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Return of the Fisher

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We got into trouble doing the first Star Wars movie and it was this: See, there is no underwear in outer space. Remember, I wore that clingy white dress that got wet and I bounced all around in it? Well, they had to stretch gaffer’s tape across certain parts of my body so nothing would show underneath. And I was, as one critic put it, bovine then. Actually, when I got the part they said, “Lose 10 pounds.” It was all puppy flesh. I was still just a puppy.

The interesting thing about these three films is you can watch me grow up. It’s been seven years. I was 19 then, before I had any values, or made any decisions about what I wanted to be when I grew up. If I grew up.

Carrie Fisher is describing a time long past, almost a billion box office bucks ago. Since then the puppy flesh has been worked off; some big decisions have been tackled. The release last week of George Lucas’ $32.5 million epic Return of the Jedi, which completes her role in the nine-part Star Wars saga, finds Carrie indeed grown-up. Onscreen, she’s progressed from no underwear to almost no outerwear. Chained to a slobbering slime-ball monster named Jabba the Hutt, Carrie wears a sexy harem outfit that barely keeps anything in place, including the flick’s PG rating.

But Jedi Jiggle is just a minor plot point in Lucas’ space fantasies. The big advances for Fisher have occurred offscreen. Having tried two films—The Blues Brothers and Under the Rainbow, which did little to advance her career—she boldly replaced Tony winner Amanda Plummer in the taxing title role of Agnes of God on Broadway early this year. It was an ambitious project, but a throat ailment cut her run short. More to the heart of the matter, she also has split with the on/ off man of her life the past five years, pop composing giant Paul Simon, 41. Now Carrie lives alone, unattached, in her refuge—a one-room pine-paneled log cabin in the Hollywood Hills. The cabin, or lodge, as she affectionately calls it, was a ’30s Fox studio set. Considering Carrie’s million-plus take (with points) from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Jedi, the modesty of her quaint, rustic retreat is rather jarring. There is a sleeping alcove, a bed framed with tree branches, early American knickknacks and antiques. There are no self-aggrandizing Jedi artifacts; instead there are gifts echoing precious bonds. The most striking of them is a 13-star American flag from New Yorker Simon, draped over a window. The quirky aura of the place is all Carrie: offbeat, cozy, loose and strenuously decorator-proof. Sure she could probably plunk down a mill for a Topanga palazzo on stilts overhanging next month’s mudslide. And for sure there are movie stars who need more space than this lodge just to shower. Carrie’s needs are different. The further Lucas pushed her Leia into uncharted celluloid solar systems, the more it seemed Carrie needed to nest amid intimate, secure surroundings on terra firma, or at least in L.A. The lodge is her sane asylum, sheltering her from the immensity of it all. Sitting on her couch, she can see the borders of her private universe. It’s her open house for “members” like Jedi comrade Harrison Ford and his screenwriter wife Melissa (E.T.) Mathison, Teri Garr, Penny Marshall, Joan Hackett, and her brother Todd, 25, a born-again evangelist.

“I was born into something much larger than myself,” says Carrie, meaning Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. “I ended up in something much larger than myself,” meaning the three Lucas films. In between, there was a long search for a scale of reality that wouldn’t dwarf her 5’1″ self. “My mother was pregnant with me when she did Tammy and my parents did Bundle of Joy. I was born famous.” Indeed, a Modern Screen from 1957 on the coffee table shows D & E proudly holding their months-old title character.

Brother Todd walks in one afternoon, and during their free-associative reminiscences of childhood, a tirelessly inventive wit kicks into gear, shifting from sardonic zingers to high farce. Humor, like Carrie’s lodge, helps break things down to size.

Carrie: We grew up on the Map of the Stars. We played games on the tourists. If they shot stills, we ran. If they shot films, we stood still. I developed a phobia about being photographed that I didn’t get over until Star Wars.

Todd: The house was 100 yards from the breakfast patio to the living room. The pool had three tiers.

Carrie: We were products of a broken home. No, a broken mansion. Mom was away a lot on location or in Vegas. We had Easter-egg-rolling contests at the Desert Inn.

Todd: The place was so big we could go days without seeing each other.

