At a recent Q&A, a highly intelligent member of Star Wars fandom asked me whether or not The Wonder Column would ever return. Apparently it had brightened her day, back in more innocent times when the Insider magasine would arrive by mail, in the days before the word ‘snail’ was attached to it (mail rather than the Insider), in the days before cyberspace.
I had been thinking of digitising the whole thing and this was my inciting incident. Someone remembered that they had seemed fun. At the time.
Here are some excerpts for you to mull over. So read on, in the spirit of retro nostalgia.
..not long after a long time ago, Dan Madsen, at that time the brilliant publisher of The Star Wars Insider magazine, was once again long on space and short on ideas. Out of sheer desperation he asked me to write down some of my memories of, what would become, Classic Star Wars. He left it to me to decide the way it should be – Big mistake!
So over the following decades the Wonder Column took shape. Well really it lost its shape entirely and became a ramble through the rather sillier things that go on on a Star Wars set and indeed, go on off it from time to time. I was even bold enough to add reference to the outside (real) world and even to historical (real) events in my life and the lives of others (including Julius Caesar, who by the way, I’ve never met personally). I do not make up the stories you will read. I’m not that clever or inventive. They happened. The fact that they happened years before I wrote about them years ago gives them a historical charm. Well, they’re old anyway… you can decide about the charm bit…
It started, as we all know, a long time ago but for some of us there’s nearly 20 years more to add to that, so sometimes my memory may let me down – do feel free to tell me if it does.
I felt rather let down when they wanted to dress a stunt man in the gold suit, for the honour of falling off the mountain when the Tuscan Raider attacked Luke in Star Wars. I felt they were taking away a part of my role. I was upset.
If I did the fall, they explained, I could be severely hurt and unable to continue filming at all. I helped them dress Joe from Props before he could change his mind. But then – No spectacular free-fall to crescendoing death hundreds of feet down – No blood dripping ominously from 3PO’s tangled joints – No ominous silence from the wreckage – just a backwards lean of about seventy degrees out of camera shot and onto piles of soft mattresses four feet below.
“I could have done that!”
“Really? O.K. then!”
Fortunately, they didn’t need do a retake after all.
Stunt people really do earn their pay and I was less argumentative years later when, instead of me, they dressed Tracy Eddon in a copy of my suit, to fall off Jabba’s Barge. Remember? When R2 is being particularly clumsy – sorry – helpful! We were actually about 70 feet above the (fake) desert floor, with the extra attraction of the Sarlacc pit adding another 40.
Now, in all modesty, I should point out that is was actually me up there being shunted around by Artoo, terrified that he would, as usual, go too far. The railings around the deck had been blown away, leaving a death trap for careless pedestrians and I had even less vision than usual since Salacious Crumb had pulled out my eye, which was aimlessly dangling around my face by this point. So there I was, three quarters blind, locked in a biscuit tin, 110 feet up, with a demented machine gleefully nudging me over. We rehearsed my terror performance.
“Could you get a little closer to the edge for us?”
Were they trying to tell me something?
So then all Tracy had to do was stand right at the edge and fall over it. All? Even though her suit was a rubber version of mine, it made me nervous to watch her prepare. On “Action” she copied my earlier arm gestures then tipped into space, turned in mid air and hurtled backwards, crashing down onto the safety boxes way below. And with the editor’s skill, you’d never know it wasn’t me. Loud applause from cast and crew – and me.
And then of course, Tracy climbed all the way back up to the deck, took off the gold/rubber suit and put on Leia’s slave dress/outfit/truss thing (how would you describe it?) and swung across the sky with Luke, into the skiff as the Barge began to explode, because she was also small enough to be Carrie’s stand in as well as mine. And she is very welcome to her job!
Of course some members of the crew couldn’t watch her feats of daring do; the stuntmen lying around the pool at the Stardust Motel back in Yuma – victims of the All Powerful Sarlacc. They may have avoided being slowly digested over a thousand years but their broken and plastered limbs bore witness to the fact that maybe the Sarlacc was more powerful than any of us realised. The Motel looked like a sanatorium in the end.
Let’s face it, the stunt crew are some of the really unsung heroes of the movies. Mark Hamill does fight his own battles but it is Bob Anderson who often wields the Light Sabre as Darth in those spectacular sword fights. Mark always gratefully credits Colin Skeaping with doing most of the really dangerous bits for him. I think he agrees with me; they’re all welcome to their jobs.
But there was one time in Star Wars that I really was rather scared.
INTERIOR: REBEL BLOCKADE RUNNER – MAIN HALLWAY
Soldiers are staring at the wide white door in the shatteringly white set. Camera crew are watching from behind plastic safety screens. George Lucas is watching from behind the crew. I’m watching from behind George – call me Mr Sensible!
A rather big one. Smoke rolls up and fills the set. Something dark fills the hole blasted in the wide white door. Darth Vader? The Avon Lady? Hard to tell, since the smoke seems to be rolling faster than the film, obscuring the facts. Coughing. Ears ringing.
The explosion seems to have been very realistic but that soldier will be fine…(“Nurse!”) – in a moment.
And then, rather tactlessly, I thought – timing is everything – they asked me to do the shot where 3PO teeters across the same corridor, avoiding vicious blaster fire and exits through a doorway that then explodes. After what I had just seen? Blaster fire has never worried me that much and anyway, you may have noticed, the baddies always seemed to be rather poor shots – but explosions?
Waiting to shoot felt more like waiting to be shot, though I could appreciate the artistry with which the effects crew disguised garlands of explosive squibs around the door frame through which I would shortly rush. With my start mark on the left of the corridor I had ample chance to study the large, wok-like mortar of assorted rubble, junk and explosives aimed towards me through the doorway opposite at, shall we say, just below waist level. Detonation just after I cleared the frame, good; detonation a fraction of a second sooner, not so much. How was that soldier doing? What would…
Oh well. I shuffled toward the doorway, the mortar, the explosives. Was the operator watching closely? Was his finger itchy? I was closer. Any moment…
I felt a rush of air and a very sudden warm glow where I normally keep my money but I was alive!
Timing is everything!
But I did actually do a stunt – sort of – once!
INTERIOR: MILLENNIUM FALCON – GUNPORTS.
As Luke and Han prepare to battle with the Tie Fighters in Star Wars, 3PO scuttles off down a corridor in the Falcon – looking for R2 to tell him something important. Cut to the fight in space; Cut to laser fire; Cut to 3PO walking towards camera and the explosion that painfully blasts him backwards against the wall. Thrilling stuff!
What you may not know is that it wasn’t the explosion that hurled me against the wall but two hefty stunt men. You can’t tell, because they were on the other side of the wall, on the far end of pulleys and ropes attached to a wire, running through the wall and connected at the back to a large belt around my waist, with the slack laid out backwards, along the edge of the corridor. (I know this is tricky, so follow me closely). Gently taking up the slack as I, like a condemned man, walked reluctantly forward and beyond the hole and, cued by the explosion between me and the camera, the stunt men yanked the ropes with all their strength, which picked me up off my feet so fast, I was smashed against the wall and nearly pulled through it.
Voices yelled in panic.
Quickly the crew rushed forward through the smoke.
But -Thank The Maker – the wall was all right!
Then there was the day that … …Oh dear.
Mickey’s big hand has moved on, so, as I’m afraid they say in Hollywood….
Catch You Next Time.
Not everything Anthony Daniels says should be taken seriously. Ed