Slaves to the Empire: The 'Star Wars' Kids Talk Back

Five actors caught in the paradox of 'Star Wars' (the highest-grossing film of all time has done nothing for their careers) talk about their trap, the making of 'The Empire Strikes Back' and why they still want to be a part of the third installment

star wars cover 1980
Annie Leibovitz
The Cast of 'The Empire Strikes Back' on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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The Force has two sides. It is not a malevolent or a benevolent thing. It has a bad side to it, involving hate and fear, and it has a good side, involving love, charity, fairness and hope.
George Lucas

There's no place for personal triumph in a film like this," says Harrison Ford dryly, referring to his return to the screen as mercenary adventurer Han Solo in Star Wars' monumental sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Although Ford shares star billing, he is painfully aware that he and the other featured performers are mere pawns in a projected nine-part series of sci-fi films, cartoonlike components with little more dimension than the hapless androids C-3PO and R2D2.

Star Wars, the creation of writer-director-producer George Lucas, is the largest-grossing film of all time – over $400 million at last count – and Empire, directed by Irvin Kershner, looks to be its nearest box-office rival. Yet the cast of this spectacular saga seems almost lost in an interplanetary shuffle.

"The star is the movie," says Mark Hamill, a.k.a. Luke Skywalker, and his cohorts sadly concur. Indeed, Harrison Ford has learned so little about his own character that he cannot explain why Solo is being pursued by bounty hunters throughout Empire.

"There's no, er, I don't know why that is." He shrugs, red-faced. "I can imagine, but basically, I just work here, you know what I mean? In fact, I didn't get the script to the second picture until three weeks before we started shooting. [Some of the actors in Empire were given only partial scripts to ensure the secrecy of plot twists.] I haven't gotten the script for the third one, The Revenge of the Jedi.

"One of George's real strengths," adds Ford, "is not giving you all the information you need, yet at the same time not denying you anything essential. You have a feeling that you want to know more at all times.

"I have heard frequently," he continues, "that there is a certain kind of disappointment with the ending of the second film. I've heard people say, 'There's no end to this film' or 'I can't wait to find out what happens.' But they will, and that's exactly the effect intended by the ending."

To feed the seemingly insatiable appetite for news about Star Wars, Twentieth Century-Fox and Lucasfilm (George's production company) have mounted a promotional onslaught whose scope resembles a rock & roll world tour. Over the last few weeks, the films' stars have been hustled from Los Angeles to New York to Washington to London to Japan and then on to Australia to sit for literally hundreds of newspaper, radio and television interviews. The effort is further supported by a multimillion-dollar ad campaign and a glut of aggressive merchandising schemes that include everything from a soundtrack album to a proposed Yoda doll, the gnomelike Jedi master.

The films' principals were not often together on the set – especially during the shooting of Empire – and the same goes for their promo tours. While they get along well with one another, there's little sense of a shared experience. And as for the actual creation of the film fantasy, vivid anecdotes are rare; Carrie Fisher, who plays Princess Leia, admits that the actors had to "pretend a lot."

"On the set, I would have to say, 'Don't blow up my planet, please!' and all I'm doing is looking at a board with an X on it, held by an assistant director who couldn't wait for the tea break.

"There are certain things you can bring to a movie that have substitutions in your life," she adds. "Well, you can't do that in this type of film. I had never seen hyperspace till I saw the finished films, so I could never imagine how they would do it. You just make what Kierkegaard called the 'great leap of faith.'"

"I felt curiously detached watching Empire," says Hamill. "I sound like my therapist, but you do start taking these things to heart, thinking, 'Yes, you are a terrible actor, and it was only the special effects that made it all memorable.'"

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the biggest entertainment phenomenon in history is also a wondrous cliffhanger that is as mesmerizing as it is manipulative. At this rate, we will have to wait until sometime around the year 2000 to see the final episode of Lucas' cinematic fairy tale, while the actors, who were paid sizable salaries (and, in the case of Star Wars, a reported bonus cut of Lucas' own profits), may never derive any great satisfaction from the most celebrated roles of their careers.

The man getting the most personal gratification from this project must be Lucas himself, who, after miraculously surviving a car crash at the age of eighteen, decided, "I should do something positive with my life because I was spared for a reason. Maybe I was here for Star Wars."*

None of the actors are apologetic about their part in this unfolding drama, but one gets the feeling that they would relish a greater comprehension of, and control over, the science-fiction serial that has assumed such power over their lives and careers. (Ford, Hamill, Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and most of the other costars are signed for The Revenge of the Jedi.)

"The Force is what you perceive it to be," Lucas notes, "and it is always changing."

