Ralph McQuarrie, Berkeley resident and artist behind Star Wars characters, dies at 82

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Ralph McQuarrie, the conceptual artist who helped bring the “Star Wars” films to the silver screen, died in his Berkeley home Saturday. He was 82.

His drawings are behind many of the first trilogy’s iconic characters, such as R2-D2, the Death Star and Darth Vader, and his minimalistic style influenced artists who worked alongside and after him on the series.

In 1974, McQuarrie had graduated from what is now called Art Center College of Design when he met a young George Lucas trying to sell a space-themed film, according to a Los Angeles Times article. McQuarrie, who had previously worked as a technical artist for The Boeing Company and provided animation for CBS News coverage of the Apollo space program, agreed to do some artwork that was later used in a pitch to 20th Century Fox, which ended up buying the film, according to the article.

In a statement on the official “Star Wars” website, Lucas described McQuarrie as “a kind and patient, and wonderfully talented, friend and collaborator.”

“When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this,’” Lucas said in the statement.

In an October 2011 interview with ImagineFX Magazine, a British publication, McQuarrie said he had no idea how big “Star Wars” would become until several months after the first film was released.

“I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard and a piece of paper came blowing up the street,” McQuarrie said in the interview. “I bent down to pick it up, and it was a bubble gum wrapper with a picture of Darth Vader on it. I knew at that point I was part of something very special.”

According to The Internet Movie Database, McQuarrie went on to be design consultant and conceptual artist for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” He also worked on Steven Spielberg’s films “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” and shared an Academy Award for best visual effects for 1985’s “Cocoon.”

John Scoleri, who met McQuarrie 16 years ago, is co-author and publisher of a comprehensive volume of the artist’s work, which was released on the 30th anniversary of the “Star Wars” series in 2007.

“He was humble and gentle, yet warm and funny,” Scoleri said in an interview. “He was one of the most gracious people I knew.”

McQuarrie was born on June 13, 1929 in Gary, Indiana. He served in the Army during the Korean War, after which he went to school in Pasadena to study art, according to the LA Times article.

According to Scoleri, McQuarrie moved to Berkeley around 1980 with his wife and was later diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which eventually led him to completely lose control of his right hand, leaving him unable to draw.

“That was heartbreaking,” Scoleri said. “He was always mentally sharp and witty and just an amazing man.”

McQuarrie is survived by his wife of 29 years, Joan, as well as his sister, Joan Wolfe, and two stepsons, Vaughn and Leonard Griffin, according to Scoleri.