Star Wars (1977), Peter Cushing, & the Vision of George Lucas

October 23, 2020     Updated April 15, 2022

Star Wars

Harrison Ford Quits Acting, Peter Cushing Smells of Lavender, & Carrie Fisher Doesn’t Lose 10 Pounds. From 1977, it's Star Wars.

Listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood , available everywhere you listen to podcasts! Episode 32 is all about Star Wars and Peter Cushing.

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Words cannot convey the gargantuan success of Star Wars on its 1977 release.

Adjusted for inflation, only Gone with the Wind (1939) surpasses Star Wars in earnings at the US box office.  There’s arguably no other film series with such a loyal and constantly growing fanbase.  

Star Wars came from the mind of one man, George Lucas.  With Star Wars, the thirty-two year old Lucas created a whole new world of galaxies, technologies, and peoples.  Lucas not only wrote and directed the film, he also expertly conveyed his grand vision for Star Wars across countless film departments and disciplines, from sound and special effects, to costumes, scenery, editing, and cinematography.  The cohesion of all these very different departments was necessary to bring Star Wars to life on screen.  

Star Wars: A Life-Changing Film

Star Wars changed the lives of all involved: it made George Lucas an extremely wealthy man overnight, and a filmmaker to be reckoned with; it made immediate stars and cultural icons out of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher; and it made the noble face of Peter Cushing, playing the evil Grand Moff Tarkin, familiar to a new generation of fans.  

Filming Star Wars was an enjoyable experience for Peter.  It proved a welcome distraction as he mourned the loss of his beloved wife, Helen.  Though Peter continued working for just under a decade after Star Wars—beating prostate cancer and earning the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire along the way—Grand Moff Tarkin remains Cushing’s best remembered role from the second half of his career.

You can rent or purchase Star Wars here on Amazon.

Let’s go through the plot, then behind the scenes of the film.

Star Wars
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa.

Star Wars: The Plot

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

There’s a civil war.  Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), is a Rebellion leader captured by a Star Destroyer of the evil Empire.  Just before her capture, Leia bravely puts the plans of the Death Star, the Empire’s space station, on a droid, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker).  Leia hopes R-2 and his buddy, fellow droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), will get the plans to Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), whom Leia trusts to carry the plans to her home planet, Alderaan, for analysis.  

Star Wars
Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and Darth Vader (David Prowse) try to get information from Princess Leia.

R2 and C-3PO manage to escape from the Star Destroyer, but the evil Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) suspect what Leia has done.  Knowing of her rebel connections, Vader and Tarkin threaten to blow up Alderaan if Leia doesn’t tell them where the rebel base is located.  To save her planet, Leia discloses the rebel location to Tarkin.

But Tarkin blows up Alderaan anyway…

R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) arrive in Tatooine.

Luke Skywalker

Meanwhile, R2-D2 and C-3PO safely make it to the planet Tatooine, where Jawa traders capture and sell them to farmers Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown).

Back at the farm, R2 plays a clip of a hologram recording of Leia, in which she mentions an “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” whom Luke surmises is his neighbor, the reclusive old Ben Kenobi.

The droids are purchased by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown).

When R2 runs away from the farm the in search of Obi-Wan, Luke and C-3PO go after him.  They come across Ben Kenobi shortly after finding R2.  Ben confirms that he is Obi-Wan, a Jedi master.  Betrayed by his former pupil, Darth Vader, who now uses “the Force” for evil, Ben tells Luke that Vader is also responsible for the death of Luke’s father, who fought alongside Obi-Wan before the Empire put an end to the Jedi, and took control of the galaxy.

Luke and the droids find Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and watch the hologram of Leia in its entirety.

R2 plays Princess Leia’s message for Ben and Luke in its entirety, and they hear her instructions to take the Death Star plans to Alderaan, where her father will analyze them to plan a rebel attack.  Luke is at first reluctant to join Obi-Wan in the journey.  But after discovering that Empire stormtroopers tracked the droids to Luke’s family farm and killed his aunt and uncle, Ben, Luke, and the two droids set out to find a pilot to fly them to Alderaan.

