The Force Goes on

updated 02/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/03/1997 01:00AM

ONE MORNING EARLIER THIS MONTH, MARK HAMILL SURVIVED HIS TOUGHEST SHOW-down since he squared off against Darth Vader: For the first time in 20 years he went face-to-face with...Luke Skywalker, the cosmic hero he played in three Star Wars movies. Hamill has always avoided Star Wars—he skips the conventions, rarely talks about the films, hasn't seen them on video. "I felt it had a beginning, a middle and an end, and let's go on in life," he says. But now he'd decided to step back figuratively into Luke's knee-high boots (which in fact he still has in his Malibu attic) and attend the Jan. 18 L.A. premiere of Star Wars' 20th-anniversary re-release. "I talked to the kids about it," says Hamill, 45, who took his wife of 19 years, Marilou, 41, and their children, Nathan, 17, Griffin, 13, and Chelsea, 8. "I said, 'I know it's going to be hard for me, but it's important to do this for [director] George [Lucas].' " So he went. And he enjoyed it. "What struck me," he said afterward, "is how much heart it has."

That, more than anything, may explain why the sci-fi trilogy endures. Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the jedi (1983) have grossed more than $400 million. The licensing—for books, games, action figures—has reportedly brought in $4 billion more. And the reissues, with new special effects and restored scenes, seem calculated not just to rake in another fortune but to prime the public for the "prequel" trilogy, beginning in 1999. Those films will be hard-pressed to match the impact of the originals.

"The Force will be with you always," said Alec Guinness, as wise Obi-Wan Kenobi, in Star Wars, but the blessing settled more on Skywalker than on Hamill. Just before the 1977 premiere, the actor was in a car crash that necessitated reconstructive facial surgery, and his career hasn't had the trajectory of Harrison Ford's (the cynical pilot Han Solo) or Carrie Fisher's (she left Princess Leia for roles in Hannah and Her Sisters and When Harry Met Sally...plus success as a writer). Hamill has done voice-overs for cartoons and CD-ROMs. Still, two of his Wing Commander CD-ROMs grossed $100 million and, with his Star Wars royalties, have left him financially fit. He's also written and illustrated The Black Pearl, a comic-book thriller he wants to film. "I know people are laughing—'Luke Skywalker wants to direct!' " Hamill says. "Well let me tell you, so did Opie, Laverne and Meathead."

And how has the Force treated C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader, Wicket the Ewok, Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca? The pages ahead reveal what the last two decades have held for the actors who brought those characters memorably to life.

ANTHONY DANIELS: ROBOFOP

British actor Anthony Daniels was doing a play in London when his agent called to say, "Go see this American—he's making a low-budget sci-fi called Adventures of Luke Starkiller. There's no money in it at all, but it could lead to something." When the classically trained Daniels found out he'd be playing a robot that was called C-3PO, he didn't hesitate: "I said no." But his agent persuaded Daniels to work with "this American," George Lucas, on the project that became (with a hero renamed Skywalker) Star Wars. But Daniels's prissy "Threepio" was far from Lucas's vision of a sort of fast-talking, American used-car salesman. "It was months and months later that I found out that he hated what I was doing," says Daniels, 50, laughing. "He kept thinking that he could change it later."

Daniels grew up around London, dreaming of an acting career and building toy theaters out of cardboard. But his starchy father, a plastics company executive, saw his son going into science, not science fiction. "He used to set up a laboratory for me at home," the actor remembers. "But I was hopeless."

Since the Star Wars trilogy, Daniels (who has a 25-year-old son, Christopher, and lives in London with a girlfriend) has acted in a few British TV shows, but Threepio keeps him busy with SW comic books, CD and cassette readings—even a voice role as Threepio in a syndicated weekly TV cartoon (Droids). Though he attends SW conventions once a year or so, he wonders about the devotees he meets at such gatherings. "I worry when I see fans that have seen the films 400 times," he says. "I make them promise not to see them again."

KENNY BAKER: LUV U, R2
For Kenny Baker, R2-D2 was a welcome, if uncomfortable, part. Although the lovable robot was often remote controlled, whenever "Artoo" needed to show some personality, the 3'8" Baker would step in. Literally. "They just pulled the top off and put me inside it—I'd just have to put all my energy into wobbling it along," says Baker, who weighed the same—70 lbs.—as the contraption. Since then, the veteran performer has appeared in 1981's Time Bandits and 1988's Willow and has returned to the British cabaret circuit, where he first did a comedy act back in the 1960s. (Jack Purvis, who played the chief Jawa in SW, was his partner until a 1991 car accident left him paralyzed.) Two years later, Baker's four-foot wife, Eileen, mother of their two sons, died of a blood clot, leaving him alone offstage too. While Baker, now 63, still tools around in a racing-green Rolls-Royce from his home near Manchester, England (and flies to SW conventions), he's thinking of slowing down. Except for that prequel. "If R2-D2 is in the movie, I'll be in the movie," he vows. "That's what George Lucas told me."

