and Ford announced plans to resurrect the former's second major onscreen enterprise, Indiana Jones, for a fourth and likely final outing. Meanwhile, Lucas announced plans in 2003 to consolidate his film production company, Lucasfilm; his special effects house, Lucas Digital; and video game company, LucasArts Entertainment, under the name Lucasfilm Ltd. As a result, most of the company's 2,000 employees relocated to the company's Digital Arts Center campus at San Francisco's former military base, the Presidio in 2005.
Lucas returned to the headlines in 2007, when he announced that the script for the long-rumored next "Indiana Jones" sequel had finally been approved. Nearly two decades after riding off into the sunset together with "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989), the triumvirate of Lucas, Spielberg and Ford reunited to begin work on the tentatively titled "Indiana Jones and the City of Gods." Expected to hit theatres in the Summer of 2008, early press stated that the next film would also feature the debut of a new character in the form of Indy's teenage son. In April of 2007, Lucas confirmed the casting of 18-year-old Shia LaBeouf as the next generation of Jones family adventurers. As expected, when the fourth Indiana Jones film, now called "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," opened in May 2008, it left everything else in its cinematic wake, becoming one of the biggest moneymakers of the year. However, critics and even diehard fans were not as forgiving once they had time to ruminate over the campy special effects and over-the-top quest for one of the more preposterous of "maguffins" - what Lucas had famously coined the artifact upon which the plot revolves. Not surprisingly, an unrepentant Lucas predicted the fans might not appreciate his story and, despite the considerable box office returns, he was proven correct.
That same year, Lucas oversaw the launch of the CGI-animated adventure "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (Cartoon Network, 2008- ) as the series' executive producer. Four years later he returned to feature filmmaking in a far more involved capacity for the World War II action-drama "Red Tails" (2012). The story of the famed Tuskegee Airman, it featured a primarily African-American cast that included Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr. A long-gestating pet project for Lucas - who served as a very hands-on executive producer, self-financing its production and much of the distribution costs - "Red Tails" boasted effects-enhanced aerial combat sequences, but was deemed somewhat simplistic in terms of its story telling. After a respectable second place opening, it quickly disappeared from theaters. Around this same time, to the dismay of some and relief of others, Lucas announced his "retirement" from working on big-budget blockbuster films in January 2012. In October of that year, Lucas shocked fans and foes alike when it was announced he had sold Lucasfilm, Ltd. to Disney for $4.05 billion, whereupon it was announced there would be three new "Star Wars" films, with the first tentatively set for release in 2015 and Lucas attached as "creative consultant."
By Phil Kim
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