As Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill grounded George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) in the restless spirit of a farm boy wet behind the ears on an arid planet. He found the first trilogy's heart and soul as the budding Jedi Knight who learns that his arch-enemy, Darth Vader, is his father in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). And he gave Return of the Jedi (1983) a whiff of maturity among all the cuddly, teddy bear-like Ewoks as Luke learned that his feelings for Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) should be those of a brother to his sister.
Hamill would not go on to become a Hemingway-tough superstar like his co-star, Harrison Ford. But in his own way he's a model of grace under pressure. He never let the fact that he nailed a pivotal role in pop culture at age 25 weigh him down.
He has pursued his love for theater and comic books and fantasy, playing stage roles as demanding as The Elephant Man and Mozart in Amadeus, providing voices for signature villains like the Joker and the Hobgoblin in dozens of superhero cartoons, and winning the 2004 DVD Exclusive award for best live-action feature (the video industry's biggest prize) for producing and directing a mockumentary about comic books called Comic Book: The Movie.
Yet he's never forgotten that Skywalker has embedded him in America's mass consciousness. For better or worse, "It's always the 800-pound Wookie in the corner of the room," he says. And it's looming larger as he awaits the May 19 opening of Revenge of the Sith, the final entry in Lucas' prequel trilogy (which began with The Phantom Menace in 1999, and continued with Attack of the Clones in 2002).
Hamill doesn't appear in any of the prequels, but late-night comics continue to sling shots at him. Conan O'Brien recently quipped that while Ford would attend the red-carpet premiere of Revenge of the Sith, Hamill would get to see it whenever the grill boss let him off his shift at Denny's. Hamill, 53, accepts the good, the bad and the ugly of pop fame with an admirable, humorous equanimity.
"Whenever someone asks me what it was like to be in Star Wars," Hamill says over the phone from Malibu, "I think of George Harrison. Because whenever anyone asked him what it was like to be a Beatle, he responded, 'What was it like not to be a Beatle?' Being a Beatle was just a fact for him; he wouldn't know what it was like to be part of some band that had two hits, and then in 1970 went back to working in a bakery. But I also like what Micky Dolenz of the Monkees said: 'I know I will always be a lunchbox.' "
Hamill has always faced the consequences of playing the savior of a galaxy far, far away with modesty and common sense. "I wasn't prepared for kids looking at me as though I were exceptionally gifted -- athletically powerful and super-brave -- and that always made me feel like such a fraud. The really young fans couldn't make the distinction that Luke was Luke and Mark was Mark."
'It was a nice contrast'
That's one reason Hamill signed on to play a soldier who freezes under fire in a film that's recently restored him to the media glare -- the late Sam Fuller's 1980 World War II saga, The Big Red One. On Tuesday, Warner Home Video released a vastly improved version, expanded by 47 minutes of newly found Fuller-shot material, on a two-DVD set.
"I admired Dustin Hoffman for going from The Graduate to Midnight Cowboy," says Hamill. "Everyone had been hailing him as a new kind of leading man, and there he was, choosing to play this seedy scrounger of a street guy. I've always believed actors known as heroes should go off and play a serial killer or a child molester. So for Sam I became this character who wonders whether he's a coward.
"I also thought it was a nice contrast to go from a movie like Star Wars, that uses war the way it's used in fairy tales, to The Big Red One, which gives you the context of a real and a just war, where it's 'us' or 'them' and if you don't do anything 'they're' going to come and get you."
Hamill had been reluctant to sign on. He'd intended to do a play in New York. And as a raging film enthusiast, he was wary of meeting a childhood hero like the movie's star, Lee Marvin, fearing the real man would be a letdown. (He wasn't.) But Hamill thought he owed Fuller, the B-picture legend behind Pick-Up on South Street (1953), an in-person explanation. At their meeting, Fuller was "mesmerizing ... direct and visceral" and changed his mind, he says.
