The moment Star Wars legend Mark Hamill took the stage at the Celebration VI event in Orlando, Florida last weekend he was welcomed with cheering, wild applause, and a standing ovation by fans, some of whom had waited more than six hours for the opportunity to see and hear the actor in person.
Voice actor and impressionist James Arnold Taylor, known for his work in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Johnny Test, and the current voice of Fred Flintstone, acted as interviewer and fielded questions from the audience.
During the hour-long session Friday night, an affable and expressive Hamill described playing Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy, his early years in television, his work in other films and on the Broadway stage, and his lengthy career as a remarkably talented voiceover actor, including an incredible 19 years of voicing Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker.
Hamill began the evening by asking the enthusiastic audience to share a metaphorical group hug with him, announcing, “My favorite absolutely of all the activities we do when we come to these things is coming and talking to you!”
He went on to explain, “Because when I’m sitting there signing these photographs they keep saying you gotta move it along, you can’t talk to everybody like you do. And I can’t imagine not! It’s not an assembly line, and I get so much back from you guys — it’s an energy that I get from you guys that’s absolutely fantastic.”
Highlights from Hamill’s Q&A follow:
What it’s like to be back in Orlando for Celebration VI
Oh, it’s wonderful, you can’t imagine! Today at least twenty really beautiful women said to me, “Oh I loved you when I was six years old!” And really that’s pretty much my audience [out of the] young people here. [laughing]
I was in the middle of seven kids in the family and we all just jostled for position. My oldest brother was the overachiever. There was only one TV. I really started acting when I was just a kid, just trying to get attention, with puppets and magic tricks. I loved cartoons, I loved the comic strips that came to the door every day in the newspapers.
His first acting job
I had two or three lines on The Bill Cosby Show, but not the one that was popular! I was on the one where he played a basketball coach. Some of the older people will remember that. I had a line or two and was finished by lunchtime.
But I was so thrilled to do it, I loved Bill Cosby as a kid, I idolized him, I used to listen to his record albums and see him on The Ed Sullivan Show. [When I met him], I wanted him to be Bill Cosby, I wanted him to be so funny, and instead he was a professional! He was serious, and you know I learned from that you’ve got to understand it’s a business. He’s not supposed to come out and be this cuddly character that he created on his record albums. I was very disillusioned. [grinning]
In 1977 I did Wizards, an animated science fantasy film by Ralph Bakshi, the creator of Fritz the Cat. No patch on Ralph Bakshi, but he was pretty much a taskmaster.
I was reading the part and he said, “You call that a fairy? That’s not … what kind of a fairy are you?” And I thought, “Gee I’m not quite sure I like the way he said that…” [laughter] I mean, what are you gonna draw on? You’re supposed to be an actor and draw from your life experience and whatnot.
I read for the big part in the film and to my relief [didn’t get it], because I don’t think I was ready. I think a lot of the time people make it so quickly they don’t have a chance to try it out on the road.
Soap opera experience
I did a soap opera for nine months, I was on General Hospital — and again, before it was popular. Everything I was on was before it was popular!
The thing was, I hated soap operas! I wouldn’t watch them on a dare! But when I got the part then I really wanted to be there. The finished product is completely different from the process of putting it together. All the actors have a great sense of humor, when they’re putting it on its feet and rehearsing it they’re sending it up.
It’s like stage, and you don’t stop for anything, they don’t care. We once had an earthquake and someone improv’d the brilliant line “It’s only an earthquake,” and we just went on. They wouldn’t stop, it was like live television even though we were on a week delay.
It was really a great experience. I tell young actors, boy, if you can get on a soap opera you can learn, you can learn to hit your marks, you can learn about lighting, and you can learn all this technical stuff. It’s a place to try it out and learn technique. I really enjoyed it even though I didn’t think I would so much.
