“Why did Star Wars not make Mark Hamill a huge star? Why did he do so little movie work in the ‘80s and ‘90s?” asked a user on the question-and-answer social network Quora a few years ago. The answer came through someone who knew Hamill well, the actor William Salyers. “I work with Mark on the Cartoon Network…Mark is a very successful actor. He is exceptionally talented and has had a long, esteemed career, playing all kinds of roles in all types of media. He has a nice home in Malibu and a lovely family. He is very down-to-earth; also, kind, intelligent and articulate. The fact that he didn’t become Bruce Willis or Tom Hanks should in no way be construed as a lack of success. Any actor would be extremely lucky to have Mark’s career.”
Salyers’s answer makes us wonder what it really is to be a star and what can be considered a successful career. If it is to achieve a lifelong position in the collective imagination, star in box office blockbusters, earn millions (he received around $3 million for appearing for 70 seconds in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and enjoying the unconditional love of hundreds of thousands of fans across generations, it’s clear that Mark Hamill is a star with a successful career.
But analyzing some of his decisions and seeing the success and recognition achieved by Carrie Fisher and, especially, by Harrison Ford, it’s inevitable to feel that if Hamill is not perceived as a true star by the public, it was by choice. That’s true even if we are aware that he lends his voice to one of the characters in the animated movie Go Fish, which premieres this month. Or that he heads the cast of The Fall of the House of Usher, the new series that Mike Flanagan is shooting for Netflix, due to be released this year.
By the time he began shooting the galactic saga, Hamill had already been in front of the cameras for more than a decade. He is the fourth of seven children from a middle-class family whose members had spent half their lives following their father, a captain in the US Navy, around the world. After making his debut at the age of 12 on the popular American soap opera General Hospital, he had roles in many of the most successful TV shows of the time, such as The Bill Cosby Show.
Shortly before turning 25, while he was waiting for CBS to greenlight his new pilot program (Eight is Enough), Hamill participated –like half of the young actors in Hollywood at that time– in the auditions for Star Wars, the 1977 space opera by George Lucas. The young director had just had a big hit with the generational comedy American Graffiti (1973) and he was intrigued by the modern, naïve look of Mark Hamill, whom he felt could “bring humanity to a film full of of space vehicles and special effects.” The show Eight is Enough premiered successfully and remained on screen for four years, but without Hamill: the role of Luke Skywalker was his.
On the night of January 11, 1977, four months before the premiere, he nearly kissed goodbye to his career and even his life. He realized he was about to miss his exit while driving his BMW through Los Angeles, and to fix it, he tried to cross all four lanes of the freeway. “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,” he told Gossip Magazine. The next thing he remembered was waking up in a hospital room. When a nurse put a mirror in front of his face, “I just felt that my career was over.” He had broken his cheek and doctors had used cartilage from his ear to repair his shattered nose. The results left noticeable scars on his face. His nose was shorter and his expression was harder. Lucas used a stunt double to shoot the few remaining scenes, and the obvious changes in the actor’s face were justified by a change in the script that included an animal attack at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.
Hamill was completely committed to the George Lucas film, but he wasn’t sure it would attract a mass audience after its release in 1977. He thought it would become more of a cult movie. No one, not even Lucas, could have imagined that it would become one of the cultural icons of the 20th century.
The public gave rave reviews, but critics were divided on its quality. One topic on which there was no debate was that the acting was not the most brilliant part of the film. This hurt Hamill, who felt he had to prove his talent beyond the galactic universe. “I think that many of those who had seen me on television knew that I am not Laurence Olivier, far from it, but I have a certain versatility and more than one register,” he would go on to say.
The accident did not have a negative impact on his career, at least not as much as his determination to rid himself of the character that had made him an idol. To get away from Skywalker, he signed onto smaller productions such as the teen comedy Summer Run (1978), his first job after part one of the trilogy, “a movie about people where I could show a little more of what I can do as an actor.”