Star Wars
Han Solo (Harrison Ford) will fly the group off of Tatooine.

Meeting Han Solo

Smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his Wookie friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) offer to take Luke, Ben, and the two droids to Alderaan on their ship, the junky but very speedy Millennium Falcon.  Solo’s unpaid debt to Jabba the Hutt makes him just as anxious to leave Tatooine as Ben and Luke.  He charges them an exorbitant fee, but Ben and Luke are willing to pay it.

(PS: Han shot first.)

The Millennium Falcon leaves Tatooine just before Empire stormtroopers catch up with Ben, Luke and the droids.  At this point, Obi-Wan learns through the force that Alderaan has been blown up. 

The Millennium Falcon is then captured by the Death Star’s tractor beam.  Now the crew must find a way to escape.  While Obi-Wan goes to disable the tractor beam, Luke, Han, and Chewie decide to rescue Princess Leia from onboard the Death Star.

Star Wars
Luke and Han decide to rescue Leia, and the group escapes the Death Star.

Finding the Princess and the Force

Darth Vader and Obi-Wan each feel the other’s presence on the Death Star.  A duel between the two with lightsabers is inevitable. 

Vader and Obi-Wan find each other, and begin to duel.  Mid-fight, Obi-Wan realizes that he’ll be more useful to Luke as a spirit of the Force.  He seems to let Vader win the duel.  Now Obi-Wan can be the voice of guidance inside Luke’s head, as long as Luke is in-tune with the Force enough to use it.

Minus Ben, and plus the princess, our group safely gets back on board the Millennium Falcon, and escapes the Death Star.

Star Wars

The Rebel Plan

Princess Leia feels the escape was too easy, and correctly guesses that the Empire is tracking them back to the rebel base at Yavin 4. 

The rebels quickly analyze the Death Star plans, and conclude that the battle station can be destroyed by a precise torpedo firing, down a small thermal exhaust port to its reactor, which will set off a chain reaction.  Luke joins the rebels in the risky fight, while Han decides to leave rebel base right after he collects his reward for rescuing Leia.

Star Wars Peter Cushing
The Empire underestimates the rebel chances of victory.

Luke becomes the Rebellion’s star pilot during the assault on the Death Star.  As his friends and fellow pilots are killed off one by one, Luke manages to escape the shots of Darth Vader with a combination of Obi-Wan’s guidance through the Force, and Han Solo’s surprise reappearance to help during the battle.

Luke successfully makes the impossible torpedo shot, and the Death Star is destroyed.  All onboard, including Grand Moff Tarkin, are killed.

Luke uses the Force to make the winning torpedo shot.

Star Wars: The End! But Not Really...

Back on the rebel base, everyone basks in victory and camaraderie while Princess Leia awards Luke and Han medals for their bravery. 

The good guys have won this round.  But we know that Star Wars, and the adventures of our heroes, are just beginning.

Star Wars
The rebels are victorious! Princess Leia awards Luke and Han medals for their bravery.

Peter Loves Helen

If you remember from my article on Dracula, Frankenstein, and Peter Cushing’s Hammer Horror films, the frequency with which Peter was cast in horror films led to his typecasting in the genre.  Peter’s wife Helen worried about the issue, wishing for her husband’s versatility to be utilized across all film genres.  Peter on the other hand felt that the financial stability his horror film roles brought was worth the consequence of typecasting.  Chief among the financial rewards was Peter’s newfound ability to comfortably provide Helen with some of life’s luxuries, as well as the top-grade medical care her fragile health required. As Peter writes in his autobiography [aff. link]:

“There had been so many lean years, and…I was desperately anxious to make provision for our old age together, and to ensure she lacked for nothing in the meantime.  Throughout all the years I’d known her, she had never once asked for anything for herself, and it was such a joy to be in a position, at last, to give her a few luxuries, and above all, more extensive medical care and attention.”

Peter with his beloved wife, Helen.

A Difficult Goodbye

As the 1960s drew to a close, Helen’s lung condition worsened.  Soon her lungs were strained to the point that she suffered a constant cough, and could not breath without assistance. 

