Monday, December 14, 2015

Star Wars Memories 14: The Men Behind the Masks

The Men Behind the Masks, looking pretty much
like they did when I met them.

It didn’t take long for everyone else to jump on the gravy train to Star Wars Town. This era saw the rise of collectible toys, and that was largely due to the Special Editions and the massive interest they generated in all things Star Wars. The toys were back out on the shelves; old Kenner designs with new, more colorful paint jobs. New figures, including a whole spate of characters they never got around to producing the first time out. Lucas was everywhere, defending his “vision” and the rumors were flying hot and heavy that a new trilogy was being talked about. It was inevitable that we’d start seeing Star Wars actors popping up at conventions.

Not the big three, mind you. Not really. Mark Hamill had become an in-demand voice actor, playing, of all things, The Joker. He was famous to a whole new generation of kids for a completely different reason. He was always working, too, so he couldn’t do a lot of shows that weren’t in the Los Angeles area.

Same for Carrie Fisher. She became an author and for years made big bucks in Hollywood as a script doctor, making silk purses out of sow’s ears, and getting paid handsomely (and anonymously) for it. Aside from the occasional bit part or local gig, she just wasn’t making the rounds.

Harrison Ford? Are you kidding me? Solo? Decker? Indiana Jones? He would have broken any convention he went to. There would be riots to get to him. Besides, he was notoriously reclusive. He didn’t talk much about Star Wars. He took a lot of other acting gigs designed to broaden his range from Space Pirate. No, he wasn’t out there, signing autographs, like the Star Trek actors were. He didn’t need this.

Everyone else, on the other hand, was ready for another pay day. From Peter Mayhew, the actor behind Chewbacca, to the third stormtrooper on the left in scene 131, all of the faceless actors who spent time under make-up, in suits of one kind or another, were ready to take some bows. Some national convention organizers came up with a compelling hook: “The Men Behind the Masks” Tour. Now you could meet Dave Prowse (Darth Vader)! Jeremy Bullock (Boba Fett)! Anthony Daniels (C3PO)! And so many more! All in a convention setting with vendors selling, oh, everything. And the show was coming to Austin.

I was going. That’s all there was to it. Brent from Waco was driving in, and he was bringing the Gold Vader Case with him. You see what I mean? This was a big deal. I knew most of the dealers, as they were local. All of my regulars from Austin Books were going to attend. Again, this was a big deal. I’m a convention veteran, and I’ve seen and met a lot of celebrities, both Geeky and Otherwise, but I’ve never had the chance to meet Chewbacca and Darth Vader before. Real Darth Vader, at that; Super Duper Darth Vader can suck it.

Of course, this was one of those shows where, if you wanted anything signed, it cost money. Twenty bucks a signature. I wanted photos, so that was part of the deal. Other people were bringing action figures, books, their own stuff. It cost more, of course, per signature. Some folks spent hundreds of dollars getting multiple autographs from everyone. What could we do? We had no choice, really.

I spoke to Jeremy Bulloch at some length. Nice guy. He knew he won the lottery, playing Boba Fett. He even signed another photo to my at-the-time girlfriend. See, she had a problem with Boba Fett. Her problem was, everyone loved him, and he didn’t do anything in the movie except get knocked into the Sarlaac Pit. Even after we tried to explain it to her, she wouldn’t budge. “If he’s such a bad ass, why didn’t Lucas show that to anyone?” It was very frustrating to both of us.  So I had Jeremy write on her picture, “I don’t understand it, either.” He liked the story when I told it to him.

Dave Prowse was in some poor health, but he was very kind and nice. I thanked him for my childhood, and he seemed to understand where I was coming from. We were all saying some version of the same thing, anyway. At the time, there was some controversy about how much time Prowse spent in the Vader suit, because he had some back problems. So he was signing his picture, “Dave Prowse IS Darth Vader.” I wouldn’t have tried to dispute him on that claim for a second.

Peter Mayhew was great; smiling and chatting with the fans. I enjoyed listening to him explaining to one fan about how he had to speak some dialogue and make noises in order to move the mouth on his mask, but he wasn’t under strict orders to follow the script. He smiled, and we all got the impression that Chewie sometimes said things that were not on the approved dialogue list. Lots of fun.

Kenny Baker, the guy inside of Artoo Detoo, was great. He brought stills from Time Bandits (he played Fidget), and I had him sign one of those for me.

Who else was there? Michael Carter, the guy who played Bib Fortuna (“He is no Jedi...”), was there, and he didn’t look too happy about it. I decided not to engage him. I didn’t want a negative experience, you know? John Hollis, the guy who played Lobot, was there, as well. He was great, cracking jokes, and laughing it up. I wanted him to sign something, but I was just about out of dough. Thankfully the folks in the autograph line took pity on me. I walked up to him and introduced myself. I told him I didn’t have enough money for a signed photo, so would he sign my big bald head?

Bulloch started laughing. “Do it,” he said, “that’s what we’re here for.”

Hollis looked taken aback. “I...well, I...that is...Right!” He stood up, grabbed a Sharpie, and attacked the side of my head. “It’s very hard to get a straight line...on your scalp...” he said.

“Don’t I know it,” I said.

He thought that was funny. There’s photos of me walking around like that. Lobot’s autograph on the side of my big bald head.

It doesn’t seem like much, but I loved that show. Being there, just as a fan, and meeting people I’ve spent my whole life enjoying and emulating was a treasured memory. I liked getting the chance to thank them for being a part of my childhood. Of course, at the time, it was just a job. They were all British, so for them it was a gig just one or two rungs up the pecking order from being a monster on Dr. Who. Now, here they were, in America, being fawned over like they were the Rolling Stones.

These days, the larger conventions have absorbed them. Peter Mayhew at Comic-Con. Kenny Baker at Dragon-Con. Even Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher make the occasional rare appearance now and again. But there was something really special about them all being in the same place, at the same time. It was a family reunion, and all of the cool uncles had shown up.  Even the fans were on their best behavior. No one asked embarrassing questions, or started arguments. We just had that day, and it was about as perfect a fan day as I’ve had in a while. I sometimes, under great duress, flash back to that day and it brightens my mood. Back to a more civilized time. Before the Dark Times.

Before the Prequels.

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