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Face/Off? The squirrely legend of Mark Hamill’s car crash.

mark hamill

That, of course, is Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars movies, photographed in the late 1970s. (The photo is by Allen Light). Almost every Star Wars geek, and a fair number of other people, have heard the legend of Mr. Hamill’s horrible car crash in the late 1970s. It was one of the first things I ever learned about the actor. Supposedly he had a terrible car wreck that somehow injured his face, but beyond that fact, exactly what happened–and how bad the accident was–seems to change depending on who and when you ask.

The legend repeated most often in my childhood was that Mr. Hamill’s wreck–invariably said to be a sports car, usually a Corvette–did such damage to his face that doctors had to rebuild his nose using cartilage from his ear. It is also often stated that Luke’s encounter with the ice monster at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back was intended, in part, to explain the facial scarring that he shows early in that film (or, alternately, to explain why he looks “different” in Empire than he did in Star Wars). I also read somewhere on the Internet that the accident occurred shortly before the filming of the Star Wars Holiday Special, and the injuries accounted for his strange appearance during that truly awful show (and/or the painkillers given to him account for his woozy, phoning-it-in performance).

I’ve had “Mark Hamill’s car crash” on my list of potential blog topics for months now. After doing some research on this, it appears that the actual truth of the episode is somewhat difficult to pin down. Let’s take it step by step.

What does Mark Hamill say happened?

I could find only one specific quote from Mark Hamill about the accident, and it’s here, from an interview conducted in the late 70s. Here are his words, abridged:

What happened was that I was on the wrong freeway. I was way out in the sticks somewhere and there were no cars and no traffic, thank God. I was going about 65-70 mph… I was speeding, going too fast… and what happened, I think, was that I tried to negotiate an off-ramp and lost control, tumbled over, and went off the road. I fractured my nose and my cheek…. I read in magazines, “Mark Hamill almost killed in auto crash.” And what prose… “As he dragged himself from the wreckage… the flames were higher”… you know?… “his nose slid off his face.” And I’m going, “Wow, this is great! But I don’t remember it!”…I just woke up and I was in the hospital and I knew that I had hurt myself very, very, very badly… but I wasn’t really sure. And then someone held a mirror up to my face and I just felt that my career was over.

Beyond this, I found some quotes that purport to be Hamill talking, but you never know. The discussion of this subject at the Snopes.com message board attributes–without linking the actual proof–the following quotes to him. Important words in bold:

I had the accident way before Star Wars came out, but what really happened has been terribly distorted. I broke my nose, that’s it! But I’ve read accounts about how my face has been reconstructed with plastic surgery and how I was pulling myself along the highway with one arm looking for help. I even heard that I drove off a cliff! That’s the best one of all. (Attributed to an unidentified “fan magazine”)

The accident made hamburger out of my face. It took a lot of special effects at the hospital to put it back together again. Part of one ear was used to rebuild my nose. (Attributed to Dynamite magazine from 1978)

I certainly read the Dynamite interview–my sister subscribed to that magazine, and I suspect it’s one of the major sources of the legend.

Of course, it’s possible that these quotes could all be genuine, but that Mr. Hamill’s story has changed at different times. All we know is (a) that an accident took place, and (b) that there was some sort of injury to his face.

When did the accident occur?

There seems to be some dispute about when the accident happened. The interview I quoted first has this tidbit:

[T]he next day I was supposed to go do pick-up shots of the land scenes in Death Valley, for STAR WARS. They had a whole crew out there. The real professional in me felt that I had let down all of those people.

This would place the accident probably sometime in 1976. Star Wars came out in May 1977, so they would have been doing pick-up shots (basically, “do-overs” of shots that didn’t go well the first time) at the end of the previous year.

This jives with Hamill’s Internet Movie Database bio, which records the accident as having occurred in December 1976.

Yet Hamill’s own website seems at first glance to suggest that it happened later, because he says this:

He was in a car accident; specific parts of the wampa scene in The Empire Strikes Back, 1980, were written to explain the facial changes.

Note, however, that that isn’t inconsistent with the accident happening years earlier. (The Empire Strikes Back was filmed in early 1979). It does suggest that the damage was permanent enough to cause a noticeable difference between his appearance in the first and second movies.

I believe the accident happened in December 1976. That makes it extremely unlikely, therefore, that Mr. Hamill was still woozy on painkillers while making The Star Wars Holiday Special, which was broadcast in November 1978 and must have been filmed a few months before that. To the extent we can put any rumors to rest here, it seems we can dismiss that one.

Was he driving a Corvette?

