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An Oral History of the Star Wars Immunization Campaign

When President Carter needed help getting America’s children vaccinated, he didn't just turn to the CDC, he enlisted a couple of droids from a galaxy far, far away

It was a poster that was featured in thousands of doctors’ offices across America. “Parents of Earth, are your children fully immunized?” read the text at the top, accompanied by a generic-looking photograph of C-3PO and R2D2 standing there, doing absolutely nothing. 

Still, when you’re a kid with no pants on, sitting on a piece of butcher paper and waiting for a doctor to come in and shove some plastic thing in your ear, those familiar droids were a lot more interesting to look at than the doctor’s eye chart. It was probably comforting, too, as it lay in such stark contrast to the otherwise sterile doctor’s office.

Of course, this was back in the 1970s and the 1980s — now, some 40 years removed, those posters are just another piece of Star Wars merch on eBay, no different from old lunch boxes, trading cards or action figures. But to lump these posters in with everything else is to ignore their important and unique history. While the rest of that stuff was meant to make George Lucas more money, these posters — and the PSA that was also part of this campaign — was meant to save lives. 

Just as paranoia and misinformation runs rampant today about the COVID vaccine, in the 1970s, vaccines for things like measles and whooping cough were facing challenges of their own. 

Walter Orenstein, former director of the U.S. National Immunization Program: With smallpox being eradicated in 1977, many people had considered that measles might, someday, be able to be eradicated as well. In time, this would prove to be a failure because measles is just so much more transmissible than smallpox, but there have been several efforts to improve vaccination coverage overall. 

The measles vaccine was developed in 1963, and since then, there have been three major efforts to eliminate measles in the United States. The first effort was in the 1960s, and that was a failure. While a lack of access would be a problem in later efforts to eliminate measles, early on, so many people had had measles when they were younger that they thought, “What’s the big deal? I had it.” So efforts to vaccinate for it weren’t successful overall.

On the other end, whooping cough — or pertussis — which was also an issue then, had kind of the opposite problem. Pertussis was terrible, these kids would just cough and cough until they turned blue, but most people hadn’t seen the disease, so they didn’t know the dangers. That’s the other end of it, that sometimes a vaccine can be a victim of their own success. 

The second major effort to eliminate measles — which also included efforts to promote other vaccines — was in the Carter administration, beginning in 1977. For this one, there had been a big resurgence of the measles in the mid-1970s thanks to a lack of adequate vaccination coverage, so the Carter administration began a presidential initiative to improve our immunization coverage. A big focus of that effort was on trying to ensure that children in schools were adequately vaccinated, which meant enacting and enforcing school vaccination laws in all 50 states.

While legislation and enforcement was the focus of Carter’s initiative, there were other aspects to the plan as well, and one of them was to make use of the media to help deliver the message about vaccinations. 

Peter Shillingford, director of The Making of ‘Star Wars’ and the Star Wars Immunization PSA: My first contribution to Star Wars was as the director of The Making of ‘Star Wars. Back in 1976, a girlfriend of mine was working with a major producer here in London and she’d gotten wind of the fact that they wanted someone to make a behind-the-scenes look at Star Wars. So she told me to get my show reel to Gary Kurtz, one of the producers of Star Wars

I walked into Gary’s office on a Thursday and showed him my show reel, which was mostly commercials and a couple of short films that I did, and he said, “Yeah, great, you’re flying out on Saturday.” When I got on the plane to North Africa, I was seated next to Sir Alec Guinness, and I said to him, “What do you think of the script?” And he said, “I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, dear boy, but the money’s very good.” I didn’t like to hear that from one of our knights of the realm!

Anyway, I spent a few days in North Africa on set, and I shot what I needed to shoot and then I went back to London and shot some interiors there, and that was it. During this, at one point, I was talking to George Lucas and I told him that I’d be moving to Los Angeles in the next year. He said, “You’ve been doing a lot of commercials, right?” So he knew a little about me and then he told me when I got there to give him a call. 

I got to Los Angeles maybe a year later, and I got a call from his office saying that there were some people who would like to set up a couple of commercials in London, using R2-D2 and C-3PO, inside the original sets inside Elstree Studios. I got offered the job and I took it, so I’d been there about six months and suddenly I was flying back to London. 

I had two people from the government, I guess it was the CDC, and they were very pleasant. They were producers of some sort but they didn’t know too much so I basically set the whole thing up. I’m not sure who wrote the script for it — I don’t know if it was the CDC or someone at Lucasfilm or some combination of the two, that was all done before I’d arrived. 

C-3PO, from the Star Wars Immunization PSA: Come along, R2. Don’t be so silly. You can’t possibly be getting whooping cough. Droids don’t get diseases like whooping cough or measles or polio. But children do. If a young child gets whooping cough, it can lead to pneumonia, brain damage, even death. All you need is a little rewiring, but children need to be fully immunized. And alas, so many are not. 

