Ralph McQuarrie, artist who drew Darth Vader, C-3PO, dies at 82

Ralph McQuarrie, an artist whose paintings of a gold-plated robot in an otherworldly desert and an intergalactic sword duel between a scraggly youth and a black-masked villain helped persuade film executives to gamble on a young director named George Lucas and his visionary story, “Star Wars,” died March 3 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 82.

He had complications from Parkinson’s disease, said John Scoleri, co-author of a book of Mr. McQuarrie’s art.

(Spencer Platt/GETTY IMAGES) - Original artwork titled "Bounty Hunters in Cloud City" by Ralph McQuarrie.

“Ralph McQuarrie was the first person I hired to help me envision ‘Star Wars,’ ” Lucas said in a statement posted online. “When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this.’ ”

Mr. McQuarrie, for instance, designed the Samurai-inspired helmet and black caped-outfit worn by arch nemesis Darth Vader. (It was Mr. McQuarrie’s idea to put a breathing apparatus on Vader’s mask, so that he could survive in the vacuum of space, which led to the villain’s raspy voice in the films.)

Mr. McQuarrie’s pens, pencils and brushes brought lush color, dramatic scenery and lifelike characters to stunning vibrancy in film classics such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Cocoon,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.”

He was part of a team that won the 1985 Academy Award for best visual effects for his work on “Cocoon,” about aliens who can pass on the gift of immortality.

As an artist for all three episodes of the original “Star Wars” films, Mr. McQuarrie was widely credited with shaping Lucas’s far, far away galaxy.

Mr. McQuarrie had been fascinated with flight and outer space exploration since his days building model airplanes as a youngster.

As a technical artist for Boeing in the 1960s, he drew diagrams for a manual on constructing the 747 jumbo jet and later worked as an illustrator animating sequences of the Apollo space missions for NASA and CBS News.

Through two artist friends, Mr. McQuarrie was introduced to Lucas in the mid 1970s.

At the time, Lucas’ tale of a interplanetary civil war between a loose band of rebels and a Naziesque empire, had been rejected by United Artists and Universal.

Lucas enlisted Mr. McQuarrie’s help to show movie executives his story. Using Lucas’ script for inspiration, Mr. McQuarrie drew scenes of a space battle between laser-shooting fighter planes and lightsaber-wielding warriors.

Lucas, armed with the images, quickly won funding from 20th Century Fox and “Star Wars” was born, beginning with “Episode IV: A New Hope,” in 1977.

Artist Iain McCaig, who worked on the “Star Wars” prequels, Episodes I, II, and III, called Mr. McQuarrie a pioneer of film conceptual art. Before him, McCaig said, few directors called on artists to help visualize their projects.

“He didn’t just draw a picture of Darth standing in a neutral pose,” McCaig said in an interview, “he did a scene of Darth lashing out at Luke Skywalker. You could feel the power and the pathos going on in that moment. He did more than just design costumes. . . . He helped capture the the story-telling moments in really dazzling pictures.”

Doug Chiang, who worked with McCaig as an artist on Episode I, said that Mr. McQuarrie’s artwork was “cinematic.”

“He painted and designed with a camera’s point of view,” Chiang said in an interview. “Most science fiction art at the time were for posters and book covers. But his looked like images you could see on the big screen.”

He designed the porcelain armor of the Imperial storm troopers, the shiny gilt frame of the humanoid robot C-3PO and the droid R2D2, which resembled a motorized trashcan.

Anthony Daniels, the British actor who portrayed C-3PO, initially turned down the part, unimpressed by his proposed character’s lack of depth.

Then he saw an expressive drawing of the robot painted by Mr. McQuarrie.

“He had painted a face and a figure that had a very wistful, rather yearning, rather bereft quality, which I found very appealing,” Mr. Daniels said in 2010. He took the job.

Ralph Angus McQuarrie was born June 13, 1929, in Gary, Ind., and grew up on a farm outside Billings, Mont.

He saw combat with the Army during the Korean War and survived a bullet to the head. The round punctured his helmet, bloodying his skull. After the war he attended what is now known as the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

He worked as an illustrator for a dental business drawing teeth and dentist’s tools before his work in films. His art for “Star Wars” led director Steven Spielberg to tap Mr. McQuarrie to draw space ships for his movies “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) and “E.T.” (1982). Survivors include his wife of 29 years, Joan, of Berkeley.

In “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), Mr. McQuarrie makes a cameo appearance in a scene inside a hanger on the icy planet Hoth.

On the 30th anniversary of “Star Wars,” a collectible action figure was released of his character, rebel Gen. Pharl (a play on Ralph) McQuarrie, complete with blaster pistol.