The Epically Terrible Star Wars Holiday Special: An Oral HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: Star Wars, George Lucas, popular culture
Throughout much of 1978, things were ramping up behind the scenes in terms of bringing The Empire Strikes Back to the big screen. Ralph McQuarrie was working on a variety of illustrations that would ultimately be brought to life while George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan were revising the screenplay. There were other elements coming into play as well. With Lucas maintaining merchandising control of Star Wars, there was some real question of how much interest there would be in the potential franchise, especially with toys from Kenner coming toward the end of the year.
It is worth pointing out that in the late 1970s, conventional wisdom said a franchise was only viable if the sequels came out every year or two at most. Lucas’s notion of every three years had a lot of people worried. To “help”—if ultimately that was the end result—was the creation of a television event debuting on November 17, 1978, titled The Star Wars Holiday Special.
It has proven to be the stuff comic-cons are made of. A terrible, abysmal, yet oddly enchanting chapter of the Star Wars franchise. The Star Wars Holiday Special is a made-for-TV movie cum variety special that aired on the CBS network. The main storyline of the film transpires on the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk. Chewbacca and Han Solo visit the planet to celebrate the Wookiee holiday Life Day with his family, which includes his wife Malla, his son Lumpy, and his father Itchy. George Lucas himself was not really involved with the production, but did attend some production meetings, and encouraged the creatives on the special to include the character of Boba Fett in the cartoon segment (the only part of the special really worth watching).
CBS wanted to utilize the then popular variety show format, which leads to odd, almost surreal segments with Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and the Jefferson Starship. The Holiday Special was an epic failure, both critically and commercially, and was never aired again, nor made officially available on home video. This lack of availability helped the special achieve a “cult” status among fans, with bootleg copies becoming trophies at conventions.
Steve Binder (director, The Star Wars Holiday Special): The Star Wars movie was released and became this huge success, and Lucas evidently made a deal with Kenner toys to sell merchandising as soon as he got those rights. As a result, in order to sell toys, he made this deal to do The Star Wars Holiday Special with CBS aimed at kids to buy toys. But they didn’t tell the public this.
Mark Hamill (actor, “Luke Skywalker”): Do you know that after all these years Lucasfilm is still saying, “Mark, we shouldn’t be talking about the Holiday Special.” I said, “No, we’ve got to own it.” I knew when I read it, I thought it was awful. You know, “Why are we doing this?” Then I said, “I’m not doing this,” but George called me and explained, “Do you realize when that came out we’d been in the movie theater for almost a year and a half?” Star Wars opened in the summer of 1977 and this is the fall of 1978, so George said, “Look, it’s just a way to keep the merchandising fresh in people’s minds and it’s really a favor to me for those merchandisers.” So I said, “Oh, all right, but I’m not singing.”
From Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. Used with the permission of St. Martin’s Press.