Mark Hamill Reveals the Unlikely Inspiration for His Even More Unlikely Career
Before Mark Hamill even starts to promote his new movie—let alone talk about you-know-what—he must address some important business. Well, not really business. More like a series of fun facts.
First he introduces his wife, Marilou, and shares that the secret to their 45-year marriage is compromise. The Hamills, who have three kids, would like to add that they each grew up reading Parade in the Sunday newspaper. Next, he dotes on the dogs: Trixie is an attention-loving rescue mix; Millie, he explains, has her own Instagram account with more than 27,000 followers. And did you know that the Oakland, Calif., native and L.A. resident used to live near Central Park in New York City for 20-some years in the ‘80s and ‘90s? “I did a half-dozen Broadway shows,” he says. “That was a revelation to me. We came back to California and people thought I had retired!”
If it’s not obvious from that windup, Hamill, 71, is a talker and a doer—so giving up his storied acting career was not and is not an option. In fact, he’s still capable of surprising his fans with a raucous comedic performance.
In The Machine (in theaters May 26), he portrays the estranged dad of a popular stand-up comic (Bert Kreischer, playing a loose version of himself). Nicknamed “The Machine” for his drinking prowess, Bert is best known for spinning an onstage anecdote about his time as a college foreign exchange student in Russia when he messed with the mob on a train. But the bad guys seek revenge in the present day, and bickering father and son are forced to go overseas to right the wrongs. That’s when the real chaos—Drugs! Drinking! Bullet sprays! More drugs!—begins. “It turns into this surreal Russian spy fever dream and the events pile up, and it gets crazier and crazier until it explodes,” Hamill says. (Kreischer’s Russian ‘80s-set backstory, which is reenacted onscreen, is based on fact and has amassed more than 80 million YouTube views; everything else is fictional.)
“I had never read anything like that script and that’s very rare for me,” Hamill says. “It’s like every movie can be compared to something else. But this story was so original and bonkers. I mean, I love that Bert tells this story in this routine and has his audiences in the palm of his hand—and that’s just the starting point!”
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The Machine marks Hamill’s first live-action film since he reprised his most iconic character, Jedi hero Luke Skywalker, in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in 2019. (He’s also since popped up as a younger version of Luke in the Disney+ TV series The Mandalorian.) And while he’s happy to oblige a few Star Wars-related questions—he does a killer vocal impression of the famous Death Star conference room scene from the original 1977 movie—the actor would prefer to talk about the big picture as opposed to, well, one of the biggest pictures ever. As Hamill puts it, “People say to me, ‘Do you worry that you’ll only be remembered for one part?’ Well, first of all, I never expected to be remembered for anything.”
On a Thursday afternoon in early April, the actor detailed his long and unexpected journey for Parade.
How’d you like playing a wild and combative father?
Well, at the heart of the movie, this is a relationship film between a father and son. I don’t understand Bert’s character and disapprove of his lifestyle. And yet I love that the characters come together and the comedy comes into place. I knew it was a high-risk concept and if it misfired, it could have been a disaster. But there’s a big, outrageous payoff. You know, this movie really is escapism. That’s what we all need right now.
Your co-star, Bert, has quite a viral following. Did you develop a familial bond with him?
I had never heard of him, so I asked my kids. And they were like, “Oh my God! We hear him all the time!” Now I’ve gotten to know him and have developed a real fondness for him. Bert’s got an authentic, larger-than-life personality and what you see is what you get. But at the first Zoom meeting, I couldn’t understand why he would perform with his shirt off. I said things like, “Well, Jack Benny never took his shirt off and he was funny. Buddy Hackett never took his shirt off and he was funny.” So, in a way, I was already playing into my character from the beginning.
How was your relationship with your own dad? Was he at all like the one in The Machine?
Yeah, my dad [William, a U.S. Navy captain], was like him to a certain extent. I mean, he never really approved because I loved puppets and magic and comic books—all the things that he didn’t understand. At the dinner table, I’d say, “Hey, listen, everybody, I have a really good Elmer Fudd impression” and do it. My father would say, “That’s all well and good, Mark, but being able to impersonate Elmer Fudd is not going to get you anywhere in life.” I think he wanted me to follow in his footsteps.
What about the rest of your family? You come from a big one.
My mom [Virginia] was very supportive. I have four sisters and two brothers and they were always a captive audience for my magic shows. I was the only one who went into show business. One of my brothers is a brilliant computer expert. Another brother always had a propensity for medicine. But you’ve got to follow your dreams.
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So, which piece of entertainment inspired you to follow your Hollywood dreams?
The original King Kong [from 1933] changed my life. I remember watching the black-and-white version on TV when I was 7 years old and it just wrecked me emotionally. I became so obsessed with it that I started going to the library and seeking out every piece of information on it that I could. I made my mom and my friends watch it. I can say it really led me to wanting to be a part of this business.
