I am about to explain to Mark Hamill, a native of California, what Radio Times is, but he gets in first. It turns out he has a happy history with the magazine and reveals the surprising role it played in the making of the original Star Wars film at Elstree studios in Hertfordshire in the summer of 1976.
“It was my ritual!” he enthuses throatily, owing to a passing infection. “It would hit the stands on Tuesday, I’d get my copy and my highlighter pen and go through it looking for Laurel and Hardy, Bilko, uncut movies… I loved the way you’d not only give a synopsis, you’d credit the screenwriter, director, you’d even do that for Bugs Bunny cartoons! I love a scholarly approach to Looney Tunes.”
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I’ve been in the hotel suite for two minutes and I seem to have bonded for life with the Tigger-like, 66-year-old actor, voice artist, Democrat, animal lover, Anglophile, father of three and grandfather of one.
I mention that Laurel and Hardy are back on Talking Pictures (the free-to-air channel for vintage film and TV). “I know. I follow them on Twitter. I’m very much a proponent of trying to keep Laurel and Hardy’s legacy alive. You show their movies to people that don’t speak English and they’re funny all over the world. I wonder why they went away in the first place?”
I suggest because they’re in black and white? “You’re probably right. Isn’t that terrible? Casablanca couldn’t be in colour, All about Eve… they’re meant to be in black and white. All my kids were used to black and white growing up because I’d show them all the things I loved: The Little Rascals, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show. They’d have sleepovers where I would put on Brats, a great entry-level Laurel and Hardy for kids.” Not for the last time, I dutifully attempt to steer the conversation back to Star Wars, which is why we’re here.
I explain to him that I was the perfect age to see the film: I turned 13 just before it reached the provinces in May 1978, by which time I’d invested in the Marvel comics, books, badges, bubble-gum cards and figurines and was ready to be swept up. A voluble and attentive listener, Hamill punctuates my personal story with cries of “Oh!” and “Sure!” and “Right!”, often breaking into a bronchial chuckle. He’s now concerned that my year-long wait for Star Wars may have been too long.
“And it didn’t disappoint you? Because a lot of times you build it up in your mind and it can’t live up to the expectation.” I reassure him that it absolutely lived up to expectations. “Oh, lovely! Where were you living?”
Wait, who’s interviewing whom? I tell him – Northampton – and explain that I was brought up on a diet of James Bond and Disney, but Star Wars was the first film that felt like mine. “You were lucky. My father didn’t want me to see the Bond movies. He thought they were dirty – you know, the lady waiting in bed and he’s not even married!”
Hamill, a so-called Navy brat and one of seven children, was raised in a “fairly strict” Catholic household on his authoritarian father’s side and grew up with robust morals – he’s been married to the same woman, Marilou York, for 39 years, a rare feat in Hollywood. “My mom was a liberal and wasn’t a Catholic,” he explains. “So we’d all go off to church and I’d say, ‘How come Mom gets to stay home?’ Dad would say, ‘Because she’s a Lutheran.’”
He now concedes that those three hours when the rest of the family were at church would have been the only peace and quiet she had. “It must have been glorious for her!”
With an older brother, two older sisters, two younger sisters and a younger brother, Mark had to fight for the limelight, doing puppet shows and magic tricks and drawing cartoons. The selfcertified telly addict “loved everything about movies and television. But I didn’t know anybody who knew anybody in showbusiness. Disney would show the making of a film on TV and you’d see the camera crew, the sound guys and the prop makers, and it started becoming real.
“There was a pivotal moment when I was four or five and I saw [voice artist] Clarence Nash performing Donald Duck. I was dumbstruck, and a light bulb went on in my head: somebody goes to work every day and that’s his job, to be Donald Duck. I want that job!”
Describing himself as a “student of showbusiness”, he recalls boyhood visits to the library, where he’d use the microfiche to look up reviews of the Marx Brothers on Broadway (“I’d wonder how The New York Times reviewed The Cocoanuts in 1927”) and research the criminal minds of Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger and Ma Barker.
