According to The Hollywood Reporter, cartoonist-turned-production designer Ron Cobb—whose contributions to the sci-fi film genre you will certainly recognize—has died from Lewy body dementia at the age of 83. Over the course of his Hollywood career, which took off in a somewhat unexpected way, Cobb worked on Star Wars, Alien, Conan The Barbarian, The Abyss, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Last Starfighter, and Back To The Future, with some of the props and sets he designed for the films going on to become iconic.
Cobb started his career in show business at 17, working as an animator on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in the ‘50s before moving on to a gig as an editorial cartoonist for newspapers. By the ‘70s, Cobb had started working in the movie industry, specifically on John Carpenter’s Dark Star with writer Dan O’Bannon, who later asked Cobb to put together some concept art for his next movie, Alien. Cobb worked with H.R. Giger, who famously designed the film’s eponymous monster (later dubbed a “xenomorph”) and some of the more memorable and disgusting aesthetics, while Cobb designed the interior and exterior of the Nostromo, the doomed ship that inadvertently brought the alien on board. Cobb is also credited with coming up with the xenomorph’s corrosive blood, establishing an explanation for why the Nostromo’s crew couldn’t just blow the thing up.
Later, Cobb got a job working on John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian, going out of his way to help create a fantasy world that looked almost realistic, which is when he met Steven Spielberg—who was developing Raiders Of The Lost Ark at the time. Cobb apparently would pitch specific camera angles and other aesthetic ideas to Spielberg, who was so impressed with Cobb that he recommended him to direct a movie Spielberg was working on called Night Skies. Cobb’s version of the movie involved five aliens arriving on Earth, with one getting stranded at the end, but the studio decided the idea was too expensive and shelved it until Spielberg came back with a cheaper pitch: One alien, stranded in a shed, who gets found by a little boy.
That idea ended up being E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and while Cobb wasn’t a fan of the finished product, his wife realized that Universal had granted him a “kill fee” in his Night Skies contract that would give him $7,500 plus one percent of the final film’s net profits if he didn’t end up directing it. As the story goes, Cobb got $400,000, since E.T. was a huge success, and when people in subsequent years would ask what he did on E.T., he would respond, “I didn’t direct it.” Spielberg and Cobb would later work together again on a few other movies, most famously Back To The Future, where Spielberg (who produced it) asked Cobb how to turn a DeLorean DMC-12 into a time machine. Cobb’s idea was to make it look like it was actually homemade, as if it really was something Doc Brown built in his garage.
Cobb is survived by his wife and son.