By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 1980
Usually when a group of foreign dignitaries arrives in Washington it's a matter for the president or the secretary of state or, at least, a congressional delegation. But Saturday morning, when visitors from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away came to town, it was left to the children to welcome them, sort them out and receive their message.
On Saturday morning, at the world premiere of "The Empire Strikes Back," or, "Star Wars II," all the major stars of the film -- except Anthony Daniels (C3PO), who was bedridden at Sibley Hospital with what he called "some kind of blood poisoning" -- took limousines instead of spacecraft to the Kennedy Center, spent three hours eating lunch with, talking to and signing autographs for some 600 children, including 300 Special Olympians, then sat through the film hearing the sound an actor loves most -- wild, unbridled cheers.
"Star Wars," as we all know, is modern mythology.
To see the faces of the kids as they come out from the movie is to know, once and for all, that a myth is as good as a smile.
The Washington tour for the kids of Charlestown, W.Va., was supposed to include a stop at the Kennedy Center. But it was to be brief, and it certainly wasn't to be this eventful.
"When they found out the people from 'Star Wars' were coming they insisted on staying to see them," said the tour chaperone, a middle-aged woman who didn't know a Han Solo from a piano duet. "Forget the monuments or the Capitol -- this'll be the highlight of their tour."
"Is Chewbacca coming?"
"Is R2-D2 coming?"
"Darth Vader? Gee, will he let me take his picture, or will he smash my camera?"
"Are you writing about us? My name is Art Kegley. Kegley. K-E-G-L-E-Y."
At 10:45 the first limo pulled up, and it carried Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) and Harrison Ford (Han Solo). The kids went crazy. Hamill, who is short and cute and looks like the valedictorian from Walt Disney High School, waved to the kids and said, "Hi, I hope all of you enjoy the show." One young girl, her eyes glazed and her lips silently mouthing, "Mark Hamill, Mark Hamill," as if it were a mantra, ran to him and kissed him. Wonder of wonders, he kissed back. At this moment, though the rest of the kids are back in Charlestown, that girl is on Mars.
The stars -- Hamill, Fisher, Ford, Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), David Prowse (Darth Vader), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Kenny Baker (R2-D2) and Frank Oz (Yoda) -- were led upstairs for what is called "photo opportunity" and "press opportunity," one of the all-time snorers.
Ford (tight): "I'm no good at press."
Fisher (loose): "Do it like Magic Johnson did it. 'Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. I'm just proud to help the team.'"
After ceremonies in which Eunice Kennedy Shriver, president of the Special Olympics, and Gary Kurtz, the film producer, presented statues -- replicas of C3PO -- to three Special Olympians and their families for "striking back against mental retardation," the press opportunity began. All these stars on a makeshift stage, and with 3-foot-2-inch Kenny Baker wedged between 6-foot-7 David Prowse and 7-foot-2 Peter Mayhew, it seemed to be a police line-up from "Barney Miller."
If the questions were soft, the answers were positively squishy, and they were regularly cut off by a man from Lucas film Ltd., one Sidney Gannis, who kept saying "thank you very much" in a Don Kirshner-Meets-Ralph Kramden accent unspoken anywhere other than the corner of Flatbush and Avenue P. The highlight came in a question posed to Hamill -- Do you feel responsibility as a role model for kids?
Hamill (giggling): "Ask Carrie about rolls. She wears so many rolls in her hair."
So Fisher approached the microphone, wearing a baseball cap, and strutting around like a Ricki Lee Jones wind-up doll. The daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher -- think about that childhood, movie fans -- appeared as loose as a Slinky toy.
Fisher: "You mean like I can't smoke or read Playgirl in public? (pause) Well, I don't got my cigarettes or my Playgirl up here, do I?"
But what do we want them to say? Once the costumes are off, the illusion is shattered. What questions are there to be asked of Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill? What would anyone really have to say to a man inside a Chewbacca suit? These are real people, and real people have nothing to do with a series like "Star Wars." Had these movies been about real people the mythology wouldn't have worked. To have them stand together at a press conference is to invite cynicism. Carrie Fisher is just a 22-year-old woman with famous parents and a haywire look in her eye. But Princess Leia is forever. Judy Garland would have understood.
Everywhere you looked in the luncheon area there were Star Wars doodads. Star Wars tablecloths. Star Wars plates. Star Wars cups. Star Wars balloons. Star Wars napkins. You found yourself examining the hot dogs for Darth Vader's signature, looking in the popcorn and cotton candy machines for strands of Chewbacca's mane.
For three hours the stars and the kids mixed, and the joy they gave each other was a light brighter than the laser force sword Luke Skywalker carries at his side. Not only were the Star Wars people there, but athletic celebrities long associated with Special Olympics such as Mitch Kupchak, Wes Unseld, Roy Jefferson and Arnold Schwarzenegger mingled in the room, signing autographs and attracting a crowd.
One thing you learn is that if you give kids the foods they like to eat, no matter what else is happening, the kids will be happy.