I was nineteen, chosen at random, and told to lose weight, which at the time was a problem," says pretty, petite Carrie Fisher, 23, curled up in an overstuffed chair in her New York apartment. "This time around, for Empire, I was told to gain weight. The only film I'd done before Star Wars was Shampoo. But they decided to go with me anyway, a strong girl with a low voice and self-righteous nature."

Sardonic would be a better word. Fisher's flippant outlook on life may be the result of a childhood spent enduring mother Debbie Reynolds' two celebrated divorces ("She's a Texas chain-saw survivor; she's real great") and the gossip-magazine prattle that plagued father Eddie Fisher ("He's a little shellshocked from thirteen years of doing speed, but he's real friendly"). Her quick-witted style, heavily influenced by the blasé-just-before-the-gallows banter of Saturday Night Live alumnus Michael O'Donoghue (who's a close chum), contains traces of Joan Rivers, Bette Midler and a dollop of Dorothy Parker.

"I liked whenever Harrison and I yelled at each other," she giggles, recalling her favorite scenes from both films. "And whenever Darth Vader came in, a lot of the scenes were funny, because he was physically depicted by David Prowse, this muscle man from Cornwall or Devon. [Vader's eerie, wheezing voice was dubbed in by James Earl Jones.] And 'cause he had this Devon farmer's accent, we used to call him Darth Farmer!

"In the first film," Fisher adds, "I had to wear that white dress and I couldn't wear a bra. Everything was bouncing around, so I had to wear gaffer's tape for three months to keep my breasts down. A new crew member used to come up every day and get to rip it off – only kidding!

"Lucas always had to remind me to 'Stand up! Be a princess!' And I would act like a Jewish princess and lean forward, slouching, chewing gum."

Fisher laments the fact that several exotic scenes never made it into either film. "In the original script. I was captured, and when Mark and Harrison found me, I was hanging upside down with yellow eyes, like in The Exorcist. They shoulda just gotten Linda Blair for it. Some form of radar torture was done to me and I was in a beam, bruised and beaten up, suspended in midair. The reason it was cut from the film was because I was unconscious and the Wookie would have had to carry me for, like, the next fifteen minutes. But I loved the idea of having yellow eyes and being beaten and carried."

The talk shifts to Leia's romance with Han Solo in Empire, and Carrie slyly speculates that "if she had her wits about her, she would have fallen for the big, strong Wookie. She's not that experienced, but because she's a princess, she would have some kind of problem with whoever she dated. Like, 'She can't marry out of her solar system' or something."

Her notion of an X-rated sequel to Empire makes her howl with laughter.

"Nude scenes with the robots!" she envisions. "They could do anything. And Darth Vader having an affair, making the princess do awful, kinky things. Then afterward, you could shoot a scene where you see her sleeping contently and have him lying there, smoking a cigarette."

Gazing around her apartment, crammed with antique toys, dolls and the whimsical knickknacks one might expect to find in a little girl's bedroom, I realize there are few Star Wars souvenirs.

"They sent me everything at first, as if I had some child lurking about, but I gave most of it away. On Halloween, I had no candy so I gave two children in the building something, and then the whole building descended on me, and I gave a lot of stuff away.

"You know," she says in a mock stage whisper, "they send me Star Wars sheets. I just gave the last ones away to some of the Saturday Night Live writers. They called me back and said, 'You don't have them for double beds, do you?'

"The merchandising, it's very funny. Harrison used to get so upset: 'Mark gets to be a puzzle, why don't I?!' Those kinds of arguments. And we'll go, 'Wait a minute! Why don't I get to be on the pencil box for chrissake! I mean, if I'm gonna be in this and I'm gonna end up being two sizes of dolls, and a belt, and a cookie, and a hat, then why don't I get to be on an eraser, too?'

"I," Fisher boasts, "was on a Princess Leia eraser."

"Do the kids who buy these erasers come up to you in supermarkets," I wonder, "and ask you about the Millennium Falcon or Jawas or . . . ?"

"No! They come to my home. I swear to you! I sometimes find them in my home, and there are a lot of little girls. One girl named Yolanda sat here and waited for me. That's when I started locking my door. One night – this is great – some real strange guy with crossed eyes came up here and said he had bought my address for twenty dollars. Peter Aykroyd [Dan's brother] was here and chased him down the block.

"Weird," she says with a shudder. "You know, I remember falling asleep one day on the set and dreaming about half-robots, half-people. You're hanging around the set for three or four months and you're going to lunch with midgets and giants every day; eventually it permeates the brain. So I had these violent nightmares, dreams where you keep trying to impose your reality and you can't. It gets you crazy."

