By Jill Serjeant and Lisa Richwine
NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Carrie Fisher's unexpected death on Tuesday did not just leave "Star Wars" fans heartbroken. It thrust movie studio Walt Disney Co into a dilemma over the fate of her iconic character, Princess Leia, as it moves forward with the blockbuster film franchise.
Fisher, 60, enjoyed a new round of fame when Princess Leia, Harrison Ford's Han Solo and Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker were reunited on screen for 2015's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which sold more than $2 billion in tickets at the global box office.
The actress had finished filming for the 2017 release of "Star Wars: Episode VIII," Disney said, whose plot details have remained, as always, a closely guarded secret.
Fisher was also expected to play a key role in the ninth installment of the sci-fi saga, due for release in 2019. A Disney spokeswoman on Tuesday declined to comment on whether Leia would appear in films beyond "Episode VIII."
"Star Wars" director Colin Trevorrow said in a January 2016 interview that he was excited "to find new places that we can take" the characters of Princess Leia and her on-screen twin brother Luke Skywalker.
"They are icons, but they're also people that have suffered tremendous loss and challenge over the course of all these films," Trevorrow told celebrity news outlet Entertainment Tonight.
"Star Wars" fans were already speculating on how the battle between good and evil in the Galactic Empire could continue without Fisher playing Leia, a fearless Rebel Alliance fighter who in "The Force Awakens" had become a general.
Leia appears briefly at the end of the standalone movie now in theaters, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," as a digital recreation of the young princess. The late British actor Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, is brought back to life as Death Star commander Grand Moff Tarkin for "Rogue One" using computer generated imagery (CGI). "I'm not crying now but I'll probably cry when Disney shamelessly CGI's Carrie Fisher's face into episode IX," a fan named Thug Lucas said on Twitter on Tuesday.
Under a 1985 California law, filmmakers must get permission from the estate of a celebrity to use his or her image for up to 70 years after death.
Other possibilities include redrafting the plot of "Episode IX," re-shooting scenes from "Episode VIII," or casting another look-alike actress, as the makers of "Harry Potter" did when Richard Harris, who played headmaster Albus Dumbledore, died after filming the first two movies.
On the entertainment website Heavy.com, some fans suggested that singer Stevie Nicks could stand in for Fisher in future movies. Others said she should be given a glorious screen death.
"I swear they better find a way to write Princess Leia out of the movies, cause if they try and recast there will be hell to pay," a fan identified as Kaitlin tweeted.
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Leslie Adler)