The original Star Wars trilogy was one of the few franchises to pull a film industry hat-trick: it became an overnight institution of pop culture, each installment was a box office-shattering success, and — perhaps the most unbelievable feat of all — it starred what can be hailed as the perfect ensemble of actors. And it’s by no means a happy accident that each scene is alive with authentic chemistry; director George Lucas is well known to have been very selective when handpicking the cast that would bring Star Wars to life, devoting nearly half a year to assessing hopefuls that numbered in the thousands. Many who auditioned were likely never seen or heard from in Hollywood again, but among them were those that eventually saw their names lights years later — along with an established household name or two. Give these guys a chance and discover the actors and actresses who didn’t make the cut!
A Solo Act
Despite appearing in numerous films before and since Star Wars, there’s simply no separating Harrison Ford from his performance as Han Solo. As far as fans are concerned, Ford is Han, Han is Ford. It seemed fitting that Lucas cast a familiar face from American Graffiti gifted with roguish onscreen gravitas, but the truth of the matter is Ford was hardly his first choice. In fact, he wasn’t a choice at all. Lucas was adamant about casting unknowns for Star Wars, and by the time auditions began, Ford was already recognizable among audiences. Instead he was hired on to run lines with prospective talent trying out for the roles of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa.
Actors both semi and yet-to-be-famous showed up to take a crack at Han. One of them was Sylvester Stallone, who in a 2010 interview with Ain’t It Cool News could tell by Lucas’ silence that he wasn’t quite up to par. Robert Englund, nearly a decade before his transformation into A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, also auditioned immediately after being turned down for a part in director Francis Ford Coppola’s (a confidant of Lucas) Apocalypse Now. In an interview with Yahoo back in November, Englund said that he was considered too young to play Han, but later that evening told his friend, a young Mark Hamill, about casting calls for “this space movie” that would change his life forever.
Rounding out this collection of burgeoning celebrities was Kurt Russell, then known for his starring roles in Disney’s slate of live-action films that included The Barefoot Executive and Superdad. If his audition tapes were any indication, Russell was essentially the closest to what Lucas was looking for in Han (slightly older than Luke and possessing a world-weary sarcasm beyond his years), but the honor as we all know went to Ford, inadvertently displaying an inimitable spark with Hamill and Carrie Fisher during script run-throughs — coming out on top in true smuggler fashion!
Many Come to Walk the Sky
As Star Wars’ innocently goodhearted hero of the hour, casting the right Luke was certainly the most challenging part of the audition process. In the 2004 documentary Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, Lucas was looking for an actor who exuded the bright and energetic qualities he intended for the character. Of those that auditioned, Hamill secured the role thanks to his earnest line delivery and, as mentioned earlier, Englund’s suggestion to try out for the part (in Hollywood, rare is the friend with your best interests in mind). But before he was a shoe-in, several other actors waited anxiously in line, including American Graffiti alumnus Charles Martin Smith and, perhaps the most recognizable of all among TV culture enthusiasts, William Katt a.k.a. The Greatest American Hero’s Ralph Hinkley. Being a superhero might be nice, but a Jedi is definitely better!
In her interview for Empire of Dreams, Fisher couldn’t believe that she landed the part of Princess Leia Organa, rising above a room of what she saw as experienced competition; two minor television roles notwithstanding, Star Wars was her major debut. Vying for the hair buns was yet another American Graffiti veteran, Cindy Williams — some years prior to her nationwide popularity as Shirley Feeney on Happy Days and the co-eponymous spin-off series Laverne & Shirley — and Terri Nunn, a smalltime actress later known far more famously as the lead vocalist for the ‘80s new wave group Berlin. If there had been a musical number in Star Wars, things might have gone a little differently…
War of the Voices
He isn’t even the man behind the mask, yet millions of people associate James Earl Jones — and his signature vocal timbre — with Darth Vader. Jones had a fairly notable film and television career since the early ‘60s, though it was his presence in theater that brought him to Lucas’ attention. Initially, Orson Welles was considered to voice the Empire’s chief enforcer, appropriate in light of his superb acting prowess and legendary radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, the latter’s unforeseen fallout a defining moment in sci-fi history. But bringing on Welles would have violated Lucas’ rule to utilize established actors. As a result the spot opened up for Jones.
“What’s Up, Droid?”
Some might guess that Anthony Daniels’ foppish portrayal of C-3PO as a droid hardwired for social decorum earned him the role when, in actuality, it was his pantomiming skills alone (ideal for a character incapable of facial expressions). Interviews with the Star Wars’ production crew in Empire of Dreams revealed that the idea was thrown around to give C-3PO a voice stereotypical of used car salesmen, of which would have been dubbed over Daniels’ lines in editing. Some of the greatest voiceover artists of the day were called in for auditions, such as Stan Freberg — voice of Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent in Time for Beany — and the man behind nearly every Looney Tunes character, Mel “Man of a Thousand Voices” Blanc. According to Daniels, it was Blanc that felt his English butler-inspired performance suited C-3PO far better than any wisecracking rabbit or lisping duck ever could. That’s all folks!
Steven Romano is a writer, a geek culture enthusiast and, above all, a longtime fan of the galaxy far, far away. Landspeeder, don’t bantha, over to his blog and Twitter at @Steven_Romano.