It’s hard to believe that Star Wars was your first movie.
[They only gave me] a seven-page scene because they didn’t trust us with the whole script. I will never forget sitting down and reading this thing called The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the “Journal of the Whills,” Saga I: The Star Wars. I had tested with Harrison [Ford] and he was a leading man and I started thinking, Wait a minute. Harrison must be Luke and I’m his sidekick. But then I realized, Oh my god, this is seen through Luke’s eyes. The teenage orphan! What struck me was that the script was closer to The Wizard of Oz than Forbidden Planet or Star Trek. And I was just taken with the humor of it all, too, and the outrageous situations. Like, how are they going to do this?
Did your dad live to see your success?
He did. In fact, what was funny was that Star Wars came out and became this huge hit. But the thing that really impressed him wasn’t Star Wars—it was when I was on a Bob Hope special. That spoke to him because, like, Oh my god, Bob Hope wants my son on his show!
Why go from sci-fi epics to theater?
I love character parts and inhabiting a completely different personality. One of my favorite productions was a revival of Room Service directed by Alan Arkin. I got some of the best reviews of my career because the critics assumed I’d be the wide-eyed, innocent guy who’d never be in the big city. Instead, I was playing the role that Groucho Marx had in the movie. I slicked back my hair and had a pencil mustache. I’d look in the mirror and go, Mark Hamill is gone.
Does that mentality also explain why you went into voiceover roles?
I fell into voiceover, and it was a revelation. By definition, it’s character acting because the definition of “character actor” is someone who disappears into the role. I mean, you’re visually unimportant. So I got parts that I would never have gotten on camera.
Well, you did famously play the Joker in the animated Batman series for decades.
I would never have played the Joker on camera! I have to say, it gives me great satisfaction that the roles I’m most known for are so diametrically opposed. Playing the Joker, who is just insane and immoral, was very liberating because I got to take so many chances. But it’s funny because you can get typecast even in animation. I’ve been offered a rash of maniacal, villainous roles.
Given that you’re so synonymous with these roles, do you think you’ve received the respect that you deserve as an actor?
Well, you know, I don’t think of it in those terms. I was always grateful to get work, so that never really registered. I obviously see it from the inside out and I’m sometimes surprised when people put it in a different perspective because I did love being a part of the Star Wars films.
Now that so many cast members of the original trilogy have passed away, do you feel like you’re the custodian of the franchise?
The answer is no. I don’t feel that way at all. No, no. I was given closure and it’s a whole new era now. Luke was given such definite closure, so it was easy to let it go. I mean, [as a kid] I went to nine different schools in 12 years. I’ve always been good at letting things go. It’s not easy, but you have to acknowledge reality.
What would your fans be surprised to learn about you?
I love comedy. I grew up watching The Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. I adored The Jack Benny Show and his comic timing. When I read Star Wars, I thought the droids [C-3PO and R2-D2] were hilarious because they talked like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Many people have said to me over the years, “Gosh you’re so funny,” and what they’re implying is that they’re surprised I’m funny because I’m never funny in films or on television. [Marilou chimes in off-camera, “When I met him, I said, ‘You should do stand-up comedy!’”]
How did you and Marilou meet? Let’s hear a great romantic story.
I went to get my teeth cleaned. She’s a dental hygienist. There was a thunderbolt because I was very attracted to her and wanted to ask her out. We went to see Annie Hall and it was sort of a test because I wanted to know whether she had a sense of humor—I had dated women before who were lovely but just didn’t share my sense of humor. So I was sort of monitoring her. And she passed with flying colors. And when I took her to a Star Wars screening, she leaned over during one scene and whispered, “Bad caps.” She was watching it from a dental point of view! That made me laugh.
So, no hard feelings that Annie Hall beat Star Wars for the Best Picture Oscar?
I was thrilled because I thought it was probably not a good thing if my first movie won Best Picture. There was nowhere to go but down. But Annie Hall certainly deserved it.
Want to brag about your kids for a minute? Do they act?
None of them are in the business, but they’re artistic. My oldest son, Nathan, does a comic strip online called 2 Dumb Dinos. He’s in the process of turning it into an animated series. My middle son, Griffin, is a martial arts instructor and he’s incredible at drawing people’s likeness. And my youngest, Chelsea, has been my personal assistant for many years. She bosses me around and keeps me on the up-and-up. She got her master’s degree at USC, so she’s really the academic success story.
What’s your off-screen life like these days? You’re very active on Twitter and what else?
I’m reading a lot of books about what we’ve all been through politically over the past eight years. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the news and been like, “Oh I gotta go watch something on Turner Classic Movies.” But you know, I’m a homebody. All my kids live nearby and visit me all the time. I love my family. I have my wife and my dogs and reading and drawing. I enjoy it all.
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