Fisher has since awakened to another, equally unsettling fact: her involvement in these films has not made her more in demand in Hollywood.

"Not at all." She nods with an even smile. "It hasn't translated into jobs, into other work. It's not an actor's performance. You have fun doing it to a degree, but I'm famous in this weird way because I'm this children's cartoon character.

"Balls, people recognize me more from Saturday Night Live! I mean, people know who I am, but nothing can be bigger than this movie no matter what happens. When we all kick off, we will be the princess and Luke and Han."

"How does that make you feel?" I ask.

Her smile vanishes and the color drains from her face.

"Helpless."

George tells me that the wisest thing I could tell anyone is that I'm retired," says Mark Hamill, 28, only half joking as he nibbles nachos in a sunlit Malibu eatery called Alice's Restaurant. "Then I would have the best of both worlds. There's no pressure to put out a product, and if you do get a part, you can say, 'The role was so good it lured me out of retirement.'

"Who knows," he says in exasperation, "I think he's probably right."

Hamill views his contribution to Lucas' work-in-progress as "the classic thankless role. I'm the straight man, the earnest storyteller.

"You know," he offers with a hard swallow, "thirty years ago, the studios would have built our careers. We're all freelancers now. I'm finally looking like a grown-up, after all these years. I always got the 'Hey, dad, can I borrow the keys to the car tonight?' parts. That's why I'm waiting. I really have a feeling Empire is going to help me.

"I've got one of the best collections of Star Wars memorabilia," he suddenly volunteers, "but it's all put away because I'm a serious collector."

"How valuable to sci-fi buffs is the Luke Skywalker doll?" I ask.

"I've been marked down in price," he moans. "But it doesn't look anything like me, anyway. My wife and I went into a Toys 'R Us store awhile back, and they had all these kids' costumes. They'd made a bunch of Star Wars ones; four of 'em, and I was one.

"They had sold out Darth Vader, Chewbacca and C-3PO," he murmurs, "and I was the only one available. There were just boxes and boxes of me."

The son of an itinerant navy captain, Hamill grew up in Virginia and Japan, and became absorbed in acting while in high school. Although he has had extensive TV experience, including a short-lived series with Gary Busey called The Texas Wheelers, he confesses that "one of the best things I think I ever did was Snoopy in You're a Good Man Charlie Brown. I was embarrassed to mention it before, because it was in high school in Japan."

Hamill's anxiety about landing choice roles was tragically accelerated when his BMW ran off the freeway in 1977. Star Wars had not yet been released, and his face was sufficiently ravaged that he wondered whether he would be able to retain any part of his angular good looks, let alone fulfill the remainder of his three-picture deal with Lucas. That mental anguish was only intensified when the film proved to be an international smash.

"It's the crux of my dilemma right now. For an actor to have massive facial surgery is traumatic. I thought it jeopardized everything," he admits, wincing when I note that a small lip scar is still visible. "I thought it could possibly be pretty much over for me, unless . . . "

Since Star Wars, Hamill's only other film stints have been the role of "an emotional hard-luck case" in the obscure Corvette Summer and the slightly meatier part of a fragile young infantryman in Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, a World War II story filmed in 1978 and only now being released.

"After I came back from filming Empire Strikes Back, my first job offer was to walk on nails and swallow fire on some celebrity circus in Las Vegas – whatever that was. It's so bizarre. Here I am a grown-up and this is how I earn my living. What's my son gonna think of me? All of a sudden there are so many elements that aren't in your control. You wind up almost being another one of the public watching this 'public' you.

"I'd work for scale for somebody willing to take a chance with me, because it's real frustrating to be in something this big and popular and not really feel you're stretching yourself. I met Milos Forman yesterday on an interview [for the film version of the best-selling novel Ragtime], and I would kill to work with that man!

"I was dying to get a reading on Midnight Express, 'cause I thought for them to use that squeaky-clean image of Luke and then have that [drug imprisonment] happen to him would be great dramatically.

"You keep saying to yourself, 'Don't worry, you won't get trapped.' I can stick it out," he decides, "as long as I'm careful with my money."

He changes the subject, speaking with enthusiasm about his wife, Marilou, their infant son and the house they've just purchased in Malibu. I wonder whether his wife knew of his interstellar alter ego before they began dating.

"I didn't think so," he says, "but since then I've discovered that she knew. But then again, I don't think she was impressed by it. Seriously, from being a dental hygienist in Westwood, she knows more people in the business than I do. That's how I got invited to a recent Eagles concert – she knows them from doing their teeth!

