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

Harrison Ford Breaks His Arm While Doing Carpentry, Peter Cushing Wears Slippers and Smells of Lavender, Carrie Fisher Doesn’t Lose 10 Pounds, and George Lucas Abandons the Film. 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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Let’s be honest.  No matter how I start this post, it’s absolutely impossible for me to find words that appropriately convey just what a gargantuan success Star Wars was at the time of its 1977 release, or what a far-reaching impact the film continues to have today.  Adjusted for inflation, only Gone with the Wind (1939) beats Star Wars in success at the US box office, and there is arguably no other film series with such a loyal and constantly growing fanbase.  

It’s beyond inspiring that Star Wars, a whole new world of galaxies, technologies, and peoples, came from the mind of one man, George Lucas.  The thirty-two year old Lucas not only wrote and directed the film, he also managed to convey his grand vision for Star Wars across countless disciplines and film departments—such as sound and special effects, costumes, scenery, editing, and cinematography—necessary to bring Star Wars to life on screen.  

A Life-Changing Film

The film changed the lives of all involved, making Lucas an extremely wealthy man overnight, and a filmmaker to be reckoned with.  Star Wars made immediate stars and cultural icons out of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher.  For our Star of the Month Peter Cushing, playing the evil Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars made Cushing’s noble face familiar with a new generation of fans, piquing interest in his earlier work.  

The filming of Star Wars was an enjoyable experience for Peter, and proved a welcome relief as he grieved the loss of his wife Helen.  Though Peter continued working for just under a decade after Star Wars, beating prostate cancer and earning a title as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the process, Grand Moff Tarkin remains Cushing’s best remembered role from the second half of his career.

If you don’t already own Star Wars, you can purchase or rent the film here on Amazon [aff. link].

To the plot!

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa.

The Plot

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

There’s a civil war going on.  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.  

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, and, knowing of her rebel connections, 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, who then proceeds to blow 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, and 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 and Luke both set out—along with the two droids—to find a pilot to fly them to Alderaan.

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 rather junky but very speedy Millennium Falcon.  It’s an exorbitant fee Solo charges, but an unpaid debt to Jabba the Hutt makes him just as anxious to leave Tatooine as Ben and Luke, so it’s a fee they’re willing to pay.  The Millennium Falcon leaves Tatooine just before Empire stormtroopers catch up with Ben, Luke and the droids.

Well of course, our guys can’t go to Alderaan because it’s been blown up, an event that Obi-Wan can feel through the Force.  The Millennium Falcon is then captured by the Death Star’s tractor beam, and 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.

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, and a duel with lightsabers is inevitable.  Obi-Wan, realizing that he’ll be more useful to Luke as a spirit of the Force, seems to let Vader win the duel.  Now Obi-Wan can be the voice of guidance inside Luke’s head whenever 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.

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.  So 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.

Turns out, 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 and help during the battle.

Luke successfully makes the impossible torpedo shot, and the Death Star is destroyed, killing all on board, including Grand Moff Tarkin.

Luke uses the Force to make the winning torpedo shot.

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, but we get the sense that Star Wars, and the adventures of our heroes, are just beginning.

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

Peter Loves Helen

If you remember from my post on Dracula, Frankenstein, and Peter Cushing’s Hammer Horror years, the frequency with which Peter was cast in horror films, and the skill he brought to each role, led to his typecasting in the genre.  Though Peter’s wife Helen worried about the issue, wishing for her husband’s multi-faceted talent to be utilized across all film genres, Peter felt the financial stability his frequent horror film roles brought was worth the opportunity costs.  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

Helen’s lungs were now strained to the point that she suffered from 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, who, though insisting they came to him “ten years too late for any miracles,” was able to cure her cough over a three week treatment period.  Helen’s overall health was so improved that, as Peter said

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

But Helen’s days of restored health wouldn’t last.  Her weakness was such that she could not climb the stairs of the Cushing home, and Peter thoughtfully installed a stairlift so Helen could reach the bedroom.  By January of 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.

Missing Helen

To underscore just how difficult Helen’s death was for Peter Cushing, he ended his first autobiography, published in 1986, with Helen’s death: Peter felt his life effectively ended with Helen’s passing, and would only publish a second volume of memoirs—that covered his later years—at the request of fans, two year later.

With Helen gone, Peter even 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.”

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 touchingly bore his soul and deep spirituality when discussing Helen: 

“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 entire career.

