The picture above, of course, is of 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.
It is curious and telling that people generally do not assert that Mr. Hamill looks “disfigured” in Corvette Summer, nor do they conjecture that he was “jacked up on painkillers” while making this film, which was filmed much closer in time to the accident than was The Star Wars Holiday Special. This is additional circumstantial evidence that the cumulative effect of the accident on Mr. Hamill’s face was not nearly so catastrophic as people sometimes assume.
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 anything close to the disfiguring catastrophe that the rumors suggest. Simply put, the accident did not change Mr. Hamill’s appearance much more than it would have normally changed for any man in his late 20s.
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 this is also true of me–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 makeup artist “used the existing scars to build upon.” There is no reference to the cartilage story or anything else of that nature. 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.