Hamill saw the film as a chance for Fuller, who served in the Fighting First in North Africa, Sicily and on Omaha Beach, to re-create combat as he knew it, in all its carnage, heroism and absurdity. "I realized that everything in the movie, even the most far-fetched stuff -- like Marvin, as the sergeant, stripping the lederhosen off a 12-year-old sniper and spanking his bare bottom -- either had happened to Fuller or was told to Fuller hours after it did happen to someone else. I thought it was the last chance to reflect, directly, the experiences of a generation we all admired, a generation that Tom Brokaw had not yet dubbed 'the greatest generation.' "
During the editing, the production company (Lorimar) fired Fuller and whittled away his hardboiled oddball textures. The DVD, says Hamill, brings back Fuller's far-out sensibility. "These days it's almost always clear how you're supposed to feel in movies; it's like going on a ride at Disneyland. In The Big Red One you don't respond on automatic ... You don't know whether it's funny or ironic or grotesque. I love that about it -- and also that it's wonderfully over-the-top."
A personal vision
Is there any connection between The Big Red One and Lucas' Star Wars saga?
Hamill sees them both as admirable examples of warts-and-all personal filmmaking. "I love the way George defends every Star Wars chapter -- if someone says they don't like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, George will say, 'I wish I'd been able to put in a thousand more Ewoks. Kids love 'em.' "
Lucas held to his own vision of the space opera even after "ultra-fans" began trying to push it in their own favorite directions. "I admit I began to have objections, too," says Hamill. "Especially around the time of the third film, I'd ask George, 'Will revealing Princess Leia to be my sister in Return of the Jedi top Darth Vader turning out to be my father in The Empire Strikes Back?' George would always say to me, 'Don't forget, this is for 8-year-olds.'
"George never lost sight that he was doing Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. That's the reason for the cheesy titles. We set out to make the best movie any grade-school kid had ever seen, but then you wind up on the cover of Rolling Stone or Time and you get swept away."
Hamill chalks up resistance to the Star Wars prequels to their lack of "a character who's a skeptic like Han Solo: a built-in critic to take the onus off the corny stuff. I thought it was going to be Samuel L. Jackson, and instead they made him a priest."
But Hamill says he speaks as a "fan" and a "booster" and thinks it's "foolish" to compare the relatively rough-hewn adventure of the former trilogy with the computer-generated magnificence of the current one.
"If anyone has earned the right to do anything he damn well pleases, it's George. If he wants to build the most elaborate dream sets that he can inside computers, if he can put 150,000 praying-mantis creatures in each frame instead of a thousand, why shouldn't he? It's hard for me to get involved emotionally with the ultra-fans -- because like Hitchcock used to say, 'It's only a movie' ... Get over it."
As for the latest episode, Revenge of the Sith? Because we'll get to see how Darth Vader emerges from Luke's father, Anakin (Hayden Christensen), "I bet it will be the best one of them all," Hamill says. "Everyone wants to see how the Phantom of the Opera got to be the Phantom of the Opera. I thought that's what we'd get at the end of our trilogy: Luke would go to the Dark Side, kill Han Solo and realize the error of his ways. Even Harrison wanted me to kill Han Solo."
Carrying 'The Empire'
Hamill has a raft of directing or producing projects waiting to be launched, including a movie based on a comic book that he created (The Black Pearl) and an animated series that he describes as Seinfeld done with domestic animals.
But the back-to-back DVD release of the first Star Wars trilogy and the restored The Big Red One reveals how deep and compelling an actor Hamill can be.
In The Big Red One, he evinces a manly poignancy when he flinches at his first sight of crumpled bodies; he brings a full range of sensitivity to Fuller's blood-and-guts battlegrounds. And Hamill literally carries The Empire Strikes Back, the best Star Wars movie, on his shoulders -- by carrying a puppet named Yoda on his back. If Hamill hadn't managed to conjure a rich relationship with that Jedi super-elf, the movie would have fallen apart.
Yoda tries to teach Luke how to be a Jedi Knight -- to live intensely in the moment, so he can act in the present with great potency. Thanks to Hamill, when Luke learns the Force's discipline under Yoda's guidance, it will always hit home as an American, can-do form of Zen.
Born: Sept. 25, 1951, Oakland, Calif.; traveled the world as the son of a U.S. Navy captain
Family: Wed Marilou York, Dec. 17, 1978; father of Nathan, Griffin and Chelsea
Star Wars films: Star Wars (1977); The Empire Strikes Back (1980); Return of the Jedi (1983)
Recent accomplishments: Multiple award-winner at the DVD Exclusive Awards, as producer-director of the Best Live-Action DVD Premiere Movie, Comic Book: the Movie, and as star of Star Wars Trilogy (Best Overall DVD, Classic Film)