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 by thirty-two-year-old filmmaker George Lucas.  But at the beginning of Lucas’ career, he was not a writer.  It took the prodding of Lucas’ good friend, director Francis Ford Coppola, to get him writing, a skill obviously necessary for Lucas to eventually make Star Wars a reality:

“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.’” 

And so Lucas wrote his first feature film script for THX 1138 (1971), a film he also directed.  Lucas called the script “terrible,” but was overall proud of the film, despite its box office failure.  Lucas was much happier with his screenplay for his next film project, the very successful American Graffiti (1973).  Elements of Star Wars are present in both films—the dark THX 1138 is set in space, while American Graffiti is an uplifting story—but it would still take Lucas time to fully commit 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

In fact, 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 set out 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.

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 the 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 would fill that gap with his Star Wars. But it was a long journey before he could even 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 the Alan Ladd—finally expressed interest.  Fox gave Lucas a very informal deal for Star Wars in the summer of 1973, agreeing 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.

How reassuring.

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

Lucas Writes the Script

Between winter of 1973-January 1976, Lucas went through four drafts of his story.  Interesting side note, in Lucas’ second draft, Luke Starkiller—it didn’t become “Skywalker” until much later—was a girl!  At times during the writing process, Lucas thought he was literally 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.”

Even friends wondered at times just what this Star Wars story was.  As friend and screenwriter Hal Barwood put it:

George Lucas, filming Star Wars. FINALLY!!!

“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.”

All that hard work and vision paid off, for Lucas finally completed his fourth and final draft of Star Wars in January 1976.  Coupled with (finally!) an official production-distribution contract with Fox, which gave Lucas an $8.2 million budget, Star Wars was officially set to begin filming in London and Tunisia in March of 1976.

A Villan with a Human Face

Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness were the only two established movie stars in Star Wars.  Guinness, as Obi-Wan Kenobi, received 15,000 pounds weekly, and wisely asked for 2% of the film’s profits.  As Grand Moff Tarkin, Peter Cushing wasn’t included in a profits deal, but at an earnings of 2,000 pounds a day, Peter no doubt had the second best payment plan in the cast. 

George Lucas felt strongly that Star Wars required a villain with a human face, as the face of Darth Vader, physically played by weight lifter David Prowse—who incidentally went on to train Christopher Reeve for Superman (1978)—is famously covered throughout the film with that sinister helmet.  As the role of Tarkin grew in size and importance with each draft, Lucas knew he needed 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.”

Peter's Gratitude

Though uncomfortable with all the “technical jargon”—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, and 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.”

How lovable is Peter’s gratitude for the role??  I seriously doubt Peter Cushing was ungrateful a single day of his life!

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

The Unknowns

Casting unknowns in the three leading roles of the film ensured that Lucas had the budget necessary to afford Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing: Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker earned $1000 a week, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia $850 weekly, and Harrison Ford, in an ironic twist of fate—as Ford would undoubtedly go on to become the biggest star of the three, earned a mere $750 weekly as Han Solo.

In fact, Ford, as a familiar face from American Graffiti, was almost not cast at all.  Ford’s chances were further slimmed because, through most of his drafts, George Lucas envisioned an African American actor in the Han Solo role.  Christopher Walken—now that would have been…interesting—was another frontrunner over Ford for much of the casting process.  It took the prodding of casting director Fred Roos for Lucas to even consider casting Harrison Ford in the role it now seems no one else could play.

Oh, and then there was the whole thing about Harrison Ford quitting acting…

Harrison Ford quit acting for a time before Star Wars, and worked as a carpenter.

Ford the Carpenter

Yes.  Harrison Ford briefly quit acting before he got the Han Solo Role in Star Wars.

As Ford, the father of two young children, explained his decision,

“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, one of my very favorite actresses, best known as Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, the successful spin-off show.  Valerie shares a fascinating anecdote in her autobiography [aff. link] about the young father and expert carpenter who built the loft in her living room:

Harrison Ford broke his arm building the loft in Valerie Harper's home. Valerie told him it was a sign to return to acting. Ford got his role in Star Wars shortly after!

“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!”

Who knows?  Maybe Valerie’s advice is what propelled Harrison Ford back to acting.  Either way, Ford’s carpentry skills still played a part in his eventual earning of the Han Solo role: casting director Fred Roos, rooting for Harrison Ford to get the role, hired him to install a door at  the American Zoetrope offices just when he knew George Lucas would be around for a meeting with Richard Dreyfus.  Seeing Ford, in his own words, “cast as the blue collar worker,” worked for Lucas.  As Fred Roos related, “It just kind of clicked for George at that point,” and Harrison Ford was cast in the role that finally jumpstarted his acting career.

