The top 20 people responsible for the success of the ‘Star Wars’ saga (Commentary)

A great debate recently popped up at my office: Who deserves credit for the success of “Star Wars?” Well, George Lucas, of course, because he created it. Plain and simple, right? Not necessarily, because he was far from alone in making “Star Wars” great. Strictly speaking, he couldn’t have made that first movie on his own, because he needed start-up money. The truth is, while Lucas has to be No. 1 on this list, the “Star Wars” saga was created and molded and made into a success by more than one person.

I ranked the top 20 people who made “Star Wars” into the film/TV/book/comic/gaming saga we know and love today using three criteria: 1, Would “Star Wars” exist it the first place without them? 2, Would “Star Wars” be as good as it is without them? And 3, Would we still be talking about “Star Wars” today (and looking forward to new projects) without them?

1. George Lucas — Obviously, he came up with the idea in the first place. And he wrote all the drafts of “A New Hope” and all the early drafts of “Empire” and “Jedi” before Lawrence Kasdan polished them. He made smart hiring decisions of most of the people who will follow on this list. And he made the smart financial moves (notably, retaining merchandising rights) that allowed him to self-finance everything after the first movie, thus keeping Hollywood bean-counters away from his wonderful creation. He got too self-indulgent on the prequels and the various special editions, but then rebounded nicely by stepping back and just providing the big ideas (Ahsoka! Ziro the Hutt! The return of Darth Maul!) for “The Clone Wars” (and he’s providing only the rough story idea for Episodes VII through IX). All of this man’s failures pale in comparison to his creative and technical (ILM, Pixar, THX sound) triumphs. And let’s not overlook all of the great things — in fields ranging from entertainment to science — brought to us by people who have been inspired by “Star Wars.”

2. Alan Ladd Jr. — Twentieth Century Fox’s director of creative affairs was the only person in Hollywood’s power circles who understood what Lucas was trying to do. Ladd fought to finance the picture and defended Lucas to the bigwigs when he missed deadlines. Without Ladd championing him, Lucas would’ve never been able to fund “Star Wars.” In other words, while other people on this list helped make “Star Wars” a great collective work of art and a thriving franchise, Lucas and Ladd are the only two people without whom “Star Wars” would not exist.

3. Irvin Kershner — The “Empire Strikes Back” director not only proved that the saga could continue beyond “Star Wars,” he also did what many people assumed was impossible: He made a BETTER movie (and it’s still the best “Star Wars” film). Had he made a bad sequel, the saga might’ve died right there, or merely limped to a conclusion in “Return of the Jedi.” Kershner got a lot of his own vision into “Empire,” taking advantage of Lucas’ preoccupation with running Lucasfilm Ltd. It’s notable that this movie remains the least tampered-with through all the special editions; even Lucas knows deep down that Kersh did something right.

4. Frank Oz — As talented as Kershner was, “Empire” — and the whole saga — would’ve completely collapsed if Yoda came off as a Muppet rather than a living creature. For reasons that might drift into the magical, Yoda is totally believable (even more so than in his digital prequel incarnations of a decade-and-a-half later), with Oz giving a performance and a voice that Mark Hamill could act across from. Yoda is the perfect spiritual figure for atheists like me; I don’t take everything he says as gospel, but he’s inspirational and well-meaning to his core. Despite being a puppet.

5. Ralph McQuarrie — The concept artist brought the dream of “Star Wars” out of Lucas’ head and into two vibrant, colorful dimensions, thus providing the foundation for all future artists who worked on the saga in both two and three dimensions. All incarnations of “Star Wars” — including “The Clone Wars” and videogames and comics — look the way they do because of McQuarrie’s inspirational paintings. If Lucas hadn’t found someone to begin giving color, shape, size and scope to his visions, he might’ve given up the dream.

6. John Dykstra — Lucas knew he wanted the dogfights to look like World War II fighter plane footage, but the most notable space special effects at the time “A New Hope” was being made were the slow, majestic shots of 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In addition to assembling a talented team of California special-effects misfits, Dykstra pioneered the Dykstraflex motion-control camera that made it possible to do all the cutting-edge shots of “Star Wars” in an efficient, effective manner. If the effects had been pretty-but-boring (“2001”) or looked fake (early “Star Trek”), “Star Wars” wouldn’t have worked.

7. Ben Burtt — The sound designer on the six movies (whose library is also used for TV projects and audiobooks) is, along with John Williams, the reason why blind people can be huge “Star Wars” fans. Burtt made “Star Wars” come alive because all his sounds are organic (going against the sci-fi expectations of the 1970s), to the point where a bowling pin setter morphed into an AT-AT walker, a plucked cable became a blaster shot, and an elephant contributed to the whoosh of a TIE fighter. Because of Burtt, we can hear “Star Wars” all around us on Earth, and that makes the sci-fi saga comforting and homey rather than unfamiliar and scary.

8. Joseph Campbell — The scholar of modern myths and the hero’s journey was the biggest influence on Lucas when the “Star Wars” director dreamed up the saga in the mid-1970s and sat down to the painful process of pounding out what would eventually be a six-episode film series. Early drafts show Lucas’ imagination led to sprawling, unwieldy scripts (he admits writing isn’t his strong suit), but the structure provided by Campbell’s theories provided enough grounding. As a result, we eventually got movies that are both imaginative and relatable. Without Campbell’s inspirational teachings, Lucas might’ve merely created fun-but-cheesy “Flash Gordons,” or stuck with the dour sci-fi route paved by “THX-1138.”