I was unable to get any reliable information on what kind of car Mr. Hamill crashed in 1976. I think the part of the legend specifying that it was a Corvette stems from conflation. The next movie Mark Hamill made after Star Wars was a comedy called Corvette Summer, which featured (naturally) a Corvette sports car as a major plot point. I think people have put these things together. I have no idea what kind of car he was driving.

How bad was the accident?

This is the real question and the only answer I can give is, “I’m not sure.” Having doctors reconstruct your nose with cartilage from your ear–obviously that sounds really bad. But it might not be as bad as it sounds. Think about it, your ears aren’t really that big. A doctor can’t slice a very big chunk out of your ear without making it look like you’re missing part of it, right? How come Mark Hamill’s ears aren’t all screwed up? That suggests that if it is true, whatever they took from his ear must have been pretty small.

Personally I don’t notice any appreciable difference between his appearance in Star Wars (filmed prior to December 1976) and The Empire Strikes Back (filmed in 1979). Look at this photo from the original film, taken when Mr. Hamill was about 25. Then look at this one, taken about three years later from the second movie. If there’s a huge difference there, other than normal aging, I must be blind because I can’t see it.

Reading between the lines of Mr. Hamill’s interviews on the subject, it sounds like the crash was serious and the damage certainly noticeable and traumatic the time, but given how he looked in 1979 compared to pre-1977, I would tend to believe that it wasn’t the disfiguring catastrophe that the rumors suggest.

Why is this such a big deal?

It isn’t. Mr. Hamill certainly has had a long and interesting career since December 1976, and he will always be remembered for his part in the Star Wars movies. What did or did not happen to his face isn’t very consequential, but I find it really interesting that people still debate this topic, now nearly 40 years after it happened.

May the face–er, I mean, Force–be with you!

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37 comments on “Face/Off? The squirrely legend of Mark Hamill’s car crash.

  1. roberthorvat30
    July 19, 2013

    Maybe it’s not Mark Hamill in The Empire Strikes Back ? Remember the ‘Paul is Dead’ conspiracy with all those crazy Beatles fans. It just might be Mark Hamill’s lookalike. Lol. Sean, definitely my favourite post for the week from you. Nice one !

    • seanmunger
      July 19, 2013

      Haha, thanks. Doing the research for this article was…interesting, to say the least!

  2. b
    July 25, 2013

    As if I needed a reminder of the Stars War Holiday Special. Sorry if I offend those who actually like it, but once really was enough.

    As far as actors and horrible car accidents that they survived, Montgomery Clift was involved in one while on location for Raintree County. Unfortunately in his case, it did have permanent consequences on his facial appearance, health and career.

  3. Noël Jeffery (@Trikucian)
    September 21, 2013

    his nose looks a little different, that’s about all I can see

  4. Treena
    September 25, 2013

    The accident happened Jan. 11th 1977. He was driving a BMW. He broke his nose and left cheek bone. The wampa scars were built upon the real scars from the accident . Which he described as “eerie.” He did have surgery. I recently heard an interview he did back in 1980. He talks quite candidly about it.

    • seanmunger
      September 25, 2013

      Thanks. Do you have specifics on the interview, who it was with, what show, etc.? I’d love to find a transcript and pin down his exact words. Of course his own account of the accident as he told it in subsequent years may differ from how he told it in 1980 (which itself would be fascinating, if that’s the case).

    • linland
      January 30, 2014

      I met Mark on February 14th 1978 and he had no scars on his face. I think the accident happened later than that.

      • Treena
        January 30, 2014

        No, it happened on the date stated. That information came from Rinzlers “Making of The Empire Strikes Back.” Mark was due to do pick up shots for ANH and was found by Gary Kurtz in hospital. I have heard audio of an interview Mark gave for ESB in which he states that the accident was January 1977.

  5. Treena
    September 26, 2013

    It was during interviews with journalist and it’s an audio recording. No idea who recorded it, but it’s during the publicity for The Empire Strikes Back. I have the audio file and listened to it only recently. The book “The Making of the Empire Strikes Back” briefly mentions the crash as does the biography channel’s biography on Mark – it can be found on Youtube. But the audiofile is the most candid discussion about it I have ever come across.

  6. hlemuss
    October 1, 2013

    He looks way different. His face change was so obvious for me (I watched the premier of the movie back in 1979 so I was not influenced by any comments or rumors) that I haven’t been able to watch the movies all together. I am happy that there are some people that don’t notice any change (my friends didn’t) so they can enjoy the movies.

