Forty Years Ago Tonight: The Star Wars Holiday Special

Forty years ago tonight, the Star Wars universe came to television in a production so bad that it makes Jar Jar Binks seem positively Shakespearean by comparison.

Forty years ago tonight, just a year after the blockbuster movie that would go on to spawn four (so far) sequels and four prequels (including Rogue One), the event that nearly every Star Wars fan agrees was the darkest moment in the history of the franchise (yes, worse than Jar Jar) aired for the first and last time on television:

Forty years ago, on the Friday before Thanksgiving, something very strange happened. A special television event that had been billed as “a dazzling lineup of stars, animation, adventure, music and visual effects” turned out to be two hours (including commercials) of “The Star Wars Holiday Special.”

In a way it made sense. It was the golden age of the variety show, and the cast of “Star Wars,” which had blown up the cinematic universe the year before, had made appearances on the “Bob Hope Christmas Special,” “The Richard Pryor Show” and “Donny & Marie.” It wasn’t entirely without precedent that the most popular movie of the previous year would have a variety show of its own.

Even so, it wasn’t quite what fans, or television viewers, were expecting.

The show opened with Wookiees. Ten minutes of Wookiees. Yes, Chewbacca had a family, and they lived in a rad treehouse loft with thick green shag carpeting on a planet called Kashyyyk. Wookiees speak Wookiee, not English, and there were no captions, so it was 10 full minutes of grunting and miming, which is a lot.

There was something of a plot — Han, played by Harrison Ford, and Chewie had to get home in time to celebrate “Wookiee Life Day.” But then Harvey Korman appeared in drag as an alien Julia Child. Bea Arthur sang, tended bar at the Mos Eisley Cantina and danced with Greedo. Diahann Carroll showed up for a virtual reality number, and Jefferson Starship played a hologram concert in a box. Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) made appearances but so did Art Carney. Boba Fett was introduced in an animated sequence, and at the end, the Wookiees donned red robes, grabbed orbs, and marched into the sun. Princess Leia sang.

Not surprisingly, the special was never aired again; neither was it ever officially released by Lucasfilm. It took on an urban-legendary status, occasionally popping up in bootleg VHS trading groups; Carrie Fisher once joked that she had a copy to play at parties “when I wanted everyone to leave.”

Over the years, as “Star Wars” morphed from film to franchise, much has been written about its regrettable holiday special. And now, to mark its 40th anniversary, there’s even a play about its making. “Everybody went into it with good intentions,” said Andrew Osborne, author of “Special,” a semi-factual retelling of how it all went down that opens at L.A.’s Theatre of Note on Dec. 14.

Most of the writers and crew “were coming from a disposable pop culture perspective,” he said, and while George Lucas was hard at work creating a richly textured and expansive science fiction universe, “everyone [at CBS] was like ‘how do we work in more musical numbers?'”

It all started with the merchandise, or lack of it. When “Star Wars” premiered, no toys had even been developed. Christmas 1977 came and went without the fans getting to play Jedi and Stormtroopers at home, a situation Fox wanted to correct by Christmas 1978. But if the studio was going to sell toys, it needed something to remind kids how much they loved their heroes from a galaxy far, far away.

“Everybody agreed that a television special was a good idea,” said Jonathan Rinzler, who worked closely with George Lucas at Lucasfilm.

Lucas was very busy in 1978. Expectations were high for the sequel, and he was moving his production company to Northern California. So he didn’t have time to get very involved with the special. He came up with the general concept, Rinzler said: He wanted to expand on the Wookiees and introduce Chewbacca’s family; with concept artist Joe Johnston, he designed a “Clint Eastwood-style bounty hunter” named Boba Fett.

Then, according to first-person accounts, production was turned over to CBS, who put the project in the hands of veteran variety show writers and producers. The first director got frustrated with the budget and fast-paced production schedule of television, and quit. The costumes were so thick and bulky that the actors sometimes passed out. By the end, the whole thing had run out of money: The Wookiees in the final scene were shot wearing Chewbacca masks.

Osborne compares it to “the variety show version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’: Everybody participated a little bit in the murder.”

He was 10 years old when “Star Wars” premiered, and he’d had the date of the holiday special circled on the family calendar for weeks. And then: “Almost immediately, from the opening credits, I started thinking, ‘Wait, why is Bea Arthur in this? Why is Jefferson Starship in this?'”

The Boba Fett cartoon — widely considered one of the few highlights — came in just shy of the hour mark in the special. After that, Osborne said, his family flipped to “The Love Boat.” (They weren’t the only ones: The special came second to “Love Boat” in the Nielsen ratings that night for the 8-9 p.m. hour, and second to Part 2 of the miniseries “Pearl” from 9-10.)

