Ralph McQuarrie, the conceptual designer behind Star Wars and other science fiction, fantasy, and adventure films, has died. McQuarrie passed away on Saturday, March 3, 2012, at his home in Berkeley, California. He was eighty-two. Despite years of declining health (he suffered from Parkinson's disease), McQuarrie had a very long and productive life and career, especially given his injury while serving in the Korean War. During that almost forgotten conflict, McQuarrie received a gunshot wound to the head, an injury that--if it had proved fatal--would have changed the look of science fiction forever, depriving the world of some of the most memorable and recognizable characters ever to appear on the silver screen.
Ralph McQuarrie was born in Gary, Indiana, on June 13, 1929, and spent his formative years in Billings, Montana, where his family owned a farm. He moved to California in the early 1960s and honed his skills as an illustrator at the Art Center School in downtown Los Angeles. Early in his career, McQuarrie created technical drawings and blueprints, first for a dentist, then for the Boeing Company, and most notably and fortuitously for CBS News, for which he created posters and animation on the Apollo spaceflight program. While at CBS, McQuarrie was approached by writer, director, and producer Hal Barwood, who asked him to complete some conceptual paintings for the planned film Star Dancing. Though Star Dancing never reached the big screen, McQuarrie’s work on the project led him to George Lucas, who in 1975 commissioned conceptual designs for Star Wars (1977). McQuarrie illustrated storyboards from Lucas' script and created the initial depictions of Darth Vadar, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Chewbacca.
McQuarrie went on to work on The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). His other film credits include some of the highest-grossing films of the 1970s and '80s, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). He worked on the television series Battlestar Galactica in 1978 and earned an Academy Award for Visual Effects for his work on the 1985 film, Cocoon.
McQuarrie was offered a role as a conceptual designer for the Star Wars prequel series but turned dwon the offer, stating he had “run out of steam.” His last credit as a conceptual artist or designer was on the 1991 movie short Back to the Future . . . The Ride. Incidentally, McQuarrie played a character named McQuarrie--General McQuarrie--in an uncredited role in The Empire Strikes Back.
Written by Bridget Hanley, Proficient Pen, and Terence E. Hanley
Copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley