By: Rod Dovlin
When Star Wars made its debut in 1977, the effect it had on my circle of fellow fifth-graders was swift and all-encompassing. The film that has become the seminal cinematic event in Gen X history immediately separated my group of bike-riding comrades into two distinct types: Darth Vader fans or Luke Skywalker wannabes.
As a product of the Cold War/Neutron Bomb age, I had already been resigned to my future as a radiation-scarred survivor of the inevitable nuclear holocaust that was being sold to me by the late 70s media (with films like The Day After, which was required TV viewing per my "progressive" grade school teacher). Naturally, I was a Darth Vader kind of guy. I figured that if you were going to bear witness to the end of mankind, you might as well be wearing a cool helmet. My sappy 3-year-old brother, on the other hand, was blissfully unaware of the impending Armageddon. To him, life was Spiderman, Weebles and R2-D2 Underoos. Needless to say, he was a junior Skywalker.
Hyperdrive ahead twenty years to 1997- the Soviet Union long ago declared bankruptcy, The Day After never came and they don't even make Weebles anymore. My nihilism has been traded in for Taoism, and once again, Luke Skywalker is an idol to millions of kids from seven to seventy. And unlike Batman, Superman or The Lone Ranger, this superhero is still the same. In case there was any confusion, Mark Hamill is Luke Skywalker. And he's damn proud of it, too.
Even two decades later, the face of the hero who saved the princess, stood up to his evil old man and restrained himself from killing all of those irritating Ewoks is instantly recognizable. A little more weathered, a little more wise; the actor who taught us to trust our feelings and beware the dark side has quietly built a career that has successfully covered numerous genres. From his post-Wars films like Corvette Summer, The Big Red One and The Guyver; to his stage career (both on and off-Broadway) in shows like The Elephant Man, Amadeus and Harrigan & Hart, to his latest foray into the realms of voice-overs, screenwriting and even comic books, Hamill has kept expanding his craft, deftly avoiding a curse even more deadly than Vader's telekinetic choke-hold- typecasting.
Born September 25, 1951, Mark Hamill grew up in a constantly moving household. "My father was in the military," he explains. "That meant uprooting the family every three years. It was so disruptive and psychologically damaging that I swore that I'd never do anything like that to my family. So I end up in a profession where someone can ask you to do three weeks in Yugoslavia."
Hamill's early acting career kept him visible in television programs like The Texas Wheelers and even a stint on General Hospital. But it was an unassuming audition that forever changed his destiny. "My screen test for Star Wars," he describes, "consisted of a scene in the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo. The process started off as a cattle call, where you either made the cut or you didn't."
Due to the secrecy that surrounded the entire project, the Star Wars script was initially kept top secret, even from its soon-to-be star. "I hadn't even read the screenplay at that time. The screenplay was not to be seen by anyone then," Hamill explains, "Although I heard that Sylvester Stallone got a copy through his lawyer, who I think was also (George Lucas') lawyer, and wanted to play Han Solo. I've always thought that it would be interesting to see how that would have changed things around," he muses. "Regardless, I remember asking if they could send me a copy of the script, and they said that they could only send a scene."
The destiny of the entire Rebellion lay in the somewhat capable hands of the Postal Service. "I got a single scene sent to me by mail that was only four or five pages long. I then went in and did the scene on videotape for Harrison (Ford) and George. It was a scene that doesn't appear in the final film. I remember that it called for Luke to be very excited, some sort of crisis situation. It was just videotaped, not filmed. No big crew or anything. I remember not feeling like, 'Oh, I got that!' because George is very quiet and he didn't do a big dissertation on what kind of movie it was. It was just like, go ahead and do it. It was really flying blind. George is not a really demonstrative person, so I was really quite surprised when I got it. At that time," he laughs, "I was more used to going out and not getting parts than the other way around."
Hamill's luck was about to change faster than real estate values on Alderaan. "Eventually, they told me that I'd gotten the part and that they would send me the script. I get the script, and I'll never forget that experience of reading it for the first time," he recalls. "Remember, I didn't know at that time what the special effects or characters were going to look like on film. But the magic was in the words. Just using my imagination, I could clearly see the two robots bickering, and it was just all so there."
