Charles Lippincott, legendary 'founding pillar' of 'Star Wars' phenomenon, dies at 80

The marketing and merchandising guru blazed a blockbuster trail.

The name Charles Lippincott isn't as famous as George Lucas, but without the late marketing guru's legendary efforts to build excitement and underground momentum among audiences months before it opened, the success of "Star Wars" might have looked much different.

Lippincott, who was 80, died at a Vermont hospital earlier this week after suffering a heart attack.

"Charley was one of the founding pillars of the Star Wars films and phenomenon," Lucas said in a statement. "He began in earnest the concept of licensing motion pictures at a time when the only other company doing so was Disney. Charley was the one who said early on that 'we can make this work' and was the first person to both develop Star Wars licensing and engage with the fans. He had insights into marketing and public relations that were truly unparalleled."

A spokesperson for Lippincott's family told ABC News he did not die of coronavirus.

"Without Charley, I don't think Star Wars would have come close to the success it became," wrote former Lucasfilm director of fan relations Craig Miller in his book, "Star Wars Memories."

A young movie publicist who attended the University of Southern California with Lucas, Lippincott was hired in 1975 to help market the upcoming space fantasy movie.

Lippincott was given a lofty title: vice president of advertising, publicity, promotion and merchandising for The Star Wars Corporation.

Before the movie hit theaters in May 1977, Lippincott set out on a trailblazing quest to generate buzz among science fiction fans by making presentations at relatively modest fan conventions of the time, including San Diego Comic-Con in 1976.

"Much has been made of our presentation at Comic Con because it was the start of a Hollywood tradition of presenting movies at Comic Con," Lippincott wrote on his blog in 2015. "Prior to STAR WARS, movies didn't get announced at comic conventions, nor were comic books done in advance of a movie's release."

Actor Mark Hamill, who traveled extensively with Lippincott and late "Star Wars" producer Gary Kurtz, called Lippincott a friend.

"He became a legend of marketing for a reason," Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in nine "Star Wars" films, in a statement. "He was brilliant at what he did. We traveled the world together promoting Star Wars before anyone knew what it was. He was a good friend and I'll always miss him."

Lippincott wanted to attract potential fans through comic books. He approached Marvel Comics, hoping to convince a skeptical Stan Lee to produce a six-issue "Star Wars" adaptation. Lee initially refused, but later agreed to the deal, and the comic run quickly sold out.

Lippincott also made a deal for a novel version of "Star Wars." The book was released in November 1976, about seven months before the movie. By the following February, the first-print run of 125,000 copies completely sold out, according to Lucas biographer Brian Jay Jones.

Deals that Lippincott helped arrange with various companies to produce toys and other "Star Wars" merchandise earned many millions of dollars, helping Lucas finance his sequels. Those deals turned "Star Wars" into the first franchise merchandising powerhouse -- still strong more than 40 years later.

In later life, Lippincott wrote that his association with "Star Wars" left a bad taste in his mouth, which he said was partly due to being criticized for making a deal with Kenner toys that Lucas apparently felt should have been more lucrative. He also believed his contract with Lucasfilm entitled him to royalty payments he says he never received.

Lippincott conducted dozens of behind-the-scenes interviews for a book project, speaking with Lucas, actors Hamill and Carrie Fisher, editors, composer John Williams and special effects artists, effectively making him one of the earliest historians of the low-budget production that became a blockbuster.

"When STAR WARS was released, I expected it to do well, but did not expect the staggering, overwhelming response. No one did," Lippincott wrote in 2015. "In our wildest dreams, we could not have predicted how massive a hit we had on our hands."

Lippincott would later go on promote the sci-fi film "Alien," produce a documentary on comic book artists and promote the 1995 film "Judge Dredd," starring Sylvester Stallone.

Disney is the parent company of Lucasfilm and ABC News.