When actor Perry King screen-tested to play a roguish pilot in some space opera in 1976, it was just another audition.
“You never know those things at the time,” remembers the now-67-year-old, who tried out for Han Solo opposite Charles Martin Smith as Luke (the latter is best known for his role in ‘The Untouchables’ and ‘American Graffiti’).
“Not too many years ago they sent me a copy of the screen test because they were doing some expanded DVD version and wanted to put on auditions of well-known actors. I looked at it and went, ‘my God, no wonder I didn’t get the part’. I was just terrible, I was so bad.”
He must have made an impression (we’ll forgive him the ‘tache’, it was the 70s) because his relationship with ‘Star Wars’ didn’t end there. The world George Lucas created is littered with strange incarnations, including the infamous Holiday Special and ‘Ewoks: The Battle for Endor’.
But one of its least well-known iterations is the Original Trilogy radio drama series. An audio dramatisation of the original trilogy, it was broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) in 1981, 1983 (for ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in which John Lithgow voiced Yoda) and 1996 thanks to funding issues (‘Return of the Jedi’).
“George Lucas’s stated reason for doing that show is anyone who couldn’t see the movies or indulge in them, he wanted it to be free to them,” says King. “He gave all the rights to public radio for one dollar. It was a wonderful idea.”
As well as access to John Williams’ music and the official movie sound effects, Lucas also allowed the radio production – which for ‘A New Hope’ was spread out over 13 hour-long episodes and adapted by writer Brian Daley – access to some of his deleted scenes from the original film script. For Han, that included a tense stand-off with Heater, one of Jabba the Hutt’s goons.
Mark Hamill returned to play Skywalker for the first two instalments, while Anthony Daniels was C-3PO, but otherwise the movie cast was replaced with other actors, including Bernard Behrens as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Brock Peters as the voice of Darth Vader. Perry King was tapped to take over from Harrison Ford as Han.
“Harrison Ford didn’t want to do the radio version or was busy,” says King, who was offered the role without having to do another audition. “It was a big deal when we recorded it. We knew we were dealing with something iconic.”
He was also full aware of Ford’s shadow.
“I was aware I’d be compared and most people would find me coming up short,” he admits. “But the only decision you can make when you have a situation like that is I’m going to do it my way and if you don’t like it, that’s that. You can’t let yourself be intimidated. I’m not Harrison Ford, I’m going to do my version of it.”
Directed by Brit John Madden (who went on to be Oscar-nominated for ‘Shakespeare in Love’), the tagline for the series was, “You may think you’ve seen the movie; wait ‘til you hear it!” But while it was a modest hit for the radio network, it remains unknown to many Star Wars aficionados despite containing lots of original Lucas material.
“If I say I played Han Solo, people look at me like I’m insane,” laughs King. “And then if I explain it, they still think I’m insane because if they haven’t heard it, they think how could it possibly work.”
But for the actor, it remains one of his most treasured and enjoyable professional experiences.
“I remember doing a scene with Mark Hamill in the first one,” he says. “We did a scene that wasn’t in the movie. It was a scene caught in an igloo (sic) on Tatooine and Mark and I and the director, we built this hut on the sound stage out of whatever was available so we could have the sense of the sound in this tiny area. We crawled into this hut and recorded the scene in it.
“As for all my scenes with Chewbacca, he doesn’t exist, he’s in soundbanks. I’d be all by myself having a conversation and leave spaces for him. But I had the huge advantage of having seen the film, so I knew what he looked and sounded like.”
However, the one person he did feel sorry for was Anthony Daniels, aka Threepio.
“Tony was great to work with, but because he had this effect put on his voice, he had to be put into a booth all by himself,” explains King. “We’d all be in one soundstage, having a great time and there was Tony in this booth like a prisoner with a glass window.”
While he didn’t go on to become a star like Harrison Ford, King established himself as a well-recognised character actor with roles in 80s TV series ‘Riptide’ and the 2004 disaster movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. His most recent project is ‘The Divide’ which he also directed as well as shot on his own cattle ranch in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
“I’ve had a career that if I could have chosen I would have chosen, which is in the middle ground,” he admits. “Just chugging along, going from really interesting gig to really interesting gig. I’ve made a living as an actor for almost 50 years. How lucky can you get?”
He’s looking forward to seeing ‘The Force Awakens’ and of course, Solo is back. So what if they decided to put Episode VII on radio?
“I wish that were to happen,” he says. “If they did call, I would be there in a heartbeat.”
‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is in cinemas now.
Image credits: Lucasfilm/Disney/Rex_Shutterstock