"A lot has happened to me since the first movie," Hamill confides wearily. "And you feel that to go cross-country on these promotional tours is sort of a waste. They're hard, real hard. One of the reasons I feel so empty and lacking when I talk to interviewers is because you ask me these questions and I don't know, I'm searching for the answers myself."

Do you want to see the scars?" asks Anthony Daniels, the suave, soft-spoken British actor who animates the gleaming gold hardware known as C-3PO, Star Wars' fussy butler of a robot. Seated next to Hamill on a long couch in a suite at Manhattan's Sherry-Netherland Hotel, the delicately handsome Daniels unbuttons his tan silk shirt to reveal a gruesome network of old wounds.

"The whole first film was a miasma of pain," says Daniels. "It was the metal pieces of the suit shoving me about, meeting with another piece of metal to pinch me horribly. It was like sticking your fingers in an electric socket, again and again.

"Fortunately, it was much easier for Empire, because the costume was redesigned. It's slightly more flexible. I even tap-danced recently, did a metallic soft-shoe on The Muppet Show. What makes it bearable is that, between us, we make up a somewhat beautiful piece of sculpture." Daniels frequently discusses C-3PO in terms of "we."

"In the end, I turned him from an American version of a robot programmed to be a servant into a swishy British twit, but he's quite nice.

"I think a psychiatrist would enjoy being in there with me," Daniels observes, "because you can really watch people, and watch people's reactions to me. It's fascinating. Sometimes I would be standing next to the costume and people would come up and say, 'That guy must be incredibly stupid to do this part.'"

He then relates the mortifying experience of nearly being expelled by security guards from the backstage area of the 1977 Academy Awards ceremony because he was, of course, out of costume.

"I'd forgotten my ID badge." He shrugs, rolling his eyes. "I literally had to beg them to find the guy who was looking after me. There's not a lot of dignity involved in being in these Star Wars films; I have no dignity left whatsoever. I mean, if I've got an itchy crotch, somebody has to scratch it for me. I actually can't do that – my hands don't go that far."

"He's one of the most famous characters in cinema!" Hamill exclaims, jumping up and stalking about the room like an exasperated press agent. "Yet no one would recognize him on the street!

"Just to show you how famous / am," Hamill offers, "a lady came up to me after a reception and said, 'Are you the skinny guy in the gold robot suit? I know he's here someplace and you're the skinniest person here.' I said, 'Okay, I'll sign an autograph,' and wrote: 'Best wishes always, the skinny guy in the robot suit.'

"I took the Star Wars trivia test and failed," Hamill says to Daniels impishly. "They asked who your former owner was and I couldn't remember."

"Somebody in Tower Records on Sunset [Boulevard, in Los Angeles] recognized my voice one day," says Daniels, striving to cheer himself up. "All I said was, 'I want to buy a record. Can I have this please?' And he said, 'You're Anthony Daniels!' I was really shocked."

The first day we got here, we had a press conference at nine in the morning," says an exhausted Harrison Ford, rubbing his eyes as he lifts his stocking feet onto a coffee table in New York's Plaza Hotel. "And then from about 9:20 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. we met a gross of journalists around a dozen tables, twelve at a time, and moved from one table to another, and so we did about 150 interviews in four hours. An hour off for lunch, and then we came back and did fifteen five- to ten-minute television interviews in four hours and then went back to our rooms and passed out. The next day we did twenty-seven television interviews, and on into Sunday. This morning I've done the Today show and, uh, about four or five interviews with print media."

In his eyes, I see murky bog pits on the planet Dagobah.

"The last time we were on tour together," Mark Hamill had told me earlier, "Harrison was the publicity sheriff. He would give us report cards: 'Humility – B. I like what you said about not being in the business for money – A for that.'"

Right now, Ford is too fatigued to grade anyone, himself included.

"I had no experience with science fiction beforehand," he says weakly. "And I didn't go to those Buck Rogers matinees, either. In fact, I have never been much of a film fan."

The son of an advertising executive and the grandson of a vaudeville trouper, Ford did a little summer stock in Wisconsin before flunking out of college three days before graduation.

"That's when I first considered being an actor for money, and I knew I had to go either to L.A. or to New York, and damned quick, 'cause it was starting to snow in Wisconsin. So I flipped a coin. It came up New York, so I flipped it again so I could go to L.A. I wasn't gonna starve and freeze."

Ford was fortunate enough to quickly land a seven-year contract with Columbia.

"I did a year and a half and got kicked out on my ass for being too difficult," he says, laughing. "I was very unhappy with the process they were engaged in, which was to re-create stars the way it had been done in the Fifties. They sent me to get my hair pompadoured like Elvis Presley, all that shit, for $150 a week."

