What does the Star Wars galaxy have in common with a gallery of gay nudes? more than you ever knew.
Many who know Howard Roffman consider him the man who helped pilot Star Wars into the franchise juggernaut it is today. Others praise his work as a fine art photographer finding that instant in a young man’s life when he slips into his first warm summer of adulthood — at play, relating to friends and partners, and most often, nude.
Roffman’s twin careers reflect a restless creativity that’s beckoned him to vault from one medium to another in his pursuits over the past three decades. And now that he’s both stepped down from the top tier of Lucasfilm and put down his camera, he’s convinced himself: it’s time to write a novel.
Boys and Their Toys
As a gay man with a husband half his age, the 66-year old Roffman has managed to hold onto the youth and curiosity of an Eagle Scout. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he’s also had more than a little to do with why boys today can play with dolls. He cautions that an assortment of contributors had a hand in creating the toys that were reintroduced as what were called “action figures” back in the 1980s. But Star Wars characters were among the first on the block. Before Luke, Han, Darth and the droids were cast in plastic, there was G.I. Joe, and there wasn’t much else.
Roffman arrived at Lucasfilm in 1980 as a contract lawyer specializing in entertainment mere days before the opening of The Empire Strikes Back. One of his first assignments: work out the fine points of Harrison Ford’s contract for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
How do all these puzzle parts fit together? Guardian at the gate of Lucasfilm’s most bankable property; gay fine art photographer, lawyer, writer and toy visionary? “When you talk about me and ‘career,’ that’s something of a strange word,” Roffman intones from his San Francisco home. “I started out as a writer working in non-fiction with one book on the JFK assassination and another on the Cold War. Was that a career?” He laughs softly.“It certainly wouldn’t have paid any bills.”
It’s the Law
To solve that problem, Roffman enrolled in law school and then clerked for a federal judge. “That experience profoundly influenced me,” he grants. “Before that, I was a pretty loud critic of the system. There were certainly some good things that came out of the ‘60s, like the Civil Rights Act. But at the same time for me, it was the era of the Vietnam war, which I felt was immoral; the embodiment of evil. Then all of a sudden, I was on the inside.”
In acclimating himself to the legal process and the interplay of personalities involved, he soon discovered that “the person you’re working for isn’t just a faceless name in the newspaper anymore. I got to know the judges at the Court of Appeals and came to understand their friendships and rivalries and see how the process worked as an insider. Here’s the interesting thing: for the most part, they didn’t let political differences infringe on the camaraderie they shared. Seeing how judicial decisions are made gave me a new respect for the institution.”More From Metrosource
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By the end of the decade, attorney Roffman was practicing contract law in a galaxy far, far away from showbiz. He remembers seeing the first Star Wars film in 1977 from the front row, watching as it flickered directly over his head — “with a theater full of screaming kids, no less. I left thinking I just didn’t get it. The George Lucas movie that impressed me at the time was American Graffiti.”
But within weeks of his arrival at Lucasfilm, “I got to attend the premiere of Empire in Washington D.C. and the film blew my mind. When I started my job, one of the first things I did was to ask for a screening of the first film, A New Hope, so I could actually see what was going on — and that blew my mind, too. This time I got it!”
When Howard Met George
Roffman didn’t meet Lucas for some time after his hiring, but the pair gradually warmed to each other. “I was thrown into the fray of everything. Six months in, George fired a lot of the management. It seemed like the sky was falling, but I just tried to keep my focus. At that point I became a part of senior management.”
During that time, he says, “I really got to know George as a person and forged a friendship with him. He’s incredibly smart and insightful with an unbelievable imagination, a fantastic sense of humor and really great values. You could be in conversation with him for hours. I suppose I’m drawn to people with big intellects and big ideas.”
Then suddenly, Star Wars went into hibernation. After the rollout of Return of the Jedi in 1983, it fell to Roffman and a handful of others to keep the fantasy alive for its fanbase. There were Star Wars books and comics that had to conform to the universe Lucas had created. Action figures and video games followed. Lucasfilm is often singled out for spearheading the modern movie toy tie-in, although Roffman calls that a bit simplistic.
“Here’s what happened,” he explains: “When George made the original Star Wars deal, it was at the low end of his market rate as a writer/director. All of a sudden, American Graffiti comes out in 1973 and becomes one of the most profitable movies of its time (that’s dollars spent vs. dollars made). George’s lawyers told him he could renegotiate a bigger fee on Star Wars. But he didn’t care about the fee, and he wasn’t really focused on merchandising at that point. He was focused on the possibility of sequels. And he held firm and got a deal that let him keep the sequel rights. That turned out to be maybe the single best business decision of his life. It’s what gave him the leverage to get merchandising rights back when the negotiations for Empire were taking place. Twentieth Century Fox wasn’t very happy, but they agreed to give George all Star Wars merchandising rights.”