Carrie: The place was wired for security into the police. Teams of people brought us up, millions kept it clean.

Todd: We constantly built little houses within the house.

Carrie: Just sheets stretched over cardboard boxes and pillows. Indian tents. Todd once built an entire Western town like Knott’s Berry Farm. My playhouse was as big as this cabin.

Todd: I always wanted a tree house but we never had a tree large enough, so my mom bought an 85-foot Monterey pine and a crane came one day and just dropped it on the front lawn.

Carrie: His tree house was as big as my playhouse. Todd once shot himself at close range with a blank and one headline read “Debbie’s Son Shoots Self.”

Todd: I told the papers I didn’t brush my teeth so my mother shot me.

Carrie: The big headline was “Picasso Dies.” It was the same day. But the picture on the front page was me and my mom in her mink hat. She was fingerprinted at the police station all night. Half the homicide department asked her, “Do you really know John Wayne?”

Todd: Some really out-there stuff.

Carrie quit Beverly Hills High at 15 and studied acting in London, having already sung and danced with Mom in her Vegas nightclub act. There was one memorably nubile bit in 1975’s Shampoo (abed with Warren Beatty), then two years later Puppy Flesh struck the Leia lode.

It was out-there stuff all over again. On Jedi, for example, Carrie cites the chase scene where she enters a passageway on a London location and emerges on the other side three months and 5,500 miles later on location in Yuma, Ariz. The winds of Yuma and a little motion under the slave suit relegated the princess’ private parts to the prop department. “This was no bikini. It was metal. It didn’t go where you went. After shots, the prop man would have to check me. He’d say, ‘Okay, tits are fine, let’s go.’ So I started checking for any bounce or slip after takes. Then it was, ‘CUT. Hey, how they doin’? The hooters in place? Tits all right?’ I was embarrassed at first with 100 guys going crazy over my revealed self. Dignity was out of the question.”

Secrecy was not. Certain pages were colored for various Jedis-only classification to keep the lid on truths revealed: Namely, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is in fact the son of Darth Vader; Leia is his twin, and Han (Harrison Ford) doesn’t have to go Solo anymore and becomes, as Carrie puts it, “my space date.” The mania for secrecy was so intense, Carrie recalls, that for the payoff scene when Hamill tells her all, “They asked the crew—even the sound man—not to listen.”

She learned of her true identity before the shooting. “I’d have laughed on camera if Mark had told me for the first time then. It would’ve been like, ‘Carrie, your dad isn’t Eddie Fisher. Hitler is.’ ”

Leaks were punishable in character, she jokes. “Harrison would have been eternally carbonized; Luke would have lost the Force; and I would have been sentenced to wear that awful hairstyle from the first film.”

The Lucasian dominance of effects over performance had its artistic drawbacks for the actors: Carrie regrets “not having taken maybe an extra beat or two during the scene with Mark,” to wallop home a tad more emotion. No way. “With George it was always ‘faster, more intense.’ ” But he wasn’t after passionate romance. “The kids think it’s mushy, boys especially,” says Carrie. “But I think screen necking is a great invention.” A beat. “Oh well, ees not my yob to decide.”

Her yob did include “freezing” in Northern California in February while chained to Jabba in her skimpy outfit. Carrie spent down time hamming it up with the five men crammed inside Jabba who worked his arms, tail, tongue, eyes and voice (as they watched her on a TV screen and mimicked her in character). “Of course the crew outside is yelling, ‘More pus, more mucus for Jabba.’ You get used to it.”

Still, there was the disorienting prolonged isolation on remote locations. “You’re so insulated it’s another world. There were no phones. It was a tight family, but it can be pretty surreal.”

She doesn’t regret the end of her Leia lifespan. “That was that. All things come to an end sooner or later, good or bad.”

As demanding as Lucas’ productions were, the real surreal crisis in Fisher’s career didn’t occur on some Jedi juggernaut in some ultrasecret locale, but in L.A. for 1981 ‘s Under the Rainbow. It was a bizarre misguided comedy, starring Chevy Chase and 150 midgets. Fisher and Simon were in an off phase. According to one close friend, Carrie had briefly “been engaged” to Dan Aykroyd. The relationship took shape while making 1980’s The Blues Brothers. “They were planning to get married on a raft in New Orleans,” the friend reports.

