On November 17, 1978, something really weird aired on CBS. Over a year after Star Wars hit theaters, the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special aired on the network. It never aired again, thankfully, but has lived on thanks to the Internet and the one good thing about it. The special features the introduction of Boba Fett, more than a year before he would appear in The Empire Strikes Back.
Running 90 minutes, the film is an absolute trainwreck. It’s not even in the “so bad it’s good” category. It’s just bad. “If I had the time and a hammer, I would track down every copy of that program and smash it,” George Lucas once said about the project.
The plot, which was never considered canon even before Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, finds Han Solo and Chewbacca trying to get to Kashyyyk to celebrate “Wookie Life Day,” the Wookie version of Christmas. They are delayed by the Galactic Empire, leaving Chewie’s family to wonder what happened. Unfortunately, some Imperials barge their way into Chewie’s home and… that’s basically it until Han and Chewie arrive. The rest of the special is a hodgepodge of bizarre late 1970s pop culture to stretch it to fill a two-hour slot on network television.
Like most bad movies or television shows, the behind-the-scenes stories are far more interesting than the finished result. Here’s a look at the making of the Star Wars Holiday Special.
1. Yes, George Lucas Is Responsible for the Main Idea of the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’
Since The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark were in the works at the time CBS approached George Lucas about making a Star Wars TV Special, he wasn’t directly involved in the making of it. However, he was credited with the idea that it focus on Chewbacca’s family and their celebration of Life Day. After that, he let the writers and producers take over, but this was the one thing he insisted on.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, comedian Bruce Vilanch said that he had a bad feeling about this right from the start. Vilanch was one of five writers on the project.
“I said: ‘You’ve chosen to build a story around these characters who don’t speak. The only sound they make is like fat people having an orgasm,’” Vilanch recalled to Vanity Fair in 2008. “In fact, I told Lucas he could just leave a tape recorder in my bedroom and I’d be happy to do all the looping and Foley work for him.”
Vilanch said Lucas wouldn’t budge.
“This was his vision, and he could not be moved,” Vilanch told Vanity Fair. “And of course Star Wars was so gigantic that he had been validated a hundred times over. So he had what a director needs to have, which is this insane belief in their personal vision, and he was somehow going to make it work.”
After that meeting, Lucas moved on to other projects. So while the “Maker” of Star Wars escaped early, the stars – Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill – were all roped into it.
The special went through two directors. As Empire Magazine notes, David Acomba, who knew Lucas at USC, was first hired. However, he had creative differences with the producer, so Steve Binder, who directed Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special, was hired. They only had a $1 million budget.
2. Harvey Korman Has 3 Roles in the Movie, Including a Cross-Dressing Intergalactic Chef
The Holiday Special has three completely out-of-left-field celebrity cameos. First, Art Carney, four years after he won an Academy Award for Harry & Tonto, plays Saun Dann, a human trader living on Kashyyyk. He has all kinds of weird ideas for delaying the Imperials, like having them sit and watch a hologram of Jefferson Starship.
Then, there’s future Golden Girls actress Bea Arthur, who plays the human bartender at the Mos Eisley Cantina. Yes, even though the whole thing is supposed to be about Wookie Life Day, the produces wanted to get in a scene with some aliens, so they shoehorned in a sequence in the cantina. The Holiday Special aired after Maude aired its last episode in spring 1978.
Lastly, there’s Harvey Korman, who is best known today for his roles in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and History of the World – Part I. For TV audiences at the time, he was one of the stars of The Carol Burnett Show.
Korman has three weird roles in the film, including one where he’s an intergalactic chef teaching Chewbacca’s wife Malla how to make”Bantha Surprise.” Korman is not only dressed as a female alien, but it looks like he’s wearing blackface.
3. Mark Hamill Thought the ‘Holiday Special’ was a ‘Mistake From the Beginning’
Even when the Holiday Special was in the works, the main Star Wars actors knew it was a bad idea.
“I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe,” Mark Hamill wrote in a 2014 RedditAMA. “And I initially said that I didn’t want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player so I did it.”
Hamill wrote that he doesn’t think the cast should be ashamed of it and advocated for the film to be released as a DVD bonus feature.
“It shows how incredibly fallible we are!” Hamill wrote. “At that same time, it did introduce Boba Fett in an animated sequence, so it’s significant in that respect. Plus Art Carney was in it, who is one of my favorite comedic actors of all time.”
Hamill might think that there’s some good hidden in the Holiday Special, but Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford made it clear that they hate it. “What an embarrassment,” Ford told Yahoo in 2015.
“It was awful. And I don’t mean awful in a good way,” Fisher told Yahoo.
“Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all,” Larry Heider, a camera operator on the project, told Mental Flossin 2015. “Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.”
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4. The ‘Holiday Special’ Wasn’t Really the First Time the Public Saw Boba Fett
Most of us have assumed for years that the cartoon in the Star Wars Holiday Special was the first time the public saw Boba Fett. However, as Star Wars.com pointed out in July 2014, the public first saw the Mandalorian bounty hunter on September 24, 1978.
On that day, Darth Vader appeared at the San Anselmo County Fair with a mysterious armored character by his side. That was Boba Fett! Photos of the armor work at the parade were included in J. W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The man who dressed up as Fett was Duwayne Dunham, an assistant editor on Empire and Return of the Jedi. He would also direct Homeward Bound: The incredible Journey, Little Giants and two Clone Wars episodes.
As for the cartoon itself, it was produced by Nelvana, the same Canadian animation studio Lucas would later enlist to make the Ewoks and Droids series during the 1980s. Nelvana co-founder Clive Smith told Mental Floss that Lucas did provide a script for the cartoon, which was the first time Star Wars characters were animated.
“CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons,” Nelvana co-founder Michael Hirsch told Mental Floss. “But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A.”
In September 2011, IGN.com discovered that you can access the cartoon on the Star Wars Blu-ray box set on the second bonus disc, which covers the making of the Original Trilogy. You can find it by going to the “Pursued by the Imperial Fleet” section under the Empire features. There, you’ll see “The Collection – Boba Fett Prototype Costume.” Under “First Look,” you’ll see a brief introduction and then the cartoon from the Holiday Special plays.
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5. Creature Master Stan Winston Worked on the Wookie Masks
The late Stan Winston, who died in 2008, was a four-time Oscar winner, beloved for his work with special make-up effects on the Jurassic Park movies, Aliens, Predator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Edward Scissorhands. Although he didn’t work on the main Star Wars films, he worked on the Wookie costumes for the Holiday Special and it was an important part of his early career. In a 2008 interview with The Star Wars Holiday Special.com, Patty Maloney, who played Chewbacca’s son Lumpy, recalled how she worked inside the moving masks Winston developed.
“Actually, Stan Winston is the one that developed this movement,” Maloney recalled. “It was an interesting thing to work with, because I could control the mouth moving up and down by rings they wired from the head through my arms, and I put these little rings on my fingers and I could move my fingers inside the costume and make different looks… like a snarl, or a smile, or different things like that. And the only thing that wasn’t covered were my eyes, so my eyes were open, it was like a mask around my eyes.”
Miki Herman, a Lucasfilm consultant on the film, told Mental Floss that he hired Winston to work on it. “[Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context,” Herman recalled.
If you’re still interested in watching the entire Holiday Special, you can do so by clicking here:
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