Peter shares a smile with Mark Hamill on the set of Star Wars (1977).

The Perfect Gentleman

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

Mark Hamill, a longtime fan of Peter and his Hammer horror films, was disappointed to discover he didn’t have any scenes with the actor, and wouldn’t get a chance to meet Cushing if he didn’t crash the set on a day Peter was filming.  So that’s just what Hamill did.  And he couldn’t have been more impressed with the humble and gracious Peter:

“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.”

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. How sweet is that??

Both Hamill and David Prowse (Darth Vader) would comment on how Peter, ever the English gentleman, wore white gloves whenever taking a cigarette break so the costume and make-up departments wouldn’t have to remove nicotine stains from his fingers or costume.

Self-Conscious Beauty

My favorite anecdotes that underscore Peter’s kindness and gentlemanly demeanor on Star Wars involve his scenes with Carrie Fisher.

The nineteen-year-old Fisher, in her first starring role, was, despite her spunky exterior, full of insecurities on set.  As Carrie relates in The Princess Diarist [aff. link], her memoirs of the film:

“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 the rest of us are taken with Fisher’s adorable beauty in the film, it’s understandable where her insecurities came from: Carrie was signed to play Princess Leia on the condition that she lose ten pounds for the role.  

It was literally written into her contract.  

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 would refer 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 the film with.  Peter insisted on standing in the shadows during their scene together, giving Fisher 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.

Is it any wonder that Carrie Fisher, like everyone else, absolutely adored working with Peter Cushing?

Fisher would even say that the lines she spoke on this first day of filming, the ones where she comments on 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 this rare blooper below of the scene just what an affinity Peter and Carrie had for each other.  Look at the huge smiles on each of their faces as Peter first tries to work with his flubbed line, then accepts defeat. 

Take a moment to watch!  It’s absolutely adorable.

And of course, that ‘linen and lavender’ scent Carrie mentions is evidence of Peter’s affinity for bruising his teeth.  If you remember from my introduction post on Peter Cushing, he always had toothbrushes handy at home and on his film sets, conscious of never offending those around him with bad breath. 

Wardrobe Malfunctions

During Star Wars, there were constant wardrobe malfunctions.  Anthony Daniels, C-3PO in the film, would deal 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 shared 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.

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. Now you know who was under that helmet!

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’s size 12 feet just didn’t work with the much too small combat boots that went with his Tarkin costume.  After trying to deal the pain, Peter asked 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.”

Who would have thought that had the camera panned just a little lower, we all would have seen the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin wearing some comically informidable footwear?

A Blockbuster

Somehow, with a small budget of $8.2 million—though Lucas did go over budget by about $3 million (for a total expenditure of $11.29 million)—on a film that really required twice that amount, George Lucas created a masterpiece.  He successfully conveyed and directed his vision for Star Wars across multiple disciplines and film departments.  Lucas himself would refer to Star Wars not as a finished film, but as a film 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  had there not been a deadline.

At Lucas’ insistence, the film premiered not during the summer of 1977, but in late May, before school was out.  Wisely, George Lucas surmised that Star Wars would benefit from word of mouth: if kids were still in school when the film premiered, they’d see Star Wars and tell their friends about it, resulting is greater audience turnout.  It was a genius idea that worked.  Lines formed around the block of every theater that showed Star Wars, despite the limited studio-produced publicity.  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 already earned $18.2 million at the box office.

Peter shows his good humor! Here he strikes a pose while chopping firewood with long-time secretary, Joyce Broughton.

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 would “confound” 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.

Active Last Years

In the years that followed his recovery, Peter continued riding his bike, made films and television appearances, gave interviews, wrote his memoirs, had a watercolor he painted chosen by Prince Edward for charity auction, was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, and even saw to it that a rose was named after his dear Helen.  

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

Not to Be Forgotten

I personally believe Peter Cushing must have been reunited with his beloved Helen when he passed away on August 11, 1994.  No other fate seems fitting for Peter, who wanted nothing more than to be reunited with the woman he believed made everything in his life possible.

“Peter Cushing” may not be the household name—at least in the US—that this talented actor who also happened to be the ultimate English gentleman, deserves.  But with films like Star Wars, and the consistently amazing performances that go beyond even his most iconic Hammer horror roles, there’s no doubt that Peter Cushing remains a revered actor who won’t be forgotten.

So Long, Peter!

And that wraps up our month with Peter Cushing!  

Be sure to join me in November as I introduce our next star to celebrate, the talented and too often underrated, Shelley Winters.

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