'The Star Wars Holiday Special' at 40: How a landmark TV turkey was born

By Ethan Alter, Yahoo Entertainment

Long, long ago — 40 years, to be precise — The Star Wars Holiday Special brought George Lucas’s far, far away galaxy out of cinemas and into living rooms for the very first time. Lucas himself conceived of the notorious two-hour variety show, which aired on CBS once, and only once, on the evening of 17 November, 1978.

Arriving one year after the original Star Wars became a pop-culture phenomenon, the Holiday Special reunited everyone’s favourite Rebels — human, alien and droid. That meant that the Luke, Leia and Han (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford) were back, alongside Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the dynamic duo of C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (a radio-controlled version stood in for Kenny Baker). They were joined by a cavalcade of celebrities eager to be associated with the biggest blockbuster around, including Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman and Diahann Carroll.

It could have — heck, it should have — been a new Yuletide classic. But the Star Wars faithful were immediately left with a bad feeling about the Holiday Special. The special remains a traumatic memory for the actors as well. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2015 prior to the release of The Force Awakens, both Ford and Fisher reacted in real (not mock) horror when the subject of the special was raised.

“It’s awful … not awful in a good way,” Fisher said. Ford was even harsher in his assessment of the show. Asked whether he hoped we’d ever see another attempt at a Holiday Special, he replied: “Not if I have anything to say about it! And if I have anything to say about it, you won’t see the first one. What an embarrassment.” (Watch our interview above.)

Carrie Fisher and Anthony Daniels in the notorious <em>Star Wars Holiday Special</em> (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
Carrie Fisher and Anthony Daniels in the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

But when Yahoo Entertainment spoke with the special’s director, Steve Binder, he revealed himself to be one of its biggest fans. “I had a great time shooting it,” remarks the now-85 year old director. “I got to work with all of the cast of the original, and we had a crack A-plus television crew on the show.”

And Binder has a convincing explanation about why the show flopped so badly upon its original airing. “The public never knew this wasn’t Star Wars II. This was a television show that Lucas sold CBS to sell toys to kids, and that’s all it was. Everybody who tuned in without that knowledge was expecting it to be a big expensive movie! But Lucas made a deal with Hasbro and wanted to get on national television to sell merchandise, and that was the whole purpose of the show to begin with. The public never knew any of this — it was behind the scenes.”

From the beginning, Binder knew he would have little creative control over the content of the Holiday Special, which had been set in stone by Lucas. The Star Wars creator’s storyline involved Han and Chewbacca trying to get back to the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk in time to celebrate Life Day. That requires them to outrun Darth Vader (voiced, again, by James Earl Jones) and the Imperial Army. Meanwhile, back on Kashyyk, Chewie’s wife assembles a Life Day feast, while their son, Lumpy, wiles away the time watching a cartoon where his dad and Han teaming up with their future enemy, the bounty hunter, Boba Fett.

Interestingly, Binder was a last-minute replacement for the original director, David Acomba, who only shot a few scenes — including a musical sequence with the band Jefferson Starship — before he jumped into the nearest escape pod. Desperately in need of someone to steer the ship, CBS reached out to Binder, who had previously helmed acclaimed specials for such artists as Elvis Presley and Liza Minnelli.

“When I got called in, they had already started production and shut it down because they had spent all their budget and only shot a fourth of the show,” he recalls. “So I came in as a kind of a fireman. I got the script on a Friday, and I started shooting on a Monday.” Binder accepted the job despite some trepidation over the material. “When I saw the script, I saw the first 10 minutes with the Chewbacca family was just in subtitles. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, we’re gonna be in trouble.’ But I had no say in changing anything at that point — I just had to get it shot.”

As he anticipated, the lengthy, dialogue-free sequences with Chewie’s extended family — which remain the most ridiculed parts of the Holiday Special — were difficult to shoot. “There was this fantastic Chewbacca home set on this huge Warner Brothers’ stage, but I realised it was 360 solid! So I had them immediately break through one of the walls so that we could get multiples cameras into the set. The Wookiees themselves also had to take oxygen every hour on the hour; I think we had to shut down for at least 10 of 15 minutes every hour so they could get oxygen. The actress who [played Lumpy] came in weighing around 60 pounds, and I I think she left weighing around 40 pounds, because of the costumes and the heat.”

Art Carney and Chewbacca’s kid, Lumpy on the set of the <em>Star Wars Holiday Special</em> (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
Art Carney and Chewbacca’s kid, Lumpy on the set of the Star Wars Holiday Special (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Onscreen, at least, Fisher, Ford and Hamill often look less-than-thrilled to be part of the Holiday Special. (And, in certain scenes, they also look less-than-present, particularly Fisher, who was open about her drug use.) Behind the scenes, however, Binder insists that they were easy to work with. “I bonded with Harrison Ford — we had great times talking to each other on the set. I never saw anybody complaining about when their turn came to shoot; they were all there ready and willing to do it.” In fact, certain guest stars proved to be more of a headache.

“Art Carney was great, but after lunch I knew I couldn’t shoot him in anymore scenes because he would go to the local restaurant and bar and fill up. By the time he came back, I didn’t have the time to waste to get him to do the takes!”

The special ends with Chewbacca happily reunited with his family around the Tree of Life, while Leia serenades the group with a treacly Life Day ballad. But the mood in Lucas’s household was considerably darker. The filmmaker disliked the Holiday Special so much, he immediately pulled it from circulation and Star Wars canon. To this day, The Star Wars Holiday Special legally remains in the Lucasfilm vault. Nevertheless, bootlegs are widely available online and at conventions, and a new generation of Star Wars fans are eager to add it to their collections. Binder would as well, for that matter.

“I’d love to have a Blu-ray copy of it! It’s been bootlegged all over the place, but I’ve never seen anything of the quality like we shot it. There’s a whole fan club of people who watched it and love it to this day. I’m proud of it, too. Against what the popular opinion might be, I had a great time doing it and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

The Star Wars Holiday Special can be found on YouTube.

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