Hamill's confessed love of the science fiction genre wasn't the only reason he took on the role of the once and future Jedi. "I remember thinking that if they made it the way it was written, there's going to be a group of people out there that think that (Star Wars) is the best movie of its kind. What struck me right away was how much more humorous and warm it was, as opposed to the cold, technological 2001-type of science fiction. I wasn't really familiar with the Star Trek mythos, but that too was more of the same Earth-based science fiction that, to me, is traditional sci-fi. But when you have Wookies flying spaceships, that's more fantasy."
Hamill's initial impression of the SW script went beyond lightsabers and landspeeders. "When you see it on the printed page," he explains, "it reads more like the Brothers Grimm than Isaac Asimov. There's a princess, there's a farmboy, there's a pirate, there's a wizard, all of these elements are in there. I felt that if they set the story in medieval times, in carriages instead of spaceships, if we had to destroy a fortress instead of a Death Star, it still worked. If you transposed it back in time, it still worked because it was there on the page. So, while I wasn't thinking of it being the biggest movie of all time, I was thinking that it was going to be great fun to do. Even if it wasn't successful at the box office, I thought it would be one of the all-time midnight-movie cult classics."
Most SW fans would have given their firstborn for a crack at Darth Vader, but for Hamill, the other options initially seemed more appealing. "Looking at it as an actor, you look at it and say 'Gee, it'd be a lot more fun to play the cynical space pirate,' or that it would be more fun to play the Doctor Doom-like Darth Vader, whatever he's going to look like, or even that fussy robot is more interesting. But let's face it," he admits, "I was just nit-picking. I was so fortunate to just be a part of it. I got to go to Africa and England, both of which I'd never been to. It was just a tremendous experience. I felt the same way about The Empire Strikes Back. I thought it was even more mystical and more cerebral. And we even lost! Not only did we lose, but it had that great twist ending, too. Like the second act of an opera, it's tragic."
For Hamill, tragedy was not confined to the big screen. In between the making of Star Wars and Empire, the young actor was involved in a serious automobile accident. "I'm not really sure what happened," he recalls. "I was driving a brand new BMW. I was going way, way too fast. It was late, I had the music blaring, and I lost control, spun out and crashed the car." Luckily, the resulting injuries were not extensive. "I broke my nose, but it didn't affect the filming schedule. It happened in early '77 and we didn't start working on Empire until around '79 or so. A lot of people speculated that the scene where the Wampa attacked me in the beginning of Empire was written in because of the accident. I even asked George about it myself. He said no, that Luke was always captured by the Wampa. The interesting thing about that is that, when it happened, nobody cared. Even after Empire came out, nobody ever asked about it. It was only years later that people began to ask about it."
With the accident behind him, Hamill reprised his role as the young Skywalker in Empire. This time he not only faced his arch-enemy, Darth Vader, but he also faced a secret that, at the time, was nearly impossible to keep. "Before we filmed that moment in Empire, they took me aside and said that they were going to film the dialogue as Vader saying (in a dead-on Vader impression) 'You don't know the truth. Obi-Wan killed your father,' instead of what everyone eventually saw. It was fun knowing all along that James Earl Jones would later dub in (again as Vader) 'I am your father.' It was that line I was actually reacting to, instead of the cover line. I was in on the secret, (Empire director Irwin) Kirschner knew, obviously George knew. When they told me, I was really busting to tell somebody. I'm sure I told my wife who, at that point, wasn't going to run off and tell the world. Nevertheless, three days later in the London Sun newspaper: headline- ALEC GUINNESS TOP BADDY IN STAR WARS SEQUEL. Somebody must have leaked it. It was probably an extra, or a background artist as they call them in England." Hamill pauses, as his eyes tighten wistfully. "I wish they would call them that here. 'Extra' sounds like air conditioning or bucket seats on a car. Optional, unnecessary equipment," he sighs. "They're actors. They have to be. They've got to work like everybody else. I have a great deal of respect for these people. But they're not making a whole lot of money for a day's work. So, if you've got a great story from the set, why not sell it?" he grins, adding, "It was a pretty juicy scoop, after all."