Alright R2, I’ll ask them!

Parents of Earth, are your children fully immunized against childhood diseases? Call your doctor or local health department and find out. Immunize your children please. And may the force be with you.

Shillingford: When I got to Elstree Studios, I got one of the Star Wars sets out of the Elstree stockroom. I’d only worked briefly on the sets when I did the Making of, so I didn’t recognize the set or anything. I just pulled something out of the stockroom and said, “That’ll do,” and that was the set we used. 

After that, I went to the stock room where they kept C-3PO and R2-D2 and the gold fellow was a bit dirty. I called George up and said, “George, he’s a bit grubby, shall I clean him down?” George screamed on the phone — and George doesn’t scream — “No! No! Leave him exactly as he is!” He wanted that sort of used, abused look. If I’d cleaned him up, I might have been in trouble.

Shillingford with Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels on set shooting the PSA, courtesy of Peter Shillingford

The actors were both great. I’d looked after Anthony Daniels a bit when I was in Africa. He was quite grumpy then, but who wouldn’t be in that suit? I mean, he’s spent half his life in that bloody thing, so you could understand. For this commercial though, he was very pleasant. Then we put the little fellow, Kenny [Baker], into the tin can and he was just a lovely, lovely man. He was absolutely perfect, an absolute star. He kept the whole unit in laughs, and he also scared the daylights out of my mother because he tried to jump into her lap. He was wonderful. 

The filming went very, very well and it only took the one day. C-3PO was recorded live on set and we only did a few takes. It all went very smoothly. I had nothing to do with the post production myself. After I shot it, I heard not a word about it. 

I don’t know anything about that poster either, to be honest. It was clearly taken on set with the commercial, but I don’t even remember a photographer being there, and I didn’t take any photographs. Somebody must have stepped in and popped that off. 

Anthony Daniels, excerpt from I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story: American parents weren’t getting their kids vaccinated. Measles, polio and whooping cough were taking a toll on young lives. Just as it is today, the message was important but the spot itself was horrible — a sludgy, if informative script. We shot it in a faux sci-fi control room. Most memorable was the way R2 appeared to pay no attention to the laws of physics.

The control consoles were fairly standard. The floor was large black and white squares. It seemed the director was oblivious, or perhaps magnetized by 3PO’s words. Watching the finished piece, R2 magically changed position in each different camera angle — as though he was playing “hop-scotch” mixed with “grandmother’s footsteps.” It was a hilarious lesson in continuity failure. But the shoot gave me an idea. Eventually I would try to persuade the U.S. Health Department and Lucasfilm to make an anti-smoking spot. They would — if I wrote it. So I did.

Shillingford: No, I didn’t have anything to do with the smoking one. I just did that one day of shooting and that was it. Then I was off to do another PSA with Christopher Reeve at Pinewood Studios on the set of Superman. That commercial was it for me and Star Wars. I’m still a great fan of Star Wars though. I love it and was glad I got to be a part of it.

Public Health Reports, Volume 94, Number 1, January/February 1979, excerpt from “Poster Raises Interest in Immunization”: In a continuing effort to focus public awareness on childhood immunization, the Centers for Disease Control has distributed to state and local health departments copies of a poster featuring the “droids” R2-D2 and C-3PO from the movie Star Wars.

The poster has proved to be so popular that it has entered its second printing. The posters have been used as a reward to individual children who complete the basic immunization series, as reminders to parents in doctors offices, hospitals and pharmacies and as attention grabbers in announcing mass immunization clinics at schools and shopping centers. 

Orenstein: The overall campaign that began in 1977 did help reduce the number of measles incidents, but it didn’t eliminate measles in the United States. Years later, from 1989 to 1991, there would be another huge outbreak of measles, and yet another big push to eliminate measles came after that. 

Still, the campaign by the Carter administration was considered somewhat successful in that it significantly reduced the number of measles incidents for a number of years. It also clearly illustrated that those states who passed and enacted laws sooner had significantly lower cases than the states that didn’t enact and enforce those laws. We also had our last outbreak of polio in 1979 in the Amish population, and we haven’t had one since. So that campaign certainly had an impact.

We have to be careful though — we have to be concerned. In 2019, we had the biggest measles outbreak since 1992 and that was because it had primarily broken out in subpopulations that were opposed to vaccinations. So, we need to work with those populations and reassure those populations to be sure that an anti-vaccination movement doesn’t become a major problem. We need to counter their hesitancy and build confidence — that’s often the hard thing.

When I was director of the United States Immunization Program, my director of communication used to say to me, “You need the right message, delivered by the right messenger through the right communications channel.” That’s essential for building trust in any vaccine.