The Star Wars Phenomenon
Every so often, a film comes along that eclipses every other pleasure under the sun and drags America back into the movie houses. It is an event, an experience that can’t be postponed until television gets around to ruining it with commercials. The pull may be fear (Jaws) or loathing (the original Exorcist) or, as in the latest case, reassurance. Star Wars is a joyous recapitulation of the nation’s Hollywood heritage, this summer’s mini-Bicentennial of the Bijou. It too has surprised everybody by working.
Inevitably, any phenomenon so spontaneous and popular creases the collective brow of double-domes and old-thinkers of all ages. Sure, the plot is just intergalactic cowboys-and-bad-guys, much of the dialogue simple-minded gibberish. One social commentator has gone so far as to suggest that Star Wars is subliminal propaganda for technology, that it rapes the mind. The rest of America is standing in line, waiting to be enraptured.
Within three weeks, Star Wars posters were outselling Farrah Fawcett-Majors five to one. The sound-track LP, by the London Symphony Orchestra, is booming up the charts, and a disco version is on the way from Motown. The merchandising hustle includes everything from masks of the gilded Tin Man, C-3PO ($39.95) to lunchboxes with thermoses shaped like his pipsqueak sidekick, R2-D2 ($3.95). There is already a black market in 6,000 transparencies missing from the production office and spaceship models ripped off from the special-effects laboratories.
But what seems truly subversive is that the movers behind Star Wars, the boys of this summer, were mostly lousy at baseball, grew up on comic books and cars and frequented movie balconies not to get the girl but because they couldn’t. They’re all under 40, most of them college dropouts, and making it the only place they could, or ever wanted to: Hollywood.
Alan Ladd Jr., the believer from Fox
At 39, the curse of his name has at last been lifted from Alan Ladd Jr. The show world can no longer dismiss “Laddie” (as he is known) as just the son of a tough-guy actor or, more ignominiously, as the brother-in-law of Cheryl Ladd, Charlie’s new Angel.
In the four years since taking over as a studio production chief, Ladd has finally reassured his troubled industry and stockholders that there could be a 21st Century-Fox after all. The day before Star Wars opened, Fox shares traded at 13; last week they were in the 20s.
Laddie seems hardly more exhilarated over his own stock options than the perhaps $20 million—and career freedom—the movie could bring its creator, director-writer George Lucas. This is, incredibly, only his third feature. Ladd caught the second—American Graffiti—the morning before it opened. “I called Lucas and told him we wanted very much to do something with him—had he anything in mind?” What Lucas had was a 12-page treatment of Star Wars that had already been rejected by Universal. “How,” asks Ladd rhetorically, “do you do a synopsis of this movie for a board of directors? Imagine: ‘Well, you see, there’s a golden-haired, gorilla-shaped wookie named Chewbacca co-piloting this pirate spaceship …’ ” Ladd made the deal with Lucas anyway and kept on cajoling the board, as the script went through three years of rewrites—all self-ordered by Lucas. Finally it was made, and Ladd attended the sole sneak preview, he recalls, at 10 on a Sunday morning in San Francisco for an audience of “Rotarians, Kiwanians, YMCA, teachers. As the first spaceship went across the screen, they started applauding. I didn’t expect that; it brought tears to my eyes. They cheered and screamed,” he continues. “I had given up smoking, but when it was over I walked out to the lobby and lit up. I’ve been smoking ever since.”
Not cigars. Ladd Jr. is nobody’s stereotype of a movie mogul or a star’s son and never got closer to the front of the camera than in a brief bruising career as a stuntman. Raised by his mom, a non-pro, Laddie lived with his famed dad and his second wife, musical star Sue Carol, only after 13. She later became an agent, as did Alan Jr. after dropping out of USC to marry a dental hygienist. He and Patty are still wed 18 years later.
Two years ago they moved from Westwood to a home with pool in the Beverly Hills flats. But since Star Wars is playing near the old house and Laddie has not been able to resist watching the lines and audience reaction—he’s seen the picture 30 times—he finds himself “going to work the long way now.”
George & Marcia Lucas, the creator & cutter
Where would Alan Ladd’s studio be today if George Lucas hadn’t misspent his youth watching old Flash Gordon serials on TV? George undoubtedly also worried his bourgeois parents in Modesto, Calif. with his constant “cruising” McHenry Avenue, showing off his car and picking up girls, like the characters with whom he populated American Graffiti. In any case, two days before his high school graduation he totaled his little Fiat racer and during the three months he spent in the hospital gave up his ambition to win the Indy 500. After two years at Modesto Junior College, he went to USC’s film school. There he met Marcia Griffen and alumnus Francis Ford Coppola, who was trying to persuade Warner Bros, to set up a training school for young directors. One of eight short films Lucas made as an undergraduate, THX-1138, a chilling look at a future computerized world, won him the 1967-68 National Student Film Award and a six-month Warner’s scholarship as “observer”-protégé of Coppola. (George recalls: “We were the only two people on the set under 50. We were also the only two who had beards.”)
After graduation Coppola got him a deal to expand his short into a feature for Warner’s. In 1969 he married Marcia, who decided she wanted a baby. “No,” decreed George. “This filmmaking stuff may be a fluke thing—I’m not going to have a family until I feel more financially secure.” When Lucas and his Star Wars producer, Gary Kurtz, put together a script for Graffiti in 1973, Coppola became its co-producer. Ever since, he and Lucas have been involved with the other’s films. Each gives the other a “point”—one percent of the profits—to serve as second-guesser. “Francis is impulsive, I am inherently conservative,” says Lucas. “If he says black, I say white.”