Hamill's rapport with extras on the set is well-known to those who have had the opportunity to work with him. But it wasn't always that way. "For that scene in the first movie where we receive our medals at the end of the picture," he recalls, "there were all of these British background players as the Rebel forces lined up for this big ceremony. The assistant director was running the scene in a very militaristic fashion and was sort of barking directions at these guys. So, when Harrison and I were walking down the hall in rehearsals, these guys were muttering somewhat salty language under their breath, calling us wankers and what not. It started to rattle me, because I was really into it." Having just saved the galaxy, Hamill felt confident enough to take on the ingrate extras. "Eventually, I went over to where a group of the guys were congregating. Due to my experience with the screen test, I asked them if anyone had told them what was going on in this particular scene. They said no. I told them that they were this rebel army that went against all odds and destroyed this gigantic fortress that was home to the bad guys. I spent maybe a minute or two with them, telling them about the story. It really empowered them. They began to feel their characters and not just like pieces of meat in costume. Plus, they get a chance to talk to you, to see that you're a regular guy or whatever." Hamill's strategy paid off. "The very next time we shot it, their attitude was completely different, totally positive." he grinned. "A little information and a bit of attention goes a long way."
Long hours on the set can lead to more than bad attitudes. Sometimes it leads to bad humor, as well. Hamill related just such an occurrence that took place in the Death Star's trash compactor. "We had scuba gear on underneath our Stormtrooper costumes. Every time I got wet or, more specifically, too wet, I'd have to get out of this wet rubber outfit to get blown dry. It was uncomfortable. You'd get rashes in places you never thought possible. Anyway, we're in the compactor and I see George sitting there, looking very deep in thought and rather unhappy. Our eyes met and I thought I might cheer him up. There was all of these puke-green chunks of polystyrene floating around, so I picked a chunk of it off my Stormtrooper outfit. I remember being waist deep in this stuff. The monster in the compactor was called a "dianoga" in the script. In what I mistakenly thought was musical comedy, I sang to George (to the tune of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo"), 'Pardon me George, could this be dianoga poo-poo?' I thought it would really crack him up. Instead, he just put his foot in the middle of my chest, extended his leg and kicked me back down into the water!"
Comedy critiques aside, Hamill has nothing but kudos for his longtime friend George Lucas. Would he consider working with Lucas again, possibly on the upcoming prequels to the original trilogy? "Working with George was what I consider to be one of the great experiences of a lifetime. If the guy wanted me to come up and cut his lawn, I'd think long and hard about it," he laughs.
"Seriously though," he continues, "as far as the prequels, those movies go back in time. I think it would be confusing for the audience to go back thirty years in time and to see the same actors. I've heard so many rumors about my participation in the new movies- that I'm going to play Anakin or whatever. I think this all started when, right after the first movie, somebody called and said that George wanted to sign me for a fourth movie. I said that I thought it was a trilogy. They told me that it was more of a merchandising thing. In other words, if he could sign all of us for yet another installment, it would be better for his merchandising deal. I don't know about Harrison or Carrie (Fisher), but I gladly signed on for a fourth film. Whatever that option was, a year or two, it expired long ago. It was more as a favor to George. I think that at one point, he mentioned that Luke does a brief turn in the ninth one, when he hands Excalibur down to whatever young hope that would be next. (laughs) Whatever generation that would be!"