Peter’s income from successive Hammer films allowed him to take Helen to a Polish specialist.  Sadly, the specialist concluded that the Cushings had come to him:

“ten years too late for any miracles.”

The specialist was, however; able to cure Helen’s cough over a three-week treatment period.  Helen’s overall health was so improved that, in Peter’s words:

“To our way of thinking, the doctor from Poland HAD performed a miracle.”

Unfortunately, Helen’s days of restored health wouldn’t last.  Her weakness grew.  When Helen could no longer climb the stairs of the Cushing home, Peter installed a stairlift so she could reach the bedroom. 

By January 1971, Helen was diagnosed with emphysema, and required full-time care at the hospital.  Helen’s doctor eventually gave Peter permission to bring his wife home, under constant medical supervision. 

It was at home, with Peter beside her, that Helen Cushing passed away on January 14, 1971.

Peter Cushing Helen Cushing

Missing Helen

To underscore just how difficult Helen’s passing was for Peter Cushing, he ended his first autobiography, published in 1986, with her death: Peter felt his life effectively ended with Helen’s passing.  He only published a second volume of memoirs—about his later years—because of fan requests, two years later.

With Helen gone, Peter briefly considered suicide:

“Deep down I knew I would never take such a step, but because of the numbing agony of those early days following the passing of my dear wife Helen, it was inevitable that I should contemplate suicide… 

…It is not allowed by God; it wouldn’t get me what I wanted, anyway—to be reunited immediately with Helen and, in any case, I hadn’t the necessary courage.”

Peter Cushing Helen Cushing

Peter Cushing Finds Solace in Work

Peter spent the next ten years of his life in near social seclusion, mourning the loss of his beloved Helen.  Cushing’s long time assistant, Joyce Broughton, called Helen’s death “the most disastrous thing” that could happen to her employer and good friend.  In an interview with Tony Wilmot for Weekend Magazine, titled “I Can’t Live Without My Wife,” Peter discussed Helen, touchingly bearing his soul and deep spirituality: 

“When Helen passed on six years ago I lost the only joy in life that I ever wanted.  She was my whole life and without her there is no meaning.  I am simply killing time, so to speak, until that wonderful day when we are together again.”  

Work was Peter Cushing’s saving grace.  Little did Peter know that during these difficult years, he’d make the most iconic film of his career.

George Lucas
Star Wars was a whole new world invented by young director George Lucas.

George Lucas Learns to Write

Star Wars was a whole new world, invented and written by thirty-two-year-old filmmaker, George Lucas. 

But Lucas wasn’t always a writer.  It took the prodding of Lucas’ good friend, director Francis Ford Coppola, to get him writing, a skill obviously necessary to, eventually, make Star Wars a reality.  As George Lucas remembered:

“He [Coppola] had to force me to write my first script. ‘You want to do a film? You write it.’  And I said, ‘No, no, no, we ought to hire a writer to write it.  I don’t want to write it.  I’m not a writer, I can’t write.  But he said,  ‘You’re never going to be a good director unless you learn to write.  Go and write, kid.’” 

Lucas called his first feature film script for THX 1138 (1971) “terrible.”  He was much happier with his screenplay for his next film, the successful American Graffiti (1973).  Elements of Star Wars are present in both films—the dark THX 1138 is set in space, while American Graffiti , like Star Wars, is an uplifting story.  But it would still be years before George Lucas fully committed to writing his completely original vision for a feel-good space opera.  

George Lucas on the set of American Graffiti (1973), his second feature film and first hit.

Inspiration for Star Wars

Indeed, it was only after Lucas failed to buy the screen rights to Flash Gordon, a space comic strip-turned serial from the 1930s—that he decided to write his own space fantasy.  Lucas realized that really, it was for the best that Flash Gordon didn’t work out:

“I realized that Flash Gordon is like anything you do that is established.  That is, you start out being faithful to the original material, but eventually it gets in the way of the creativity.  I realized that Flash Gordon wasn’t the movie I wanted to do…I decided at that point to do something more original.  I knew I could do something totally new.  I wanted to take ancient mythological motifs and update them—I wanted to have something totally free and fun, the way I remembered space fantasy.”

