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Mark Hamill: The Soul of ‘Star Wars’ Returns

The latest installment of Misleading Men, the series where we look back at actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment

If you asked most people which Star Wars character they preferred — Luke Skywalker or Han Solo — I imagine the majority would go with Han. There are a few reasons why. Han is the more magnetic, daring, swashbuckling hero — he gets the girl and cracks a lot of jokes — while Luke is the more earnest, sensitive one. Han is the bad boy, while Luke is the nice guy.

Plus, there’s the matter of the actors who played them. Harrison Ford earned superstardom thanks to Han but remained a box-office draw in plenty of subsequent movies. Meanwhile, Mark Hamill has never matched the celebrity he enjoyed as Luke. The 66-year-old actor has done other good work, but of the original trilogy’s main stars — including the late Carrie Fisher — none of them is as intimately connected to Star Wars as Hamill is. As a result, he’s been the franchise’s unofficial caretaker. Everyone else moved on from that galaxy far, far away. But for Hamill — in the public’s mind, anyway — it became his permanent residence.

Hamill was born in Oakland, but he didn’t stay long. “My father was in the Navy,” he said in a 2015 interview. “I moved around quite a bit and when I was in Virginia, he would take a lot of trips to New York. By that time, I was already really interested in the theatre and television and film and he’d take me along so that I could see a lot of shows.” By high school, when his family was stationed in Yokohama, Japan, he knew he wanted to act, succeeding in convincing his drama department to produce You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown­ and to let him play Snoopy. “It’s still one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had on stage,” Hamill recalled, “made more meaningful because Charles Schulz was a big influence on me.”

He attended Los Angeles City College for drama, working odd jobs and landing the occasional acting gig — first on General Hospital and then The Bill Cosby Show. Everything we would later associate with Luke Skywalker was already in evidence. In these early roles, Hamill came across as a clean-cut California surfer-kid — a bit of a dreamer and believably boyish.

It was Hamill’s friend Robert Englund (who later became Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies) who mentioned the role of Luke Skywalker to him. As Englund told The Hollywood Reporter years later, he had auditioned to play Han, snagging the script pages for Luke on the way out. “On my couch when I got home was Mark Hamill. He was always at my house, practically a third roommate. … I said, ‘I think you’re right for this, Mark.’”

When Hamill tried out for the part in what would become George Lucas’s Star Wars, he didn’t try to overthink the character. “I just played it very sincere,” Hamill told People in 1981, “and I had the quality George was looking for.”

Working alongside Fisher and Ford, who were more experienced film actors at that point, Hamill brought a wide-eyed naiveté to his character. Even when he first read the script, he innately understood what was so evocative about the story’s fairytale-like quality. “One of my favorite films of all time is The Wizard of Oz and that sort of reminded me of it,” he recalled recently. “You know, if Dorothy were a boy instead of a girl getting swept off his boring desert planet, or Kansas, into a fantastical world where there’s a phantasmagorical collection of creatures and robots and villains and heroes. I was just astonished. I thought, How are they going to do this?

There’s probably nothing new to say about Star Wars — we all know how it changed Hollywood forever, how it changed popular culture forever and how it changed the lives of everyone involved forever. Hamill initially thought his character was going to be more of a sidekick, and in the original trilogy, it’s hard not to understand why he might have assumed that. At their core, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are the story of Luke’s maturation from a Tatooine nobody to a valiant Jedi who helps bring down the evil Empire.

But he’s not the cool one in the Rebellion. Fisher’s Leia had the attitude, while Ford’s Han flaunted the swagger. By comparison, Luke was the well-meaning, petulant kid beset with daddy issues and burdened with the responsibility of restoring order to the Force. Everybody else in Star Wars got to have fun or fall in love — Luke was the responsible one who loses his father, his mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and his innocence along the way.

Eventually, all three Star Wars stars struggled to escape the shadow of the franchise’s overwhelming success. Ford has long tried to distance himself from Han Solo, clearly feeling more affinity for his other iconic roles — especially Indiana Jones. Fisher, the youngest of the three, reinvented herself as a novelist and writer, although she also had a string of roles in successful big-screen comedies. Hamill tried pushing the envelope as well, appearing in Sam Fuller’s gritty 1980 World War II epic The Big Red One and playing Mozart in the stage version of Amadeus.