"George Lucas actually told you about the ninth film in the series while still making the first?" I asked. "Yeah, it was like casual chit-chat in the deserts of Africa. I was asking him when this was going to be, and I think he said something like 'Ummm 2011.' I was just absolutely shocked at the scope of it all. He even told me, originally envisioning a fourth trilogy, that he had pared it down from twelve stories. I was just getting the tip of the iceberg. Not only that, but it seemed that this project had deep roots that I was only marginally aware of at that time. Of course, this may all have been changed. One of the things that George does well is adapt. I don't think, for example, that Lando Calrissian was originally part of the plan. Harrison, it turns out, was the only person that didn't have a three picture deal. What I remember hearing was, 'Uh-oh, Harrison might not be in the second one.' I think that's when the Lando character came in. I never spoke to (Harrison) about it, because by the time I saw him again, he was already on board for the second outing. But, it may have been done just in case. Look, if I hadn't signed for number two, and I didn't want to do it, you bet they would have found the long-lost Jake Skywalker or something like that," he says, only half-joking. "Of course, I take all of those things with grain of salt, because he said this all those years ago. At that time, I figured that the entire saga would be finished by now. I imagine that George did, too. His original concept was that he'd shoot for a year straight and get them all done at once. To shoot three movies in a row. Maybe he'll be able to do it that way this time."
Before Lucas reveals the next trilogy to worldwide audiences, he chose to revamp the three existing films. With the re-release of Star Wars (with Empire and Jedi to follow), everyone has had the chance to experience the big-screen enthusiasm of its initial release, with a few additional surprises. Not everybody, it seems, was initially thrilled with the idea of messing with the original trilogy. "At first, I was just appalled," Hamill confesses. "After all, George works so hard for film preservation, protecting the integrity of original films. The big difference here, of course, is that he's the one doing the work. It's not like George has passed on, and someone else came in and said 'You know what? Let's put Chris O'Donnell in as Luke and just digitally remove Mark.' It's not like that."
Hamill recalled another great director's dismay over another cinematic classic. "I heard a quote from Billy Wilder regarding the fact that one of his biggest regrets was that he never got to go back and re-cut Sunset Boulevard. Re-cut Sunset Boulevard? And he wasn't even talking about re-release! It was just because something about the original cut bothered him. Well, that really struck me. So, I tried putting on the George Lucas cap. Plus, there's the task of integrating the first three films into a nine-part whole. Selling the anachronistic idea of going back in time and telling these stories that happened thirty years before the first ones must be tough. If we would've had the technology available then that we do now, it probably would've been easier to do the films chronologically. The technical upgrades of the first trilogy, I think, are more about the new (prequel) trilogy. Because it's integrating the first three into an eventual nine. It's also a brilliant marketing move, in terms of raising peoples' awareness of the impending new ones. Although, when you think about it, that's really being almost overly safe. It seems kind of hard to believe that there's a man, woman or child on the planet that isn't at least aware of these films."
With all the re-working of the initial films, were there any missing scenes included with Hamill in them? "There's a novelization of the script that was written as a novelization of the screenplay but based on the initial cut of the film. When you read the novelization of Star Wars, Luke has an argument with his uncle. He heads out to what I referred to as a teen club, where he meets up with Biggs Darklighter, who was played by Garrick Hagon, and this girl that Luke sort of has a crush on named Cammie. She was played by Koo Stark, who gained some notoriety here from her involvement with Prince Andrew. Basically, what I liked about those scenes was that it showed Luke in his own environment. He was definitely not the coolest kid in school. His friends ridiculed him for being just a farmboy. It also established that he was a great pilot, but that he was also impetuous and impatient. When Biggs, whom Luke idolizes, is there in his Imperial uniform, Luke is just thrilled. At that point, Luke wants to join the Empire. When Biggs finally confesses to Luke that he plans to jump ship and join the Rebellion, Luke is totally shocked! It becomes that moment in Luke's life where he first begins to question authority, which I felt was very significant. It's also important because (Biggs) is also one of the pilots making the final assault on the Death Star. He does a suicide move that allows Luke to slip past and, in the process, he is killed. It's like a World War 2 'Let's do it for Johnny' kind of moment. It gave the scene a kind of emotional resonance that's just not there when you excise that entire storyline."
Why was the scene eliminated in the first place, then? "The reasoning was that Luke doesn't come into the film, linearly speaking, until the robots come to the farm. That's when you first meet Luke. So, I totally understood it. But what I question is, now that you've announced that you're going to tweak and re-work a director's cut version, I fully expected (the Biggs sequence) to be back in there. At this point, I don't know if they've decided to put it back in or not. I know the scenes still exist and I've heard rumors both saying that it is and isn't in the new version. It must have been hard for people like Koo and Garrick to go to Africa to make this little science fiction movie that turns into this big phenomenon, and then to go see it and find out that they're gone. That's got to be a real kick in the head, to have to tell all of your friends that you were cut out of Star Wars."
