Ron Cobb, Designer of the 'Alien' Ship and the 'Back to the Future' DeLorean, Dies at 83

Ron Cobb - Screengrab - H 2018
Screengrab

Ron Cobb

The cartoonist was hand-picked by Steven Spielberg to direct a film that led to 'E.T.' and worked on 'Conan the Barbarian' and 'The Last Starfighter.'

Ron Cobb, the underground cartoonist turned production designer who influenced the making of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and helped shape the worlds of Conan the BarbarianAlien and Back to the Future, has died. He was 83.

Cobb died Monday — his birthday — of Lewy body dementia in Sydney, his wife of 48 years, Robin Love, reported.

Cobb brought to life several cantina creatures for Star Wars (1977) and came up with weaponry and sets for Conan the Barbarian (1982), the exterior and interior of the Nostromo ship in Alien (1978) and the earth colony complex in Aliens (1986) and the DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future (1985).

His prolific design work also included the breathing tanks and helmets in The Abyss (1989), the Omega Sector logo and the H bombs in True Lies (1990)the interior of the Mothership and the stranded tanker in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and the vehicles of The Last Starfighter (1984).

It was while working as a production designer on John Milius' Conan the Barbarian that Cobb first met Steven Spielberg, who was working down the hallway at Universal on Raiders of the Lost Ark.

"I would suggest [to Spielberg] angles, ideas, verbalize the act of directing — 'Let's do this and do that, and we could shoot over his shoulder and then a close-up of the shadow,' " Cobb told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.

So impressed was Spielberg that he suggested Cobb direct his future film Night Skies, a retelling of an infamous 1955 incident in Kentucky in which a family claimed to have had an encounter with five aliens at their farmhouse.

When the family threatened to sue to stop the making of the movie, Cobb offered to write a comparable idea, and the last scene of his story was to show an alien that is marooned on Earth.

"I originated the story, my choice for screenplay writer was John Sayles," Cobb wrote on his website. But "projections of the effects budget proved problematic."

Indeed, the cost to create the effects for the five aliens reached $3.5 million, so the project was shelved — until Spielberg reverted to an idea he had of a boy who protects an abandoned alien.

Cobb was given a cameo as a doctor in the ensuing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), but he didn't think much of the finished product, calling it "a banal retelling of the Christ story, sentimental and self-indulgent, a pathetic lost-puppy kind of story."

Later, Cobb's wife noticed that there was a $7,500 "kill fee" in his Night Skies contract — plus 1 percent of the net profits — should he not get to direct the movie. She sent off an invoice to Universal and received an envelope with a check inside for more than $400,000.

For the rest of his life, Cobb was asked by friends, "What did you do on E.T.?" His reply was, "I didn't direct it."

Cobb began his career at Disney at age 17 as an "inbetweener" animator on Sleeping Beauty (1959).

He became a celebrated editorial cartoonist for underground newspapers after submitting cartoons to the Los Angeles Free Press, which in the 1960s was operating out of the basement of the Fifth Estate coffee house on the Sunset Strip.

His counterculture work was syndicated in more than 80 newspapers across America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

"I'm fascinated with man in stress situations, I'm fascinated with man at a crisis," he told a student newspaper in 1972. "So I love to create artificial crises, because I think that rather than making a timid, harmless point with a cartoon, I would much prefer to draw someone into a situation where they have to say … 'Yeah! That could happen!' or 'Yeah! … What would I say if that did happen?' — where they have to react."

A collection of his cartoons was published in 1974 and '76 in The Cobb Book and Cobb Again, and his movie illustrations were collated in the large-format publication Colorvision. He also designed covers for Forrest Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

In the early 1970s, Cobb performed speaking tours around Australia and New Zealand on request of the Aquarius Foundation, a cultural branch of the Australian Union of Students. The tour was run by his future wife, and they would co-write a 1987 episode of the Twilight Zone reboot.

The first film on which Cobb worked was John Carpenter's feature directorial debut, Dark Star (1974), written by Dan O'Bannon. Cobb later provided conceptual paintings for O'Bannon's Alien, collaborating with Swiss painter H.R. Giger on the project.

"We had seen his drawings and we were all a bit worried about what this German (sic) surrealist was going to be like when he showed up on set," Cobb recalled. "But Hans Ruedi Giger was nothing like the monsters he drew. He was very theatrical, dressing all in black and very Gothic, but he was a sweet, funny man."

It was Cobb who suggested that the alien's blood be corrosive, thereby solving a potential plot hole as to why the crew wouldn't simply shoot or mutilate the creature.

While preparing for Conan the Barbarian, Milius never forgot a 1964 exhibit of Cobb's fantasy drawings and hired him as his production designer.

"I thought it would be very interesting to not bow to sort of a MGM fantasy-like set," Cobb said for the cable show The Director's Series, "but keep almost as a subtle gag this totally imaginary world looking as believable as possible. I thought it might be interesting to see if I could simulate reality."

"That's probably why the picture lacks a lot of sorcery because we wanted to keep it more naturalistic, more like a historical story, almost as though this is the true story of the real Conan."

For Back to the Future, Spielberg, a producer on the film, had a question for Cobb: "How would you make a DeLorean into a time machine?" His answer was to make it look homemade, as though Christopher Lloyd's Doc Brown pieced together parts from Radio Shack. His initial design was improved upon by production illustrator Andrew Probert, who added a second exhaust vent to the DMC-12.

In 1992, Cobb directed Garbo, a small Australian comedy about two rubbish collectors who have an infatuation with actress Greta Garbo.

A former draughtsman with the Army Corps in Vietnam, Cobb is survived by his wife and a son, Nicky.