Thursday, August 3, 2017

Elstree 1976

Year 9, Day 215 - 8/3/17 - Movie #2,704

BEFORE: Day 2 of "Geek Week" - which, in fact, is going to be longer than 7 days, I think, but it's too late, the name has caught on.  "Nerdy 10 Days" just doesn't have the same ring to it.  Now, usually where documentaries are concerned, I tend to waive my linking rules - the great thing about "Geek Week" is that I mostly don't have to - I think there are going to be two times where the connection is merely thematic, because it turns out that this is a relatively small, insular community, and the same people tend to be interviewed, again and again.

Case in point, the Star Wars community - and it was tempting to hold back this film so I'd have something to screen next May 4 (Star Wars Day), but no, the linking tells me to proceed now, after all, this documentary is screening on Netflix and could disappear without any warning before next May.  So, in "Comic Book: The Movie" there was a small scene where Mark Hamill's character got scared away from a table by three menacing men - and that was a cameo from Peter Mayhew, David Prowse and Jeremy Bullock, the actors who played Chewbacca, Darth Vader and Boba Fett.  Well, two of them, Prowse and Bullock, carry over to be interview subjects in this film.  Mark Hamill also appears here, but only in archival footage from the films.  (I hate to resort to that sort of thing, so fortunately, I don't have to.)


THE PLOT: Actors and extras reminisce about their time on the set of "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" and how making the film affected their lives.

AFTER: When I say that a film is right in my wheelhouse, I'm not kidding around.  In addition to being an original hardcore Star Wars fan since 1977, I started collecting autographed 8 x 10 photos of the actors (the collection now numbers 100) which meant I had to pay even closer attention to the names of cast members and their roles.  Then I started linking between movies 9 years ago, and I couldn't help but notice how often actors I recognized from "Star Wars" began popping up in the backgrounds of other films.  Sure, anyone can track Harrison Ford's career, and say they've seen all of his movies, but how many people know that the guy who played Boba Fett also had small roles in THREE James Bond films?  I feel like I know the answer to trivia questions that nobody's even asking...

As luck would have it, I happen to have met all three of those actors who did that cameo last night - I met Peter Mayhew and David Prowse signing at Comic-Cons, and back in 2007 or so the Star Wars Fan Club had an event in San Diego where people got to eat breakfast with both actors who played Boba Fett (Bullock and Daniel Logan).  I've got autographs from three other actors featured here, too - the ones who played Greedo, Biggs and Gold Leader.  Of course, I have rules for the collection, because I didn't want to have to chase down every actor who ever appeared in a stormtrooper or Jawa costume - and those rules are: 1) the actor's character has to have a NAME, and 2) the character must have spoken at least one line of dialogue, even if that's in an alien language.  (Of course, I've been known to make exceptions to the rules, if I encounter a worthy actor, like the guys who puppeteered Max Rebo or Droopy McCool from Jabba's Palace band.

Now, it turns out there's a similar hierarchy on the convention circuit - of course, you've got your headlining actors like Harrison Ford or Samuel L. Jackson, who probably never work the autograph tables, they don't have to.  Then there's the second tier, people like Billy Dee Williams or Ray Park who may have other gigs, but are happy to spend a day or two here and there signing to make some extra cash.  The third tier is probably the people who are MOST famous for being in a Star Wars film, like Peter Mayhew or Warwick Davis, and these people probably live on the convention circuit, making a good living for traveling from place to place and meeting fans.  Then there's the fourth tier, people who maybe appeared in an alien costume or as a random, unnamed X-Wing pilot, who didn't even have one line of dialogue, and may not even appear in the credits.

It turns out that some of the actors in Tier 3 really resent the actors in Tier 4, at least according to these interviews, because they're interfering with their livelihoods.  I know firsthand how terrible it feels when another booth at a convention has a long line of customers, and yours doesn't.  And if proper records weren't kept over who played those background characters, what's to prevent someone from just SAYING they were in the original "Star Wars" movie, or pointing to a helmeted stormtrooper in a scene and saying, "Yeah, that's me, all right..."?   Like that infamous stormtrooper who hit his head on the door, coming into a room on the Death Star - about 10 different guys have claimed to be that actor.  Maybe there was just a lot of bumping in to things on that set.

