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    Gary Kurtz, hands-on ‘Star Wars’ producer, dies at 78

    NEW YORK — Gary Kurtz, who produced “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” helping George Lucas create one of the most successful franchises in movie history, died Sept. 23 at a care facility near his home in London. He was 78.

    The cause was cancer, his family said in a statement.

    Mr. Kurtz first worked with Lucas on his breakout film, the nostalgic coming-of-age comedy “American Graffiti” (1973), and later collaborated with him on the first two films of the “Star Wars” saga, which established Lucas as a major filmmaker.

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    “Gary’s passing will be felt throughout the Star Wars family,” Lucas said in a statement. “Through what were sometimes challenging shooting difficulties and conditions, his contributions as a producer helped bring the stories to life on-screen.”

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    Mr. Kurtz and Francis Ford Coppola produced “American Graffiti,” which cost around $775,000 (a little more than $4.7 million in 2018 dollars) to make, and became a sleeper success that made tens of millions of dollars and was nominated for five Academy Awards.

    During the filming, which was frenetic but completed on time and under budget, Mr. Kurtz and Lucas talked about making a very different kind of film: a space opera that broke from the trend of post-apocalyptic science fiction movies.

    Mr. Kurtz was involved in the project from the beginning. He helped Lucas pitch the film to studios, scout locations, hire a cast and crew, and create dazzling special effects with a budget of $10 million (about $45 million today).

    “Star Wars” was released in 1977 and became one of the most successful films of all time, earning hundreds of millions of dollars and winning seven Academy Awards, including a special-achievement award for the alien, creature, and robot sound effects.

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    After the success of “Star Wars,” Lucas and Mr. Kurtz began work on a sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” enlisting Irvin Kershner to direct while Lucas served as executive producer and wrote the story.

    “The Empire Strikes Back” was not completed on time and went over budget, costing more than $30 million ($100 million today) to make. It was released in 1980, to major box-office success but mixed reviews, although many critics now consider it the best film in the “Star Wars” series.

    Mr. Kurtz’s collaboration with Lucas ended shortly after “Empire” was released because of differences over the planned third film in the series. Mr. Kurtz later said he had objected to what he saw as Lucas’s overly upbeat treatment of the story, which eventually became “Return of the Jedi” (1983).

    Gary Douglas Kurtz was born in Los Angeles on July 27, 1940. His mother, Sara (Briar) Kurtz, was an interior designer, painter, and sculptor. His father, Eldo, was a chemical engineer and photographer.

    Mr. Kurtz grew up in Northern and later Southern California. He graduated from West Covina High School in West Covina, near Los Angeles, in 1958 and attended the University of Southern California, where he studied music before focusing on film.

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    He left college to work on films. His first credited work included serving as production manager on the Roger Corman movies “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” (1965) and “Queen of Blood” (1966).