Movie Legends Revealed | Was ‘Empire’s’ Wampa Attack Written to Explain Hamill’s Facial Injuries?

luke-empire

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: The Wampa attack on Luke Skywalker in the beginning of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was written to explain away Mark Hamill’s facial injuries he suffered in a car accident.

Few events in Star Wars history are quite as complicated as Mark Hamill’s infamous car accident he suffered after primary filming was complete on the original movie. Because the accident occurred before the first film was released, Hamill was not yet a major star, and as a result there was little to no media coverage of the incident. Heck, there is even some debate about when the accident occurred. (It’s not a significant debate, though, basically just a matter of whether it happened in December 1976 or January 1977. I think January 1977 is correct.) So when people are forced to cover a story after the fact, quite naturally the accounts varied, from “He just broke his nose and one of his cheek bones” to “they had to reattach his nose.” One story that’s remained fairly consistent is that the scene early in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker is assaulted by the Yeti-like Wampa was written into the film to explain away Hamill’s facial injuries for the rest of the film.

empire-wampaIs that true?

I lean toward no.

At the time of the accident, Hamill was going through a frustrating point in his career. In early 1976, before filming began on Star Wars, he had starred in the pilot for a proposed TV series for Lorimar Productions called Eight is Enough, about a family with eight children (Hamill played the eldest son David). The series wasn’t picked up by ABC for the fall 1976 TV season but Lorimar Productions retained contract options on the actors for the rest of the year and kept on trying to sell the show to the network. In fall 1976, with Hamill now as one of the leads of a major motion picture, ABC agreed to pick up the series. Hamill asked to be let out of his contract (as he now had a burgeoning film career) and Lorimar agreed, but ABC wasn’t prepared to let the young actor out of his contract. All of this was on his mind when he was involved in a bad car crash. He discussed the accident with Gossip Magazine in mid-1978:

What happened was that I was on the wrong freeway. I was way out in the sticks somewhere and there were no cars and no traffic, thank God. I was going about 65-70 mph… I was speeding, going too fast… and what happened, I think, was that I tried to negotiate an off-ramp and lost control, tumbled over, and went off the road. I fractured my nose and my cheek.

He continued in the interview, though, to mock the rather sensationalized coverage:

Yeah! I read in magazines, “Mark Hamill almost killed in auto crash.” And what prose… “As he dragged himself from the wreckage… the flames were higher”… you know?… “his nose slid off his face.” And I’m going, “Wow, this is great! But I don’t remember it!”

In a 1980 interview with a Flordia newspaper, Hamill noted:

My plastic surgeon took cartilage from my ear and built up my nose.

With Hamill now too injured to do any immediate filming, Eight is Enough had to recast his role with Grant Goodeve. Hamill also had some fun in the Gossip Magazine interview with the notion that he had the accident to get out of his TV contract:

It seems funny… but people have raised that question… if I had this accident to get out of doing the series. If people knew what a coward I was, they would know what a lie that has to be because I wouldn’t have the guts!

So Hamill definitely had to have surgery to fix his nose and his cheek bone, and it obviously was something quite scary for him to deal with. But was it such a major accident that it would require a scene being written into the film to address his new face?

corvettesummerhamillpottsWell, do note that in July 1977, Hamill began filming the teen romp Corvette Summer, where he plays a teenager trying to recover his stolen Corvette. Oddly enough, his co-star Annie Potts had herself been in a horrific car accident in 1973 that left her with a crushed femur, compound fractures of both her legs and the loss of the heel of her right foot (her husband, also in the accident, lost a leg). So six to seven months after the accident, he was in good enough health to film a movie and he sure didn’t look too different.

On the DVD commentary for The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas denied that the Wampa scene was created to address Hamill’s injuries, noting that the scene had been written some time earlier. While Lucas is correct, I don’t know whether that evidence is necessarily rock-solid proof, as the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back was written by Leigh Brackett in February 1978, more than a year after Hamill’s accident (and roughly a month before Brackett sadly passed away).

That said, because Brackett’s first draft was written more than a year before filming began on The Empire Strikes Back, I do find it a bit hard to believe that Brackett was crafting a scene to address Hamill’s injury when A. Hamill had already done a film since the injury without incident, and B. He would not be doing the film for some time, so writing in a scene in 1978 based on what Hamill was going to look like in 1979 seems like a bit of a stretch.

Even if you wished to argue that Hamill’s face looked worse in 1979 than it did in 1977 (perhaps due to the effects of the plastic surgery wearing off a bit), it wouldn’t explain why Brackett would have written in the Wampa attack in early 1978 to address what Hamill was going to look like a year later. In other words, the argument that the scene was written into Empire is based on the supposition that Hamill showed up for filming and Lucas and the production thought, “Man, we really need to explain what happened to his face.” That was not the case, obviously, as the Wampa scene was written over a year before filming began.

However, as Brackett died just a month after writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, I don’t think we’ll ever be certain as to what she was thinking when she wrote that scene, so because of that, I can’t 100-percent rule out that she intended for that scene to address Hamill’s car accident. But the facts of the situation, combined with Lucas specifically saying that wasn’t the motivation (something he also told Hamill when the actor asked him about it years ago, as Hamill recounted to Starlog in 1999), make me willing to go with the legend as …

STATUS: False

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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Comments

  • Richard Casey

    Okay, I could be misremembering this, but i’m pretty sure Mark Hamil mentioned on Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast that the crash WAS why they wrote that scene. I might be wrong, but if it isn’t that one specifically, i’m sure it’s another of Smith’s podcasts where i heard someone say this was true.

