Mark Hamill Strikes Back
Name the top-billed actor in the first and third highest-grossing movies of all time,” Mark Hamill said. And without hesitating, he answered with a grin, “It’s me! But even my family guesses wrong. My cousin said Richard Dreyfuss.”
Though Hamill jokes about it, the truth hurts. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (now in reissue) made less of a name for him than for Luke Skywalker, the space age hero he plays with such youthful vigor that many cannot contemplate him as anyone else. Hamill’s in-between movies—Corvette Summer and The Big Red One—were fast fizzles. As Mark puts it, “In Hollywood, I became an icon, like Mickey Mouse.” All of which leaves him, as he turns 30 (the big day is Sept. 25), verging on an identity crisis.
He has already achieved the goals he set for himself by age 30: to star in a movie, be in one nominated for an Oscar, make a million dollars and appear in a Broadway play. He did more than squeak by on the first three counts. He was 25 when the Oscar-nominated Star Wars put his name in lights and 28 when Empire earned him a million. Then three months ago he appeared briefly on Broadway as the lead in The Elephant Man. “But having done all that,” says Hamill, “it’s not what you imagined. I must still prove myself as an actor.”
Hamill regards the stage as the proving ground, so he spent this summer relocating his wife, son, video gadgets and board games to a $600,000 co-op on New York’s West Side. He has left behind a $750,000 country house near Malibu. “I need my self-respect,” he explains. “Lately the offers I’ve been getting are mostly for horror movies. I didn’t go to drama school for five semesters for that. I was ready to soar.”
After hitting New York, Hamill narrowly missed being chosen to replace Tim Curry in Amadeus, Broadway’s current smash. He did, however, land the title role of The Elephant Man. He was the eighth in a line that started with Philip Anglim, stretched over two years and included rock star David Bowie. “The show needed a shot in the arm to live,” admits producer Richmond Crinkley. “We thought Mark would be it.” Crinkley nudged things along, over Mark’s protests, by using an ad showing Hamill in his Luke Skywalker costume. The billboards baldly declared, “And the Force Continues…on Broadway!” Apparently, Crinkley didn’t check his prophecy with Yoda. Three weeks after Hamill opened, the show closed.
“I’m not down about it,” the actor says. “I’ve learned a lot. The theater community knows I’m interested. I’ve just auditioned for a musical, even though I’ve done nothing like it since high school. I like to explore everything—no matter how off the wall.” To demonstrate that he’s taking full responsibility for his career, Mark “amicably” fired his manager of seven years because “she was always looking for a good deal, while I was looking for a good role.”
For the moment his Broadway job hunt is limited by a previous commitment, the January shooting start of Revenge of the Jedi, his third and final Star Wars flick. “It’ll be like high school graduation,” he says of that reunion with co-stars Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. “A lot of fun, and then we’ll be grown-up and free.” Meanwhile Hamill is on view in The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, in which he purposely exploded his teen-dream image by playing a stocky (he gained 15 pounds) state trooper romancing Kristy McNichol. Hamill has also just accepted a small role in Britannia Hospital, a Lindsay Anderson film to be shot in September. “I’ve always loved Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness movies,” Hamill says. “This will give me a chance to do a real English comedy.”
Despite his watershed 30th birthday, Hamill remains a gee-whiz kid. In New York he has been stunned to be treated as a mythical hero instead of a neophyte. He was thrilled when Barnum star Jim Dale knocked on his dressing room door. At celebrity-heavy Elaine’s, Mia Farrow greeted him. “She did not say, ‘Come on over; Woody [Allen] wants to talk to you about a movie,’ but she did say hello,” he reports. After a Jefferson Starship concert, Hamill was charmed when Grace Slick exclaimed she was Darth Vader’s wife.
Between celebrity sightings, Hamill explores new playgrounds and comic-book shops (he’s a buff) with son Nathan, 2. The actor retains his own playthings—puppet, dragon and robot collections that he’s been putting together for 15 years. “I’ll send away for anything on the back of a cereal box,” he says. “I’ve always loved fantasy.” In a more serious vein, he is planning to take a course in contract reading “to learn the business of this business.” Only once during the summer have Mark and his wife, Marilou, flown back to California—to celebrate the Fourth of July at George Lucas’ ranch in Northern California. “Movie stars can do that,” he says delightedly.
