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From Outer Space to Public Radio: Remembering the ‘Star Wars’ Radio Drama

Star Wars Radio Drama
NPR

What if I told you that there was another Star Wars universe very different from the one you know? In this universe, Han Solo doesn’t sound like Harrison Ford and Darth Vader doesn’t sound like James Earl Jones. Here, Princess Leia is played by a Broadway star instead of Carrie Fisher. And Luke Skywalker and C-3PO … well, actually, those parts are still played by Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels. Some things are just multiversal constants.

For countless kids who grew up in the 1980s, Star Wars: The Radio Drama was a unique expansion of the original film, an audio adventure that fans could go back to night after night. If you’ve never actually heard of the Star Wars radio shows, never closed your eyes on a long flight and let Mark Hamill and company transport you to a galaxy far, far away, then have I got some good news for you. There’s six hours of Star Wars adventure  out therejust waiting to be discovered.

The radio drama, long a staple of stations everywhere, had found itself at a crossroads by the time the Star Wars special was released in 1981. Once-popular shows – such as Mutual’s Radio Theater and NPR’s own Earplay – were either facing cancellations or budgetary cuts, and station executives were looking to the popularity of Star Wars to help right a sinking ship. The week of the radio drama’s release, The New York Times ran a story titled, “Will Star Wars Lure Younger Listeners to Radio?” detailing some of the industry’s struggles and the gamble NPR was undergoing with George Lucas’s space franchise. To hear them tell it, an entire generation of audiences who had grown up on television and cinema were turning their back on radio, and Star Wars represented NPR’s best chance to lure them back.

As such, they were prepared to go all out on the project. Lucas, a big fan of the radio drama format from his own childhood, had gifted the rights for Star Wars and its sound elements to NPR for a single dollar, giving the media organization an opportunity to invest its money directly into the production quality. In that New York Times, for example, sound engineer Tom Voegeli recalled being handed miles of magnetic tape encompassing the full range of sound effects from the original film. “There was one tape with laser sword effects, another just with ‘swishes’ and hits,” Voegeli explained. All told, the first Star Wars radio drama would cost NPR a little more than $200,000 to produce, an astronomical number for both the era and the medium.

NPR also went with the closest thing there was to a Star Wars expert to script the series, hiring author Brian Daley to turn Lucas’s two-hour movie into a six-hour radio series. Daley was one of the first authors to tackle what would eventually become known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe; in the late ’70s, Daley had written a series of novels outlining the adventures of a young Han Solo and had worked with Lucas himself to capture some of the filmmaker’s original ideas that hadn’t quite made it onto the big screen. “I consulted his original script for some of the scenes I included,” Daley told the magazine Star Wars Collector back in 1995. As a result, the drama would expand on several sequences only hinted at in the original cut of the film, including Luke Skywalker’s friendship with Rebel pilot (and hometown hero) Biggs Darklighter.

Working in its favor was the fact that the Star Wars radio drama had gotten back two of the film’s most iconic stars. Mark Hamill, foreshadowing his later talent as a voiceover artist, had agreed to reprise his role as Luke Skywalker. Anthony Daniels, himself no stranger to the radio drama format from his early career at the BBC, would also reprise his iconic role as C-3PO. To round out the rest of the roles, NPR cast a wide net. Perry King and Bernard Behrends, both television veterans, would play Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively. Ann Sachs, a stage actress, would voice Leia. And Brock Peters, perhaps best known as Tom Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird, would fill the enormous shoes of James Earl Jones as Vader.

This skilled cast allowed the radio drama to shine, even if some of the characters – particularly King’s Han Solo – take some getting to used to. The radio drama actually opens earlier than the film; the series begins with Luke Skywalker tinkering with farm equipment while repeating the words of an Academy recruitment tape by rote. Before long, Skywalker is joined by Biggs Darklighter – an Imperial recruit on shore leave – who announces his intention to jump ship and join the Rebel Alliance at his next port of call. Darklighter has always been something of a fan favorite in the series; when Lucas recut A New Hope for theatrical re-release, the character was given an extended reunion with Skywalker on Yavin IV. Like much of the radio drama, this sequence builds out characters and relationships not present in the film. The seeds of rebellion have been planted in Luke long before he meets Ben Kenobi.