“Points” in Star Wars—of which Lucas had 40 but magnanimously gave some away to key actors and technicians—will be worth a bundle. Nonetheless, Lucas and Marcia, a top film editor, who helped cut Star Wars as well as Taxi Driver and “New York, New York,” live unostentatiously in the San Francisco suburb of San Anselmo. “I’m an introvert. I don’t want to be famous,” explains Lucas. “I get nervous when people recognize me and say, ‘I loved your movie.’ ” So George drives a 1967 Camaro, and his only indulgence is a co-interest in a modish Manhattan comic-book store, Supersnipe.
The Lucases also have a working pad in Beverly Hills where Marcia encounters him coming and going. “Can we meet for breakfast?” she called during one flyby. As for George, he’s had it with directing at 33, “because I don’t enjoy being the boss. If I do a sequel I’ll be a sort of executive producer. I’ll approve the rough cut, and I’ll say you’re doing great and all that kind of stuff.” Marcia, one year younger than Lucas, has something else in mind: “Getting our private life together and having a baby. That,” she decrees, “is the project for the rest of this year.”
Hero Mark Hamill, the auteur’s alter ego
Since he is so uncomfortable directing actors, Lucas casts with consummate care and then hopes the troupers will program themselves like R2-D2s. That was a bit of a problem for Mark Hamill. As Star Wars‘ naive, rustic hero, he was the scenarist’s alter ego. The tipoff was not only the Luke/Lucas name but also that the director kept referring to him as “the kid.” That, Mark, 25, was soon to discover, “was what George used to be called until he grew a beard.”
By then, it also occurred to Lucas’ kid that he was starring in what could be his career breakthrough, but he happened to be committed for seven years to the ABC sitcom Eight Is Enough. When he asked out, Hamill reports, “they decided to nail me to the wall as a test case. They threatened to cancel the series and sue me for damages. I felt desperate.” Then he recounts a possibly Freudian misadventure. In a rage he catapulted his new BMW off a 30′ incline on the Antelope Freeway. “My nose was wiped right off, and my face had to be rebuilt.” While his older brother, a shrink, kept his battered head together, doctors sculptured a nose from ear cartilage. Except for a few minor scars and the slight splaying of his schnoz, Hamill is today as good as old—a technological prodigy that would awe the crew in Star Wars.
It was discovering “I was a looker” that first got him into acting. By then the Navy officer’s son had grown up in 10 cities, including Yokohama. Settling on the Coast and enrolling in L.A. City College (“I didn’t want my ass shot off in Vietnam”), he quit at the end of his second year—the day after he got a deferment. Then followed 89 guest parts on prime-time TV and a run in the soap General Hospital, where his “sister” on the series, actress Anne Wyndham, was his lady offstage.
Now she’s in New York starring in another soap, Search for Tomorrow. “I’ve always been in love with her, but it’s rocky,” Mark confides. So in L.A. he recently decided, “Quick! I have to find somebody who really likes me before Star Wars opens.” Like Mrs. Ladd, she’s a dental hygienist. But Hamill’s career and romantic pendulum may be veering back east toward the stage and Anne. “At big Hollywood parties,” he says, “I watch what happens to my personality, and I don’t like it.” Then there’s another problem about the Coast. He hasn’t bought another car yet.
Harrison Ford is cool Han, Luke’s sidekick
“Of all the humans in the show,” Mark Hamill observed, “Harrison Ford comes closest to stealing it. When I heard him say, ‘Keed, I been from one sida this galaxy to the other,’ I said, ‘Oh, jeez, this guy’s got every good line.’ ” On the set, too—like when he looked at the script and snapped at Lucas: “You can’t say that stuff; you can only type it.” Now, Ford, a slightly mellower 35, confesses, “I was wrong,” but still contends “Star Wars is a silly movie, but wonderfully made.”
He disappointed his middle-class Park Ridge, Ill. family when he was notified not to expect a diploma three days before graduation at Ripon College in Wisconsin. He married his steady date and went to California as a contract actor, earning $150 a week and “all the respect that sum implies.” He got fed up playing heavies on The FBI, The Virginians and Gunsmoke, and supported his two sons as a carpenter. He built a $100,000 recording studio for Sergio Mendez and he also reworked a Frank Lloyd Wright house. He still holds a union card but then fell in with the new filmmaker Mafia. Lucas cast him as the white-hatted drag racer in American Graffiti, and now he plays an intelligence colonel in Coppola’s upcoming Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. Francis let him choose his own name, and for all his studied irreverence, Harrison reports: “I named myself Colonel Lucas.”
“Droids” Anthony Daniels & Kenny Baker
The film’s lovable comic-relief robots have been likened to every duo from Abbott & Costello to the protagonists of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The gold-plated Threepio, a well-meaning humbler with an Edward Everett Horton persona and voice like Ray Bolger’s, is played by Anthony Daniels, at 31 a failed solicitor and solid trouper with London’s Young Vic and BBC soaps. The eloquently blinking, beeping computer hero Artoo-Detoo is 42-year-old, 3’8″ Kenny Baker, one half (vibes and harmonica) of a cabaret act called the Minitones (with Jack Purvis, trumpet, 4’2″, who also got a job in Star Wars as an insect-eating jawa). Baker, the son of two full-sized musicians, and his 4′ wife, Eileen, 30, have two normal children. “Hang on tight, R2,” cautions the cowardly C-3PO in the flick. “You’ve got to come back. You wouldn’t want my life to get boring, would you?” Both are assured of a comeback in the Star Wars sequel.