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His Luke Ran Out

By Sharon Waxman
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 27, 1997; Page B01

Since making the "Star Wars" trilogy, Mark Hamill seems to have done everything possible to distance himself from the phenomenal notoriety that came with the role of Luke Skywalker.

Is he stupid or just stubborn?

The actor first left Hollywood for Broadway, then landed some small television appearances, made a number of unsuccessful films and finally starred in CD-ROM action games and did voice-overs for animated cartoons.

"To me it made sense," says Hamill, who insists he is proud of his career. "I had a part that made such an impression on people that I felt I had to break that impression."

It worked. Within a few years of making "Return of the Jedi" in 1983, Hamill was considered a second-tier actor and eventually disappeared from Hollywood. In the meantime, Harrison Ford used the wry appeal of his Han Solo character to become one of the movie industry's most bankable stars, and Carrie Fisher -- featured as Princess Leia -- built a successful career as an author and screenwriter.

Now the 44-year-old actor finds himself starring, again, in the No. 1 movie at the box office, for the fourth week in a row. There he is, 12 feet tall, in theaters all over the country. The second installment of the George Lucas series, "The Empire Strikes Back," is proving nearly as successful as the rerelease of the first, setting a record for a February opening last weekend when it took in $22.3 million (together, the two reissues have brought in $142 million so far). Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles was packed on Friday night with cheering fans. Crowds brought folding chairs to wait in line for tickets outside Washington's Uptown Theatre on Saturday afternoon.

"People are loving it as much and better than the first," says Howard Lichtman, executive vice president for marketing at Cineplex Odeon theaters, a major exhibitor. "The crowds have continued throughout the week. . . . Our managers tell us that people are leaving smiling and coming back to see it again." Lichtman says his company is featuring the latest release in its landmark theaters, but that the demand for "Star Wars" -- which is playing at 2,200 theaters nationwide -- is still high.

Because of the popularity of "Empire," 20th Century Fox has decided to delay by a week the opening of "Return of the Jedi," the third of the trilogy, leaving time for more people to see the first two segments. It will now be released March 14.

Not all blockbuster movies create blockbuster stars. "Independence Day" didn't. "ET" didn't. Neither did "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The "high-concept" movies at which Hollywood excels are rarely vehicles for acting, emphasizing instead action, special effects and feel-good endings.

For Hamill, the "Star Wars" reissue has been a rare chance to be seen by the public after nearly two decades of obscurity. He will earn royalties from the theatrical showings, which he did not get from the video or television releases. For the first time in years, he is besieged with requests for interviews, via his newly hired publicist (he has no agent). A carefully worded biography notes his "unique desire to experience the totality of the entertainment industry . . . in film, television, theater, animation, CD-ROM and graphics."

"He wants to use this not to be a spokesman for the movie but to reacquaint himself with the public," says Stan Rosenfield, a publicist who represents, among others, George Clooney, Robert De Niro and Will Smith. "Everybody in town is calling him."

But almost as if he were intent on sabotaging his own chances, Hamill still chooses to play down the "Star Wars" roles. "It's not something I live with every day of my life. It's not unusual for me to not think of it, speak of it -- my house is not a shrine to any project I've done," he says in a rapid-fire riff. "I had not seen the movie since it was in the theater."

He adds, "I don't even think `Star Wars' is the best acting chops I've done. It's like `The Wizard of Oz.' Who wants to play the innocent?"

He goes on. " `Star Wars' comes along like one of those giant ice-walkers and devastates everything in its path. Not in a negative way. The astonishing thing is how happy it makes so many people. I'm reminded of those detractors who don't like anything the masses love. . . . But it makes kids glow with happiness to the point where you don't quite understand what it is they like so much."

Hamill takes care to mention his Broadway roles, perhaps because he resents being described as having done nothing since the trilogy. He starred in "The Elephant Man" and "Amadeus" in between the "Star Wars" films. He was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for his role in the musical "Harrigan 'n Hart."

"I come up on the short end of the stick because I haven't achieved what Harrison's achieved. But not even getting credit for the stuff you did do, that surprised me. I take the theater scene seriously," he says. A car accident in 1977 required reconstructive surgery on his face, but Hamill does not characterize this as a crippling obstacle.

Still, the truth was that Hamill had a hard time making it back in Hollywood after "Harrigan 'n Hart" closed in 1986. He had been out of the loop for too long. Eventually he turned to voice-over acting in cartoons and CD-ROMs. Two of his "Wing Commander" CD-ROMs grossed more than $100 million, offering financial stability for his wife, Marilou, and their three preteen and teenage children.

Now Hamill is focused on his latest project, a five-issue comic book he wrote about a costumed vigilante named Black Pearl, which he is turning into a screenplay. He hopes to find an independent studio to finance the film, a sort of dark comedy, which he would like to direct.

"What I'd like to do is get a totally fresh start," he says. "In a way, you can get complacent and lazy. To tell the truth, I could go on being a voice actor for the rest of my career. But I want to follow through [on "Black Pearl"] all the way, to the lights going down in the theater."

He adds, in a flash of insight, "Life is just a whole bunch of stuff that happens sometimes." At least it's been that way for him.


© 1997 The Washington Post Company