And even though the characters seem to be lifted directly from a studio backlot, the process of recording the Star Wars radio drama wasn’t so different from what we’re used to today. Ann Sachs is long retired from acting and now works as an author and theater consultant, but she still remembers the process as clear as day, and describes the recording process as “two people in a basement with microphones.”

“It just kinda felt as if we were a bunch of actors, standing around with music stands with our scripts, and having a good time,” she recalled over the phone, alternating between words of praise for Daley’s script and John Madden’s direction. (Yep, the guy who directed Shakespeare in Love directed the radio version of Star Wars.) Madden had recommended Sachs for the part of Princess Leia after seeing her perform Shakespeare at the Yale repertory theater. Sachs jumped at the part, having seeing the movie when it originally hit theaters and being enamored with the storytelling and the music.

One of the sequences that Daley wrote for the radio drama gave Sachs an opportunity to shine. In another scene written just for the radio drama, Leia – after being gently blackmailed by an Imperial officer – agrees to entertain him on her home planet of Alderaan in exchange for his looking the other way at an Imperial checkpoint. The movie had described Alderaan as a peaceful planet, but the radio drama take it one step further, making it perfectly clear that Alderaan is an entire planet of pacifists who have strict laws about firearms and violence. When Leia inadvertently reveals her knowledge of the Death Star, the officer goes for his blaster and is accidentally shot and killed in the process. Thus, the Star Wars radio drama makes it clear that Leia’s decision to fight for the Rebel Alliance is a separatist act from her own people. It’s a side of the character that would fit well with her later turn as a military leader in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Perhaps the most important part of the series, however, is the quality of the sound mixing. It’s one thing to hear actors speak lines of dialogue to each other, quite another to hear Han Solo shouting frantically at Chewbacca or R2-D2’s frustrated beeping as C-3PO hurls insults at him. Close your eyes and you can hear TIE fighters scream as they circle around behind you or the lightsabers crack and hiss as Darth Vader and Ben Kenoi throw down for the final time. And John Williams’ score is present through it all, serving as the emotional core of the entire show. Many of the talents involved have described the series as being more film than radio; the characters, effects, and music are meant to suggest that the film is playing right behind you, and you could turn and catch a climactic scene at any point of your choosing.

Star Wars wouldn’t be the end of the radio drama; the story would continue through George Lucas’ other Star Wars sequels. Hamill would reprise his role in The Empire Strikes Back before giving way to a newcomer for the final installment; Anthony Daniels would stick around for all three films. Billy Dee Williams played Lando Calrissian in the second series, and John Lithgow – yes, that John Lithgow – would join the cast for the second and third series as Yoda.

Most of the dedicated radio drama series faded away by the mid-1980s. Despite Lucasfilm’s dedication to the format, the legacy of the series is a quiet one, even among fans. When I asked Ann Sachs if she attends Star Wars conventions, she admitted that she’s a bit “out of the loop” with that world, confessing that she hasn’t even seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet. “I’ve kind of been waiting to go with my grandchildren,” Sachs told me with a chuckle.

That doesn’t mean that the Star Wars radio drama hasn’t had an impact on fans, however. At the end of our conversation, Sachs remembered meeting a Star Wars fan who was born without sight, and hearing firsthand how important the radio drama was to his childhood. The fan had gotten a copy of the Star Wars radio series as a birthday present and later wrote Sachs to describe how it had changed his life; Sachs described this as a powerful message about how the radio drama can connect with the fans even today. “I hope that everybody who goes to these [movies] also continues to listen to radio for the same reason,” Sachs concluded. “It stimulates your imagination.” Here’s hoping it stimulates your imagination, too.

Star Wars: The Original Radio Drama is currently available on CD.

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