Original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz has succumbed to cancer, passing away at the age of 78.

Closely associated with the rise of George Lucas, having also produced the Star Wars creator’s American Graffiti, Kurtz was instrumental in getting the space epic made, as Fox weren’t convinced that it would be a success.

Kurtz’s movie career kicked off in 1965 as an assistant director on the Jack Nicholson western Ride in the Whirlwind, and he soon proved his versatility in camera operation, as well as assistant and second unit directing. Following a three-year stint in the US Marines, he returned in 1969 and continued movie work.

It was 1973 when Kurtz joined forces with Lucas for American Graffiti, which was co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola. The low-budget nostalgic 1950s teen tale was a smash, and remains in the top 50 most profitable movies of all time to this day.

Then came Star Wars, the importance of Kurtz to which can’t be underestimated. Beyond convincing Fox that their belief that it was just a disposable B-movie was way off the mark, the project faced many problems with its production. Not least of these was in Tunisia, which doubled for Tattooine. Kurtz helped the navigation of everything from electrical breakdowns to extreme sandstorms – and the rest is history.

Lucas and Kurtz parted ways following The Empire Strikes Back – for which Kurtz came up with the title. Kurtz continued to produce other films in various capacities, including Muppet man Jim Henson’s fantasy classic The Dark Crystal, as well as box office fizzer Return to Oz.

Vale Gary Douglas Kurtz.