How about this for making some of us feel old? The Empire Strikes Back got its maiden cinema release on May 21st 1980. That, at the time of this article going live, is tomorrow. Tomorrow, one of the finest science fiction blockbusters of all time is going to be 30.
It’s testament to the many strengths of the movie that it’s still talked about so frequently three decades on, and many, of course, rate it as the finest Star Wars movie of the lot. But what happened to those who worked on it, in front of and behind the camera? We decided to celebrate the film’s birthday by finding out…
Mark Hamill – Luke Skywalker
Following the massive success of the Star Wars original trilogy, Hamill spent much of his time on the stage in shows such as Amadeus and The Elephant Man. Towards the late-80s to mid-90s, however, he did return to the screen in low-budget fare such as Slipstream, The Guyver (a decidedly dodgy adaptation of the Japanese animation of the same name), and also John Carpenter’s tepid remake of Village Of The Damned.
While Hamill will be forever associated with the part that made him famous, he’s never shied away from sending up his old Skywalker role, with memorable appearances in The Simpsons and Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back.
Hamill’s voice acting as The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series back in the 90s represents Hamill’s most memorable post-Star Wars work, and he clearly relished the role of the insane clown prince of crime. The part brought Hamill further voice acting work, with his surprisingly versatile vocals appearing in animated series such as Animaniacs and Avatar: The Last Airbender, as well as numerous videogames including the Wing Commander series and, most recently, as The Joker once again in Batman: Arkham Asylum.
He’s also just signed up to direct the movie of his Black Pearl comic book.
Harrison Ford – Han Solo
Of all the actors who appeared in the original trilogy, it was Harrison Ford who went on to the greatest post-Star Wars success. In Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Ford teamed up with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to create a genuine action icon of the 80s, and while his on-set disputes with director Ridley Scott have been much discussed in recent years, there’s no denying that Blade Runner was one of the era’s great science fiction films.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Ford continued to play lead roles in action movies and thrillers as diverse as Patriot Games, Air Force One and The Fugitive. Unsurprisingly, Ford’s CV isn’t without its low points. Mike Nichols’ Regarding Henry, released in 1991, received a critical drubbing at the hands of Roger Ebert, and romantic comedy Six Days Seven Nights barely recouped its money at the box office.
In a Hollywood machine that favours the young, Harrison Ford has nevertheless continued to buck the trend, despite his advancing years. The fourth Indiana Jones movie Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull may have failed to convince audience members, but who knows? Perhaps the rumoured fifth Indy film can conclude the series on a high.
See also: How has Harrison Ford ended up here?
Carrie Fisher – Princess Leia
Like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher will inevitably be remembered for the role that made her famous. But while the mention of her name immediately conjures up images of the ‘bagel bun’ hairdo she was saddled with in Star Wars, Fisher has continued to appear in a multitude of movies in the three decades since Empire, including the part of Carol in Joe Dante’s hugely underrated 1989 comedy horror The Burbs, When Harry Met Sally, Steven Spielberg’s abortive Hook and, most recently, as the voice of Angela in Family Guy. She’s also carved a successful writing career, and is a regular Hollywood script doctor.
Billy Dee Williams – Lando Calrissian
Billy Dee Williams was a seasoned stage actor for many years before landing the role of the caddish Lando, and even auditioned for the part of Han Solo for the first Star Wars movie back in 1976.
Post-trilogy, Williams appeared as Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s gothic take on Batman in 1989, though he was never given the opportunity to transform his character into Dent’s homicidal alter-ego Two Face.
The part ultimately went to Tommy Lee Jones in 1995’s Batman Forever, though, considering the quality of that film, it could be argued that Williams had a decidedly lucky escape.
Anthony Daniels – C-3PO
Daniels continued to provide his tones in Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace, and donned the C-3PO costume once again for Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith.
When not playing the role of a posh multilingual robot, Daniels also lent his talents to a broad array of disparate productions, from television shows such as Prime Suspect and The Bill to the 1990 low-budget horror oddity I Bought A Vampire Motorcycle.
C-3PO remains Daniels’ primary role, however, and he continues to lend his voice to Star Wars projects such as The Clone Wars film and series.
