My Vicarious George Lucas Thrill

Question: Other than the director George Lucas, what do the films American Graffiti and Star Wars have in common. Answer: A very little-known serendipitous event.

When I was 22 years old (and the freelance art director of, among other things, Grove Press), I saw Lucas’s American Graffiti for the first time when it opened in New York. I loved it. Who wouldn’t? It was the perfect movie—wittily nostalgic, poignant, the first of its much copied genre. Days after seeing it, I took my first flight to Los Angeles.

To make a long story short, I was in an auto wreck along the Ventura Highway and an old friend from New York, who had moved to L.A. a few years before, loaned me his vintage turquoise Chevy with push-button transmission to tool around the city. I drove it up and down the Sunset Strip, feeling exactly like I was in American Graffiti. Reliving the film through the soundtrack and nurturing a crush on Cindy Williams became my spring obsession.

The day I returned to New York, I received a call from Barney Rossett (who died this past February), publisher of Grove Press, who asked me to design the paperback screenplay for American Graffiti. What were the chances of that? I had earlier designed a paperback about Last Tango in Paris for Grove, so they apparently trusted me. The job was simple. The original film poster by Mort Drucker [note: not Jack Davis] was used as the cover. I just had to cast-out the type and insert photos (you can see some of it here). The perk was I got to see the film a whopping 30 times in a row.

A year ago, I got a call asking me to write an introduction for a book on the illustrations of George Lucas’s other iconic property, Star Wars. It turned out to be an impressive volume (with a limited-edition version as well), both in terms of heft and variety of content. I opened the package of my “author’s copies” yesterday, and it happily dawned on me that I was tangentially involved in two pop culture milestones.

As designers (or former designers), many of us play tiny roles in the production of icons and iconography, and we (indeed, I) live vicariously through our minor contributions. While we (I) cannot take credit for any part of the genius involved, as Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success is just showing up.” I was glad I showed up, at least to answer those two phone calls.


For more Steven Heller, check out The Education of an Illustrator, one of the many Heller titles available at

5 thoughts on “My Vicarious George Lucas Thrill

  1. Steven Heller Post author

    Oladele – Thanks. That’s a big OOOPS.
    Rich – Each had a time and place in my life, but were meaningful to me in different ways. As for the cover, the imposition is wrong – Weird.

  2. Oladele

    After scanning the cover art of the paperback book of American Graffiti, I couldn’t help but notice that you said that the original poster illustration was done by Jack Davis. Having been a fan of MAD magazine as a kid, I saw the differences in illustration style amongst the contributing artists which would lead me to think it was Mort Drucker instead that illustrated that cover, and not Jack Davis.

  3. Jana M.

    How very fortuitous, indeed!
    I know how you feel about “living vicariously through our minor contributions”: Many (too many) years ago I had the pleasure of designing a Christmas card for the band Cheap Trick, back in their Rockford days. It is still a big highlight of my career! <Le Sigh>
    BTW, those two movies (AG and SW) have something else in common: the darling Harrison Ford!!

  4. rich hollant

    Which is more meaningful to you, Steve—designing the book or writing the introduction? Also: I’m trying to figure out the American Graffiti cover. It looks like the front cover is on the back of the book.