‘I Was There Too’ Revealed Charming Secrets and Behind-the-Scenes Stories of the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’
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Early in the Star Wars Holiday Special episode of I Was There Too, we are treated to the ethereal crooning of the late, lamented Carrie Fisher, as she performs a musical ode to Life Day, the holiday lovingly commemorated in the most notorious television special ever. The podcast was taped and aired before Carrie Fisher’s death but it does not seem insulting or offensive to Fisher’s blessed memory to showcase one of the unmistakable nadirs of her fascinating roller coaster of a life and career. As her final resting place inside a giant representation of a Prozac pill hilariously and unforgettably conveys, Fisher was nothing if not a woman who could take a joke.
It went beyond that. Fisher was fearless in her self-deprecation. Her willingness to not only share but to revel in her flaws and insecurities and eccentricities was downright heroic. George Lucas made her a fictional space hero. She made herself a goddamn feminist hero in real life, through wit and hard work and a ferocious determination to have the life and career she wanted, not the life and career that Hollywood had in mind for her.
Fisher’s second career as a professional funny person was built in no small part on the foundation of her most famous role, and it’s easy to lose track of just how young she was when she made Star Wars. Hell, she was barely out of her teens. To camera man Larry Heider, the genial and entertaining guest on I Was There Too, however, Fisher wasn’t an icon or a space princess. She was just a lovely young woman he worked with during a particularly surreal part of his career when he had the bizarre privilege of being a crew-member on a project so famously misbegotten not even Jar Jar Binks can beat it as the single biggest embarrassment in Star Wars history.
But when a young Heider signed on to direct a holiday special based on George Lucas’ creation, he hadn’t even seen Star Wars and Star Wars hadn’t become the towering cultural monolith it is today. He approached the gig as just another job and it’s fascinating to get the perspective of someone for whom the Star Wars Holiday Special isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime disaster still being obsessed over four decades later, but just another gig.
I Was There Too host Matt Gourley and Heider come to the episode from very different angles. As he establishes up front and throughout, Gourley is a Star Wars obsessive with a boundless curiosity about everything, but about Star Wars specifically. Heider, meanwhile, is an unassuming man (when he says he “got lucky” by winning some Emmys, it comes off as genuine humility, not the fake show-business kind) with a unique body of personal experience that just happens to involve both Star Wars and some of the biggest icons in the business, including much of the Rat Pack.
For Heider, the Special was an unusual and memorable job, but it was also, clearly, just a job. This blue-collar approach informed both his experience of the Special while it was happening but also in the aftermath. Heider hadn’t seen Star Wars when he helped shoot the Special so a lot of things that struck fans as surreally off never particularly bothered Heider.
For example, when Gourley brings up the notorious (a word it’s very easy to abuse when discussing the Star Wars Holiday Special) sequence where Diahann Carroll performs an erotic dance of delight to the benefit of one of Chewbacca’s elderly relatives, Heider fondly remembers it less as an unforgivable violation of the Star Wars universe than as a sequence that was fun to shoot because Carrol was a beautiful, dynamic woman with gorgeous clothes and as a variety show fan, he was a lot more comfortable shooting a musical sequence than man-sized fur balls grunting at each other in untranslated Wookee talk.
That’s the appeal of I Was There Too, which, as its name conveys, peers into the experiences of people who were relatively minor parts of very major productions. Heider came to the Holiday Special not as a creator or a writer but as a technician with a job to do, so even when, as he wryly notes, “Oh boy” turns to “Oh no,” there wasn’t anything he could do to stop, or change, or save, the train wreck unfolding before his eyes. He could just do his job to the best of his abilities and hope that what played only a single time on network television played better onscreen than it did while he was shooting it.
Heider is not a kiss and tell kind of guy. He is diplomatic and nice. When Gourley asks him about Bea Arthur, he says of the strong-willed TV icon, “Bea is Bea” in a way that says nothing and everything simultaneously. Gourley and Heider do such a good job of bringing the crazy world of the Star Wars Holiday Special to life that even a segment where they talk about various photographs Heider took on the special’s set — which should be death on a podcast because it is an overwhelmingly visual bit — works spectacularly well.
Gourley closes things out by asking about a bunch of other fascinating credits on Heider’s resume, including Golden Girls and Solid Gold, which Heider confirms was, indeed, filmed in a large cloud of pot smoke. Heider quips that, contrary to popular belief, not everybody in show business was stoned throughout the entire 1970s. “I wasn’t stoned all the time, just when it was convenient” he jokes, but thankfully his memory was sharp enough that he was able to recreate this singular creative experience for an oddly informative hour that delves deep into the Star Wars’ universe’s most endlessly fascinating failure.
Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.