Thirty-five years ago tonight, November 17, 1978, was one of the most infamous days in the history of television. On that night was the one and only public exhibition of possibly the single worst, most painful and most horrifying “entertainments” ever created in the long, trashy, undignified history of the boob tube: The Star Wars Holiday Special.
If you’re a Star Wars fan, you probably know all about TSWHS, and it’s a fan “favorite”–if one could use that word–not just because of its astonishing awfulness, but the public embarrassment it caused Star Wars creator George Lucas. Star Wars fans have always had a love-hate relationship with Mr. L. They love him because, hey, he created Star Wars, but he’s also the guy who thought dancing teddy bears (Ewoks), Jar-Jar Binks, the “Nub Nub!” song at the end of Return of the Jedi, Greedo shooting first and Darth Vader shouting “NOOOOO!” were all fantastic ideas.
And he came up with TSWHS. Mostly, he came up with TSWHS. Then he said he wanted to hunt down every copy in existence and destroy it with a hammer. Keep in mind, this is the guy who made Howard the Duck and The Radioland Murders. Oh, you’ve never seen The Radioland Murders? It’s bad. Trust me. It’s almost as bad as TSWHS. But not by much.
Here is a YouTube compilation of “highlights” from TSWHS. I take no responsibility for cerebral hemorrhage or insanity that may result from clicking on this clip.
This blog is not a review or summary of TSWHS. As I said, you probably know all about it. Ten minutes of shrieking Wookies (with no subtitles), “Life Day,” Bea Arthur singing a musical number in the Tattooine cantina, a terrible Jefferson Starship video, and Wookie porn. The awfulness of this material speaks for itself. Some Star Wars fans single out the animated sequence in the middle of the show–which presented Boba Fett for the first time–as something positive, but actually the animated sequence is a load of steaming crap also. Its shoddy substandard animation, nonsensical storyline and complete contempt for the Star Wars franchise sink it just as decisively as the rest of the show. TSWHS is infamous precisely because it is totally irredeemable.
Who came up with this dreadful idea? Whose fault is it? How did TSWHS come to be as terrible as it was?
Surprisingly, the story behind the show is somewhat difficult to discern. The concept appears to have been hatched by studio brass at Twentieth Century Fox, who thought licensing what was then the #1 hit movie of all time into a TV property would be a lucrative cash cow. Someone–we’re not sure exactly who–convinced George Lucas that a TV special based on Star Wars was a good idea. (This might not have been as much of a hard sell as it seems. Remember, he thought Radioland Murders was a good idea). Somehow veteran TV producer/director Dwight Hemion got involved. Hemion built his career on producing musical and variety TV specials starting in the 1950s, and by the time George Lucas entered the picture Hemion had already worked with Barbra Streisand, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Steve Allen. The studio sold the idea to CBS, and wanted to expand the projected show from one hour to two, in order to sell more advertisements.
This is the rarest of items: a photo showing the actual production of TSWHS. I have never seen another picture like this.
Lucas also came up with the basic story concept: a view of the Wookies’ home planet, and Chewbacca hurrying home to his family to celebrate a holiday. In my opinion this idea was the iceberg that tore a hole in the bottom of TSWHS: the ship was going to go down no matter what. Two problems present themselves: (1) How do you show a planet populated by big walking furballs, who communicate only in grunts and groans, on a TV-special budget, without making it look ludicrous? And (2) How do you work musical and variety numbers, featuring entertainers who were bankable by 1978 TV standards, in this story framework?
The answer to both questions is: you can’t. Therefore, we can blame Dwight Hemion, or the Twentieth Century Fox producers, or writer Bruce Wilanch who tried his best to make the non-English-speaking Wookies likable characters, or the directors, of which there were two; but, to use the Titanic analogy again, their jobs were to pump out the water and keep the ship afloat to the greatest extent possible. They couldn’t do anything about the basic concept. It was foundering before they got on the project. Thus, the blame for TSWHS falls squarely on one person: George Lucas.
Lucas chose director David Acomba, who was a classmate of his at USC Film School, to direct the special. Something obviously went (forgive the expression) tits-up early in the production, because Acomba quit the project. Maybe it was the Wookie porn; maybe not. Hemion and the producers replaced him with veteran TV director Steve Binder, who had salvaged Elvis Presley’s wilting career with a TV special in 1968. Binder had no connection to Lucas or the Star Wars franchise before this.
I would be very interested to know more about the actual making of the show, but I could barely find anything at all, not even when it was filmed or under what circumstances. The major cast members of Star Wars make cameo appearances in the show, all in various states of distress. Carrie Fisher, playing Princess Leia, looks so out-of-it that she has to hang on to the furniture in one of her two brief scenes; in real life Fisher was suffering from a crippling drug addiction and probably can’t even remember making the special. The woozy performance and physical appearance of Mark Hamill, playing hero Luke Skywalker, in TSWHS is so bizarre that it sparked an urban legend, that while making the special he was jacked up on painkillers from the car accident that supposedly disfigured his face. (I discredited that theory in a previous blog). Evidently Harrison Ford was the cast member who was most reluctant to appear, but somehow he was convinced. On a Conan O’Brien interview in 2006 Ford claimed not to have remembered making TSWHS and said he’d never seen it. Yeah right.
Mark Hamill’s strange appearance in the special sparked rumors, since judged false, that he was still recovering from the facial injuries from his legendary car accident at the time. Actually the accident occurred two years before TSWHS was filmed.
Probably it was a patchwork effort, shot in a Burbank TV studio with cameo cast members–not just the Star Wars crew, but Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman and Art Carney–each cycling through for a day or however long it took to shoot their roles. None of them appear together with each other, except for the cantina musical number which includes Korman and Arthur. Judging from the finished product it looks like everybody wanted to get their work done and get the hell off this production as soon as possible.
The night of TSWHS’s airing, November 17, 1978, was a Friday–generally not thought to be a good night for family-oriented television. Despite its hype and heavy promotion in the weeks before, the show came in third in ratings that night, beaten by The Love Boat on ABC and an episode of a miniseries called Pearl on NBC. What few critics wrote about the show savaged it. Audiences forgot about it. The people who made it wished they could forget it. The rest is history.
Although it has absolutely nothing to do with TSWHS, at the exact time of its airing on Friday, November 17, 1978, in a jungle compound in Jonestown, Guyana, California Congressman Leo Ryan was meeting with the People’s Temple religious sect led by Reverend Jim Jones. The chain of events that would end the next day with the mass suicide of the People’s Temple was getting started. There was definitely some bad karma floating around the world that weekend.