Darth Vader by Ralph McQuarrie

Appreciation: Ralph McQuarrie, Star Wars Visionary, 1929 – 2012


For the past 35 years, Star Wars has been a prominent landmark in the cultural landscape, and a large part of the visual representation of that landmark sprang from the mind and hand of one man. That man was not George Lucas. Concept artist Ralph McQuarrie established the look of Darth Vader, C-3Po & R2-D2, the Tusken Raiders, Tatooine, the Death Star, the Cloud City of Bespin and many other beloved elements of the Star Wars universe. He did the same for the original Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters of the Third Kind , E.T., and many other movies and TV shows. He passed away at age 82 yesterday.

Darth Vader by Ralph McQuarrie
This painting depicts a Darth Vader with a scalloped cape and skirt, and a white lightsaber. Image: Disney Book Group, used with permission.

In 1995, when I was still fairly new to the internet, I got involved with online genealogy after a distant cousin contacted me to ask about my family. I learned that there are about 30 different variations of the name MacQuarrie (ranging from Maguire to McCrary to MacWhorry), and that my particular branch didn’t standardize the spelling until the early 20th century; the name was spelled however the census-taker decided to write it down. This little factoid led me to wonder if perhaps I might be related to Ralph. Coincidentally, at the time, I happened to be working for an ad agency that was handling a major retailer’s promotion of the re-released original trilogy in a shiny gold boxed VHS set. It turned out that the representative from Fox happened to be somebody I went to high school with. In conversation, I mentioned the possible McQuarrie-MacQuarrie connection. She then called Ralph’s agent, who called me. When I told her what I wanted, she said “I’m sure he’d love to talk to you,” and gave me his home phone number.

Nervously, I called him. He answered the phone, I introduced myself and asked about his ancestry. He told me he wished he could help me out, but the fact was he didn’t know anything about the McQuarrie family; his father had abandoned his family when he was an infant, and he’s never met a single relative from that side of his family. I told him what little I knew about the migration of the family from Scotland during the Highland Clearings of the early 1800s, and then moved on to typical fanboy fawning over his work and Star Wars in particular and how honored I was to be working on something related to the films. He was modest, gracious and generous with his time; we talked for about ten minutes before making our goodbyes. We agreed we were “semi-cousins” and he said he was glad to hear from me.

After hanging up, I called my wife to tell her about our conversation and how wonderful it was to find that a man I respected as an artist was also somebody I liked and admired as a person. For me, that little ten-minute experience of a voice in my ear is more important and meaningful than all of his amazing Star Wars art; but every time I see those iconic images, I will think fondly of the kind man behind them.

Rest in peace, cousin.

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