Something that I've always felt, along with many other SW fans, that could have been cut out of the trilogy were those damn Ewoks. The cuteness quotient of Return of the Jedi was cranked up way past eleven by those space-teddy bears and I, for one, could have done without them. Hamill mirrors the general sentiment. "Personally, I had some misgivings about the last one," he admits. "I don't know that they really paid it off the way I wanted to see it. And again, I experienced it when I read the script, not a year later when I saw it on a screen. There were just certain things that I thought were too neatly tied up. And I said this to George, I mentioned my concerns to him, and he said to remember that this was a fairy-tale for young children. Most fairy-tales are very pat and tied up in a neat little package at the end. When you talk to people who say that the last one is their favorite, they're usually under six. So, maybe I was wrong, because when you think about it, the original intent was to make (Return of the Jedi) a children's film and not to have one eye on landing the cover of Time magazine. Which proves that if you're true to your intent, whatever it might be, you probably won't go wrong."
Staying true to the spirit of the SW mythos is of paramount importance to Hamill. Is that the reason we've never seen 'Mark Hamill as Lance Starjumper in Wars Beyond the Stars' or some other pseudofilm? Why hasn't Hamill sold out, even after all this time? "It's been hard to resist those kind of things. I feel that the (Star Wars) movies are really special. There was never any written thing that says, 'You can't do Babylon 5' or this or that. It's just a matter of trying to preserve what's special to people. A lot of people have kept it alive in their hearts and minds. Sure, I could get cynical about it or try to trivialize it. But what keeps it alive for me- I know this sounds corny- is when I see people, especially young people, who are still full of the wonderment of it all. That experience seems very optimistic and reassuring. It has a very positive feel about it. I love to get that kind of response from kids."
Has the mantle of Luke Skywalker ever been too heavy a load for Mark Hamill? After all, it is hard to shake off a character that can come back to packed theaters twenty years after the fact. "I don't really know. It seemed to me that (the first trilogy) had a beginning, middle and an end. And most importantly, there was a real sense of closure to the last chapter. I've always felt that I should acknowledge the past, but focus on the future. And that's a really fine line to walk. Because, on one hand, you want to give the people what they want. At the same time, you're fighting what happens to a lot of people in this business, which is dealing with those who want you to do the same thing over and over again. I must have been one of the most committed Star Wars fans while I was making the films. I really loved it and it's a part of me, in more ways than I could tell you. The hard part is letting it go. It's as if someone let you play with the greatest train set in the world, but it never really belongs to you. I sometimes wish I could go back and play with my old toys, so to speak, but they were never really mine in the first place."
Hamill says that sometimes his Jedi past can be "a blessing, a burden and a responsibility, all at the same time." Even so, he readily admits that "the fans are so incredible. I've got to confess that every time I think that I've got to put this behind me, I can't be this character for the rest of my life, or whatever- every time that thought comes to mind, I meet people that are really inspired or motivated by the films. You can see it in their eyes, you know they love it so much. I think that part of the rumors surrounding my involvement in the new films is based in part, bless their hearts, on the wish fulfillment of those fans. They're still getting used to the fact that it ain't gonna be Luke, Han and the Princess. They're nervous that it's going to be the same canvas painted in a different way. It's a unique experience in film. Here you have this whole universe that people are totally familiar with, and the opportunity to approach it with virtually all new characters. It's tempting, because you want those fans to know that it's not going to happen that way. As I said before, it had a beginning, a middle and an end and I'm glad it's over. But on the other hand, I just became a full-fledged Jedi; now I don't get to have any adventures! It's like the story of how James Bond got his license to kill, but you never get to see past that. It's like I never got to do my Dr. No or Goldfinger."
