By 1973, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson had starred in a handful of feature film roles, playing outlaw Billy the Kid in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which also co-starred Bob Dylan. That same year, just after her 14th birthday, Marie Osmond, of the performing Osmond clan, launched her recording career, becoming the youngest female act to hit Number One on the country chart with her song “Paper Roses.” Although their career (and, indeed, personal) trajectories couldn’t be more divergent, the paths of Kristofferson and Osmond, along with her teen-idol brother Donny, would cross just a few years later when the Donny & Marie Show became a surprise hit for ABC at a time when variety series were quickly going out of vogue with the viewing public. Yet, as one cultural phenomenon was breathing its last breath, another — also first launched in 1973 — was quickly hitting lightspeed.
In April ’73, writer-director George Lucas, who had just completed the nostalgic American Graffiti, began writing the 13-page treatment for a project titled The Star Wars. Four summers later, Star Wars was in movie theaters and transformed modern cinema and the movie business, becoming the most profitable film franchise of all time. Today, May the 4th, has even been dubbed “Intergalactic Star Wars Day,” thanks to the endlessly quoted line, “May the force be with you.”
Four months into Star Wars-mania, in September 1977, Donny & Marie, who were “a little bit country and a little bit rock & roll,” were a staple of Friday-night TV. Their variety show debuted in 1976 with an array of guest stars, musical interludes and comedy sketches, and usually included a closing production number featuring the show’s guests.
During Kristofferson’s first appearance on Donny & Marie, which also included guest stars Redd Foxx and Paul Lynde, the singer, whose then-wife Rita Coolidge and young daughter Casey were also seen briefly in a segment, performed his song “The Legend” and sang a duet with Marie on the Lou Rawls hit “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.”
For the totally spaced-out 12-minute production number closing this episode, the Osmonds, Kristofferson, Foxx and Lynde were joined by actual Star Wars characters C-3PO, R2-D2 and Darth Vader (voiced not by James Earl Jones but by Thurl Ravenscroft, best known as the “g-r-r-r-r-eat” voice of Tony the Tiger and the singer of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”). Kristofferson plays it cool as space rogue Han Solo, accompanied by his hirsute co-pilot Chewbacca, and executes a cringe-worthy take on Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher.” (Perhaps Kristofferson was recalling — or still feeling — the effects of the fat bomb of a Mexican joint that had appeared on the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid set four years earlier).
Whatever may or may not have influenced his performance on the Donny & Marie Show, it certainly didn’t prevent him from returning as a guest the following fall, where he would participate in a Beatles medley. Kristofferson might, however, wish evidence of this Star Wars “homage” had journeyed to a galaxy far, far away.