David Prowse – Darth Vader
The actor who provided the physical presence of the Dark Lord of the Sith, if not his actual voice (Carrie Fisher apparently described Prowse as “Darth Farmer” due to his gentle West Country lilt), the former bodybuilder and Green Cross Code man continued to appear in small roles after the completion of the original Star Wars trilogy, including the part of Hotblack Desiato’s bodyguard in the 1981 TV adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
He now spends much of his time raising money for arthritis charities, and is a regular and popular face on the convention circuit.
Peter Mayhew – Chewbacca
Like Prowse and Baker, Peter Mayhew spent the entirety of the Star Wars movies clad in a body suit.
When not reprising his role as Chewbacca, Mayhew made brief guest appearances on The Kenny Everett Show, and lent his vocals to the English dub of the anime special Dragon Ball GT: A Hero’s Legacy.
Kenny Baker – R2-D2
After Empire, the man who played the inner workings of R2-D2 went on to appear in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Time Bandits, Amadeus and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, as well as appearing in an episode of TV drama Casualty.
While Baker’s work in the Star Wars movies “didn’t make him a millionaire”, as he put it in a 2005 interview with Metro, he’s clearly not bitter. “I’ve got a nice Rolls Royce, a nice bungalow and I’ve got a girlfriend who I first went out with in the 1960s,” Baker said, “so I’m the happiest dwarf in Europe.”
Baker regularly appears in panto, too.
Frank Oz – Yoda
Frank Oz (full name Richard Frank Oznowicz) is one of the most versatile performers in Hollywood. He worked as the puppeteer and voice actor behind several Muppet characters as well as the character of Yoda, has appeared in films such as The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf In London as an actor, and even worked as a director on films including The Dark Crystal (which he co-directed with his fellow puppeteer and Muppets creator Jim Henson).
He’s got a lengthy list of films directed, including Marlon Brando’s last movie, The Score, and the hugely underappreciated Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy comedy Bowfinger.
Irvin Kershner – Director
For The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas handed over the directorial reigns to Irvin Kershner, a seasoned professional who had been directing movies since the late 50s. At the time, Kershner was considered an odd choice, since the nearest he’d come to directing a big budget science fiction movie was the 1978 paranormal thriller Eyes Of Laura Mars. As it turned out, Kershner’s sequel to Star Wars proved to be the most critically acclaimed of the entire canon, and invested the space operatics of the first movie with a maturity and hint of darkness largely missing from Lucas’ original.
Post-Empire, Kershner went on to direct Never Say Never Again, a remake of Thunderball which saw Sean Connery reprise his role of Bond for the first time in twelve years.
In 1990, Kershner directed the decidedly uneven RoboCop 2, before turning his directorial skills to the small screen. The pilot for the Roy Scheider TV series SeaQuest DSV in 1993 was his last directorial work (after which he retired), but he’s done some occasional acting roles since.
Lawrence Kasdan – Writer
After co-writing the script for Empire, Lawrence Kasdan performed writing duties for the classic Raiders Of The Lost Ark, sweaty noir thriller Body Heat and romantic comedy Continental Divide before returning to pen Return Of The Jedi.
In the decades since, Kasdan has continued to work as a writer, producer and director on films as diverse as Silverado, cheesy romantic thriller The Bodyguard and Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher. Most recently, he wrote the script for the Clash Of The Titans remake.
George Lucas – Executive Producer
The success of the Star Wars movies made Lucas indescribably rich, and he’d have been forgiven for simply sitting in his colossal ranch and never getting involved in films again. Instead, he’s kept himself perpetually busy over the past thirty years, working mostly as executive producer on genre projects like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Labyrinth and Howard The Duck, as well as less obvious enterprises like Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, a biopic of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.
Whatever you make of his trilogy of Star Wars prequels, or his belated addition to the Indiana Jones franchise, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull – and we’d argue that he’s relied on a lot of nostalgia and goodwill from series fans of late, with the newer movies in the respective franchises sadly lacking the taut storytelling and energy of their forebears -Lucas’s reputation as one of the biggest names in Hollywood remains assured.
Barring some remarkable, Hitchcock-like reinvention of his career, it’s unlikely that Lucas will direct another film as stark and unusual as his first feature, THX 1138, or a movie as groundbreaking in mainstream terms as the original Star Wars, though the upcoming Red Tails, a World War II fighter pilot movie which Lucas is currently producing from his own original concept, may prove that he can bring a watchable film to the screen that isn’t based on his earlier franchises.
And with that, there’s just one thing left to say: Happy birthday, The Empire Strikes Back…!
With thanks to Cameron K McEwan.