by Ryan Miorelli, with Shawn Crosby
Charles Lippincott, vice-president of advertising, publicity, promotion, and merchandising for The Star Wars Corporation (later Lucasfilm) on the original 1977 Star Wars film, has died at the age of 80 following a brief hospital stay after a heart attack.
In July of 1976, San Diego Comic-Con thought the biggest guests they were getting were Sergio Aragonés, Mel Blanc and Joe Shuster – but they also got a sleeper Thursday-evening panel with Marvel writer Roy Thomas and artist Howard Chaykin, showing a “prevue” of an upcoming feature called Star Wars. Nearly a year before the film’s release, “Charley” made the then-unconventional decision to present a 35mm slide show of stills from the unknown tale at this young con, still in its first decade. It’s not a stretch at all to say that every subsequent blockbuster film that has found success promoting itself to thousands of fans in Hall H, at what is now the “Convention of all Conventions,” owes a debt to Lippincott; to posit that Charley revolutionized the very idea of fan culture and fandom through his efforts is more than apt. He even provided the first “Star Wars collectible” at the panel, a 29 x 20-inch poster with art by Chaykin and sold for $1.00. Now a rarity prized by collectors, it is valued at auction at up to ten thousand times the original amount.
In September of the same year, the 34th Worldcon (better known as MidAmeriCon, held in Kansas City, Mo.) received a larger panel featuring moderator Charley, Producer Gary Kurtz, and a little-known young actor named Mark Hamill – a panel which not only presented an expanded slide show, but discussed the entire plot of the film and featured an audience Q-and-A. Lippincott also manned the film’s display space that weekend, featuring screen-used character costumes of villain Darth Vader and the C-3PO and R2-D2 “droids”, with swag buttons and posters so popular after the boffo panel that Charley was cleaned out of promos by the second day.
In addition to Convention promotions, Lippincott also worked to secure licensing deals with Kenner, Marvel, and others, cementing Star Wars as a cross-platform media titan. His creative promoting both kept the intellectual property in the public eye and helped satisfy ravenous public demand, catapulting Lucasfilm to a runaway success on which it could build its sequels and bring their saga to countless audiences. But Charley understood what made a classic, and how to build something epic from what had come before. He wrote:
“You see, STAR WARS is great, but there were other great films before STAR WARS. Great films. Great books. Great bands… The direct precursor of STAR WARS fandom was STAR TREK Fandom, to whom STAR WARS owes a great deal. Bands like the Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones or any number of groups had major fandoms, but the difference is, STAR WARS surpassed all these fandoms. It didn’t happen overnight.“
Following Star Wars, Charley went on to market 20th Century Fox’s Alien film and the 1980 Flash Gordon reboot before producing 1995’s Judge Dredd. A longtime science fiction fan himself, Lippincott approached his work through a fan’s eyes, framing each of these now-beloved properties according to what he would enjoy seeing and how he would respond best.
In his retirement, Charley lived with his wife – affectionately know to fans as “Bumpy” – and together they curated a massive collection of memorabilia from his storied career, which they generously shared with the public on social media. From call sheets to pre-production art to correspondence, he had stored and salvaged many priceless artifacts from development, production, and marketing of the many film legends he helped to bring to audiences – and in the process, became legendary himself. Lippincott is survived by the generations of fans of the stories he brought to the silver screen, and Bumpy, who writes of her husband:
“I want to think his spirit has joined the 90,000 plus who have left this planet, who have entered the cosmos like Asimov’s stream of light. I think Charley would have liked that. The company of many, leaving behind their earthly bodies. He wanted to go beyond, and has done that. There are many Covid-19 deaths, and each death was a Charley to the people who loved them.
With that thought, I thank you.”
While the books Charley currently had in the works covering his involvement in films like Westworld, Aliens, Star Wars, Judge Dredd, Flash Gordon and others will for now remain uncompleted, you can view the treasure trove of film history, personal musings and uploads Charles Lippincott shared from his extensive archives to get a sense of the man: http://therealcharleslippincott.blogspot.com/