DAVE PROWSE SCORES A DARTH VICTORY
Never mind that his face was hidden behind a black visor and his voice dubbed by a more ominous-sounding James Earl Jones. To the fans who queue for his autograph at Star Wars conventions, the 6'6", 238-lb. Dave Prowse, now 60, is Darth Vader in more than frame only. "They gape at you and say, 'I've been living with you for the last 20 years,' " marvels the former 1960s British weightlifting champ and sometime screen villain (1970's The Horror of Frankenstein). The person who literally has been living with him for those 20 years—and 13 more—in their South London house is wife Norma, 55, mother of their three grown children. "He's very gentle and quite kind," Norma says of her husband. Despite hip and ankle surgery in recent years, Prowse still works out at the London gym he has owned since 1970 and where he once helped Christopher Reeve bulk up as Superman. Although his clients "are almost all youngsters," says Prowse, "I pride myself that I can run rings around 'em."

WARWICK DAVIS IS EWOKIN' TALL
"I have hugged Harrison Ford's leg, and not many people can say that," quips Davis, recalling the scene in Jedi where, as Wicket, one of the pint-size-yet-scrappy Ewoks who help Han Solo and friends defeat the evil Empire, the then-12-year-old, 2'11" Davis grabbed six-footer Ford in jubilation. Davis, a native of Surrey, England, who in 1982 had answered an open casting call for little people, also has fond memories of Carrie Fisher, who served him milk and cookies between takes, and Mark Hamill, who gave him Star Wars toys. "I've still got them all upstairs," says Davis (now 26 and a feisty 3'6") in the four-bedroom house in Lincolnshire (100 miles north of London) he shares with his actress wife, Samantha Burroughs, 26. The couple met in 1985, when she visited the set of Labyrinth, in which he played a goblin. After their 1991 wedding, they honeymooned on Lucas's Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif. Davis, who has also played the title villain in four Leprechaun horror movies, is eager to work again for his first director. "I have had official word that I will be involved," he says of the new Star Wars prequels to begin filming next year. "I would do it for nothing."

BILLY DEE WILLIAMS BRUSHES UP HIS IMAGE
"The kids at my daughter Hanako's elementary school used to come up to me and say, 'You betrayed Han Solo!' " exclaims Billy Dee Williams, 58, recalling his role as the smooth yet shady mercenary, Lando Calrissian, in Empire and Jedi Though he isn't losing any sleep these days over those long-ago complaints, Williams does stay up most of the night at his L.A. mountainside condo pursuing his first love: painting. ("I have always preferred artificial light," he says.) A former art student in New York City who got sidetracked into acting (Lady Sings the Blues, Brian's Song), Williams has seen what he calls his abstract-reality works sell for up to $35,000. As an actor, though, he has taken his lumps. Williams is due for hip surgery on Feb. 4, the result of a rappelling stunt he says he did a few years ago on a film. His domestic life has also been bumpy. Last March the thricewed star was ordered to undergo 52 sessions of counseling after a 1996 arrest for alleged battery against then-girlfriend Patricia Von Heitman. The charge will be dismissed in April. Meanwhile he and third wife Teruko (Hanako's mom) "are getting back together" after a four-year separation, he says. And if his film career has slowed in recent years, no matter. Thanks to the SW trilogy, says Williams, "I'll have an audience for the rest of my life."

THAT FIRST STEP WAS THE BIGGEST FOR PETER MAYHEW
In 1975, Peter Mayhew was just your average 7'3" orderly at London's King's College Hospital until a visiting newspaperman spied his size-16 tootsies and printed a photo of them. The picture, noticed by a film producer, led Mayhew to a B-movie role (as a monster in 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), which in turn led to his signing as Han Solo's furry Wookie sidekick, Chewbacca, in the Star Wars trilogy. "I think they were just glad to have someone to fill the costume," Mayhew jokes. He eventually drifted into the secondhand lumber business in northern England, but two years ago, SW convention-mania hit, and now, at 52, Mayhew spends his time signing autographs (at $5 each) for rabid SW fans. "Basically that's what I have been doing ever since," he says happily. "They fly you out, pay your expenses. It's the best job I've ever had." Off the road, Mayhew, who's never been married, lives in a three-bedroom home overlooking the moors in Yorkshire, England. His only regret, he says, is that he didn't save all those boxes of Star Wars toys that manufacturers sent him 20 years ago. "I wish I had kept the whole lot of them," he says wistfully. "The original stuff is worth a fortune these days."

MICHELE KELLER and JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles and BRYAN ALEXANDER, JOANNA BLONSKA, LYDIA DENWORTH and SIMON PERRY in London

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