the summer of 1978, Bruce Vilanch had a bad feeling about the Star Wars television special he’d been hired to write. A veteran of the comedy wars who has since written material for 16 Oscar telecasts and starred as the extra-large Edna Turnblad in the Broadway musical adaptation of John Waters’s Hairspray, Vilanch had just finished working on Bette Midler’s 1977 TV special, Ol’ Red Hair Is Back, for producers Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion when they threw him what sounded like a plum assignment: a spot on the writing team that would help George Lucas adapt more of the Star Wars saga for television.
A year had passed since the theatrical release of Lucas’s gee-whiz space epic, and in that time Star Wars had become the highest-grossing movie in history as well as a cultural phenomenon with its very own lexicon and mythology. With a sequel still two years away from theaters, Lucas had been sold on the idea that a Star Wars holiday television special—to be broadcast on CBS the weekend before Thanksgiving, when Nielsen audiences were plentiful—would sustain interest in the franchise, move more toys off the shelves, and maybe even pick up some new fans who hadn’t seen the movie.
Though Lucas would not be involved in the actual shooting of the special—Smith and Hemion would oversee that—he knew the tales he wanted to tell and planned to work with the show’s team of seasoned TV writers to develop his ideas into a viable script. For those who had been summoned, the prospect of collaborating with the father of the Force initially sounded like a sure bet. “We were really excited, because, ‘My God, this is an annuity—Star Wars!’” says Lenny Ripps, another writer who worked on the special. “How could it lose?”
But when Vilanch heard Lucas’s storyline at a development meeting at Smith and Hemion’s L.A. offices, he quickly realized that a “big challenge” lay ahead. Lucas was intent on building The Star Wars Holiday Special, as it would be called, around Wookiees—specifically, the family of Chewbacca, Han Solo’s shaggy sidekick, as they outwitted Imperial forces to come together on Life Day, the Wookiee equivalent of Christmas. Suddenly, Vilanch says, the special was in danger of looking like “one long episode of Lassie.”
“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,’” the 250-plus-pound Vilanch recalls. “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.”
Lucas met these comments with a “glacial” look. “This was his vision, and he could not be moved,” Vilanch says. “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.”
In 1978, however, there were a lot of other people and projects competing for Lucas’s time—most of them brought on by the sudden, unfathomable success of Star Wars, and all of them seemingly more important than a TV special. With his attention elsewhere during most of its production, The Star Wars Holiday Special metastasized into a monster. Two directors and much turmoil later, the finished special didn’t so much resemble its namesake as it did another science-fiction film: The Thing with Two Heads. Onto the body of Lucas’s sentimental and irony-free Wookiee plotline, the producers and writers grafted a campy 70s variety show that makes suspension of disbelief impossible. In between minutes-long stretches of guttural, untranslated Wookiee dialogue that could almost pass for avant-garde cinema, *Maude’*s Bea Arthur sings and dances with the aliens from the movie’s cantina scene; The Honeymooners’ Art Carney consoles Chewbacca’s family with such comedy chestnuts as “Why all the long, hairy faces?”; Harvey Korman mugs shamelessly as a multi-limbed intergalactic Julia Child cooking “Bantha Surprise”; the Jefferson Starship pops up to play a number about U.F.O.’s; and original Star Wars cast members Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill walk around looking cosmically miserable.
Even today, former Jefferson Starship lead guitarist and songwriter Craig Chaquico can’t quite get over the result: “It was such a strange iteration of the original big-screen-movie concept and your regular variety-show, Carol Burnett vibe,” he says. “I was like tripping on it myself, man.”
When The Star Wars Holiday Special aired, from 8 to 10 p.m. on November 17, 1978, the Friday before Thanksgiving, George Lucas’s name was nowhere on it. According to Nielsen Media Research, it was seen by close to 13 million television households, but it finished second to ABC’s Love Boat from 8 to 9 p.m., and, in the next hour, to Part 2 of Pearl, a mini-series about the misdeeds of another Empire—Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor—which starred a bed-hopping Angie Dickinson.
This was a lackluster TV debut for a franchise that, just a year earlier, had rocked the entertainment world. But that was not to be the worst of it. Although Lucas has subsequently had the special disappeared from American television—it has never again been officially aired or released in any video format—Star Wars geeks have not let the world forget that, even more than Jar Jar Binks, this is the one true embarrassment attached to the mostly superlative Star Wars universe. As one professed fan of the films posted on his Web site, “This is the great secret of Star Wars, the 3-eyed cousin who lives in the barn attic, humping sheep and eating spiders. This is the thing that doesn’t get mentioned at American Film Institute dinners.”
It is no small irony that technology—the very tool that Lucas wielded to achieve independence from Hollywood—is the thing that keeps the filmmaker from scraping The Star Wars Holiday Special off his heel. There were no chat rooms or Web sites in 1978, but there were VCRs—the VHS format had been introduced two years earlier—and, today, grainy bootleg DVD copies of the special are readily available at comics conventions and on the Web, ensuring that the generation who came of age during Episodes I, II, and III will not be deprived of the moment when not even the Schwartz was with George Lucas.
There is an oft-recycled quote of Lucas’s saying that if he had the time and a hammer, he would personally “smash” every bootlegged copy of the special; otherwise he has yet to come clean on the matter. He declined to be interviewed for this article, although in a chance meeting that I had with him prior to that decision, the filmmaker, known for obsessive control of his projects, called the special a “travesty” and said he regretted not exercising a tighter grip over its production. As Gary Kurtz, one of the Lucas organization’s producers at the time, says today, the experience with the holiday special “certainly added to the idea that the only way to make sure it turns out the way you wanted is to be in control.”
For someone so careful as Lucas, the special was an incomprehensible miscalculation. It was one of the first times that his golden gut for mass entertainment and his protective instincts toward his Star Wars universe had gone awol.