Ford had a wife and child to support, so he went into freelance carpentry, rebuilding his own home for starters, then constructing a $100,000 recording studio for Sergio Mendes. He took film work whenever he deemed it "decent" and wound up in American Graffiti, Francis Coppola's The Conversation, the TV movie The Court Martial of Lt. Calley, Star Wars, Heroes and Force 10 from Navarone, the last of which kept him in Yugoslavia while the sci-fi spectacular was exploding across the nation.

Ford says, quite convincingly, that Empire "is the first time I've ever seen anything I've done that I'm happy with." He then states that he does not enjoy watching himself on the screen.

I suggest that one of the most engaging moments in Empire is the tense few seconds before Darth Vader sends Han into a potentially fatal carbon freezing chamber to subdue him.

"I love you!" the forlorn Leia divulges desperately to her hero.

"I know," Solo replies with a crowd-pleasing arrogance.

With a little coaxing, Ford admits that "to a certain degree," Solo's cocky cachet is his own. "In the script," he explains with a smirk, "it read, 'I love you too!' But that was too much on the nose. If you didn't have something else there at that point you would not get your full payoff in that scene. You know, there's a sense of dread and mystery there, and there's no satisfying conclusion in 'I love you too!' I wanted the moment to have another complexion. Kershner agreed, and that's the way we shot it.

"People who are expecting a repetition of the emotional experience of the first film are not going to find exactly that. The audience that saw the first film is more sophisticated now, three years later, in the same way the techniques are more sophisticated. And the demands upon them are slightly more than they were in the first film.

"This film is much more emotional, and some of the emotions are extremely difficult to deal with. The accomplishment of saying something true about those emotions is great.

"What's also great for me," he adds with a wink, "is to watch the kids watch that love scene [in the Millennium Falcon, when Han and Leia kiss] and they don't go, 'Yucky.'"

The Revenge of the Jedi will begin shooting in the summer of 1981 (in addition, the BBC plans a radio serial), and most of the regulars will be back, the chief holdout currently being Anthony Daniels.

"Well," he demurs, "do I feel that I want to do it today? No. Definitely not. But let's leave it for a bit and possibly . . . it will be all right."

Actually, the most enthusiastic of all the cast members seems to be newcomer Billy Dee Williams, who signed on for Empire as Lando Calrissian, a con artist and former sidekick of Solo's. Williams loves the character, whom he views as a "Burt Reynolds kind of charmer" who complements Han's hotheadedness.

"It's more than pure entertainment," he says of the whole enterprise over tea one rainy afternoon. "I see it from at least three levels: a philosophical level, a real level and a cartoon level – and they're all great.

"People will say, 'Why did you do Star Wars after doing all those other things? This doesn't seem to be important for you.' That's really what they're saying. But it is important, because it's part of my growth.

"The introduction of Lando is a good one," he says firmly. "I talked to George when Star Wars came out and I was very candid. I said, 'Look, there's Darth Vader, the dark, black fear, and there's Alec Guinness playing the white knight, Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi. Here we go again, perpetuating that same old stuff.'

"And now, by having Lando [who slowly becomes an ally of Leia's cause and vows to rescue Solo], we're gonna have to put aside the old point of view. Now, we're talking about symbols – darkness as averse to clarity. Black, white, red, we're all included in the human dilemma, and Darth is scarier this time, because now we learn he's human – he's not a mechanical monster."

All of this notwithstanding, a certain, more specific meeting of the minds with director Kershner helped cement Williams' decision to join the project.

"Kershner and I sat down at my house in California and we talked about Eastern philosophy," Williams says. "He's into Zen, and I've been into Zen since I was about twenty-six; now I'm forty. Kershner said, 'I wanna introduce some Zen here, because I don't want the kids to walk away just feeling that everything is shoot-'em-up, but that there's also a little something to think about here in terms of yourself and your surroundings.'

"And that's what Yoda, who's a Zen master, is saying: before you enter the temple, you have to live out all your desires – the body is the temple and it houses your better self, and your better self is your mind. And that is what this wonderful little character is talking about.

"Power is a very peculiar thing. It's like the ego. The ego's only there to keep you above water. Once we realize something good about ourselves, we have a tendency to abuse the gift. That's what this film series is about: truths and consequences. As my wife says, 'Bachi atari.' That's Japanese for 'What goes around comes around.'

"I tell my son Corey that the greatest teacher is the teacher who says, 'Don't follow me, follow yourself. Because within you there is that kingdom, that life, that force.'

"Boy," says Billy Dee, his face suddenly flushed with a diversity of emotions. "I guess I sure can't describe my concept of these films any better than that."

This story is from the June 12th, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 322: July 24, 1980
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