Richard Woloski, who with his wife, Sarah, co-hosts several “Star Wars” podcasts, was 9 years old when he watched it live; he remembers thinking: “This is all we’re gonna get until 1980, we better enjoy it.”

And he did — sort of.

“I enjoyed it. I was confused. In the ad for the holiday special, it said Han and Luke battle the Empire and get Chewie home before the Wookiee holiday. So I was like, when does this battle take place?”

The most important message of Life Day, he said, was clearly, “Buy toys.”

“I told my mom, ‘OK, when the commercials come on, grab a pen and paper and write down everything that you see,'” he recalled. “It worked on me like it was supposed to.”

Yahoo Entertainment has more:

Long, long ago — 40 years, to be precise — The Star Wars Holiday Special brought George Lucas’s far, far away galaxy out of movie theaters and into living rooms for the very first time. Lucas himself conceived of the notorious two-hour variety show, which aired on CBS once, and only once, on the evening of Nov. 17, 1978. Arriving one year after the original Star Wars became a pop-culture phenomenon, the Holiday Specialreunited everyone’s favorite Rebels — human, alien and droid. That meant that the Luke, Leia and Han (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford) were back, alongside Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the dynamic duo of C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (a radio-controlled version stood in for Kenny Baker). They were joined by a cavalcade of celebrities eager to be associated with the biggest blockbuster around, including Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman and Diahann Carroll.

It could have — heck, it should have — been a new Yuletide classic. But the Star Wars faithful were immediately left with a bad feeling about the Holiday Special. The special remains a traumatic memory for the actors as well. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2015 prior to the release of The Force Awakens, both Ford and Fisher reacted in real (not mock) horror when the subject of the special was raised. “It’s awful … not awful in a good way,” Fisher said. Ford was even harsher in his assessment of the show. Asked whether he hoped we’d ever see another attempt at a Holiday Special, he replied: “Not if I have anything to say about it! And if I have anything to say about it, you won’t see the first one. What an embarrassment.”

But when Yahoo Entertainment spoke with the special’s director, Steve Binder, he revealed himself to be one of its biggest fans. “I had a great time shooting it,” remarks the now-85 year old director. “I got to work with all of the cast of the original, and we had a crack A-plus television crew on the show.”

And Binder has a convincing explanation about why the show flopped so badly upon its original airing. “The public never knew this wasn’t Star Wars II. This was a television show that Lucas sold CBS to sell toys to kids, and that’s all it was. Everybody who tuned in without that knowledge was expecting it to be a big expensive movie! But Lucas made a deal with Hasbro and wanted to get on national television to sell merchandise, and that was the whole purpose of the show to begin with. The public never knew any of this — it was behind the scenes.”

(…)

As he anticipated, the lengthy, dialogue-free sequences with Chewie’s extended family — which remain the most ridiculed parts of the Holiday Special — were difficult to shoot. “There was this fantastic Chewbacca home set on this huge Warner Brothers’ stage, but I realized it was 360 solid! So I had them immediately break through one of the walls so that we could get multiples cameras into the set. The Wookiees themselves also had to take oxygen every hour on the hour; I think we had to shut down for at least 10 of 15 minutes every hour so they could get oxygen. The actress who [played Lumpy] came in weighing around 60 pounds, and I I think she left weighing around 40 pounds, because of the costumes and the heat.”

Onscreen, at least, Fisher, Ford and Hamill often look less-than-thrilled to be part of the Holiday Special. (And, in certain scenes, they also look less-than-present, particularly Fisher, who was open about her drug use.) Behind the scenes, however, Binder insists that they were easy to work with. “I bonded with Harrison Ford — we had great times talking to each other on the set. I never saw anybody complaining about when their turn came to shoot; they were all there ready and willing to do it.” In fact, certain guest stars proved to be more of a headache. “Art Carney was great, but after lunch I knew I couldn’t shoot him in anymore scenes because he would go to the local restaurant and bar and fill up. By the time he came back, I didn’t have the time to waste to get him to do the takes!”

The special ends with Chewbacca happily reunited with his family around the Tree of Life, while Leia serenades the group with a treacly Life Day ballad. But the mood in Lucas’s household was considerably darker. The filmmaker disliked the Holiday Special so much, he immediately pulled it from circulation and Star Wars canon. To this day, The Star Wars Holiday Special legally remains in the Lucasfilm vault. Nevertheless, bootlegs are widely available online and at conventions, and a new generation of Star Wars fans are eager to add it to their collections. Binder would as well, for that matter.

