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A version of this story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Mark Hamill was 19 in 1970, when the first Comic-Con was held in San Diego in a cramped room at The US Grant hotel.
But by the time he made his pilgrimage with Star Wars, the actor — who’d by then guest-starred on shows like Eight Is Enough and One Day at a Time — had turned a childhood love for comic books into an obsession. He was a convention-cult geek who, pre-fame, expertly haggled dealers from $40 to $20 for a 1958 Adventure Comics #247. (It’s the debut of the Legion of Super-Heroes.)
“Now it’s worth north of $10,000,” says Hamill, who throws nothing away. “The conventions were tiny. It was not mainstream at all. If you wanted to attract girls, you kept the fact that you liked all this stuff to yourself. I remember 10 or 15 comic dealers in the basement of the Ambassador Hotel, with a 16 mm projector to show old Flash Gordon and Captain Marvel serials. I went one time to see the silent Lost World. There was a great sense of adventure and fun, much more underground. When San Diego Comic-Con got 5,000 people, we were amazed.” (Expect 140,000 in attendance this year.) Adds Hamill: “The makeshift gathering of fans transmogrified into a corporate trade show. I can’t walk the floor anymore. I’ve been trapped by this merchandising thing.” Once he appeared on the floor in disguise, with a big beard, and went unrecognized by fans. “That lasted about two and a half hours.”
The last time Hamill knew more about Star Wars than fans did was in 1976, when he promoted its 1977 release on the comic-convention circuit. “I hadn’t seen the special effects or heard John Williams’ score, but I knew it had ‘cult’ written all over it,” he says. “I think those were the days it was still called The Star Wars. I had a feeling this thing couldn’t miss. It cost less than All the President’s Men that year, just $9.5 million. I thought, ‘It’ll make $40 million if it makes a dollar. Let’s say it gets panned by all the critics, relegated to matinees for kids, and only makes $5 million and there’s no sequel — still it’s going to be so well received there’s no way it’s not going to become, like, a midnight movie shown on campuses.’ I said, ‘If this is even 1/10 of the fun to watch that it was to make, it’s gonna out-gross Planet of the Apes.’ We laughed so much when we were making it.”
Carrie Fisher agrees, and the innocent fun kept up when they were promoting it. “One day, to wind down after doing press, the three of us went to an amusement park. And Harrison [Ford] and Mark were hanging upside in a cage that spun around, with their ties slapped down over their faces. We were so happy to not be promoting anything but our silliness.”
“There’s so much humor in the film,” says Hamill. “Robots arguing about who’s going to get in trouble. When they rescue Princess Leia she says, ‘You came in that?’ Like, ‘I don’t want to be seen in my parents’ car!'” Hamill says some of the teenage-ness of his character was lost. “George said my entrance was the only one that was cut, that was changed. Originally, I jump in my Landspeeder and go to this teen club. It establishes that Luke wasn’t popular among his peers.”
Hamill first heard about the film that made him famous from his friend Robert Englund. “He later played Freddy Krueger, but back then he went for Han Solo. He didn’t tell me about The Star Wars until he didn’t get the part. He’s not stupid.” Hamill says some of the studio’s comments during filming were, well, very stupid. “I remember a memo from Fox — they were worried about the Wookiee not having pants. Because he had bandoliers across his shoulders, but no pants. They suggested he wear lederhosen.”
After making the movie, Hamill went to a Hollywood party and tried to interest friends in it. “I told Gary Busey, ‘I did this movie, it’s so good!’ He said, ‘Yeah, whatever. Hey man, I’m not into sci-fi.’ I said, ‘But look at this book!’ I showed him this look book with exotic photographs of storm troopers and dewbacks and a bantha — an elephant with a big headdress. As the book circulated, it certainly quieted the room all of a sudden.” Soon The Force swept the nation, and Hamill found himself so famous he got to have dinner with Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, Batman co-creator Bob Kane, and The Avengers co-creator Jack Kirby. “Jack reminded me of [director] Sam Fuller, a diminutive, really feisty, cigar-chomping Brooklynite. He could’ve easily been a filmmaker.”
Now Hamill is working on his own movie, an adaptation of his comic Black Pearl. “I’m trying to get it made with me as director. It’s been optioned, we have producers behind it, we’re looking for an actor. We have a beautiful look book.” Hey, it worked for The Star Wars.
Hamill’s hopes are high for the Star Wars: Episode VII reunion: “We want this to happen. How could I not take this ride? They’re making all the right moves, like Michael Arndt as the writer. Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3 — he writes humor and he writes heart. I’m not someone who looks to recapture the glory of when I was in my 20s. I think it’ll probably be about the next generation. We’ll be the link to the past, but the kids will be doing the heavy lifting. And the Wookiee will have a walker.”
Hamill is up for it, even if he’s no longer the teenage Luke. “Am I the age Sir Alec [Guinness] was in 1977? I don’t want to do the math.” (He’s 61; Guinness was 63.) He also hopes one day to find the shirt he wore to a 1976 convention: “It’s a collectible; it would’ve shot up in value.”
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