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Before 1977’s Star Wars put his career into hyperdrive, Mark Hamill was doing just fine with episodic TV work on such forgettable series as ABC’s The FBI and CBS’ The Manhunter. One standout was the 1974 sitcom The Texas Wheelers. It was centered on a long-absent father who returns to his family in rural Lamont, Texas.
“The show was like a discordant reply to The Waltons,” says Hamill, 66. “The scripts were unbelievable, and the critics loved the show.” Wheelers was created by Dale McRaven, who went on to launch 1978’s Mork & Mindy and 1986’s Perfect Strangers. The Hollywood Reporter called the show “a marvelously constructed piece of family comedy.” The sitcom premiered on ABC (where Michael Eisner was then VP programming and development) against the newly launched The Rockford Files on NBC.
But Wheelers lasted eight episodes; Rockford lasted six seasons. “Rockford creamed us,” says Hamill. “We never had a chance.” However, Wheelers offered some pleasures. One was folk singer John Prine’s ode to smoking marijuana, “Illegal Smile,” which played over the opening credits. (THR called the song choice “a strange one.”) And then there was the cast. Jack Elam, who’d made a career playing wall-eyed cowboy villains, was the father. Gary Busey, then 30, was Truckie, the older brother/high school dropout. And a 23-year-old Hamill played the younger son, Doobie, who was still attending Lamont High. (ABC seems to have been unusually tolerant about letting pot references slide by.)
“When the show was canceled, it was one of the biggest traumas of my life,” says Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker for the fifth time in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, opening Dec. 15. “I was devastated. I thought, ‘I’ll never get a part that good again.’ “
This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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