And so, George Lucas began to write Star Wars.

Flash Gordon, a comic strip and serial from the 1930s, was a huge inspiration for George Lucas' Star Wars. Here Buster Crabbe plays Flash Gordon with Jean Rogers as Dale Arden.

Star Wars: Something for the Kids

Inspired by Flash Gordon, Classic Hollywood Westerns, and Errol Flynn swashbucklers, Lucas believed that Star Wars could be a piece of positivity that kids of the 1970s were missing:

“After the 1960s, it was the end of the protest movement and the whole phenomenon.  The drugs were really getting bad, kids were dying, and there was nothing left to protest.  American Graffiti said essentially that we are all very good…and Star Wars was very much like American Graffiti, so I thought it’d be more beneficial for the kids.  When I started the film, ten and twelve year olds didn’t really have the fantasy life that we’d had…they didn’t have any real vision of all the incredible and crazy and wonderful things that we had when we were young—pirate movies and Westerns and all that.”

Alan Ladd, Jr. with George Lucas. Ladd was Lucas' only advocate at Fox, and was largely responsible for getting the film made.

Lucas’ goal was to fill that gap with Star Wars, but first he had to find a studio to finance the film.

Deals with United Artists and Universal fell through before Twentieth Century Fox, thanks to Alan Ladd, Jr.—yes, the son of Alan Ladd—finally expressed interest.  In the summer of 1973, Fox gave Lucas a very informal deal for Star Wars: the studio agreed to pay Lucas $10,000 for a first draft of the screenplay, and an additional $30,000 once principal photography began. 

But that was it.  Fox retained the right to back out of Star Wars at any time.

It was the only deal George Lucas could get for Star Wars, so he accepted, and plowed ahead with his script.

Star Wars George Lucas

Lucas Writes the Script for Star Wars

Between the winter of 1973-January 1976, Lucas went through four drafts of Star Wars.  In Lucas’ second draft, the protagonist of the story, Luke Starkiller, was a girl.  The constant new ideas, and changes in storyline and character development were enough—at times—to make George Lucas think he was going crazy: 

“You go crazy writing.  You get psychotic.  You get yourself so psyched up and go in such strange directions in your mind that it’s a wonder that all writers aren’t put away someplace…Because there’s just no guideline, you don’t know if what you’re doing is good or bad or indifferent.  It always seems bad when you’re doing it.  It seems terrible.  It’s the hardest thing to get through.”

At times even friends wondered just what this Star Wars story was.  As screenwriter Hal Barwood put it:

Star Wars George Lucas
George Lucas, filming Star Wars.

“It started off in horrible shape.  It was difficult to discern there was a movie there.  It did have Artoo and it did have Threepio, but it was very hard for us to wrap our heads around the idea of a golden robot and this little beer can.  We just didn’t know what it meant.  But George never gave up and he worked and worked and worked.”

George Lucas completed his fourth and final draft of Star Wars in January 1976.  Finally, Fox came through with an official production-distribution contract, which gave Lucas an $8.2 million budget for the production.

Star Wars was officially set to begin filming in London and Tunisia in March of 1976.

Star Wars Peter Cushing

A Villian with a Human Face

George Lucas had created a memorable villain with his Darth Vader.  But Vader, physically played by weight lifter David Prowse—who incidentally went on to train Christopher Reeve for Superman (1978), is fully covered throughout Star Wars, his sinister helmet obstructing any view of his face.

Lucas felt strongly that Star Wars required another villain, one with a human face.  He wrote the character Grand Moff Tarkin with this in mind.  With each draft of Star Wars , Tarkin’s importance to the story grew: Lucas found himself giving the character more dialogue and screen time.  When it came time to cast the role, Lucas knew it would take an exceptional actor to pull off the character:

“I got a little nervous about it, so I wanted somebody really strong, a really good villain—and actually Peter Cushing was my first choice on that, once I’d decided we were really going to spend some money to go with a really good actor rather than just some stock day-player villain.”

Star Wars Peter Cushing

Grateful for Star Wars

George Lucas offered Peter Cushing the role of Grand Moff Tarkin. 