When the play was being turned into a film, Hamill hoped he could reprise the role. But no such luck: Tom Hulce got the part and the Oscar nomination in a movie that ended up winning eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Why had Hamill been turned down? As he explained in a 1986 interview, “[Amadeus director] Milos Forman told me, [affecting a Czech accent] ‘Oh no, you must not play the Mozart because the people not believing the Luke Spacewalker as Mozart.’ He was very upfront about it, and I appreciated that rather than getting my hopes up that it was possible I’d be playing the role.”

Forman wasn’t wrong. Even in some scratchy old TV footage of Hamill as Mozart, it’s impossible not to see Luke underneath that wig:

To turn the page, Hamill stopped allowing people to see him. In the mid-1980s, he started doing consistent voiceover work, and during the early 1990s, he hit upon the role that would be the most important for him since Luke Skywalker. He portrayed the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series and the big-screen Batman: Mask of the Phantasm — not to mention Batman video games. It was a character audiences associated with Cesar Romero (in the campy TV series) and Jack Nicholson (from the 1989 movie Batman). But Hamill figured out how to make it his own, emphasizing the villain’s psychotic laugh. “His laugh should be like a musical instrument,” he once explained. “It should sort of illustrate his mood. His could be ominous and intimidating. It could be gleeful and wild-abandon. But I didn’t want to just have one rote laugh.”

In the same interview, he confessed, “I love voiceover animation because people can’t see you. You make these choices that you would never do if you were doing a live-action role.”

By using the invisibility of voiceover, Hamill was able to recreate himself — he was now Batman’s diabolical nemesis, a cackling lunatic far removed from Luke’s polite nobility. Maybe just as important, audiences couldn’t automatically connect his Joker voice to him. In the process, the next act of Hamill’s career opened up.

Yet Luke was never too far behind. In large part because where other stars wanted to break free of the Star Wars orbit, Hamill has always had a friendly relationship with the movies that made him famous. “It’s clearly not for everyone — I get that,” Hamill told The New York Times in October about his generous interactions with super-fans. “But the passion of it all is just astonishing. The way it’s become part of the fabric of their lives — ‘I met my wife at this movie, we named our child Leia’ — it’s moving.”

That said, when it was announced that Disney would be making new Star Wars films after acquiring the rights from Lucas in 2012, Hamill wasn’t sure he wanted to reprise the role. “I was just really scared,” he admitted in the same Times profile. “I thought, why mess with it? The idea of catching lightning in a bottle twice was ridiculously remote.”

He needn’t have worried. Although his character barely factors into 2015’s mega-successful The Force Awakens, he’s crucial to this Friday’s The Last Jedi, in which Luke must train the young Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley). To say more would spoil the movie, but not since Return of the Jedi has Hamill been given such a substantial big-screen role. This isn’t the same likeable, little-brother Luke we knew from the original trilogy either. He may still flash those sensitive, lively eyes, but the Luke of The Last Jedi is older, gruffer, more haunted.

It’s the exact opposite of the Mark Hamill we’ve seen in recent days promoting the film. At The Last Jedi’s world premiere on Saturday night, he was the cast member who got the largest, warmest applause from the packed house at the Shrine Auditorium. Fisher is dead, and Ford’s Han has been killed off, so he now represents the last link to the original trilogy and its hold on the culture. And while doing promotion, he’s the opposite of Ford’s caustic, resigned talk-show presence — he actually looks like he’s having a blast walking red carpets and appearing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

“I’m really appreciating it now,” he told Colbert the other night. “In your 20s, you sorta take it for granted. And it’s so much more enjoyable — now that I’m in my early 80s.”

The joke was quintessential Mark Hamill — silly, a little dorky, full of gee-whiz sincerity. As a movie star, he never really figured out how to carry himself. And undoubtedly, that fact has been challenging career-wise for him at some points. But the critical and public embrace of The Last Jedi is inevitably also an embrace of Hamill’s connection to the franchise. Han might have been cooler, but the essence of Star Wars has always been its unbridled enthusiasm for adventure — its boyish excitement about traveling across the universe to save the day.

And that’s all Luke—and, of course, all Hamill.