Exhaustion from the Rainbow shoot and chaos in her love life hit her all at once. “It was a delicate situation,” says Carrie. “Either I’d make it or not. That film was my Waterloo.” Carrie found herself “out of sync with my life. I had a secretary handling my mail at 20. My new friends were suddenly studio heads. What was I going to do? Go to my high school reunion with Jabba the Hutt? I didn’t belong to any group.” She was going into what the film world might call existential turnaround, at the corner of Hyperspace and Vine. “I checked the phone book to see if Kierkegaard had any living relatives.”

No one else was picking up an option on her life, so she bought back the rights to herself and started to put the script through a frantic revision. She plunged into a quest for self-definition that gave her book-knowledge in philosophy and psychology. She also tried the gamut of “weird” consciousness workshops—from desert retreats to “isolation tanks listening to Keith Jarrett piano solos.” She can still hold her own with the zen de la zen meta-babblers, but she’d rather roll her eyes and apologize for the odd slip of the yin-yang. Still, some of it clicked. “I’m in much better shape. Nothing much throws me anymore.”

Simon, now recording an album with Art Garfunkel and preparing for their possible summer tour, knew she was fighting an uphill battle. “That was a terrible time,” he says. “Anybody as bright as her in the biggest movie of all time at 19 knew it wouldn’t be long before she faced the question of who she was. But she drove herself to learn. She’s gutsy and a real fighter.”

Indeed, the year preceding her split from Simon put her to the test. Close friend John Belushi’s death was a total shock—”my first confrontation with mortality.”

Then the shrieking angst of Agnes—a nun who bears, then kills, a child—inflamed her vocal cords. That pain was aggravated by the “media zoo” surrounding Debbie’s replacing Raquel Welch in Woman of the Year and Eddie’s gig at Club Indigo. “A real Disney-hell,” Carrie moans.

Carrie and Simon split soon after. Whatever they had didn’t work best under one roof—or the two ceilings of his spectacular Central Park duplex. The nerves are still raw. The words “incompatibility” and “communication” are as specific as they’ll get. It seems to come down to: Why can’t love mean never having to say it’s over? “There is no animosity,” Paul says. “We still care very much for each other. There is nobody else like Carrie. She’s got one of the fastest, funniest minds I know. She is absolutely unique.”

“I will always be related to Paul,” she says. “How can I not be?” Pushed to elaborate, Carrie will comply as only she can. “Okay,” she starts. “Why did we split? Because we had a food fight. It started years ago with the soft stuff, then developed into pot roasts and steaks, really hurtful food. No, that’s not it. Let’s just say that Paul…No. We both left each other to fall in love with Liz. There, we’ve come full circle.”

There are other True Concessions. She jokes about going for “park ‘n’ neck dates” and junk food rather than fancy dinners (“I just get lipstick on my teeth”), but there’s no immediate romance. “I don’t need a man to complete me now. The word ‘involvement’ sounds like ‘ball and chain’ to me.”

She’s not committed to another film and her family isn’t even committed to the medium for her. Debbie Reynolds has a dream for “Carrie to follow up on her gifts for lyrics and singing, maybe a recording.” Todd calls sister Carrie “a great writer. She puts more in a postcard than most people do in a script.” Yes, Carrie admits, “there are journals lying around the house. Truths Descartes never dared touch.”

Then again, to sit down with her at the lodge is to observe a killer standup potential. Certainly the material and delivery are there. Like: “Todd got me to skydive for the first time. It was the week Princess Diana got married, so the news had on what other princesses around the world did that week, like Stephanie and Caroline. So some jerk on the radio goes, ‘And Princess Leia jumped from a plane in California.’ Look, as soon as one of those princesses does something incredible, forget it, I’m asked to be in the TV movie about it. It’s weird but that’s how I’m typecast, that’s who I am. Princess Anyone.”

The typecast may indeed endure, but Carrie’s got one dazzling special effect on her alter ego from planet Alderaan: that luminous beam of inextinguishable humor to wield against the Dark Side on Earth. May the Farce be with her.