In his eagerness to show the public that he was a true actor, he gave up film roles to try to make it on Broadway. At the beginning of the 1980s he was the John Merrick of The Elephant Man and the Mozart of Amadeus in stage productions. When in 1984 Milos Forman made the film adaptation that would end up winning eight Oscars, Hamill wanted to get the role, which he knew very well, but the answer was “I don’t want Luke Skywalker in this movie.” Everything gave him reasons to get away from the character that had pigeonholed him. “I had a role that impacted people so much that I felt I had to break with it.” And he did.
Where is Hamill?
Shortly after releasing Return of the Jedi in 1983, Hamill was already being viewed as a second-rate actor, another broken toy. Meanwhile, Harrison Ford was establishing himself as one of the most profitable stars in the film industry and Carrie Fisher was forging a successful career as a writer and screenwriter. The actress, a great friend whom Hamill still mourns and honors on social media, did not understand his emphasis on fleeing from the galactic legacy. One day she called me to scold him, Hamill recalled in The New York Times. “She goes, ‘What’s your problem?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s theater, I want it to be more focused on theater.’ She goes, ‘I am Princess Leia. You’re Luke Skywalker. Get used to it.’”
Although he has not headed any relevant film projects again, his working life has kept him very busy. He has accumulated dozens of credits, especially in his role as a voice actor. It’s something that is not a consequence of his accident as many think, nor a kind of golden retirement, but a true calling. “I remember watching a Walt Disney special on animation when Clarence Nash came on as the voice of Donald Duck. I must have been five or six and a light bulb went off in my head …” Hamill told the public radio broadcaster NPR. “Suddenly it occurred to me that somebody gets up in the morning, goes to work, and does Donald Duck for his job. I want that job!” He has had it in spades: dubbing animated characters has become the backbone of his acting life and has allowed him to move away from the role that marked his career, at least until the middle of the last decade, when the most unexpected thing happened.
After spending half his life trying to detach himself from the role that had made him an icon, Hamill received a surprising call. A new trilogy was going to be developed and the original characters would be in it if Fisher, Ford and Hamill wanted to play them. “I was completely stunned,” he told The New York Times. “Carrie, not a minute went by; she slapped the table and goes, ‘I’m in!’ I said, ‘Carrie, poker face!’” He needed more time to think. He feared they would be rejected as old. “No one wants to see the 50-, 60-, 70-year-old versions of us, running around, bumping heads on the Death Star. It’s sad.” he declared. He was so sure that Ford would not return that he made his presence a condition of his participation.
“He’s too old and too rich and too cranky. He’s not going to do this.” But when Ford agreed, Hamill realized he should too: “Can you imagine if I was the only one to say no? I’d be the most hated man in nerd-dom.”
His doubts were logical. The quintessential galactic hero was no longer the beardless young man wielding a light saber for the first time. Hamill was over 60 and had a full life in which he had also developed his career as a comic book writer and a happy marriage with Marilou York, a dental hygienist whom he wed shortly after the premiere of Star Wars. He no longer had anything to prove in his career.
The new trilogy brought him into contact with an enemy more insidious than Senator Palpatine: the most toxic fandom in the galaxy. For years, Hamill has behaved like a true Jedi, taking a stand against misogynistic and racist attacks on actresses Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran and proudly supporting John Boyega during Black Live Matters rallies. Hamill uses social media as adeptly as a light saber, frequently using his five million Twitter followers to support social causes and lambaste Donald Trump, whose Twitter messages he has often read using the voice in which he spoke to play Joker in the animated series.
He has also used social media to make visible and denounce the absence of LGTBI+ characters in the three trilogies. “Fans are writing and [they] ask all these questions, ‘I’m bullied in school… I’m afraid to come out,’” he confessed to Vanity Fair. “They say to me, ‘Could Luke be gay?’ I’d say it is meant to be interpreted by the viewer… If you think Luke is gay, of course he is. You should not be ashamed of it. Judge Luke by his character, not by who he loves.” As his friend Carrie Fisher told him, like it or not, he will always be the heroic Luke Skywalker. And it seems that, decades later, he has finally gotten used to it.