“My mom was nervous that I was reading too many books on serial killers,” he says of a subsequent obsession. “They thought this was a very unhealthy sign. I do have that dark interest in human aberrations.”
He asks me to tell him more about the Moors Murderers. “They abducted schoolchildren, right?” Yes, and one of the victim’s bodies has never been found because Brady and Hindley refused to specify where the body was buried on the Moors. “Why not?” Because they were horrible people. “Oh.” He pauses for thought. Then he’s off again, announcing, “Wouldn’t it be fun if we did the whole interview and never talked about The Last Jedi? What did we talk about? Serial killers and Laurel and Hardy!”
By rights, there should have been a long period in Hamill’s life when he felt trapped or hobbled by his early association with Star Wars, his headstone pre-engraved: “Here lies Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill.” He gamely summarises his pre-Star Wars career as “a dog food commercial and a soap opera”, but in truth, his career has not, on paper, been illustrious since the evocative Samuel Fuller war movie The Big Red One (1980), shot between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
Since he was propelled at warp speed to international superstardom, the Hamill CV has been largely distinguished by me-too sci-fi flops (The Guyver, Time Runner and Laserhawk in the 90s) and self-parody (Kevin Smith’s cameo-filled 2001 slacker-com Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, in which he plays a villain called Cocknocker). But look a little deeper and Hamill’s renaissance as an in-demand voice artist fills the vacuum with notable small-screen animated franchises including Spider-Man, Justice League, Time Squad and Robot Chicken, not to mention an apparent job-for-life voicing the Joker in various Batman spinoffs since 1992’s animated series, including video games.
He won a Bafta Games Award in 2012 for Batman: Arkham City, and has been nominated for three Annie animation awards. When George Lucas announced a belated return to his vast space opera at the end of last century, emboldened by advances in CGI, you’d expect Hamill to have been miffed that the new phase would be a prequel, effectively filling in Darth Vader’s back story up to the birth of Luke and the future Princess Leia. So, what was it like to be locked out of the love-in when Star Wars returned for a second trilogy in 1999?
“In a way it was great,” he says, uncharacteristically sounding like a man who doth protest too much. “I was ready to be in the audience. We’d had a beginning, middle and end. As much as it would’ve been great to work with George again, it seemed right. I thought, ‘I’m not going to ask to visit the set. If George invites me, I’ll go.’ He never did, so I never went. I didn’t want to be a distraction.” I think this sincere humility was learnt growing up in a large family – he says his older brother, a doctor, is still considered the success of the family: “Science beats the arts, you know that!”
Hamill has gone on record to defend loyally the prequel trilogy against widespread criticism from fans and critics (“I couldn’t believe some of the things they wrote about the prequels,” he told New York magazine’s Vulture website), and has referred to not “talking outside the family”.
This omertà-style fidelity has served Hamill well. When Lucas called him in for a meeting in 2013, he says he assumed it was about “doing some press for a box set”. He remembers just before leaving the house his wife wondering out loud if maybe George might want to do another trilogy? “I just laughed at her,” he says – adding ruefully, “She reminds me of that all the time.”
Come April 2014, the entire cast of what would be Episode VII: the Force Awakens were photographed at a table read at Pinewood. In November, the enigmatic first teaser trailer was viewed 58.2 million times on YouTube in a week. In April 2015, the second, longer trailer showed a hooded figure placing a mechanical hand on R2-D2 and was clearly narrated by Luke Skywalker (“The force is strong in my family”); it generated a record 88 million views in 24 hours. That year, Christmas came early.
In the spirit of the season – one that Star Wars now seemingly owns – I ask how the Hamill family celebrates. “Nothing different than anyone else,” he shrugs. “Decorating the tree, making pies, roasting a turkey. For years I used to read The Night before Christmas to the kids until they got old enough to openly mock me. It’s all about family. That’s why I think I should campaign to create a British version of Thanksgiving. Like Christmas but without the gift-giving. You could call it Good Riddance Day.” As I get up to leave, he sighs, “I could easily live here,” referring to the UK. “I said to Marilou after Trump got elected, ‘That’s it, we’re leaving, we’re going to England!’
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in the UK on Thursday 14 December