Does that mean that Hamill would accept a role in the prequels, if one were to be offered? He remains enigmatic: "I try to look at things many different ways. Part of me sort of wants to put the whole Star Wars experience into perspective and say that I was almost like a kid actor at the time, and that's not me anymore and so forth. But there's still that part of me that wishes that I still could work on (the new films). Not as an actor, but there's something that is so satisfying to work around intensely creative people like George and all of those people at ILM, the people with the Muppets, the imagineers at Disney and so on. It's such a rewarding experience. Who would ever want to totally give up on something like that?"
Giving up isn't something that Hamill does easily. After the trilogy, he moved to New York with his wife Marilou ("I've been married almost eighteen years. People ask me, 'How can you stay married for so long?' My advice is two words- don't cheat!"), their sons Nathan (now 17) and Griffin (now 11) and their daughter, Chelsea Elizabeth (now 8). Indulging his love of stage performance, Hamill eventually made it to Broadway in Harrigan & Hart. The problem, it seems, was staying there. "I was devastated when Harrigan & Hart closed. It was one of those cornerstones in your life where you're forced to ask yourself if you can continue to work like this when you devote eighteen months of your life to something just to watch it get turned into something else. When it came to Broadway, the director was changed. They changed the actor who played Harrigan, the actress who played my wife. Some changes were for the worse, some for the better. My point is that I was watching them tamper with near perfection."
The untimely demise of Hamill's debut on the Great White Way was more than a disappointment; it was a turning point. "When I came back to Hollywood from New York around '87 or '88, it was almost like I had retired or something. I had just come off performing on Broadway and felt like I was riding this crest of theatrical acclaim. But coming back to LA was really a wake-up call. I thought, 'Gee, has my stock fallen that low?' It was like the old cliché: out of sight, out of mind. But you indulge yourself at your own risk. Now, if Harrigan & Hart had been a big hit, it might have been the kind of springboard to set myself up like Glenn Close, in a male way, using my Broadway exposure to land more interesting character roles."
Rather than give up, Hamill decided to broaden his career horizons. "I sometimes feel so limited as a conventional actor that has to have a hit TV series or be a leading man in the movies or something similar. I love the show part of show business. It's the business part that I have a hard time with. Like I said, I try to see all sides of a situation. Sure, it might be great to be an A-list movie actor who gets to see the best scripts. But even those people get pigeonholed into a certain character type, and when they try to break out of that they're told that they can't do that because the audience only wants to see them in this or that type of role. So even being at the top has its risks. What I try to do is to be as happy as I can possibly be at any given moment with what I've been given. It comes to the point where you ask yourself, 'Just how greedy should I be? I've had this great experience, do I still need more, more, more? Or do I want to use this experience in a way that I can still feel good about?'"
Hamill's latest ventures include making a name for himself in the world of voice-over talent, providing voices for over 100 cartoons, including Ren and Stimpy, The Blues Brothers and the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. "I love voice-overs, because you can be more in touch with your performance. You don't have to deal with the anxiety of how you look or how you're sitting or whatever. When I'm doing voice-overs, I like to pretend that I'm back in the Golden Age of radio. I love the history of radio, theater, film, all of it."
Hamill has also created a graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics entitled The Black Pearl. The book came about from a script idea that Hamill would like to eventually see as a film that he would direct. "I like to do projects that bring the market to me. Carrie (Fisher) did it with her book. I'd love to see it happen with this project. If it doesn't happen with Black Pearl, then the next project or the one after that. The day I ever just give up is the day that I really should retire. There will be cynical people in this town who say that I'm retired and don't even know it, but I don't see it that way. Right now, there's somebody out there reading this whose star is crossed with mine. Someone out there that knows and understands and wants to do my kind of work. They called Rob Reiner 'Meathead,' they called Penny Marshall 'Laverne,' they called Ron Howard 'Opie.' Yeah, I'm Luke and I'm proud of it. But that's just a part of me. I've got so much more I want to do. I want to be the guy who either gets the glory or the egg on his face. That challenge is the only thing left in this business that really excites me."
Entertainment editor Rod Dovlin wields his lightsaber weekly on The Gossip Show on E! Entertainment Television.