Though uncomfortable with all the “technical jargon” of the script—something that the research-oriented Peter must have found particularly difficult because, how do you research something George Lucas made up?—Peter was absolutely flattered to be sought out for the role.  He happily accepted:

“When you get be my age and you’re still wanted, it gives you an awfully nice feeling.  The older you get, the lonelier you feel.  When you’re over sixty, you think you’re on the shelf.”

As a sign of the prestige Peter brought to Star Wars, his Grand Moff Tarkin was played up as the film’s main villain, over  Darth Vader, in the film’s original advertisements.

Peter was also given the second best payment plan of anyone in the cast: Alec Guinness by far had the best deal, earning 15,000 pounds weekly and 2% of the film’s profits, a cut Guinness wisely bargained for.  But Peter did more than alright for himself, earning 2,000 pounds a day.

Star Wars

The Unknowns of Star Wars

Casting unknowns in the three lead roles of Star Wars gave George Lucas the budget necessary to afford Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing: Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker earned $1000 a week; Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia earned $850 weekly; and Harrison Ford—the star who would ultimately have the most successful career of the three—ironically earned the least, at $750 weekly for his work as Han Solo.

In fact, Harrison Ford almost wasn’t cast at all.

Slimming Ford’s chances for Star Wars was the fact that George Lucas preferred to cast three unknowns he hadn’t worked worked with before.  And he’d already used Ford just a few years previously, in American Graffiti (1973).

Further slimming Ford’s chances was the fact that, in most of his drafts, Lucas had envisioned a black actor in the Han Solo role.  When Lucas began considering white actors for the part, it was Christopher Walken (now that  would have been…interesting), not Harrison Ford, who was the frontrunner.

And, there was also the fact that Harrison Ford quit acting to become a carpenter just before Star Wars panned out.

Star Wars Harrison Ford

Yes, Harrison Ford quit acting, and became a carpenter.

As Ford, at the time the father of two young children, later explained:

“I left acting to become a carpenter because our second baby was coming and we like to eat.  I wasn’t making it as an actor.”

Advice from a Famous Client

A carpentry client of Ford’s at this time was none other than Valerie Harper, of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) and Rhoda (1974-1978) fame.  In her autobiography [aff. link], Valerie shares the encouraging words she gave the young father and expert carpenter who built the loft in her living room:

Valerie Harper
Harrison Ford broke his arm building the loft in Valerie Harper's home. Valerie told him it was a sign to return to acting.

“When he showed up, I was struck by how extremely handsome he was, as well as soft-spoken and serious.  While he worked on our loft, I learned that he was actor, doing carpentry to support his family while he waited for a break.  Well, he got one…falling from the loft, he broke is arm.

‘Look,’ I told him, ‘sometimes an accident is a message.  You broke your hammering arm.  Maybe it’s time to stop carpentry and focus on your acting career, Harrison.’  Yes, his last name was Ford.  I’m sure he would have become a star even without my advice.  But I like to think that the fall from our loft gave him a push in the right direction!”

Ironically, Ford’s carpentry skills played a part in his eventual casting: Fred Roos, the Star Wars casting director, wanted Harrison Ford in the Han Solo role, but he first needed to convince George Lucas.  To help push Lucas in the right direction, Roos hired Ford to install a door at the American Zoetrope offices just when he knew Lucas would be around for a meeting with Richard Dreyfus. 

The ruse did the trick.  As Lucas later admitted, seeing Harrison Ford “cast as the blue collar worker” convinced him that Ford was the right actor for Han Solo.

Fred Roos echoed Lucas’ thoughts:

“It just kind of clicked for George at that point.”

Harrison Ford was cast in the role that finally jumpstarted his acting career.

Star Wars Peter Cushing
Peter and Mark Hamill on the set of Star Wars (1977).

Peter Cushing: The Perfect Gentleman of Star Wars

Though still mourning the loss of Helen, Peter Cushing was, as always, a complete gentleman on the Star Wars set.

Mark Hamill, a longtime fan of Peter and his Hammer horror films, was disappointed to discover they didn’t have any scenes together.  When Hamill realized he wouldn’t get a chance to meet Peter at all, he decided to crash the set on a day Peter was filming.