And while G.I. Joe had opened the door to boys playing with dolls, “Star Wars took it to a whole new place,” says Roffman. “The initial instinct at Kenner was to make 12-inch dolls for Star Wars, just like the original G.I. Joe. But one of their execs, Bernie Loomis, said, ‘This isn’t going to work, because part of what makes Star Wars appealing is that all these characters have their own ships, and kids are going to want to put them in their vehicles.’ Ships scaled to 12-inch figures would have cost thousands of dollars — totally impractical. The apocryphal story is that Bernie put up his hand and opened a space between his thumb and his index finger and said, ‘That’s how big the figures should be. Measure this!’ One of the designers put his ruler up to Bernie’s hand and the gap was 3½ inches. And that’s how the 3½-inch action figure was created.”
In the meantime, Roffman was feeling his own urge to create. He put his dreams of a film career on hold because he knew that would require a full-time commitment. Instead, he picked up photography. And with Star Wars in dry dock, he had enough spare time to indulge his hobby.
“You can’t be a filmmaker in your spare time,” says Roffman. “So unless I was prepared to leave — which I wasn’t — I had to put filmmaking aside. But I still had this desire to express myself in a visual way. I’d been taking pictures of cute guys at street fairs through a long lens for many years. I guess you could call it voyeurism. It certainly wasn’t art. Then in 1991, I took a photo of a pair of guys at the Folsom Street Fair. I had no idea who they were, but I ran into them a week later at the Castro Street Fair and invited them over to see the picture. They begged me to take more pictures and I was like, ‘Sure!’ I had the most incredible photo shoot with them, and it proved to be the start of my career as a photographer.“
Despite a few attempts, he found studios would not yield the intimacy and connection he wanted to convey. “I always got the best results shooting in a real environments,” Roffman says. “In their homes, other people’s homes; outdoors. Also, I rarely put people who didn’t know each other together. I liked shooting real relationships. John and Gary (the street fair couple) were in a seven year relationship, and then I introduced them to Kris, and that became the book Three. I learned you can actually be a photographer in your spare time if you have the passion and the drive.”
The Bulk Stops Here
Back at work, no new Star Wars movies were being made and “everything,” Roffman says, “went into a dormant stage. The toys had been discontinued. By the early ‘90s we could see there was a continued appetite for Star Wars, because every time we released a new product, the audience was coming back for more.”
And he noticed a phenomenon never seen before: Adults were buying the action figures as collector’s items. Roffman urged Kenner to release a new edition with them in mind, and they agreed. “But we got into a pretty big fight about what the new figures should look like. I felt authenticity was key, and by then, figures could be much more realistic than back in the late ‘70s. Technology had improved dramatically. So now the figures could be better sculpted, and much more detailed. Kenner disagreed with me. They said kids wanted figures that looked like He-Man.
“They gave me sculpts of Luke and Han that were all bulked up and I said, ‘No, you can’t do this. Luke Skywalker isn’t He-Man!’ I finally gave in,” he says, “but I drew the line when I saw the He-Man version of C-3PO. I told them droids can’t go to the gym and build muscles. The figures came out and were big sellers, but all the collectors came down hard on Kenner because they really hated the bulked-up look. It became a big round of ‘I told you so,’ and Kenner finally gave in and started making figures that actually looked like the characters.”
Beyond the Optics
In his private life, Roffman’s circle of contacts continued to expand, and he began to publish his photographs in book form. He quickly developed a following with the gay men who found his work as beautiful and sensual as the models he captured.
“I’ve thought a lot about why I shoot what I do,” he says. “Of course, there is that basic human quality that we all have of finding certain people attractive. God only knows why. There’s no apparent rhyme or reason to it. But if you’re an artist who captures people, it goes much further. I think all artists tend to develop muses. What makes a muse for me isn’t just about what a person looks like, it’s about their personality; their relationships, their style, their values. I’ve always wanted to shoot people as people, not objects. It’s the essence of portraiture, and that’s how I always saw my work.”
His first chose to work in black and white, but eventually branched out into color photography and struck up a partnership with Bel Ami Studios, who flew their roster of young men to exotic locales so that their visual surroundings would be every bit as breathtaking as the models themselves.