The process of being cast as Luke Skywalker:
I was doing all this guest starring, I’m on The Streets of San Francisco, I’m on Cannon, all these shows that people can see on TVLand now. Then I did a bunch of TV movies, I did like five TV movies, some of them prestigious. Patricia Neal played my mother in one and she’s a brilliant actress.
I did this sitcom series called The Texas Wheelers and when it got cancelled, Robert Englund, who was a friend of mine at the time and who later played Freddy Krueger, asked me if I had gone out for “that new Lucas thing.” I said, you mean that guy who did American Graffiti? He said it’s called The Star Wars and I think it’s some kind of Flash Gordon thing. I asked him if he’d gone out for it and he said yeah, but he didn’t make the cut.
You see, actors won’t tell you about a project until they’re sure they didn’t get it. [laughter] Then they’re magnanimous and say, “Oh, by the way, have you been out on that Lucas thing?”
We went in and it was like what they call a cattle call, where it’s just 50 people in a room, and they don’t give you a script, they don’t tell you anything. In fact, I went in and George [Lucas] and Brian De Palma were sitting at desks, and De Palma was looking for people for Carrie, that high school horror story with Sissy Spacek, and George was looking for Star Wars people.
And you had no clue. They didn’t talk about anything. They just said, “Tell us a little about yourself.” And you’d spend a couple of minutes talking like I’m doing with you right now, telling them I was one of seven kids, I went to high school in Japan, my dad was in the Navy, yak, yak, yak. But you don’t even have a chance to do a scene or really anything, they just want to see how you are, how you come off.
Because it was just one of those general interviews there was no way you could know. I had done the same thing for American Graffiti and I didn’t get a callback. I did that same routine.
What was interesting was they saw me for Apocalypse Now to play the farm boy, because I projected that sort of empty-headed, freshly smacked in the head innocence that I guess they were looking for. You know, I had a certain cluelessness that was very valuable.
Much later came the scene in the mail. 17 pages. It’s in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and it’s with Han Solo. I can’t remember if it was written for just Han or if Obi-wan was there, all I know is that I read this scene and I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it! I thought, is this like a Mel Brooks send-up?
There was this one line I can tell you for sure I’ve never forgotten in all my years in show biz, even though it was eons, decades ago. Han Solo is saying, [here Hamill delivers a perfect impression of Harrison Ford’s indecipherable growl] “Hey kid… …we should turn back.”
I say to Han Solo, “But we can’t turn back! Fear is their greatest defense, I doubt if the actual security there is any greater than it was on Aquilae or Sullust, what there is is most likely targeted towards a large scale assault.”
Can you believe that line? I read it out loud and I’m thinking I’ve got to memorize this! I had no idea if it’s “arch,” if you do it like with an edge like a Saturday Night Live sketch, or what is it, is it a parody? It’s like Flash Gordon, it’s anachronistic. It’s like a throwback to an earlier style.
I remember when I finally went in to do it, Harrison was Han Solo, and I knew him from American Graffiti where he played Bob Falfa, and I knew George’s work anyway, and I was really begging George for some [direction], asking, “ Is he sort of like being sarcastic here or what?” And George just said, “Let’s do it,” and turned his head.
So I’m looking to Harrison, and he says, “I don’t know where he’s going with this.”
I hadn’t worked with George before, so I figured oh well, it must be okay, so we did the scene the best we could. George is like somebody who’ll look at it and say, “Let’s do it faster and with more intensity.” [speaks his lines again super fast] Well, I didn’t really do it that fast. I just got through it.
That’s when I was driving home thinking, I should have done this, I should have done that, I didn’t have any sense of humor, I didn’t have any style or panache. But again, whatever I had…
By the way, they cast us in lots. It was me and Harrison and Carrie. And it was another set of Han, Luke and Leia. I remember who the other Luke was, I remember who Leia was, I’m not sure about Han Solo.
