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A MODEL MAKER'S LIFE, FROM 'ET' TO 'STAR WARS' AND BEYOND

A model life? Petaluma's Mike Fulmer wouldn't say he's lived exactly that.

The Vietnam years certainly were less than ideal for the former Marine.

"I was pretty angry after the war," confided Fulmer, 66, while taking a smoke on a patio at his home, a comfortable retiree apartment complex off McDowell Boulevard. "I had a lot of beautiful memories, but also convoluted, complex nightmares. I still do."

The ire and disquiet he carried after his honorable discharge from the Marines in 1968 prompted a personal rebellion. He rode with the Hells Angels for about a year. Becoming a renegade biker and spending time in jail wasn't his proudest achievement in life, but maybe it helped him discover he wanted to get back to a lifelong love of working with his hands.

He put in 10 hard years traveling from Alaska to the Red Sea as a master welder with Aramco, Saudi Arabia's state oil and gas producer. He then took a shot at making a career of the creative avocation that's fascinated and challenged him since he was a kid in Omaha.

Fulmer was made to build models. He believes he inherited from his late mother, Alice, a painter, the artistic ability and patience it takes to build from scratch -- no kits, no mail-order plans, no easy-on decals -- gloriously detailed scale models of airplanes, cars, spaceships, trains, you name it.

He opened a shop in Visalia and began creating custom-built models for museums, businesses and collectors. His success as a professional modeler led to him being hired by San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. "I built models of nuclear reactors," he said.

In 1979, his welding skills won him a job at filmmaker George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic special-effects company in Marin County. The first "Star Wars" blockbuster had come out two years earlier and work was under way on "The Empire Strikes Back."

Fulmer was hired to set up a welding shop, but he couldn't hold his tongue when he heard special-effects director Richard Edlund complain about wrestling with a four-foot, 65-pound model of Han Solo's spaceship, the Millennium Falcon.

Fulmer told Edlund he could build a 24-inch Falcon in 30 days, and he did. Not long afterward, Fulmer became ILM's head model builder.

He went on to create magnificent machines in miniature for dozens more movies. The flying bicycle in "E.T." was his. "I made three of them, actually," he said.

He received an Academy Award nomination for his special effects in "Always," the 1989 aerial firefighter movie with Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter. He handmade air tankers with 14-foot wingspans.

A brother, Joe Fulmer, went to work for Lucas, too. The two of them were together the night in 1999 that Joe Fulmer won an Oscar for Technical Achievement in the development of motion-controlled, silent camera dollies. Through the course of Mike Fulmer's work with Harrison Ford in the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films, he came to admire the actor more than any other. It made for a memorable day when Lucas asked him on the set of an "Indiana Jones" film if he'd perform a stunt for Ford. Fulmer tumbled off the hood of a car that then ran over him.

He worked in movie models and special effects for 15 years, then hungered for something new. Computer animation was coming on strong by then and he wanted no part of it.

"When I left," he recalled, "I said I can do anything because I've done everything."

The Academy of Model Aeronautics hired him in 1992 to design and oversee the construction of its National Model Aviation Museum in Muncie, Ind. Fulmer completed the project and then served as the museum's first curator.

From there he went to work for rock star Neil Young, part-owner of the Lionel model-train company. Fulmer created scores of prototypes for metal collectibles, the most elaborate being an intricate miniature of New York's Grand Central Station.

For fun and thrills, the divorced father of two daughters and grandfather of three has raced dragsters. He's also built, in addition to all of the models, 14 actual custom street rods.

These days, old war injuries keep Fulmer pretty close to the one-room apartment that he shares with a dachshund and that he's made into a mini-museum of his models, Lionel prototypes and Vietnam memorabilia.

Fulmer said he has a full-sized car to finish and he spends time daily on projects like the handmade wooden airplane components that are leaning in a corner.

All these years after "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones," the model-maker is still at work, just on a smaller scale.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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