What you have to remember is that there used to be a thing called Central Casting - people were signed up with this acting agency that worked with the different movie studios, and would show up every day, not knowing what film they'd be hired for, or if they would be working that day at all.  They could end up in a Western, a period drama or a sci-fi flick on any given day, and if they got to be in a restaurant scene, that would be a bonus because it meant they might also get a free meal out of the deal, as long they were willing to sit quietly in the background and pretend to have a conversation.  It seems that Elstree Studios in London, where much of "Star Wars" was filmed, relied on such an agency, or pretty much allowed anyone walking by who would fit in a stormtrooper outfit to be in the movie.

Perhaps the most prominent here is David Prowse, who had attained some fame both as a bodybuilder and as an actor, most notably in a small role in "A Clockwork Orange" and as a sort of superhero who was the face of the U.K.'s public-service campaign to teach kids to look both ways before crossing the street.  This kind of proves that there's balance to the universe, because on one hand he probably scared a lot of kids by playing Darth Vader, but on the other hand, he helped saved thousands of kids from getting run over.  Now, this actor had to live for years with people telling him that anyone could have been the guy inside the suit, especially since his lines were later dubbed over by the voice of James Earl Jones, but the truth here is that Prowse DID learn all of the lines and spoke them on set, and perhaps the first plan was to use those lines, however the helmet did interfere with the recording. And when it came time to re-record the dialogue in Los Angeles, it didn't make sense to fly the U.K. actor to America, when they could just hire another actor who worked in L.A. - plus, if you can hire James Earl Jones, then you hire James Earl Jones.

Much is made here of the lesser-known actors and their lives before and after appearing in Star Wars. Some were classically trained, and one had worked before with Alec Guinness doing Shakespeare, another is proud of his stage work in a Proust piece - but that guy is also comfortable with the fact that when he dies, the first line of his obit is going to mention that he played Greedo, the Rodian bounty hunter.  ("Greedo" is an obvious riff on the Italian gangster name "Guido", but I didn't realize that until I was an adult...)  Over the years, some of these actors have learned not to take their lives too seriously, or let themselves be totally defined by this silly space movie they were in - while others have learned to lean into it, to spend more time at conventions speaking openly with the fans, who have infused every line, every gesture from the original film with ultra-important meaning.

Now, many of the stories here are already well-known by Star Wars fans - the scenes set on Tatooine with Luke, Biggs, Fixer and Camie were deleted from the final cut, because they introduced Luke too early - but Biggs reunited with Luke for the Death Star battle, and the actor who played Fixer was a last-minute replacement for an absent stormtrooper actor, so he ended up being the Sandtrooper who Obi-Wan played the Jedi mind trick on. ("These aren't the droids we're looking for...")  He claims to have bonded with Mark Hamill since they share a birthday, but the IMDB says otherwise.

I think the first time I really noticed a Star Wars character actor in something else, it might have been the film "Strange Brew", which had a lot of intentional SW references, like the hockey players in stormtrooper armor, and unintentional ones, like casting Max Von Sydow, who appeared in Episode VII decades later.  But Angus MacInnes ("Gold Leader") also played the romantic lead, Jean "Rosey" LaRose", and that probably blew my mind at the time.  And then once you start down that path, you might start to see them just about everywhere.

For other actors, it was just a gig, man - and some of these relative unknowns have spent the years since 1977 trying to break into the music business (one guy "almost" had a song he wrote recorded by the Moody Blues) and others had health problems or struggled with addiction, and you might start to realize that every human story is also a tragedy of sorts - but the upside is, they appeared in "Star Wars", nobody can ever take that away from them, and at least if you can look back on the past and tell a good story about it, maybe you're doing OK.  For one brief moment of their lives, they can say for sure that they were in what turned out to be the right place at the right time.

Also starring Paul Blake, Garrick Hagon (last seen in "A Bridge Too Far"), Angus MacInnes (last seen in "Rogue One"), Anthony Forrest (last seen in "Reds"), John Chapman, Laurie Goode (last seen in "For Your Eyes Only"), Derek Lyons (last seen in "Yentl"), Pam Rose and archive footage of Carrie Fisher (also last seen in "Rogue One", sort of...), Harrison Ford (last seen in "Regarding Henry").

RATING: 5 out of 10 action figures

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