Hamill couldn’t have been more impressed with the gracious and humble man he met:

“Carrie had just started when she did her scenes with Cushing…The next day, between takes, I did go and get his autograph.  Cushing is the ultimate English gentleman.  So distinguished…though I never worked with him, there was no way I would have missed meeting him…

He used to cycle to her [Helen’s] grave every morning.  He was very fragile, but a wonderful guy, really sweet.”

star wars peter cushing
Peter wears his white glove to prevent nicotine from staining his hand or costume. He wanted to be considerate of the makeup and wardrobe departments.

Both Hamill and David Prowse (Darth Vader) noted how Peter, ever the English gentleman, wore white gloves whenever taking a cigarette break.  He did this out of consideration for the costume and make-up departments, so they wouldn’t have to remove nicotine stains from his fingers or costume.

Star Wars

The Insecure Beauty of Star Wars

Carrie Fisher was another benefactor of Peter’s kindness and gentlemanly demeanor on the Star Wars set.

The nineteen-year-old Fisher, in her first starring role, was, despite her spunky exterior, full of insecurities during filming.  As Carrie shares in The Princess Diarist [aff. link]:

“I had endless issues with my appearance in Star Wars.  Real ones—not the ones you bring up so people think you’re humble because you secretly find yourself adorable.”

Though audiences are still taken with Fisher’s beauty in the film, she had good reason to feel insecure about her appearance at the time: it was literally written into Carrie’s contract that in order to keep the Princess Leia role, she had to lose ten pounds.

Who wouldn’t feel insecure after having to agree to such a proviso.

Star Wars Peter Cushing
Peter gave Carrie the light, and stood in the shadows. George Lucas and David Prowse, without the Vader mask, look on.

A Selfless Act

Mother Debbie Reynolds recommended a particular “fat farm,” as Carrie referred to it, in Texas, where Carrie spent a week trying unsuccessfully to lose the required weight.

When Carrie arrived in London for filming, her first scenes were with Peter Cushing.  Whether Peter was aware of her insecurities or not, Carrie couldn’t have asked for a kinder actor to begin Star Wars with.  Peter insisted on standing in the shadows during their scene together, giving Carrie the most flattering lighting.  Peter’s selflessness was a gift to the young actress in many ways: not only does Carrie look radiantly beautiful in the lighting Cushing gallantly gave her, seeing Princess Leia in this saintly lighting lends to our early interpretation of the character as a righteous leader of her people, with altruistic hopes for the Rebellion.

It’s easy to see why Carrie Fisher adored working with Peter Cushing.

Star Wars Peter Cushing

Fisher would even say that the lines she spoke on this first day of filming, about Tarkin’s “foul stench,” were extremely difficult for her to direct at Peter because she liked him so much:

“I liked Peter Cushing so much that, in my mind, I had to substitute somebody else in order to get the hatred for him.  I had to say ‘I recognized your foul stench…’ But the man smelled like linen and lavender.”

It’s clear from the rare blooper of the scene below just what an affinity Peter and Carrie had for each other. 

Take a moment to watch.

And of course, it’s not surprising to hear that Peter smelled of “linen and lavender,” given his near-obsession with cleanliness and teeth brushing.

Wardrobe Malfunctions on Star Wars

During Star Wars, there were constant wardrobe malfunctions.  Anthony Daniels, C-3PO in the film, dealt with those golden pants falling off at the most inconvenient times.  Chewbacca’s eyes had a tendency to separate from the hair and the inside of the mask worn by Peter Mayhew, while Carrie Fisher found that, even though it took the hairdresser hours each morning to bolt those double bagel buns to the sides of her head, they’d still manage to get messed up during all the running down corridors Princess Leia does in the film.

star wars peter cushing
Peter rehearses a scene, clearly not wearing his Tarkin boots. Also note David Prowse, Darth Vader in the film, standing behind Carrie Fisher WITHOUT his Vader helmet on.