A second thing you learn is that kids don't need to see costumes to believe in magic. They would approach Kenny Baker, delighted by his tiny size, and call him R2-D2. They would approach David Prowse and Peter Mayhew, delighted by their giant size, and call them Darth Vader and Chewbacca. They would look at Fisher in her baseball cap and call her Princess. You can always count on kids to make the transfer better than adults.
They were all available, at least for snippets, somewhere in the two luncheon rooms. Billy Dee Williams, looking a whole lot like Chuck Berry's brown-eyed handsome man, drawing a crowd and telling all the reporters how much he likes being with children because "children are the future"; Harrison Ford, his top button buttoned on his sport shirt, not at all like the sarcastic, go-for-it macho man Han Solo, in a corner, preferring the kids to the cameras, signing autographs, "Force Yourself, Harrison Ford"; Prowse, Baker and Mayhew, out of costume finally and glad to be, so they'd be able to show the world their real faces -- especially the Lord Vader, Prowse, who wants people to know, "I'm not the villain they boo and hiss, not in real life"; Fisher, moving around the room hardly touching the floor, smiling and joking with the kids, putting her cap on their heads, blending into the crowd like a packet of sugar in hot tea; Hamill -- the best of them, probably, the most giving, signing his name and writing a heart next to it, posing with the kids, hugging them, kissing them and telling the press, "This is the constituency of the film, these are the people we made it for." All there.
"It's a bit disappointing," Anthony Daniels said from his hospital telephone on Saturday evening. "This was to be the high point of the trip, the high point of two years of work, actually. It would have been nice to be with all those kids.I was sorry to miss it. I really wanted to get leave from the hospital for the afternoon, but the doctors just wouldn't allow it. They keep drawing blood from me. Ah yes, I guess they're taking so much of it to sell as souvenirs; robot blood is kind of scarce these days, isn't it? Proves that 3PO is human, huh?"
Quickies: Question to Hamill -- With nine of these movies planned in the Star Wars series, you could be on as long as "I Love Lucy?"
Hamill: "And I could be the Beaver Cleaver of outer space."
Question to Fisher -- Why do you love Han Solo instead of Luke Skywalker?
Fisher: "Because he has such a big . . . car."
Question to Ford -- Are you worried you'll be typecast?
Ford: "Han Solo is a useful type."
Question to Mayhew -- Are those your teeth we see on the screen?
Mayhew: "No. I've got a good dentist."
Question to Prowse -- Is it fun being Darth Vader?
Prowse: "Darth Vader, of course, is the enigma of the film. What I really want people to know is that I'm so different. It's difficult playing in a film as successful as 'Star Wars' and getting nothing out of it. If you can't cash in on it, you've missed something great. 'Star Wars' is like fame slowing down to meet you, and if you let it go by it's terrible. People ask me if I'm worried about typecasting. But no one relates this face (points to his own face) with Darth Vader. I'm not typecast. But talk to Mark Hamill -- he cannot get to first base as far as other roles are concerned; people tell him they simply don't want to hire Luke Skywalker. I'm looking for an association with 'Star Wars.'"
Question to Fisher -- Did you finish high school?
Fisher: "No, but I tell kids to finish high school. I told ya I took the role model stuff serious."
Question to Daniels -- How do people feel when they see you out of costume?
Daniels: "Sometimes I feel like the biggest anticlimax in the world."
Question to Fisher -- Who is Princess Leia?
Fisher: "She's Snow White. I'm Carrie Fisher."
Question to Prowse -- Doesn't James Earl Jones do the voice of Darth Vader?
Prowse: "Yes, but only after I do all the acting. I'd love to meet Mr. Jones. I'd love to have his voice."
Question to anyone over 5 feet tall from almost everyone under 5 feet tall -- Have you seen R2-D2?
After the luncheon was over, Hamill walked to the elevators and spotted all the "Stars Wars" photographs hung on the walls. Looking at one of a space station, he slapped his hand to his forehead and said, "Oh look, they've hung that one upside down." Then, laughing on his own exit line, he said, "Well, I guess there is no up and down in outer space."
There were some notables in the audience. In addition to the stars and the athletes, Amy Carter, Jody Powell and Ethel Kennedy watched the premiere. Amy brought some of her classmates and sat in the balcony, in the presidential box. Powell brought his daughter and sat in the orchestra. Ethel Kennedy sat three rows in front of Powell and directly across the aisle. She was wearing a button that said, "I Love Ted."
Just before the film started, Hamill came out and told the audience, "You are the very audience this film was made for . . . It's like the Special Olympics code says, 'Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me do my best trying' . . . If you believe, you cannot and will not fail . . . Now enjoy yourselves as The Empire Strikes Back."
They cheered the titles.
They cheered the action.
They cheered when Lando Calrissian turned from bad guy to good guy, when Chewbacca growled, when C3PO was put back together again, when Luke fought Vader, and especially when Han Solo kissed Princess Leia.
They cheered almost nonstop.
When it was over, and the people were filing out, one of the production staff turned to Irving Kershner, the director, and wanted to know, "Did you hear them? Did you hear them? Jeez, Kersh, did you hear those kids cheer?"
Kershner's smile had gold written into it.
Joy to the world, all the boys and girls.