May a Mentor Be With You: How George Lucas Conquered the Galaxy

By Mike BergelsonMay 14, 2014

In George Lucas’s meteoric rise from film school to Star Wars, he didn’t rely on the force. He relied on a mentor.

Here’s the story of how acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola mentored George Lucas, how it affected his life and career, and what we can learn from their relationship.

From Film School to Star Wars

George Lucas met his mentor as a film school student in the late 1960s. His career already off to an auspicious start, he’d been awarded a Warner Brothers scholarship to observe the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s new movie Finian’s Rainbow.

The two men hit it off, and Lucas worked as Coppola’s assistant on his next movie. When Coppola launched his production company American Zoetrope, he appointed the lucky young Lucas to the position of Vice President.

Coppola also produced Lucas’s first feature-film hit, American Graffiti, in 1973. It was the success of this film that gave Lucas the financial clout and the film-making credibility to begin work on Star Wars, the film that catapulted him to a whole new level of fame.

Return of the Mentor

Lucas never forgot his mentor’s early help, and a decade later he had the opportunity to return the favor. Although Coppola had enjoyed his own success with iconic films like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, his production company had run into financial problems by the mid-1980s, and he needed help to get his next film made. He went to his former protégé, George Lucas.

Coppola described their meeting in an interview with the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel in 1988: “I was embarrassed and shy. It was a role reversal, like going to a very successful and busy younger brother. I didn`t want George to feel I was intruding, trying to capitalize on his success.”

Lucas couldn’t drum up any outside interest in financing the $24 million film, Tucker, so he wrote the check himself, backing Coppola as Coppola had once backed him.

Later, in an interview with Bill Moyers, Lucas paid tribute to Coppola’s influence: “In film, Francis Coppola became my mentor, and taught me how to write screenplays, taught me how to work with actors.”

He told Moyers that he also considered the mythologist Joseph Campbell a mentor. He said he had benefited from different mentors in different areas of his life: Coppola taught him about film-making, but Campbell acted as his spiritual guide.

Mentoring, of course, plays a major role in the Star Wars films, with the young protégé Luke Skywalker being mentored by more experienced figures like Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. That’s perhaps the ultimate tribute to the power of mentoring in shaping the life of George Lucas.

Lessons from Lucas and Coppola

Here’s what we can learn from the mentoring of George Lucas:

  • Even menial jobs can lead to lifelong mentoring relationships. Lucas began as Coppola’s assistant, but it wasn’t long before Coppola helped him with his first feature film.
  • Mentors can help their protégés in a variety of ways: Coppola gave Lucas tutoring on how to make films and work with actors, but also backed him financially for his early film American Graffiti.
  • Protégés sometimes become even more successful than their mentors, which can make the relationship uncomfortable. But it’s also an opportunity for the protégé to give something back to their mentor, as Lucas did by financing Coppola’s film Tucker.
  • You don’t have to restrict yourself to a single mentor. It’s common to have different mentors in different areas of your life, as Lucas did with Coppola and Campbell. At Everwise, we’ve seen the value of having a personal advisory board made up of a diverse group of mentors to help you with the various challenges you face in life.

Could you be mentoring the next George Lucas? Share your wisdom with rising talent today.

Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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