  7. Brianakin
    October 9, 2013

    Another interesting tidbit is how he looked in the various series of Star Wars trading cards released in 1977-78. There was the Blue, Red and Yellow series which to my knowledge featured only stills from the actual film. But starting with the Green series (I think), they added shots of the actors in various poses against a plain backdrop, and it was these pictures of Mark that first got me thinking, as a youngster back in ’77, “why does he look so different than he did in the movie?”.

    • Treena
      October 12, 2013

      That’s because the did some more publicity shots with the actors in costume after his accident.

  8. Ken™
    October 19, 2013

    Nice piece. The most comprehensive article on the subject I’ve seen.

    I wonder if for the new SW movies, he’ll let his beard grow out. It would be in keeping with the other older Jedi characters in the SW films, mask a little of the injuries (as he has aged, I think the effects of the injuries have become more, rather than less noticable), and he actually looks pretty badass with a beard (see Slipstream, and some more recent bearded photos).

    Now, if only they could find some way to stop Carrie Fisher sounding like she’s had a stroke.

    And Harrison Ford too, for that matter.

  9. rebecca
    November 2, 2013

    The ” I broke my nose, that’s it ” comment is from the star wars insider magazine interview of mark hamill from the early 2000s. It was the only I heard attributed to him about the accident.

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  11. Kim Houtmeyers
    November 25, 2013

    I think you see a huge difference in his nose and upper lip. It is because I noticed the difference in his face that I wanted to figure it out if something different happen or that I just saw ghosts. So thanks for this item, now I know I am not completely insane :-)

  12. whitelion(Drew)
    November 26, 2013

    Thanks man bottom line is that facts dont lie and you have what you need to prove that you have your facts so thanks btw this was my first time seeing your website good stuff dont stray away from facts bro…..could i send you some stuff i have researched and you could post them or something thanls man have a happy thanksgiving

  13. Jimmy Jackson
    December 2, 2013

    Great research; nice to see a clear analysis of this after there are so many other fragmented stories out there.

    One reason I do think this topic is still interesting is because it may or may not lend some meaning as to why Hamill never really pursued many films after the Star Wars series (yes, I know he was in a few), but rather has done a tremendous amount of voice acting for animation/games.

    The second photo you show certainly does make a case for him not looking a whole lot different, except maybe the nose… But other photos seem to suggest the scaring was really more analogous to how he looks at the beginning of TESB. It’s almost as epic as the Paul McCarthney myth, ha. I sure wish Hamill or Lucas would just lay it all out some day for the fans.

    • Jimmy Jackson
      December 2, 2013

      Also, I find your remark about painkillers interesting. Given his retraction from public sight, etc, I’ve always kind of wondered whether he has been a life-long painkiller addict; a pretty common thing these days, especially for those who have surgery and money/access to it.

  14. from Europe
    December 28, 2013

    It’s such a tragic story, – his career would skyrocket and he would be 80′s Brad Pit, and tought guys roles would work for him just ok. There was some talking about his facial expresion/mimic problems and painkillers what affected him. I could agree on facial close ups in movies, they don’t work, in Corvette Summer it’s is perfectly noticable – in Star Wars 5 and 6 light and shade game, angles from witch he is filmed all is to mask and make not so obvious changes. It is really dramatic and sad story. When I found answer question what bothered me what have hapened to this person, he’s different, i got so sad, espetially watchin Star Wars ontology how it all began, with what exaltation and adventurous feeling about living life what was dreamed. Tragic really tragic.
    Those who don’t agree that this is the reason why he went to drama theatre and then to voice acting, there is no other explanation, Fishers problem was drugs, so all this Lucas fame frame on their further acting carrier is such a bulshit. But if it is too sad and uncomfortable to accept this really unfortunate fate, thats ok – don’t. But this accident changed a lot. Personally when I’m looking on his later pictures and videos (after accident) that person is different – the crash changed him, gave that dramatic storyline underly, his atdittude was different in interviews. I really admire how he have pulled together his life accepting fate. His familly, his brother went emotional on this subject in M. Hamills biography, letting to face the inside drama what actually was going on under, how he find a solution for his career by going to New York to act in Brodway, and that speaking about different caracters he wanted to play.. It’s all just was icebergs smallest viewable part of true storry, how loosing his face changed him, scared him eventually leading to Joker, person who was scared too.
    And now possible return to Star Wars is so perfect, he has much wisdom from his own life how to deal with looses, staying on side of good, to reflect so truly why Luke Skywalker is not his father Dart Vader, he didn’t brake in movie and in life hodled his grip too. Maybe sounds lame, but Star Wars is Big deal in mant of involved in filming lives.