Despite his star status, Peter Cushing wasn’t exempt from wardrobe challenges, which were largely the result of the meager budget George Lucas was given by Fox for the film.  For Peter, it was footwear that presented the problem: Peter just couldn’t get his size 12 feet into the much too small combat boots that went with the Tarkin costume.  He tried to wear the boots and deal with the pain, but ultimately, Peter had to ask George Lucas if they could work something else out:

“After the first day’s work I could bear it no longer, so I approached the director, George Lucas.  ‘Dear Fellow,’ I said, ‘I’m not asking for close-ups, but do you think you could shoot me from the waist up from now on?’ He consented kindly, and I was allowed to stomp about looking very cross as ‘Grand Moff Tarkin’ for the rest of the film in carpet slippers.”

Had the camera panned just a little lower, audiences would have seen the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin wearing some comically informidable footwear.  It’s telling of Peter Cushing’s extraordinary character that, despite his star-status, he just rolled with the punches on the Star Wars set, even if that meant working with an incomplete costume.

Star Wars: A Blockbuster

Despite a meager budget, George Lucas conveyed his vision for Star Wars across multiple disciplines and film departments. 

With Star Wars, Lucas created a masterpiece.

He’d refer to Star Wars not as a finished film, but as the project he was forced to “abandon” once the premiere date arrived.  It’s possible that Lucas, ever the perfectionist, would have continued working on Star Wars  indefinitely had there not been a deadline.

George Lucas  insisted that Star Wars premiere not over the summer of 1977, but in late May, before school was out.  He wisely surmised that the film would benefit from word of mouth around schools, supplementing the limited studio-produced publicity.  

It was a genius idea that worked: lines formed around the block of every theater that showed Star Wars.

In June of 1977, telephone operators in Los Angeles reportedly received 100 calls an hour from theatergoers enquiring about Star Wars showtimes.  By July of 1977, Star Wars had earned $18.2 million at the box office, more than offsetting the $11.29 million it cost to make the film.  (George Lucas went over the original $8.2 million budget by about $3 million.)

Peter shows his humorous side, striking a pose while chopping firewood with long-time secretary, Joyce Broughton.

Peter Cushing: A Walking Miracle

Peter Cushing continued to work regularly in television and film for just under a decade after the release of Star Wars.  According to his assistant Joyce Broughton, Cushing’s ten years of social seclusion following Helen’s death surprisingly ended when Peter was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1982.

Given only eighteen months to live, Peter “confounded” science by making an almost complete recovery from the cancer.  As Peter says at the end of his autobiography [aff. link]:  

“I am still regarded by the local medical fraternity as ‘a walking miracle’…

…and I hope most earnestly that my close encounter with the Great Leveler will be of equal value to those who need such assurance, and to show what can be done against all odds, with a lot of loving help, a lot of faith (which can move mountains) and a modicum of will power.”

Peter was named Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Here he proudly shows his medal.

Peter's Active Last Years

In the years that followed his recovery, Peter continued to ride his bike, make films and television appearances, and give interviews.  He also wrote his memoirs, painted a watercolor that was chosen by Prince Edward for charity auction, and had a rose named after his dear Helen.  And in 1989, Peter Cushing was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.  

Quite an inspiring schedule and list of accomplishments for an older gentleman who wasn’t expected to live more than 18 months after his cancer diagnosis.

Not to Be Forgotten

Peter Cushing must have been reunited with his beloved Helen when he passed away on August 11, 1994.

The Gentleman of Horror was a true gentleman in every way.  As a revered actor who pursued his passion for decades, against countless setbacks, before finding success; as a loving husband whose greatest joy was his sweet wife, Peter Cushing is indeed an inspiring example of what faith and “a modicum of will power” can do.  

With his cannon of Hammer films, Star Wars, and great versatility on stage and screen, Peter Cushing won’t soon be forgotten.

Peter Cushing

So Long, Peter!

And that wraps up our month with Peter Cushing. 

Join me next week for a special tribute to the elusive French icon, Catherine Deneuve.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Kristin

    Great article thank you! As a long time Star Wars fan, it was great to learn something new. I love Peter Cushing now!

    1. Shannon

      Thanks for reading Kristin! Peter Cushing was such a gentleman and so talented. I’m a fan as well.

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