Thousands of voices cried out and were suddenly silenced Thursday — awestruck as 40 years of galactic history united on stage before them.
At the opening event of Star Wars Celebration in Orlando, Florida, on Thursday, original Star Wars director George Lucas and original stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew, and Anthony Daniels celebrated 40 years of the saga and paid tribute to Carrie Fisher in the process (more on the Fisher tribute here).
The event was hosted by Warwick Davis, who was just a boy when he played Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi and most recently appeared as a tiny Rebel warrior in Rogue One. Also in attendance were Billy Dee Williams, Hayden Christiansen, Ian McDiarmid, and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy.
Ahead, highlights from the event as it happened in real-time.
— Kicks off with a video showing footage of fans lined up a long time ago: May 1977, outside the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood when the original movie premiered to sell-0ut crowds. It cuts to shots of present-day kids, dressed in costumes at recent Celebration conventions, accompanied by their parents (many of them dressed as their favorites heroes, villains, and creatures, too.)
— Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy opens the panel — wearing a Star Wars t-shirt with her silver pantsuit. “The greatest honor for me is to acknowledge the man whose collective genius brought us all together,” she says. Before she can finish, “Please welcome …” the audience is already on its feet. George Lucas is here.
Gigantic cheers for the father of Star Wars, who has stepped back from the productions after selling the company. “We love you George!” and chants of “Lucas! Lucas! Lucas!” greet him.
“Does that always happen when you walk into a room?” Davis asks.
“Not like this.”
Davis asks how he feels four decades later. Lucas expresses disbelief. “I hired you when you were 11 years old,” Lucas tells him. “Now you have grey hair.”
Next they pay tribute to two Star Wars legends lost in the past year: Princess Leia’s Carrie Fisher and R2-D2 actor Kenny Baker. “We will continue celebrating their legacies today, and also beyond,” Davis says.
Reflecting on the origins of Star Wars, Lucas describes struggling to impress studio heads with his rock ‘n’ roll coming of age story American Graffiti, then trying to sell them on his outer space adventure, which he jokes he described as “Dogs flying space ships.” Ouch, Chewbacca.
“I wasn’t supposed to say this then, or now, but it’s a film for 12-year-olds,” he says. “In the real world … critics … certain fans. They’re not very nice.”
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Davis reads a letter he wrote to Lucas after filming Return of the Jedi. He wanted to get some early samples of the toys.
— Dave Filoni, executive producer of The Clone Wars and the current Rebels animated series, joins Lucas on stage. He says the Yoda-like advice he got from Lucas was “Never make a decision out of fear.”
— Qui-Gon Jinn makes an appearance. Liam Neeson appears via video from the Canadian Rockies where he is in bloody make. “We’re making a movie, a very unofficial movie, about Jar-Jar Binks. Spoiler alert: he did go to the dark side.” The video ends with, “May the Force be with you.”
— Lucas welcomes two “Dark Side rock stars” as The Emperor, Ian McDiarmid, and Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen, join the panel. Lucas says McDiarmid is “one of the loveliest people in the world. He’s nothing like the Emperor.”
“Only occasionally,” McDiarmid says.
Christensen and McDiarmid both agree their favorite scene was the opera seduction when Palpatine persuades the future Darth Vader to turn against the Jedi. The younger actor says growing up with Star Wars makes it tough to stop making the “waaaannh, waaahn” lightsaber sound during fight sequences.
McDiarmid recalled the audition process for 1983’s Return of the Jedi. “George doesn’t go into lengthy explanations,” he says. “We met briefly with Richard Marquand over lunch. I went home and the phone was ringing and my agent said, ‘You’ve got the part.’ I said, ‘Great… what’s the part?'” He says his agent riffled through some papers and said: “Apparently he’s called ‘The Emperor of the Universe.'”
When he was brought back for the prequels, McDiarmid said he was disappointed to play Palpatine because he liked the mysterious Darth Sidious better. “I thought, ‘I wish I was playing that character. Then I found out, I was playing both of them.”
— Now a video from Samuel L. Jackson, who played Jedi elder Mace Windu in the prequels. He was last seen in Revenge of the Sith getting hurled from a window but used this panel as a chance to argue for a comeback. “We know Jedi can fall from incredible heights and survive. I am not dead!” Jackson declared. “We know a long rich history Star Wars characters reappearing with new appendages. Mace Windu is awaiting his return.”
— Live on stage now: C-3PO actor Anthony Daniels, Chewbacca’s Peter Mayhew, and Cloud City mover and shaker Lando Calrissian, Billy Dee Williams. Lucas says the protocol droid was designed to have a face that was “completely neutral. When you walk in, you wonder: What is he thinking?”
He also outed Daniels as a mime, which he hired because he initially felt Threepio’s performance would be mainly in the movements, rather than the voice.
Mayhew talks about Carrie Fisher. “My favorite memory is, she was a hell of a Rebel, but she’s also a beautiful princess.”