I was ten at the time and I do remember watching this thing. By then I had seen the original Star Wars movie at least three times and was eagerly awaiting the sequel that was still two years away. Since this was in the days before the Internet and social media, and before the idea of teaser trailers and other such things, nobody had any idea what the sequel would be like, or what would come after that beyond some hints in newspaper articles. I recall reading at the time, for example, that George Lucas had a plan that included as many as a total of nine movies, something that will finally come true when Episode Nine is released in just over a year. Given that, when it was announced that there would be a Star Wars television special that would air the weekend before Thanksgiving, I was understandably excited as, I imagine, many fans were.

Then we watched the show.

I can’t say that I instantly hated the show. On some level just the idea of getting a new look at the Star Wars universe since the original movie was exciting. At the same time, though, even today I remember finding the whole thing to be, well, strange. That ten-minute opening sequence with Wookies “talking” without any idea of what they were saying was confusing enough, but when they got into the musical numbers things got even more bizarre. For some reason, the lady from Maude was singing at the same bar

I can’t say I hated it instantly, indeed it really was exciting to see the first look at the Star Wars Universe since the original movie. I do remember, however, wondering why the lady from Maude was on the show, why she was tending bar on Tatooine, and why she was dancing with a character who had been killed by Han Solo in the original movie was just, well, weird. And I agree with the assessment that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford mostly seemed to be walking their way through something they had to do but weren’t really into. And I never did understand what Wookie Life Day had to do with Thanksgiving or Christmas.

The other thing I remember, of course, are the commercials for the toys that were coming out for Christmas 1978. As noted above, most of the classic toys were not available in time for the first Christmas season after Star Wars came out in 1977. This meant that there would be a lot of stuff to buy in 1978 and, probably as CBS and Kenner intended, I made sure my parents were well aware of this fact.

In any event, since that night in November 1978, the Holiday Special has gone down in Star Wars lore in no small part because of the fact that it only aired that one time and has been essentially locked away by George Lucas never to be seen again. That being said, the show has leaked out a few times over the years, usually thanks to what appears to be a VCR recording made by someone at the time. I’ve posted one version of that video here before, but it appears to have disappeared from the Internet. To be honest, I have not watched the special since that night in 1978 and, other than some brief glances through the video to refresh my memory, I’ve held myself to that. And, no, I have no plans on watching it tonight no matter how bored I might get. For now, though, it’s available on YouTube, if you dare watch it:

May the Force (or in this case is it the Farce?) be with you.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Popular Culture, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. James Pearce says:

    For the longest time, I thought I imagined this. I was 2 when it was aired and yet…I remember it.

    I didn’t think it was terrible…but then again I was 2.

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  2. Liberal Capitalist says:

    In ’78 I had just graduated high school… Great expectations, and then THIS.

    For those who watch, the production values are terrible, TV resolution poor, and add to that a VCR transfer. Set quality was a joke. and the gaps of silence SCREAM out that the whole thing is just atrocious.

    Yes. I have a copy in my video library.

    This, and the theatrical release of Blade Runner (with Harrison Ford doing the voice over narration) are my two rarest films. Funny that Harrison Ford is in both.

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  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    Dark secrets: I actually liked the Bea Authur part, and thought the “bar getting shut down by the Empire” thread from that skit would have been a good core story for the whole episode.

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  4. Kylopod says:

    I started watching it on Youtube some years ago but never got through the first 30 minutes. Maybe I’ll finish it someday. I am someone who’s always had muted enthusiasm for the “so bad it’s good” category. I saw Plan Nine from Outer Space in its entirety, and while I’ll admit some of it was amusing (“Inspector Clay is dead… murdered… and someone’s responsible!”) I actually felt boredom after a certain point. (I utterly love the movie Ed Wood, however.) I’ve seen a handful of movies in that category over the years, but there’s a point when bad is just bad. It’s fun to read about the Star Wars Holiday Special; actually sitting through it is a different matter.

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  5. Mister Bluster says:

    You know, it’s an interesting think when you consider… the Earth people, who can think, are so frightened by those who cannot: the dead.
    Plan 9 From Outer Space

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  6. Gustopher says:

    The VR porn was so completely over my head when I was 8. I do remember being puzzled that Chewbacca’s father’s ideal woman was not covered in fur.

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  7. Kathy says:

    I kind of recalled it was on, but I don’t think I saw it.

    Having read the description, I’m glad I missed it.

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