  • Leandro Arteaga Vega

    I could be misremembering this, but i’m pretty …I might be wrong, BUT i’m sure it’s another of Smith’s podcasts where i heard someone say this was true….

    If you are not even sure of what you dindnt hear or when I Guess you didn’t.

  • alex

    We went and saw the Star Wars rerelease in 97 and my friend kept saying that Mark Hamill’s horrific accident was after Empire and not the original films. We went and saw Jedi and I said “Hey look, they are only filming his face on one side.” Or something like that.
    I love legends that are only partly true.:)

  • beefsquatch

    I don’t know. I’ve heard Hamill himself, in interviews, say that it WASN’T true. I guess that it’s technically possible since the accident was in `77 and Empire didn’t shoot until `79.

    I remember meeting Hamill briefly in `83. He was performing in Amadeus at the time. I was only 9yo. I had heard the rumors regarding the `77 accident beforehand. Upon meeting him, well, I don’t think that the accident sufficiently changed his face. In person, the change seemed fairly minor.

    There are some people whose faces, with age, change pretty significantly. My father is a good example. If you look at him at age 17 and then again at 21, you’d be hard pressed to identify him as the same person. Similarly, I went to high school with this guy. About 5 years after graduation, he was totally unrecognizable. Things kinda shifted around and the entire structure of his face changed.

    Some people manage to stay the same from childhood into adulthood, but some really, REALLY do not.

    Here’s him in the original Star Wars: http://dontforgetatowel.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/mark-hamill-star-wars.jpg

    Here’s him in Amadeus in `83: http://images.nypl.org/index.php?id=swope_230909&t=w

    The differences are definitely NOT enough to warrant that Wampa scene. I’d say that his surgeon did an excellent. This is just observation, but it would seem to me that the physical change were less from the surgery and more from that 3 year gap between shoots and a few extra pounds.

    People always seem to make a bigger deal of it than it was.

  • beefsquatch

    The accident was in January `77. It even affected production of the original film’s pickup shots; a double was used.

  • PietroMaximoff

    what’s a Wampa?

  • kurttrukx

    You also have to consider the Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978, filmed after the crash. Lucas would’ve had a chance to observe Hamill’s appearance and create the Wampa scene at that point. The difference in Hamill’s nose in particular is obvious before and after the accident.

  • demoncat_4

    the best answer is from the man himself Mark since its his injured face that led to the legend plus Lucas is on video saying that the wampa attack was not done to explain why his face did not look the same.

  • Wanda

    It’s a creature that lives under a bridge.

  • TallBoy6t6

    Y’know what the hell of it is? Hamill honestly doesn’t look all that different from ANH to ESB.

  • Chris Hamilton

    I remember hearing this even as a child and I think this “fact” (Wampa scene created to explain new face) was the basis of a Trivial Pursuit question back in the original version of the game. I believed it for a long time, but then just watch the movie: IF that were the case, why would there be a close-up of Hamill’s face in Empire BEFORE the Wampa attack? If they’re going to write all that to explain Luke’s appearance, wouldn’t they use clever editing and angles to avoid showing his face until after the attack?

    My understanding is the Leigh Brackett screenplay had a LOT of Wampa’s. They were going to be a major part of the film, not just at the beginning.

  • John Hoagland

    A few “facts”:
    1) The date of the accident should be easily proveable by looking at police or hospital records. Why is the date even in doubt?
    2) Using a DVD commentary George Lucas isn’t reliable. Remember, this is the guy who refuses to release the original versions of the movie because he doesn’t like them. And this is the guy who hates the Holiday Special so much that he refuses to release it on any media.
    3) Speaking of which, in the Holiday Special, Mark Hamill is clearly under layers of makeup, though this was made long before production on Empire Strikes Back started.

    However, the only things in doubt are: when was the scene in Empire Strikes Back filmed and how did it fit into the production schedule?
    If Hamill got into the accident in Dec 1977, but that scene wasn’t shot until 1979, then he would have more than recovered. And if the scene was planned for early in production, the producers could have moved the shooting schedule if they were worried about his face.

    Either way, I would agree with the “false” verdict since production probably didn’t need to work around Hamill’s injuries. And if they didn’t need to work around it, the scene wasn’t written for this reason.

  • lozpot

    Are they going to write a scene for the new film to expain why he now looks like a Hutt in a Peter Grffin wig…?

  • Matthew Herper

    Was this written by Kevin Melrose or Brian Cronin?

  • R2Dad2

    Here’s another Star Wars Legend to dig into and write an article on…

    So the legend goes that Harrison Ford wasn’t signed for a third film and this left Lucas unsure about Han’s fate so they froze him carbonate at the end of ESB. When the contracts were worked out they had to bring Han back so the rescue from Jabba’s palace in ROTJ was conceived.

    I have a hard time believing that it’s true because if it is, that’s a hell of a lot of wasted story time over the course of ESB and ROTJ devoted to dealing with one actor’s contract negotiations.