Lucas shares the legend of how he came up with Chewie. “The stories are all true. I had a large dog named Indiana, an Alaskan malamute, and he would ride around in the front seat of the car. I loved that image. When he sat in the car, he was bigger than I was. I thought that would be a fun character for Star Wars.”
He said that in the original Star Wars script, there were lots of Wookiees — and they were more like Ewoks. “They weren’t technical at all. They were primitive,” Lucas says. “When I moved along and realized I had to cut Wookiees out of the movie. I decided to save one and make him the copilot.”
Williams described the key to Lando Calrissian as “the cape and the name Calrissian, an Armenian name. I – A – N,” he says. It felt distinct in the galaxy. “I didn’t want to do a stereotypical, cliche character. i wanted to do something special. Something bigger than life.”
— Luke Skywalker is here. And he speaks! Mark Hamill thanks the thousands of fans for their continued enthusiasm. “They’re more supportive than my own family,” he jokes. “I’m stunned by the passion that has lasted all these years.”
Davis asks what qualities Hamill had that made Lucas decide: “This is Luke Skywalker.”
“I’m not sure I want to hear this,” Hamill says.
Lucas says it was a year-long process of auditioning actors until they got down to two or three contenders. Then he mixed and matched them with the other Leia and Han actors to find the best team chemistry. “That and the fact that he was shorter than I was,” Lucas says.
“I tried to talk him out of that line, by the way, ‘Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper,'” Hamill says, recalling the first line Leia says to Luke. “Does she have to say that?”
They play a clip from Hamill’s audition, featuring a tongue-twister line, one they actually killed from the script. “He was right, it was a bit much,” Lucas says, as Hamill repeats the line. “Although it stuck in your brain.”
Davis points out that C-3PO, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian (and Wicket) onstage with Lucas. “It doesn’t get better than this … or actually it does,” the emcee says before introducing Harrison Ford.
Ford begins by trying to recite his own tangled line about “the nave-computer,” confirming that he told Lucas: “You can type this … uh, stuff. But you can’t say it.”
Davis teases Ford about his recent FAA warning over landing on the wrong part of a Southern California airport. “I can’t believe we kept this a secret, considering you landed your plane on I-4,” Davis says.
“But it was a good landing,” Ford said.
— Ford had appeared in American Graffiti, but Lucas said that small role didn’t do much for his career. Then he went back to carpentry. Lucas says a casting director urged ford to hang around outside Lucas’ office until he got a part.
“Rubbish,” Ford says. He corrects the story by saying he was working on a door for Francis Ford Coppola’s art director. “I love you, but I wasn’t going to wait around for you,” Ford says.
He credits the story of Star Wars with the enduring popularity, rather than the cast. “An actor without a story to tell may as well go home,” Ford says.
With that, the legacy actors from Star Wars have ended their presentation and say goodbye.
— Kennedy and Lucas remain onstage. Carrie Fisher is gone, but they pay tribute to her in spirit. “We can’t celebrate 40 years of Star Wars without remembering our beloved princess,” Davis says.
“Carrie Fisher, I said … I said many times now, she really is a modern woman, and she isn’t just a woman where you put guys clothes on her and she becomes a hero,” Lucas said, his voice breaking briefly. “She was a princess, she was a senator, and she played a part that was very smart. And she had to hold her own with two big lugs, these goofballs who were screwing everything up. But it was her war.”
Fisher often called herself the “custodian of Leia.” Lucas went further: “She was that character: she was very mart, very funny, very bold, very tough. There are not very many people like her. They’re one in a billion.”
Kathleen Kennedy also choked up as she spoke. “She will be remembered forever. Even by those who are not yet old enough to say: ‘May the Force be with you.'”
— Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, takes the stage in a gown reminiscent of Princess Leia’s white costume from the original movie. “She loved you because you embraced all of her,” Lourd told the fans. “The strong soldier she was and the vulnerable side, who fought her own dark side.”
“She loved this incredible character she got to create — this force, called Leia,” Lourd said.
She ended with words of wisdom she learned from her mother — then recited Leia’s full monologue from the original film that ends with: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”
— Now we see a video montage of Leia’s greatest screen moments and Fisher’s greatest off-screen remarks, played out to the tune of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” Watch it here:
It includes interview clips of Fisher over the years, reciting the same speech Lourd just did. Heavy emotion in the audience as she whispers the final line.
— As the Fisher tribute ends, a curtain raises, revealing composer John Williams and a full orchestra. Grief turns to elation as the crowd leaps to its feat shouting.
Williams puts a finger to his lips and the room of thousands hushes. He raises his baton and the orchestra begins playing “Princess Leia’s Theme.”
After that bittersweet moment, Williams rouses the crowd again with the stirring main title theme of Star Wars.
With that, the 40th anniversary panel ends — and the rest of Star Wars Celebration begins.