Hamill was born the middle child of seven to an itinerant Navy enlisted man and his wife in Oakland, Calif. But the family soon moved on. At 12, Mark reports, “I fell in love with the Beatles. I thought they really got the girls.” Thereafter he began thinking of a showbiz career. At Annandale (Va.) High School, Mark first found his niche. “When I acted, people responded,” he says. But after his sophomore year, his father was transferred to Japan and a disconsolate Mark went along. “I had a chip on my shoulder,” he admits. “Soon I was hanging out with hoods, and I got kicked out of the base teen club.”
In 1969, at 17, he decided to study drama at Los Angeles City College. He found lodging in a $55-a-month gardener’s shed and worked as a janitor, copyboy and soda jerk to support himself. His first paying role ($300) was as a high school kid on the old Bill Cosby series. Hamill went on to 140 other TV roles, including The Texas Wheelers series with Gary Busey. For nine months in the early 1970s he toiled as a teenager on General Hospital. Also in the soap was his first serious love, actress Anne Wyndham, who was cast as his sister. The Star Wars role for producer George Lucas came as a result of a routine cattle call. “I just played it very sincere,” Hamill recalls, “and I had the quality George was looking for.”
Star Wars brought Mark enough money ($1,000 a week, plus one-quarter of one percent of the profits) for the Malibu house, Empire brought more money and the Manhattan co-op, and Jedi, he hopes, will pay for a projected Connecticut farm. “I want to have horses, sheep, pigs and a lot of space for my family,” Hamill says.
The Lucas movies also provided a personal support system. He says, “The Star Wars gang is like a family. I mean we yell and shout and get fed up with each other too.” Once his brief flirtation with Carrie Fisher was over, they became fast friends. In fact, Hamill attributes his determination to make a go at legitimate theater to Lucas. “He kept telling me, ‘Do what you want; life is too short,’ ” Hamill says.
Star Wars almost ruined Mark’s budding romance with Marilou York, now 26. At the time they met, she was working as a dental hygienist in Westwood. “She came into the waiting room in jeans, white coat, breasts like melons, looking like a Vargas painting. I said, ‘They let you dress like that at work?’ She said, ‘Yeah. Next.’ ” On their first date, Mark adds, “I took her to Annie Hall to see if she had a sense of humor. I dropped women if they didn’t.” Soon after, they saw an early Star Wars screening. “There was this one close-up of a minor character, curling his lips back from his teeth. She leaned over to me and whispered, ‘Bad caps.’ ”
It was love at first laugh. But when Star Wars took off, they broke up. “I had to taste groupies and fame,” he claims. “I went to Las Vegas to date 38-year-old showgirls. I wanted to scale all these women. That was exciting for about the first 10 minutes. Eventually, I wanted something to hold onto—and a family.”
Marilou remembers the change in Mark. During his oats-sowing period she “kept busy. I ran my own life. But all the time I thought I was good for him, so I was hoping we’d get back together.” The couple married in December 1978, in the backyard of their Malibu home with only a few friends present. Nathan was born the following June in England during the shooting of Empire. Perhaps the world’s shortest collector of Star Wars and Muppet paraphernalia, Nathan has a khaki Luke Skywalker suit just like Dad’s and refers to C-3PO as plain old “Three.” He treasures a tiny Luke Skywalker doll he calls “Daddy” and, says Mark, “thinks all daddies have dolls made after them.”
That gives the actor pause. “I feel I haven’t earned celebrity,” Hamill says. “So much of life is what you roll and where you land.” He recognizes his naiveté and ignorance of theater tradition and is astonished to “just sally forth and say and do anything—and producers seem to go for it.” Which is exactly the kind of boyish innocence George Lucas found so appealing in the first place. “I’m so much like Luke Skywalker,” concedes Mark. “I guess I always will be.”