Remembering that infamously bad 'Star Wars' holiday special, 40 years later

Jim McKairnes
Special to USA TODAY
Mickey Morton (as Malla) and Peter Mayhew (as Chewbacca) in 1978's  CBS 'Star Wars Holiday Special.'

Ford has the Edsel. The beauty industry has yogurt shampoo. The food and beverage business has Olestra and New Coke. And music has Milli Vanilli.

But 40 years later, the bad idea to end all bad ideas remains "The Star Wars Holiday Special," a TV movie/variety-show hybrid that pairs the cast of the world’s most popular sci-fi film with Beatrice Arthur and The Jefferson Starship.  The special was dubbed one of TV's most embarrassing failures, and “the worst atrocity ever committed to (the "Star Wars") fantasy universe,” wrote David Hofstede in his 2004 book "What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History." – “worse than Jar-Jar.” 

Low praise, indeed.

Commissioned by CBS to cash in on the still-popular 1977 blockbuster, and envisioned by producer-director George Lucas as a way to keep the "Star Wars" brand alive between installments, "Holiday Special" mixes big-screen mythology with small-screen hokum as it shifts the focus to Han Solo’s hairy sidekick Chewbacca and his attempt to get back home in time for his planet’s annual Life Day celebration.

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Twin stories spotlight the furry creature speeding through space aboard the Millennium Falcon, aided by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and pursued by Imperial forces, as his family anxiously awaits his arrival at home, among them wife Malla, son Lumpy, and elderly father Itchy. Yes, Itchy.

That none of the grunting Wookies at the heart of the tale offer anything by way of discernible dialogue is merely a fraction of its interest as a curiosity. The whole is more difficult to describe: Preceded by an overheated voiceover that introduced the cast (“Starring ... R2D2 as R2D2!...”), it amounts to a two-hour mash-up of repurposed "Star Wars" footage and new scenes with Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher (who look mortified throughout), along with an original "Star Wars" cartoon and a handful of musical and comedy sequences clumsily inserted to pad out the special and match the 1970s-era variety-show template.

Harvey Korman as Krelman and Bea Arthur as Ackmena in 1978's 'Star Wars Holiday Special."

These latter elements appear incongruously, courtesy of futuristic home-entertainment devices found in the Wookie treehouse (evidently constructed of scraps from the H.R. Pufnstuf lumber yard). Thus, Harvey Korman pops up as an eight-armed Julia Child-inspired TV-chef whom Malla watches cooking; singer Diahann Carroll is conjured up courtesy of Grandpa Itchy’s dip into virtual reality; and miniature Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats come to holographic life as son Lumpy demonstrates his gaming console.

In addition, Art Carney, who'd recently won an Oscar for "Harry and Tonto," appears as a Wookie-planet “local trader, friend of the rebellion, and a member of the alliance” who unveils a video device that leads into a performance from the Starship. And in what became the special’s most-head-shaking sequence, Beatrice Arthur, who'd just wrapped up her six-year run on the CBS sitcom "Maude," shows up as a singing cantina bartender in a film-within-a-film sequence about life on Tatooine.

At which point it’s fairly easy to believe veteran writer Bruce Vilanch’s claim, years later,  that he was heavily into cocaine while working on the project. (Vilanch is one of five credited writers, each accomplished at the time, for TV specials starring Olivia Newton-John, Barry Manilow and Lily Tomlin.)  And concluding with a group-hug finale in which Fisher, as Princess Leia, sings a Life Day anthem, the "Star Wars Holiday Special" is a bizarre trip. (Spoiler alert: Chewie makes it home in time.)

In fairness, a Hollywood Reporter review called the project both “inventive” and “a welcome surprise.” And the special did mark both the first appearance of future "Star Wars" mainstay Boba Fett and the first acknowledgment of James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader. It also teased 1978 audiences with glimpses of futuristic technology that proved prescient, from virtual-reality devices to videophones. And in large part, its badness has been mythologized through the decades, remembered through the lens of more sophisticated programming and through the eyes of indignant defenders of the "Star Wars" legend.

Still: the special is a bad idea, badly executed, with scene after scene of Wookies grunting dialogue to one another, with the humans around them serving as default translators (“Chewbacca isn’t there yet, you say?”); lame attempts at physical shtick, including one scene that finds Carney doing an homage to his Ed Norton "Honeymooners" role; and Saturday-morning TV-level special effects. Lucas hated it. And it aired just once, on Nov. 17, 1978, before being blasted into a permanent hypersleep, never to be shown again on network TV and never to be released on home video. Thanks to bootlegs and YouTube (see below), the curiosity from a long time ago lives on in a media galaxy far, far away.

“If I had the time and a sledgehammer,” Lucas famously said, “I would track down every bootlegged copy of that program and smash it.”

That Force, alas, was not to be with him.

Jim McKairnes is the author of "All in the Decade: 70 Things About '70s TV That Turned Ten Years Into a Revolution," published in October.