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He can't let go of this adventure

October 21, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

SKYWALKER RANCH, MARIN COUNTY — There may be nothing that George Lucas enjoys more than watching someone's jaw drop in an expression of marvel. That explains the existence of this leafy 5,200-acre retreat, which has a hilltop observatory, a vineyard (the grapes are trucked over to Francis Ford Coppola's winery) and its own fire department, which presumably blares heroic scores by John Williams on its way to brush fires.

And then there's his stunning collection of pop-culture artifacts. The man who once aspired to be an anthropologist now has a personal Smithsonian of sorts here in Marin County. In the Victorian-style main house, for instance, you can find Charlie Chaplin's cane and slightly dimpled bowler sharing a bookcase with the badges worn by the Keystone Kops. Norman Rockwell paintings hang on the walls and Rudolph Valentino's whip is perched on a shelf near the parlor. Remember how hard it was for Indiana Jones to track down the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail? Now they're safe and sound here in an immaculate warehouse along with R2-D2 and C-3PO, all museum pieces in a museum that never opens to the public.

But the loneliest artifact of Skywalker Ranch -- or, to be more precise, the most underappreciated treasure that belongs to Lucas -- is the one that could be seen a few weeks ago flickering on the screen of the plush theater inside the main house. When Lucas spoke of it, he even sounded a bit like an archaeologist cradling a long-lost relic.

"We have another chance to let the world see it," he said, "and that's exciting for me."

The artifact in need of rescue is an early 1990s television series, "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," which is, by the stellar standards of the 63-year-old filmmaker's career, a beautiful loser. It was also, he says, "the single most fun I ever had with any project." For both of those reasons, he is back for more.

Over the past four years, Lucas and Paramount Home Video have pumped millions of dollars into reframing "Young Indiana" as a lavish, three-volume library of DVDs with a staggering number of extras, including 94 highly polished documentaries on famous people and moments in history. That grand content and the packaging and marketing commitment to the project are the sort you might expect for an anniversary reissue of "Gone With the Wind," not a show that was dropped by ABC after two seasons and moved on to the smaller stage of the Family Channel.

From a distance, the reverential treatment of "Young Indiana" might look like pure Lucas overkill. But to the filmmaker who changed the course of American cinema by creating his own universe, all of it is the logical conclusion of a project he considers one of his great achievements.

"Believe it or not, I've never been that involved in making commercial product, that is just not what I do," said Lucas, whose "Star Wars" films have a global box office gross of $4.3 billion. "What I do is get an idea of something I want to do, and I do it. It's about coming up with a great idea . . . in terms of the commercial [risks], I knew I was breaking all the rules."

Lucas said he won as soon as he persuaded Paramount and ABC to let him make "Young Indiana," which was filmed in unprecedented ways.

"They let me do it and do it in the way I wanted to do it," he said. "The main thing I was really after was to see how many shows I could get done before they woke up and said enough is enough. And, you know, we managed to get 44 hours of material out there. I felt grateful I got as much done as I did."

Critics and cultural observers were grateful too. "By far," the New York Times weighed in, "the most impressively mounted weekly show on television." Time said no show had "more ambition or style," and the Wall Street Journal said it raised the standards of television production to "the caliber of theatrical film." James Michener expressed awe and called the series a "daring venture," and Bill Moyers wistfully wished that the series would be "my grandson's companion far into the 21st century." Industry peers embraced it as well, handing the show 11 Emmy Awards. Looking back too, the show was a gathering point for an impressive amount of talent, both on-screen and off, with actors such as Max von Sydow, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Daniel Craig passing through its stories and directors such as Mike Newell working with writers like Frank Darabont.

But the ratings revealed that the show was more respected than loved. Lucas, always savvy to the desires of a mass audience, understood the problem; he had given the world the Indiana Jones he wanted, not the one they wanted. In 1993, talking to the The Times about the show's decline, he sounded weary. "It didn't matter how many times I said it was a coming-of-age series about a young boy's exploration of history," he said, "people still expected to see that rolling boulder."

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