Star Wars didn’t become a cultural phenomenon by magic. Plenty of amazing films fail to find an audience and are only appreciated long after the fact, like It’s a Wonderful Life, Blade Runner, The Shawshank Redemption, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. What made Star Wars so special that it escaped those films’ fate?
Aided by George Lucas’s vision, Star Wars had many people who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to turn that film into quite possibly the most successful film of all time. These people have remained largely anonymous or forgotten – until now.
Let’s recognize the incredible work of 10 unsung heroes who saved Star Wars from obscurity.
Jay Cocks and Brian De Palma
Early in his career, George Lucas started a tradition of showing a rough cut of his movies to a close-knit group of friends. His audience for Star Wars included such big names as Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, Brian De Palma, and Time magazine writer Jay Cocks. The film was incomplete and where it was missing special effects, Lucas had inserted World War II footage. The film came across as a mess to the small group of friends. De Palma mocked Lucas while the others offered sympathy for what appeared to be a giant misstep.
Despite his mockery, De Palma offered to rewrite the opening crawl of text into something a little more comprehensible, in his opinion. Lucas gladly accepted his help. De Palma and Cocks worked together on the opening text, which Lucas then modified into what we have today. Coupled with John Williams’ rousing score, this wall of text was enough to get moviegoers really excited for everything that came next.
Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
We are all indebted to the husband-and-wife team who would go on to write and direct Howard the Duck. That sounds strange, but it’s true. They did an invaluable service to Star Wars by rewriting most of George Lucas’s dialogue. Back in the 1970s, Lucas was still humble enough to know that writing dialogue wasn’t one of his strengths. So, a few days before principal photography was set to commence, he asked his friends to polish his screenplay up and make the verbal exchanges sound more realistic and less clunky. Huyck and Katz worked wonders, adding comedy and lighthearted moments to the otherwise serious story. And they didn’t even take a writing credit. What troopers.
In the beginning, George Lucas may have been the one writing draft after draft of Star Wars, but producer Gary Kurtz was the one molding it all into an economically feasible project. For example, Lucas originally imagined up a whole world full of Wookiees and Kurtz got him to pare it down to a single Wookiee. Kurtz’ approach to Lucas’ grandiose ideas turned out to be a perfect compromise on two fronts. It allowed the first film to be made on a fairly modest budget, and it gave audiences a taste of things to come that kept them coming back for more with each sequel. As a producer, Kurtz was a tireless advocate for Lucas. He made a big difference, as can be seen by the unparalleled quality of the first two Star Wars films, which he oversaw.
Alan Ladd, Jr.
Alan Ladd, Jr., then-president of Twentieth Century Fox, believed in Star Wars. I mean really believed. He put his career on the line because of his faith in George Lucas’s ideas. When no other studio would even touch the idea of a “space opera,” Ladd, Jr. paid Lucas to develop his treatment into screenplay after screenplay until he came up with something workable. He was grilled again and again by the board of directors for allowing Star Wars to go over-budget and over-schedule. But his faith never wavered that Lucas could pull off a miracle.
He told worried investors that Star Wars would be the best and most successful film of all time. He gave Lucas just enough money and time to make it through to the end of principal photography, and he patiently waited for the results to emerge. He wasn’t disappointed. At the end of the first public screening of the completed film in early May 1977, the audience cheered loudly and refused to leave the theater because of the emotional high they were all on. Ladd, Jr. was in tears because of his awe at the film and the audience’s reaction to it. He couldn’t believe that his hopes and dreams had come true so dramatically. Of course we all know what a blockbuster Star Wars went on to become, completely vindicating his faith.
Right from its debut, Star Wars proved surprisingly popular, which led to a snowball effect as more and more people got curious about the film. Demand for Star Wars didn’t materialize out of thin air. How did a science-fiction film that wasn’t based on a pre-existing franchise come to have a built-in audience? It was primarily due to the efforts of Charles Lippincott.
