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

hamill composite

That, of course, is Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars movies, photographed in the late 1970s. (The image composite is by me; the photo on the left is by Allen Light, the photo on the right a publicity still from Star Wars). 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.

Mark Hamill’s screen test for “Star Wars,” videotaped no later than early 1976. 

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 or January 1977. 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. [Note: in the Update below, written after this article originally went live, I link a video in which Mr. Hamill identifies the car he was driving as a BMW). 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. As per the update, it seems he was driving a BMW.

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.

This video interview was obviously given after the release of Star Wars–so there is no question that it occurred after the accident. Contrast it with the “screen test” video above; there’s not very much difference in his face.

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!


Readers of this blog continue to argue with me as if I’m utterly blind not to see any significant difference between Hamill’s appearance in 1976 (when Star Wars was filmed) and post-1977. The composite photo that appears at the top of this article compares two views of his face–but if you will read closely, what I said was that I don’t see any significant difference other than would be accounted for by aging and other normal changes. If there is a difference between how Mr. Hamill looked in 1978 and how he did in 1976, I would say that his eyes look “rounder” and his face looks fuller in the later period than he did previously. But so do I–and the change occurred in my mid-to-late 20s, the exact same age at which a similar change occurred in Mr. Hamill’s appearance, and I did not have a “disfiguring” car crash. Also you’ll notice that at times in the screen test video his eyes also have that “rounder” appearance. I really don’t think the facial changes attributable to the crash are very significant. If the YouTube videos I posted don’t demonstrate that, I don’t know what will.

In the unlikely case that you still can’t get enough to satisfy you on this issue, here is Mr. Hamill giving an interview circa 1980 (when The Empire Strikes Back came out) describing the crash in his own words. As you will hear, it was not a Corvette, but a BMW; the accident occurred in January 1977; and he makes no reference to being disfigured. He says his cheek bones were broken and the doctor “used the existing scars to build upon.” There is no reference to ear cartilage being used or anything else. Thanks to Treena (in the comments) for bringing this video to my attention.

Nevertheless, I continue to be amused by how passionate people are about this fairly trivial issue, and especially by the fact that there seems to be no conceivable way to put it to rest. People who think he looks tremendously different won’t be dissuaded from believing so; those who think otherwise (like me) are unpersuaded.

The photo composite at the top of this article includes a photo taken by Allen Light in 1978 and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The other photo is, I believe, copyrighted (probably 1976) by Lucasfilm Ltd. As I searched but could not find a free-use image of Mr. Hamill known to be pre-1977, and his appearance is a subject of public interest, I believe my inclusion falls within fair use.

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

  1. Thanks for the post. I was curious about this and glad to find someone did the research on it. I’m not surprised it’s much ado about nothing, as so many things that get overblow in the popular consciousness and the media. I agree that most of the differences in appearance seem to be do to aging. In some of the photos from different Star Wars movies, where people find the changes to be so obvious, they’re ignoring that there’s a six year period between Star Wars and The Return of the Jedi. You can age a lot in six years, the difference between being 25 or 26 and 32 can be considerable. Hamill’s face merely seems to have filled out and softened.

    That aside, you make a mistake with respect to the video you post in your update at the end, where Hamill discusses the crash in an interview. You mistakeningly state that in the interview Hamill is saying that the doctor after the crash used existing scars on Hamill’s face to repair it. You also misquote the precise words Hamill says in the recording.

    If you listen closely to the interviewer at the end of the YouTube, he is asking Hamill about a scene (in a movie I assume) in which he has been apparently tortured and has cuts on his face. Hamill responds that it was eerie to have the make up cuts on his face, because it was reminiscent of the crash and elaborates that the makeup artist used the existing scars from the crash to make the fake cuts for the scene. If you pay attention to the context of what’s being said, it’s pretty clear that’s the meaning of of Hamill’s “used a lot of the real scars” comment.

    Interviewer: “I thought of all the times when you’re sitting with your face cut, it must…”

    Hamill: “It was eerie, yeah it was really eerie. And he used a lot of the real scars to build upon.”

  2. His nose looks clearly flatter in the post accident images and his lips looks a bit different too, at least in the top lip.
    In the Christmas Special and other TV appearances and interviews after the accident it seems he’s been heavily makeup with greasepaint to cover the scars.
    That’s why he probably looks ok in certain post-car crash images and not so ok in others (when he’s without makeup), like in most recent times when you can see the scars especially on his nose.

  3. You also wrote is not possible he was still on pain-killers during the Holiday special of 1978 but I know some persons that have become dependent on pain killers for the rest of their lives especially after traumatic injuries.

