It’s impossible to imagine a world without George Lucas. Not only have his Indiana Jones and, especially, Star Wars franchises come to dominate popular culture, but much of what constitutes popular entertainment in general today has its roots in what Lucas was doing in the 1970s and 1980s. With that in mind, maybe you’ll want to get to know Lucas a little better. Here are 10 things you never knew about the legendary filmmaker.
1. He almost became a race-car driver (until it nearly killed him)
Anybody who’s seen Lucas’ American Graffiti, a classic of 60s nostalgia chronicling a day in the lives of four hot rod-racing high schoolers, will sense the filmmaker’s affinity for automobiles and racing. Like the characters in that semi-autobiographical film, Lucas was obsessed with cars as a young man, with cinema offering only passing interest to him.
Rather than make movies, the teenage Lucas wanted to be a race-car driver. That was until a high-speed collision, a result of racing a friend, left Lucas in critical condition. The crash, which was reported at the time in the local newspaper, crushed Lucas’ lungs and forced him to spend weeks in intensive care. That horror crash was, according to Lucas, the moment his attention turned from racing to films.
2. Steven Spielberg was a friend at school
The sporting equivalent might be discovering that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi went to playschool together. While it seems almost too incredible to be true, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the two 70s filmmakers who individually invented the modern blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars, knew each other as kids.
Well, kind of. The two men were already in their late teens when they first met studying cinema at the University of Southern California (USC), and soon became friends. Other buddies of Lucas’ at USC included later triple Oscar-winning sound designer Walter Murch and Apocalypse Now screenwriter John Milius, while Grease director Randal Kleiser was Lucas’ roommate.
3. He tried joining the USAF (and got drafted for Vietnam)
In 1967, shortly after graduating from USC, Lucas was feeling uncertain about what kind of future he wanted. One path he considered was the air force. And so Lucas, whose own love of aerial dogfights can be seen in 2012’s Red Tails (which he produced), tried to sign up to the US Air Force (USAF) as an officer.
The reason his application was rejected? All those pesky speeding violations Lucas had amassed in his years as a boy racer. Lucas again almost saw military action, albeit from the ground level, when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam. However, upon medical examination it was found that Lucas had diabetes, and he was exempted.
4. Star Wars was rejected by every Hollywood studio until 20th Century Fox came along
It seems incredible now, considering the cash-hoovering beast that the Star Wars franchise has become, but nobody in Hollywood wanted to make The Star Wars (Lucas’ original title for the film). It was a special effects-driven space western about evil cyborgs and saintly space samurai, and every studio in Hollywood turned it down until 20th Century Fox came to Lucas’ rescue.
Amazingly, not even Fox thought Star Wars would amount to much, and only handed the budget over as a gesture of good faith in Lucas after the critical and commercial success of his previous film. According to Lucas, then-head of Fox Alan Ladd told him “I don’t understand this, but I loved American Graffiti, and whatever you do is OK with me”.
5. Lucas based Han Solo on Francis Ford Coppola
In the 1970s, a group of filmmakers termed ‘the movie brats’ emerged in Hollywood. Young and cine-literate, these hungry directors counted among their number Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. The latter was in those early years closest to Lucas, even co-founding a movie studio, American Zoetrope, with the Star Wars creator.
It was during his time spent with Coppola that Lucas first conceived of a cocky, smooth-talking pirate character, who always seemed to land on his feet in spite of the odds. Coppola would be, in part, the inspiration for Star Wars’ Han Solo, one of the best-loved movie icons there ever was.
6. He named Indiana Jones after his dog
After Star Wars, Lucas must have been hungry for another box office-beating movie franchise, because he along with Steven Spielberg invented the perfect adventure movie in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It had everything audiences could want: hiss-worthy baddies, epic setpieces and a wise-cracking hero named after Lucas’ own pet.
While Indiana Smith – as Indiana Jones was originally known – had a last name inspired by a Steve McQueen character, his first was taken from Lucas’ beloved dog. Indiana, an Alaskan Malamute, was Lucas’ pet in the 1970s, when Lucas first came up with the idea for Raiders. The pooch was also Lucas’ inspiration for Chewbacca, Han Solo’s furry friend in Star Wars.
7. All his subsequent films make subtle references to his first
The Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises are among the most widely seen ever, while American Graffiti, Lucas’ second film, has been no slouch either, at the time earning major box office and leaving a lasting legacy as an essential coming-of-age film. Lucas’ first feature THX 1138, however, is something of a curio, and easily the least seen of his career.
This hasn’t stopped Lucas from making reference to his dystopian sci-fi debut in every one of his subsequent movies, however. ‘THX 1138’ appears on a licence plate in American Graffiti, a Death Star monitor in Star Wars, the ‘flying wing’ plane in Raiders, and shows up time and again through more of Lucas’ films. It’s a persistent easter egg that ensures even those who have never seen Lucas’ first film will have seen ‘THX 1138’ at some point.
8. Pixar wouldn’t exist without him
In the mid-1970s, a group of computer scientists from the New York Institute of Technology had the idea of creating the first wholly computer-generated feature film. However, it was expensive work crafting an entire feature using what was then such nascent and revolutionary technology, and after their original benefactor got into serious debt, these scientists were in desperate need of funding.
Enter George Lucas, who created The Graphics Group as a division of Lucasfilm, and hired those computer scientists to explore the potential of CG-based animation and special effects. The Graphics Group would hone their skills on Hollywood movies including Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, before going independent in 1986, and rebranding as Pixar.
9. He’s directed only six films in almost 50 years
Such has been the length of his career, and such has been his influence, his films (one in particular) almost singlehandedly changing cinema no less, it seems like George Lucas must have a pretty hefty filmography by now. In fact, Lucas has directed only six movies in almost 50 years – THX 1138 (1971), American Graffiti (1973), Star Wars (1977) and the Star Wars prequels – making him even less prolific than his famously, parodically reclusive contemporary Terence Malick.
Lucas wasn’t even director on the majority of the trilogy that made his name. Many assume it was all Lucas, but of the original Star Wars trilogy he only wrote and directed the first film, with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi directed by Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand respectively. The first Star Wars was Lucas’ last film as director for 22 years; from 1977 to 1999, the year The Phantom Menace was released, Lucas didn’t direct a single feature.
10. He’s probably the wealthiest filmmaker of all time
George Lucas, as the creator of the single most commercially successful film franchise ever (factoring in merchandise sales, as well as box office), is predictably a wealthy man. But considering just how wealthy he is, and considering that he broke the mould in terms of filmmakers taking hefty percentages of the profits, Lucas is probably the wealthiest director who ever lived.
Last year, Lucas made the Forbes list of the 400 richest people in America, with an estimated wealth of $5 billion. Lucas, FYI, was one of only two filmmakers to make that list. The other? His long-time friend and collaborator, and fellow co-creator of the blockbuster movie, Steven Spielberg, with an estimated fortune of $3.6 billion.