    Link to biography video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AyHZyf0tcM

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  17. In L.A.
    January 12, 2014

    The story I heard was that he was in the pilot for Eight Is Enough, and it was ordered to series..but by then Mark saw that Star Wars was going to be a big smash and he saw a major movie career for himself. He attempted to get in a minor accident to get out of the series, which was about to begin shooting, but it went awry.

  18. rexcortez
    January 13, 2014

    I totally disagree that his face looks the same. In 1976 his nose looked straighter and his whole face had more symmetry (meaning that both sides of his face, if split down the middle, vertically, more more identical. Later, after the accident, his nose looks like it’s bending to the right and almost compressed looking compared to how it was before.

    .02

  19. Patrick
    February 23, 2014

    Agree with you: it looks like normal aging and a different camera angle to me. Possibly a broken nose. Certainly not enough difference to justify all the overwrought mourning over his destroyed career that I’m reading in the comments here.

    • seanmunger
      February 23, 2014

      Thank you. I realize I’m in the minority, but I really don’t see an appreciable difference between his face in 1976 and in 1979. I think the folks who are insisting there’s a huge difference are seeing what they want to see–sort of a Rorschach test writ large in the living flesh of an actor’s face. As such it’s an interesting foray into crowd psychology, if nothing else.

      My own surmise is that the accident and the damage to Mr. Hamill’s face looked horrendous at the time, but faded into relative inobscurity as years went on. I certainly see no major difference in his appearance. As I state in the article, the key fact is not his face, but his ears. If the accident was really as bad as some of the commenters here claim it is, why is there no appreciable difference in Mr. Hamill’s ears, which are universally said to be the source of the cartilage with which they “rebuilt” his face?

      Tempest in a teapot, methinks. But again, the majority of commenters seem to think otherwise. I wasn’t there so I don’t know, but then again, who does know, aside from Mr. Hamill and his plastic surgeon?

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  21. leonitas
    February 24, 2014

    All I got to say is thanks for bringing up this discussion. I was 10yrs old in ’76 and he was one of my idols. I saw ReturnOfTheJedi 8x in a row. Thanx for the memories.

  22. leonitas
    March 3, 2014

    I noticed a difference in ROTJ. It seemed like his jaw on one side of his face was off kilter, so to speak. It didn’t matter though. He was still idol material to me, or, at least his character was.

  23. arianna
    March 14, 2014

    Thanks so much I have been looking for this kind of thing for ever. :-D
    1 more thing, can u look and c if it has a effects how he looks today? Thanks :-)

  24. Karen Tj
    March 18, 2014

    I met him in August 1977 at the Actors and Others for Animals Celebrity Fair and had a couple pictures taken with him. I don’t recall him looking any different from the original Star Wars at that time. I think the accident was after August 77. By the way, he was super nice, especially important because Star Wars had recently been released and he could have gotten a big head I recall saying something to him teen-girl like, “You’re awesome, but I bet everyone tells you that.” And he responded something along the lines of, “But it’s not the same, as it came from you” implying that even if many others are singing his praises, he appreciated hearing it.

    • seanmunger
      March 19, 2014

      Great story! Thanks for sharing. If you met him in August 1977 and you didn’t notice anything different, I think this should put to rest many of the rumors about the long-term severity of his injuries. Every account I’ve heard–as well as Mr. Hamill’s own accounts–place the accident as occurring before the release of Star Wars, which came out on May 25, 1977. Therefore, I think it’s probably extremely likely that the accident had happened before you met him.

      I’ve also heard he is an extremely nice man in real life.

  25. keith
    April 6, 2014

    My take on this whole issue is that the car crash is a coverup of the real story. I think he was out partying and got beat up really bad, a car crash cover story is much more innocent and better for the press. Other than that, yes his appearance and face structure is UTTERLY DIFFERENT than it was in Star Wars. In Star Wars, Hamill had blue eyes and looked much more fresh faced and Californian like a young Peter Cetera or Ric Flair. In Empire it even looks like his eyes are darker in color, completely differrent cheeks, flattter wider nose, and more and more in Empire Stikes Back looking extemely like Mick Jagger form the Rolling Stones. I’ve heard that Mark Hamill was a huge Stones fan and maybe he wanted to look more like Mick Jagger for a potential biopic.

    • seanmunger
      April 6, 2014

      Do you have any evidence to support this “cover-up” theory?

  26. Porkins
    April 6, 2014

    I’m watching the Big Red One that came out in 1980. Can’t find when it was filmed but Mark Hamill is in it and looks like the Star Wars Mark Hamill and not the frog looking guy from Empire Strikes Back and Jedi.

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