  4. I found this blog today. Its almost Christmas 2014, my teenage son decided he wanted to watch Star Wars for the first time. I saw it as a teenager when it first came out…fantastic. So we watched the first Star Wars, then the next day the second Star Wars. one after the other. There is NO Doubt. Mark Hamil has had MAJOR Plastic Surgery between the two movies. I believe he saw himself on the big screen in 1977, and blew a gasket about how “Big” his Roman nose looked on screen, and the obvious craziness of surgery that followed. I should know, I also have a Roman nose (like Julius Caesar). When you watch the movies, back to back, Mr Hamil looks SO different you could be mistaken for thinking its a different guy, my son even queried the difference. His nose, Lips pumped, eyes widened etc etc…he has had major work. Whether he had an accident or not is open to urban legend now. Its convenient that he was on “Some” highway, “Somewhere”….it doesnt matter I almost died..etc etc. I would think the “Accident” was 1970s “Studio” spin on the Plastic surgery mistake.
    But, there is no doubt his face was chopped and changed, and the worst part is, poor old Micheal J probably saw this in 1979, and thought he would have a go, because Mark Hamil now had a cute nose…..Micheals surgery also started in 79-80….for a blocked sinus you know (not a car accident this time…that had already been used).
    Anyway, thanks Mark Hamil for the great memories.

  5. charlesamiller // December 20, 2014 at 12:10 pm //

    I followed the Star Wars films very closely in the 1970s and 80s (I was 17 when Episode IV premiered); and, long before I heard or read about the car crash, I realized that there was something VERY different about Mark’s face in Episode V. I remember wondering what the hell had happened to his upper lip, which seemed puffy and perhaps a little paralyzed…this is especially noticeable in the “No! That’s IMPOSSIBLE!” sequence between Luke and Darth — arguably the ugliest close-up of Mark Hamill EVER. You can SEE obvious damage to his upper lip in that sequence, if not a bit of paralysis. So, if anything, I think Mark’s facial damage was MORE EXTENSIVE than ever reported, played down by Lucasfilm and Mark’s public relations people

    • That’s an interesting theory (the facial damage being downplayed) but I don’t see the logic in it. What would either Lucasfilm or Mr. Hamill’s PR people have to gain by hiding or downplaying the injuries? “The Empire Strikes Back” was the sequel to the biggest film ever made. It did not depend on Hamill’s star power or his appearance to draw in audiences. It’s not like people were not going to go see it because they heard Hamill looked different. Indeed, that might actually increase buzz for the picture, not hurt it. Indeed, even if his injuries were extremely noticeable, what incentive would Mark Hamill have to hide it? He wasn’t disfigured or anything even remotely close. He went on to have a successful acting career, especially on Broadway, so the results of the crash have obviously had no significant effect on his bankability as a star (beyond his somewhat questionable ability to carry the lead in a blockbuster picture, which obviously has far more to do with his acting ability than the appearance of his face). It’s much more logical that the crash was what it was, his face healed and he got on with his life, than it is that he or anybody else was trying to hide anything about it. There’s simply nothing to hide here and no reason to do so.

  6. The most remarkable part of this conversation for me is that the folks who see a big difference assume the rest of us must have some kind of brain disorder, and reject out of hand the idea that they might be the ones giving unwarranted significance to small differences.

    Look: nobody is saying he looks the same after the accident. He definitely looks different. What I think Sean is saying (and I agree) is that the differences visible in most pictures is not much beyond what could be attributed to normal aging, different lighting, and different camera angles.

    Let’s play this game with Jon Hamm, shall we? Check out these two pics — I’ll call them Before and After.

    Before: http://hellogiggles.hellogiggles.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/28/Jon-Hamm.jpg
    After: http://images.askmen.com/photos/2008-afi-awards-luncheon-january-11-2008/37853.jpg

    It’s obvious that he has had major facial damage in between these two pictures. In the After picture, his nose is clearly wider and flatter; he has additional creases on the sides of his nose that weren’t there before; and his Adam’s apple has moved over at least an inch to the right. He is also clearly growing a beard to hide the fact that his jaw is wider than before the accident.

  7. Let’s do Steve Buscemi! (Here’s a guy who I guarantee you has had no cosmetic surgery, because his career is based on his look.)

    Before: http://www.moviestarspicture.com/photos/steve-buscemi/Steve-Buscemi-young.jpg
    After: http://iv1.lisimg.com/image/1532224/600full-steve-buscemi.jpg

    Obviously his brow ridge has been shaved back, and his eyes protrude more than they used to, but the most alarming change is that they have clearly moved his ears! They now extend clearly down past the tip of his nose, and they never did before!

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