“The black and white period was largely a process of finding and cultivating models,” Roffman explains. “If I saw someone I thought had potential, I would reach out to them. I was giving my card out left and right, probably scaring a lot of people along the way. Eventually I built a network of people finding models for me.”
As his reputation grew, not only amateur models came calling. Soon professionals were knocking at his door, too.
“My process changed with Bel Ami. I didn’t have to go out looking for models anymore. The models were delivered to me. But these were not people who were in love relationships. They were friends doing intimate and erotic things. It was just a continuation of my passion.”
Eye of the Jedi
Roffman’s worlds collided when he invited friends from Lucasfilm to a showing of his work. “I’m a very open person and I don’t believe in a separate work persona and private persona,” Roffman says. “People can be such hypocrites when it comes to porn. They shun it and condemn it, they look down on anyone connected to the industry, and then they go home and masturbate to it. It drives me crazy. “
For a moment, Roffman’s voice trails off. “Unfortunately,” he intones, “we’re all a bundle of contradictions. Essentially we have all the primal instincts and drives of our pre-human ancestors. But we have one other ingredient that really screws things up, and that’s our intellect. It actually allows us to behave irrationally. If you look at the animal kingdom, aggression and rituals of dominance are everywhere. But humans are the only animal societies that kill each other because they believe in different deities or different economic theories or scary stories about invaders coming to replace them.”
Roffman refused to allow himself to be caught in an ideological tug-of-war between his dual worlds. “My photography was never a secret,” he maintains. “So much so that when I had my first exhibition, I invited a lot of people from the company, including George. And a lot of people came, including George. He was always supportive and dug that I was branching out into photography. George is a Renaissance man and respected that I was an artist as well as an accomplished executive. That left an indelible impression on me. It’s one of the things that I truly love about him.”
Roffman was appointed president of Lucasfilm licensing in 1999, and he helped shepherd Star Wars from its relaunch into films through Lucasfilm’s acquisition by Walt Disney in 2012 for $4.05 billion. In a mere six years, Disney recouped its original investment.
“Two years ago, I retired from Lucasfilm,” says Roffman. “I’d been there for 37 years and was amazingly fortunate to work as close as I did with George. I also felt privileged to work with Disney for the final five years of my stint, and I knew Star Wars was in the hands of a very capable company, even if I may not love everything that’s been done with the franchise. It was just time to get off the bus; time to focus exclusively on my own pursuits and take more time to smell the roses.”
And, after years of gorgeous men parading past his viewfinder, Roffman finally fell in love. “That’s one of the things I love about aging,” he says. “You get a perspective at each stage of your life that you didn’t have in the stage before. I’m married to someone who’s half my age, who I had the good fortune to meet on OK Cupid. Today I have different insights into what attracts me in a partner than I did 10, 20, 30 years ago.
“I knew I wasn’t interested in a life partner my age. But what age is right? When people are 18 to 25, they may be gorgeous, but they’re usually not formed enough to be partnered with an older adult man. You’ll find the occasional exception, but it’s rare, because they’re not yet seasoned by life. In terms of who would make a good partner for me, especially as a guy in his 60s, I knew it had to be someone who’s had enough life experience to be tempered but not enough to be cynical or blasé. And that’s exactly what I found in my wonderful husband Sarit.”
A New Hope
Of course, Roffman remains restless. “There are still so many things I want to do with my life,” he concludes. “One of my biggest aspirations was to write a novel, and so that’s what I’m doing today. It’s challenging, but that’s what I love. I guess I’m a pretty driven person.”
The novel is semi-autobiographical. Roffman says he’s making progress, but has no firm deadline and is taking his time. “It’s about a life informed by my own,” he’s willing to say, “but definitely fictionalized. I’ve written about 150 pages so far, and it’s only a small percentage of what I want to cover. It’s fairly foolhardy to be this ambitious in a first novel, but it’s a cathartic process and I’m having a good time with it.”
For the moment, he’s taking pleasure in informally “talking with people and doing lots of research. The writing itself is the most isolating. You’ve got no choice but to sit alone at a keyboard and put the words down.”
But after decades of movie campaigns, photography trips, Star Wars concert tours and holiday toy releases, “I’m not holding myself to hard deadlines. “I figure I’ve got somewhere between four and five years to go on the novel,” Roffman says. “And you know, deadlines have a wonderful way of making things happen. So maybe one day I’ll start using them again.”
(All images courtesy Howard Roffman)
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Last modified: September 25, 2019