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The Writer’s Almanac for May 14, 2017: Nurse

May 14, 2017: birthday: George Lucas

Today is the birthday of filmmaker George Lucas, born in Modesto, California (1944). He had a pretty average suburban upbringing. His parents had an office supply store, and they also had a walnut orchard. Lucas was obsessed with cars when he was in high school, and wanted to be a race car driver — until he was in a near-fatal auto accident not long before his graduation. While he was taking classes at a community college, he became interested in cinematography. So he transferred to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and studied filmmaking.

He was awarded a scholarship by Warner Brothers to observe and work on a film that was currently in production. He chose Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and that’s where he caught the eye of the movie’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola mentored him and convinced Warner Brothers to co-produce a feature film version of Lucas’s college project. It was a sci-fi movie called THX 1138 (1971), and, although critics liked it, it was a huge flop. Lucas scaled back his futuristic ambitions in favor of making a movie on a subject he knew well: coming of age in an American suburb in the early 1960s. That was American Graffiti (1973). Lucas made the film for less than $800,000, and it was a huge box-office hit. It was also nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

For his next film, he wanted to try something new. “Right after Graffiti,” he said, ”I was getting this fan mail from kids that said the film changed their life, and something inside me said, do a children’s film. And everybody said, ‘Do a children’s film? What are you talking about? You’re crazy.’ … I saw that kids today don’t have any fantasy life the way we had — they don’t have Westerns, they don’t have pirate movies, they don’t have that stupid serial fantasy life that we used to believe in.” He realized that what was missing from American movies was the serials of the 1930s. Studios would release short installments of movies every Saturday, in 10- to 20-minute chapters. The serials were action-heavy and usually featured a cliffhanger — sometimes a literal one — at the end of each installment so that kids would be sure to line up the next week.

So he spent $11 million to make a kind of outer space Western. He wanted to recapture those old Buck Rogers comic strips and Flash Gordon movies he’d loved as a kid. He also wanted to incorporate a universal hero’s journey story, which he had been thinking about since reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with the Thousand Faces. Even though Lucas had been successful with American Graffiti, he had a hard time putting together a production and distribution deal for his new project. Finally, 20th Century Fox took a chance on it. Star Wars was a sensation — a huge financial success and what one critic later called “the closest thing to shared religious belief among contemporary Americans.” The eighth movie in the Star Wars franchise is due out next December. Lucas sold the franchise to The Walt Disney Company in 2012, but he still serves as creative consultant.

Lucas returned again to the Saturday morning serial idea with the Indiana Jones movies. The first film in the franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was set in 1936, and features the intrepid anthropologist Indiana Jones battling Nazis who want to get their hands on the Ark of the Covenant.

Lucas is also a philanthropist, and has donated millions to various causes, including the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C.; the Chicago-based After School Matters; and the Obama Foundation. He founded The George Lucas Educational Foundation in 1991, and also donated $180 million to the University of Southern California’s film school.