In the winter of 1979-1980 I was 10 years old and living in suburban Long Island, where I filled my time being depressed about the New York Mets and eagerly awaiting the next Star Wars movie.
(How is my life different 35 years later? Not at all, it turns out.)
Back then, the movie on deck was The Empire Strikes Back — the cultural earthquake that would change Star Wars from a story into a saga, from a thrilling Flash Gordon homage to a family saga with mythological overtones. But my friends and I didn’t know any of that. All we had were rumors that had filtered down to us, supplemented by our own wild imaginings and a tiny amount of actual information.
Back then the Internet barely existed; the Star Wars-mad children of Long Island got their information from reading Starlog and Famous Monsters in the drug store until the guy behind the counter yelled that he wasn’t running a lending library, at which point you’d ask your mom to buy the magazine and she’d say no. So a lot of the intelligence we received was from classmates who’d snuck a peek at a magazine…or claimed they had. More on that in a minute.
There were bits of real information, of course. There was the theatrical trailer, with tantalizing glimpses of probots, TIE fighters, Cloud City, and other goodies, including the debut of Lando Calrissian. (I completely missed that the trailer was narrated by Harrison Ford, hamming it up shamelessly.) I’m certain I recall a production still of Luke on a tauntaun that we pored over for hours, as if the weave of its fur might reveal the entire story.
A clue to what lie ahead came from Kenner action figures. We knew about “fearsome interplanetary bounty hunter” Boba Fett. He’d shown up in the cartoon that was the only good thing about the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special (though with VCRs in their infancy none of us could watch the segment again), and a year later we’d sent off our Kenner proof of purchases and eventually received our Fett action figures, none of which came with the rocket-firing jetpack we’d been promised.
But people forget there was another preview figure for Empire — Bossk, originally billed as a secret Star Wars action figure.
We knew enough about Fett to make semi-informed guesses about his role in the story — we looked up what a bounty hunter was and Kenner told us Fett was a particular danger to Han Solo. But Bossk was a mystery — a big lizard with a cool rifle but no shoes. So we had to use our imaginations, which inevitably gave Bossk a much bigger role in The Empire Strikes Back than curling a toe and trash-talking Admiral Piett.
The run-up to Empire also taught me a valuable lesson. I had a friend who lived on the next cul-de-sac over who was one of those kids who always had to know more than you did. One day he said he’d flipped through an Empire Strikes Back book at the mall, and proceeded to explain Bossk’s role to the rest of us. I was skeptical, to say the least — this was early 1980 at the latest, and I was pretty sure that no such book was available — but then as now it was devilishly hard to prove a negative.
But then I got an idea for how to do just that.
“Did the book have a lot to say about Han Solo’s marriage to the Red Queen?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
My friend looked momentarily panicked, then went poker-faced. “A little bit,” he said. I didn’t confront him. I just nodded, thanked him…and never listened to anything he said again.
(By the way, Empire’s big secret held, at least among my friends — until I bought the Donald F. Glut novelization about two weeks before the movie came out. There it was, right on page 198, ruining everything.)
I don’t recall the same frenzy of expectation around Return of the Jedi, though we did argue quite a bit about the identity of the “other hope” noted by Yoda. (Everyone pretty much agreed it was Leia — no great deduction since the only clue pointed right at her.) A few of us got mailaway figures of Admiral Ackbar, memorable because he came armed with what looked like a banister from a staircase — a baffling accessory later reimagined by The Clone Wars team as a Mon Calamari battle baton.
By the time rumors were flying about The Phantom Menace, I was in my late twenties and most movie speculation had moved to the web and its oddball elder brother, Usenet newsgroups. I was dumbfounded by talk that, say, Obi-Wan Kenobi and friends would be seen flying the Millennium Falcon and have to fight hordes of assassin droids similar to IG-88. (Through the rumor mill’s funhouse mirror you can see a germ of truth there.)
My biggest regret about the run-up to Episode I? It’s that I dragged my wife to see Meet Joe Black because the Episode I trailer was shown before it and then again afterwards. (“Did you know?” she asked me, which still makes us laugh.) About 90 percent of the audience was there for the trailer; when Meet Joe Black’s credits finally rolled someone exclaimed “thank God that’s over” and the entire audience cheered.
After getting my early fill of rumors I tried to stay spoiler-free for Episode I, teasing myself by reading the Terry Brooks novelization but stopping at the chapter I heard began the movie. But my efforts were wrecked by the track listing for the film’s soundtrack, of all things. If you’re the person who saw nothing wrong with titling a track “Qui-Gon’s Noble End,” I’m still mad at you.
These days things are different — as someone who writes Star Wars books I generally can’t stay spoiler-free. But the fan furor over Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been a fun reminder of how things used to be. I know next to nothing about the new movie, so when I see and hear things I’m guessing about what’s accurate, what’s laughably off the mark, and what’s a distorted account of something true. Take away the leaks (which these days I find more disheartening than fun) and you’re left with a digital version of what you assembled from a peek at the new Starlog, a breathless schoolyard report from someone claiming to know someone who knows something, and something in the background of a production still. All we need is a secret mail-away action figure and my personal circle will be complete.
Jason Fry is the author of The Clone Wars Episode Guide and more than twenty other Star Wars books and short stories. He is also the author of The Jupiter Pirates young-adult series, which begins in December.