They told us later they didn’t mix and match, it was either team A or team B. George couldn’t really decide, and I heard Marcia [Lucas] had a lot to do with saying, “Pick those guys.” So we have her to thank, or blame depending on your feelings on it.
Star Wars character names
I haven’t seen the Star Wars movies since they were in the movie theaters. I’ve never watched them at home or on DVD or VHS. That’s true! So that’s why you guys know more about it than I do. I still call it the “Medical Droid’ while you call him “IG-88.” [Note: According to Wookieepedia, the surgical droid’s actual name is “2-1B.”]
You have to understand, a lot of these characters weren’t named until they made them into toys. So we call that one the “Dustbin Robot” because he looked like a garbage can, and they call garbage cans “dustbins.” And then the toys would come out six months after the movie came out and you’d say, oh that’s the name for it!
We called one “Lobster Man.” Who’s the one that looks like a lobster? Ackbar? There you go! Wait, I think he did have his name, I think he was Admiral Ackbar, to give him all the respect he deserves. [laughter]
What you should know about being a voice actor
I should tell you a true story about why you should understand how to be (or not be) if you’re trying to be a voiceover actor.
I was in the final consideration to be Snap, Crackle and/or Pop. And I thought I would love a job that runs for 30 years or whatever, [just do] two syllables and you can send all three kids to college.
So I was really excited that I got a callback. I must have been called back about four times, and I figured this must be really important, because this time we met with the actual executives from Kellogg’s.
And they said, [in a very serious tone] “Well uh, Mark, you will uh, be playing the role of Pop.” And just to loosen what I thought was tension in the air, I said, “What, like I’m not right for Snap or Crackle? C’mon!”
And the guy did not even move. He just looked at me and said, “Well, Pop is a leader. He’s grounded, he’s very intelligent.” And I realized, “Oooh, did I just lay a big egg!”
But I thought that was funny! I mean, c’mon, they all sound like [squeaks] this. C’mon, can you really remember a distinct personality difference between them?
So needless to say I told my agent that story and she said. “What, did you just assume that an advertising executive had a sense of humor? What are you, crazy? You just joked yourself out of a job, buddy! I bet you’re not getting it.” And sure enough, all I have to tell for that experience is this story.
Comic Book: The Movie
We didn’t have a budget to even have casting sessions, you know, ‘cause that would cost money! So I relied on all of these people that I first started doing animation voices with in ’92. Well, I did a show when I was a teenager and then I didn’t work in voiceover for twenty years.
But when I did Batman, I started working with all these people that I had known for years, because I am a huge fan of animation. And in those days I had a VCR and I would freeze frame when the credits go by because they go by so fast, and so I knew Rob Paulson and I knew Jeff Bennett, I knew Tress MacNeille and Maurice LaMarche and James Arnold Taylor. So to meet these people and work with them was a thrill.
Everybody in the movie are voiceover people. We considered Comic Book: The Movie to be to voiceover people what Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was to comedians. This movie is just chock-a-block with the most famous people you’ve never heard of. Because there’s nothing like the anonymity of a voiceover person.
And that was a good thing for me to learn, because I’d go back and I’d do Broadway and I’d be so proud when I got a nomination, but nobody knew I did Broadway. The West Coast is so far from the East Coast! [Note: Hamill acted on Broadway in Amadeus, The Nerd, The Elephant Man (for which he received a Drama Desk Award nomination), and other well-received stage plays].
But with the voiceover thing I really discovered something that was helpful for me, which is that I really enjoy performing where I didn’t need to take a curtain call, I didn’t need a spotlight, I didn’t need to have people recognize me. And that was a good thing to know, that I really just enjoyed the process of performing.
In Part 2 of Jedi to Joker: Mark Hamill at SWCVI, Hamill describes why he was so frightened when cast as the Joker in Batman, does an amazing live performance of the Joker for the audience, and discusses his surprising turn as a sadistic psychopathic killer in the upcoming 2012 film Sushi Girl.