Interview with Rod Devlin:
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.
Hyperdrive ahead more than twenty years, 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 those irritating Ewoks is instantly recognizable. A little more weathered, a litte 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 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 telekenetic choke-hold-typecasting.
ON THE MARK
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 surrounged the entire project, the Star Wars script was initially kept under wraps, 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, "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 (Lucas). 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.
SET COURSE FOR ALDERAAN
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 Wookiees 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 Assimov. 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 fusy 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 Endland, 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."
STAY ON TARGET...STAY ON TARGET...
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 '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."
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 Irvin) 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 GUINESS TOP BADDY IN STAR WARS SEQUEL. Somebody must have leaked it."
SEND IN THE CLONES
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 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?' It 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!
A THIRD TRILOGY...?
Comedy critiques aside, Hamill has nothing but kudos for his longtime friend George Lucas. Would he consider working with Lucas again, posibly 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.
"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, originially 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 origianlly 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 on.' 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 a grain of salt, because he said this all those years ago."
THE VERY VERY SPECIAL EDITIONS
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 differences 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. 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."
With all the re-working of the initial films, were there any missing scenes included with Hamill in them? "Luke has an argument with his uncle and 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 noteriety here from her involvement with Prince Andrew. Basically, what I like 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 II 'Let's do it for Johnny' kind of moment. It gave the scene a kind of emotional resonnance that's just not there when you exice that entire storyline."
RETURN OF THE EWOKS
Something that I've always felt, along with many other Star Wars fans, that could have been cut out of the trilogy were those darn Ewoks. 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. There were just certain things that I thought were too neatly tied up. I mentioned my concerns to George, and he said to remember that this was a fairy-tale for young children. 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."
KEEPING THE MYTH ALIVE
Staying true to the spirit of the Star Wars 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? How has Hamill resisted selling out? "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. 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? "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 like 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."
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 twenty years. People ask me, 'How can you stay married for so long?' My advice is two words -- don't cheat!"), their sons Nathan (now 19, who has a small part in Episode I) and Griffin (now 13) and their daughter, Chelsea Elizabeth (now 10). Indulging his love of stage performance, Hamill eventually made it to Broadway in Harrigan & Hart.
Hamill has made a name for himself in the world of animation voice-overs playing 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."
"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. 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."
Writer Rod Dovlin wields his lightsaber weekly on "The Gossip Show" on
E! Entertainment Television.