9. John Williams — Just try to imagine a “Star Wars” movie without the composer’s larger-than-life music. It’s impossible. Granted, Kevin Kiner scored “The Clone Wars” and did an admirable job, but he built upon what Williams started. And even when reading a “Star Wars” book or comic, Williams’ themes can creep into a reader’s mind.

10. Timothy Zahn — Some argue that the quality of the first “Star Wars” novel after an eight-year hiatus was irrelevant; the sheer existence of the book was all that was needed to reignite the spark of fandom. However, I believe it’s no small thing that 1991’s “Heir to the Empire” showed the myriad ways the universe could expand beyond “Return of the Jedi.” Zahn was the first to envision galactic capital Coruscant, and he gave us Luke’s eventual wife, Mara Jade, plus a villain (Thrawn) who didn’t embarrass himself in comparison to Vader and Palpatine. If it had been a crappy book, “Star Wars” could’ve gone back into hibernation.

11-13. Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew and Marcia Lucas — These California-based editors worked together to create a faster, more intense version of “A New Hope” by cutting scenes more tightly and using alternate takes, vastly improving upon an earlier cut done in England that was slow and boring. This style of editing — inspired by old serials such as “Flash Gordon” — has been used in every “Star Wars” film and TV episode since then, while also translating quite nicely to comic books.

14. Anthony Daniels — It seems there are two kinds of actors in Lucas-helmed movies: Those who need direction will struggle; those who do their own thing will thrive. Daniels was the first to do his own thing. Lucas has admitted that the panicky, comical C-3PO was not what he had in mind (he envisioned an oily salesman), but Daniels created such a fully formed character — certainly a robot, but with a human personality — that Lucas couldn’t change it. And Daniels — who later made a career out of being a public ambassador for “Star Wars” — did it all from inside an uncomfortable metal suit. If Lucas hadn’t been exposed to such eye-opening talent right off the bat, his propensity for drawing stiff performances from actors might’ve taken over.

15. Dave Filoni — In order to operate smoothly and also be awesome, “The Clone Wars” needed a showrunner who was a huge fan but also could work with the sometimes stubborn Lucas. Filoni hit that sweet spot between the extremes of creative egotist and yes-man, and he shepherded five seasons of TV that told a prequel-era yarn while capturing the spirit and visual scheme of the classic trilogy. And he did it on the heels of what seemed at the time to be the end of “Star Wars” on the big screen, thus keeping the saga in the mainstream until the announcement of the next trilogy.

16. Lawrence Kasdan — Lucas did have a few strong scripts in him (“A New Hope,” “American Graffiti” and, arguably, “THX-1138”). But we also saw how the prequels (especially Episodes II and III) turned out choppy and stiff without the polish of a professional screenwriter. The “Empire” and “Jedi” screenplays got that finishing touch from Kasdan. By the time of the prequels, the franchise could withstand mediocre films because there was all kinds of other cool “Star Wars” stuff — plus a new generation of less-cynical fans to embrace the prequels — but it might not have weathered mediocrity in the 1980s.

17. Gary Kurtz — By many accounts, the producer of “A New Hope” and “Empire” was a crucial right-hand-man to the often overburdened Lucas. Kurtz’s presence helped immensely when the introverted Lucas needed to communicate something to an actor; he may have been the key cog in keeping the production from spinning out of control.

18-19. Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson — Going back to the theater over and over was one way to stay excited about “Star Wars” when waiting for the next movie to come out in the late-’70s and early ’80s. Writer Goodwin and artist Williamson’s daily newspaper strips — which perfectly captured the original trilogy’s tone and look — were another way. Goodwin was also the first good writer on the monthly Marvel comics run. If these works had been terrible, it could’ve soured fans on the saga by giving them a negative impression of “Star Wars” every day with their coffee and toast.

20. Michael A. Stackpole — In addition to being arguably the most talented “Star Wars” novelist, Stackpole was the first author to develop a substantial saga-within-a-saga without using the main movie characters (He chronicled Wedge and his squadron of X-wing pilots, and also moved his saga over to the comics medium). The Expanded Universe keeps expanding and getting richer because many authors have followed Stackpole’s lead and looked beyond the Skywalkers and Solos. Episodes VII-IX will inevitably introduce new main characters to the big screen (Han, Luke and Leia are expected to be in “wise mentor” roles). Stackpole’s example should give the sequel trilogy filmmakers confidence that fans are willing to embrace new heroes, because it’s the stories and characterization that count.

What are your rankings of the most important people in the making and shaping of the “Star Wars” saga? Share your list in the comment thread.

Jerry's GravatarI would consider adding Alec Guinness, who added some needed gravitas to a cast of otherwise unknowns in the first film. And Natalie Portman was the one saving grace in the otherwise detestable prequels.
# Posted By Jerry | 9/29/13 11:19 PM
John Hansen's GravatarGood choices. They both definitely elevate the material, particularly Guinness. And I was kind of ashamed that I didn’t get more women into my top 20. I was strongly considering Carrie Fisher (Leia was technically a damsel in distress, but she also showed she could handle a blaster and be a leader of a rebellion, and Fisher certainly portrayed that well) and Ashley Eckstein (who portrayed Ahsoka in “The Clone Wars,” a character credited with drawing a new generation of young girls to the saga). And a case could be made for Portman too, although she’s so much better in other movies than she is in “Star Wars” (through no fault of her own; it’s just an awkwardly written character arc, especially in Episode II).
# Posted By John Hansen | 9/30/13 1:53 PM
Eric's GravatarAlso James Earl Jones impressive performance as Vader!
# Posted By Eric | 9/30/13 10:33 PM
John Hansen's GravatarGood call. This list may have to expand to 30 at some point.
# Posted By John Hansen | 9/30/13 11:38 PM