Ron Cobb, the legendary production designer who created the DeLorean in Back to the Future and the ship Nostromo in Alien, has died at 83. According to his wife, and via The Hollywood Reporter, he passed away on his birthday from complications caused by Lewy body dementia.
Born in 1937, Cobb began his career at the age of 17 as an inbetweener on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. In the 1960s he became a prolific and beloved counter culture cartoonist, addressing racial privilege, income inequality, the moon landing, and the Vietnam war. His work was syndicated in more than 80 newspapers across the United States, Australia, and Europe. In 1972, he gave an interview to a student newspaper, saying, “I’m fascinated with man in stress situations, I’m fascinated with man at a crisis.” He added,
“[A] crisis, one way or another, will bring man face-to-face with his maker, or will bring man face-to-face with his deeper nature. These moments inevitably short circuit the human nervous system, biologically too, in a way, and put man all together. The categories have to be put aside, and you just feel something.”
Cobb’s cinematic contributions began in 1974, when he was hired as a production designer on John Carpenter’s feature film debut Dark Star. That cult classic had a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, who went on to write the 1979 landmark of cosmic horror, Alien. O’Bannon brought Cobb on board to design the Nostromo, but his ideas were felt throughout the production, including the script. Cobb famously suggested that the alien’s blood be corrosive, which helped solve the plot hole of why the crew didn’t shoot their antagonist.
While working on Conan the Barbarian (1982), Cobb met Steven Spielberg, who at the time was in production on Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I would suggest [to Spielberg] angles, ideas, verbalize the act of directing,” he recalled to the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “Steven used a lot of my suggestions. I was very flattered.”
Spielberg eventually suggested Cobb direct a movie of his own, but his planned debut — a sci-fi horror story called Night Skies — was ultimately shelved after it was determined that the aliens alone would’ve cost a budget-busting $3.5 million. But Cobb’s idea for an outsider stuck on Earth would find new life in a much more family-friendly script entitled E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.
Cobb didn’t get to direct E.T., which was fine by him. He hated the final product, calling it, “A banal retelling of the Christ story. Sentimental and self-indulgent, a pathetic lost-puppy kind of story.” But his contract stipulated that if someone else directed, he was entitled to 1% of the net profits. That was enough to offer Cobb a lifetime of financial security, and whenever friend’s asked what he was paid to do on E.T., he replied, “I didn’t direct it.”
Fortunately, the experience didn’t sour Cobb’s working relationship with Spielberg, and when the iconic director was producing Back to the Future, he suggested Cobb design the time machine. Early drafts of the DeLorean were a bit too perfect; in contrast, Cobb sketched a device that looked like it had been thrown together in the garage and built from parts at a mall electronics store. He added a nuclear reactor and a vent, with a second vent appearing after Cobb left the production.
Cobb also contributed design ideas to The Last Starfighter (1984), Leviathan (1989), Total Recall (1990), True Lies (1994), The Sixth Day (2000), Titan A.E. (2000), Cats and Dogs (2001) and Southland Tales (2006), and he sketched ships for Joss Whedon’s Firefly. His cartoons were collected in 1974 and ’76 in The Cobb Book and Cobb Again. Together, he and his wife Robin Love co-wrote the 1987 Twilight Zone episode “Shelter Skelter”.