Lippincott made many brilliant decisions that won over sci-fi enthusiasts. In 1976, no studio films were ever promoted at sci-fi conventions. They weren’t considered to be worth the studios’ time. Lippincott made the unorthodox decision to take a Star Wars presentation on the road and visit as many conventions as possible. He was frequently joined by actor Mark Hamill and producer Gary Kurtz, and he also brought life-size models of Darth Vader and C3PO, as well as models and artwork of the various spacecraft and hardware from the film. Sci-fi fans were thrilled at the prospect of a film that would cater to their interests, and they were delighted to be treated so respectfully by Lippincott and his crew.
Lucas may have been the genius to recognize the astonishing merchandising potential of his creations, but Lippincott was the one who followed through on those lofty goals. He had the audacity to go directly to then-Marvel Comics President Stan Lee and cut a deal to do not one (as was customary at the time for a film that actually got a comic-book version) but several comic-book issues detailing the story of Star Wars before and after the film debuted.
He worked tirelessly with toymakers, facing rejection after rejection, before he finally got someone at Kenner to take him seriously. Despite their trepidation, the company agreed to make toys for Star Wars, a decision that led to billions of dollars of sales for many years. Lippincott’s marketing efforts paid off in so many ways.
When principal photography mercifully came to an end in 1976, George Lucas was shocked to discover that his editor had been unable to come up with anything even remotely resembling a rough cut of the film he was trying so hard to put together. Desperate, he turned to his wife Marcia to help him assemble something from the ashes. She had to pull double duty because she was already editing Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Working with two other editors, Marcia Lucas managed to turn things around and cut Star Wars into the film we know and love.
Harrison Ford has casting director Fred Roos to thank for virtually his entire career. George Lucas had made it clear that he would not cast any actor from his previous film, American Graffiti, in Star Wars. He wanted to give Star Wars a timeless feel, and he worried that working with familiar actors would date the film. Ford had all but given up on his acting career in the years following American Graffiti, instead focusing on his career in carpentry.
His life was changed forever when he was called on to do some work at the building where Lucas and Roos were conducting casting sessions with hundreds of actors for the main roles in Star Wars. Every day, Lucas became more worried that he would never find an actor convincing enough to play the likable rogue Han Solo.
But Roos patiently pointed to Ford each day as they walked through the halls and saw him working. He knew Ford would be perfect in the role, but Lucas continued to stonewall any attempts to audition him. Eventually, Lucas relented and asked Ford to come read with the other actors. He didn’t want Ford to try out, but he just needed someone stable for the actors to bounce their performances off. However, Lucas soon realized that his perfect Han Solo was hiding in plain sight, and he finally cast him in the role. Roos’ perseverance led to one of the best casting decisions of all time. What a clever Roos.
George Lucas’s longtime friend and friendly rival Steven Spielberg provided one of the most significant contributions ever to Star Wars by introducing Lucas to a little composer named John Williams. Williams was fresh off his success with Jaws, which was his huge breakthrough after years of doing mostly mediocre work.
Lucas and Williams hit it off instantly. Lucas wanted Williams to write a score in the vein of classical music melodies while Williams suggested he draw upon the work of famous composers of 1930s swashbucklers and serials. Both were thrilled by the other’s ideas, and soon Williams came up with a score that perfectly balanced the mood of classical music with classic adventure films.
Even if the special effects look a little dated, the acting feels hokey, or the story has a few plot holes, the music of Star Wars is just as masterful today as it was when the film debuted. And it’s all thanks to Steven Spielberg’s suggestion to a friend. Happily, Lucas paid Spielberg back by letting him in on a pet project about a certain whip-wielding archaeologist. What a legendary friendship those two have.
I could have mentioned many other people on this list. I decided not to include John Dykstra or Ralph McQuarrie, for example, because they have been recognized for their efforts in creating the special effects and concept art/matte paintings, respectively, many times. I also wrote about Sir Alec Guinness’ calming influence during the turbulent production in another article. But in this article I wanted to go beyond the obvious and talk about people who made huge contributions to this film while receiving little or no recognition for it in mainstream circles over the years.
Star Wars is more than just the product of one man’s imagination. I’m sure that there are plenty of other people we could talk about. Feel free to share their stories in a comment below.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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