The letter to the editors of Mad magazine carried an air of imperious menace worthy of Darth Vader himself.

The humorous American publication lampooned the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, with a cover image of the Mad mascot, a freckled, gap-toothed child named Alfred E Neuman, as Yoda. Inside, a cartoon by Mort Drucker, titled “The Farce Be With You”, mocked characters such as “Princess Laidup”, “Ham Yoyo” and “Lube Skystalker”.

Lawyers for Lucasfilm, the company founded by George Lucas, the Star Wars creator, did not see the funny side. They accused Mad of copyright infringement, demanded punitive damages and insisted that the issue be pulled from news stands without delay. The staff, however, were not so much intimidated as amused.

The lawyers were unaware that Lucas had sent a letter to the magazine only a few days earlier in which he declared that “special Oscars should be awarded to Mort Drucker and [the writer] Dick DeBartolo — the George Bernard Shaw and Leonardo Da Vinci of comic satire. Their sequel to my sequel was sheer galactic madness.”

The magazine sent the lawyers a copy of Lucas’s fan mail, adding a brief note: “Gee, George liked it!” And that was the end of the matter.

Lucas had been an avid reader of Mad since childhood and a firm admirer of Drucker’s illustrations. “His caricatures are the best, and he is the artist that defines Mad for me,” he wrote in 2012 to mark the publication of a collection of Drucker’s work from more than five decades at the magazine.

George Lucas commissioned one of Drucker’s classic multi-character pileups as the poster for his first hit movie, American Graffiti.

Before Star Wars, Lucas had hired Drucker to draw the poster for the 1973 comedy American Graffiti. Drucker, inevitably, then delivered a Mad parody, “American Confetti”. Another frequent target, Steven Spielberg, was similarly effusive: “He poked fun at all my favourite movies when I was a teenager and when I was a film-maker, he started going to town on the ones I was making.”

Founded as a comic book in 1952, when the United States was in the grip of McCarthyism, Mad, with its irreverent tone, held a subversive appeal to postwar generations of mostly male adolescents who were increasingly sceptical of authority and receptive to its pop-culture parodies. Its anarchic energy influenced comedians such as Terry Gilliam and Jerry Seinfeld.

Before Star Wars, Lucas had hired Drucker to draw the poster for the 1973 comedy American Graffiti.

In 1974, when the Watergate scandal brought down President Nixon, the magazine had a circulation in excess of 2.1 million. But it endured a slow slide into irrelevance as society grew brasher and more cynical and the media environment increasingly diffuse. Circulation was down to about 140,000 in 2017 and it was sent into semi-retirement last year, its issues now largely recycling old material.

In its heyday, being caricatured by Drucker was a rite of passage for Hollywood stars. “It felt like we had really made it when we were brutally mocked in the pages of Mad magazine! Truly a career highlight and when it came to spot-on, uncanny caricature, there was no finer artist than Mort Drucker,” Mark Hamill, the actor who played Luke Skywalker, said on Twitter.

Asked by the talkshow host Johnny Carson, “When did you really know you made it in show business?”, Michael J Fox, the Back to the Future star, replied: “When Mort Drucker drew my head”. It was, Fox later wrote, “like having the Beatles write a song about you.”

Morris Drucker was born in New York in 1929 to Edward, a plumber and businessman, and Sarah (née Spielvogel), a housewife. He grew up in Brooklyn and met his wife of 71 years, Barbara Hellerman, at school aged 14. His wife, who acted as his office manager, survives him along with two daughters, Melanie, an illustrator, and Laurie, a yoga instructor.

He was by nature diffident and modest but his talent was spotted and encouraged by a schoolteacher when he was seven. He never studied art at university, instead developing his skills on his own through endless practice.

Aged about 18 he took an entry-level job correcting blemishes in others’ work in the company that became DC Comics, and illustrated westerns, romances and war stories. He had an early introduction to the waggish culture at Mad when he went for an interview in 1956 and found the publisher, Bill Gaines, listening to a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball game on the radio. “If the Dodgers win, you’re hired,” Gaines told him; they did.

Drucker freelanced from his home on Long Island in a studio filled with family photographs and framed magazine covers. His clients were diverse: from Time magazine to the heavy metal band Anthrax. Some of his work is in the collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

His pictures were often crowded and intricate, with close attention paid not only to the faces but the whole bodies of his subjects, especially the hands. He thought of himself as akin to a film director, arranging a scene and capturing characters from different angles. He studied closely to detect the unique aspects of each celebrity’s comportment. “Body language to me is as important as getting the face,” he said in a 2016 interview. To improve at drawing wrinkles and clothes he rode the subway and observed the postures of commuters as they held on to overhead straps or bars.

“I always thought that if anything was difficult, don’t shy away from it, attack it,” he said. “Go after it and learn why it’s difficult and learn how to do it, then you’re home free.”

Mort Drucker, cartoonist, was born on March 22, 1929. He died after a short illness on April 9, 2020, aged 91