Stars Wars Two Stories from Behind the Camera

Star Wars Jabba the Hutt and He-Man

With all the big news about the next Star Wars installment being rewritten by JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, it made sense to have a look at the force and see what other things about the franchise might be of interest. Oddly enough, a few things did pop up. In our search, we found two stories behind the camera, ¬†namely, Jabba the Hut and He-Man. The two subjects are not “directly ” connected except that they both have to do with the original trilogy that first hit screens in 1977.

The original Star Wars, also known as Star Wars: Episode Four – A New Hope was the beginning of an epic saga that began at the end and eventually told the backstory via further prequels. In the beginning, three unknown actors starred in the film with a Wookie, a droid, and a small robot called R2-D2. It featured the formidable Sir Alec Guinness as a mysterious jedi knight, retired, who teaches a young Luke Skywalker about the force. The only other “big” name was that of James Earl Jones as the voice of cinema’s best villain ever, Darth Vader. The film even had a cameo role for the Hammer Horror actor Peter Cushing.

Star Wars was the brainchild of George Lucas, who kept close ties with his baby until earlier in the year when he sold the rights to the films to Disney. This transfer of the baton opened up the door for JJ Abrams to direct and the creative mantel has been passed on.

The replacing of Michael Arndt, who to be fair had not been in the position of Star Wars scribe for very long, by old-hand Kasdan, who cut his teeth by co-writing The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, and Abrams made a certain amount of sense and brought us to the first connection to the original trilogy of Star Wars. The 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back is the last time that the character of Jabba the Hut is mentioned. Previously Jabba was talked of, very briefly, in the first of the trilogy and he appears in Return of the Jedi.

Star Wars Jabba the Hutt
Jabba the Hutt, voiced by Larry Ward and partially operated by puppeteer Toby Philpott.

In Return of the Jedi Jabba the Hut is holding onto Princess Leia (played brilliantly by the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie Fisher) and he has a pretty big part (no pun intended). Voiced by Larry Ward and operated by four puppeteers, Jabba came to living breathing life and for a short while, stole the film. The late film critic Roger Ebert once described the crime lord as a cross between the Cheshire Cat and a toad.

The puppeteer responsible for operating Jabba’s eyes, tongue and left arm was Englishman Toby Philpott. The 67 year-old former puppeteer was tracked down recently by the United Kingdom newspaper The Express. The paper found out that Toby now works in a library in Wales as an Information Technology (computer courses) instructor in Cardiff.

The former puppeteer recounted some of what went on “back in the day” when he was the one responsible for making Jabba the Hut eat frogs or smack folks that displeased him, or smoke his hookah pipe. Philpott said that it took four men to operate the giant puppet. Three “inside” and another to operate the giant crime lord externally. Toby explained that when he quit show business, he had fans who continued to track him down to write letters and he has appeared at the odd convention.

The computer course instructor said it felt like he had lead a double life. Philpott explained that he was somewhat bemused at fan’s excitement at his part in bringing Jabba to life. To Toby, especially at the time, his part in making the villain “act” was just another six week job. Now he understands the fans reactions. But Philpott does not miss the puppeteering work.

After a while, he says, the work began to dry up as CGI started getting better. He also said that puppeteering moved to the United States and he had no interest in packing up and moving to another country, so he got out. When fans ask him why he took Jabba the Hutt to Cardiff, Wales, he replies, “Why not?” Philpott is perfectly happy teaching his local community about computers and he is glad he retired Jabba from his life of crime.

So that concludes the Star War Jabba the Hutt connection, now we move onto the He-Man connection. Both stories from behind the camera are really tied in by George Lucas. One directly, Jabba the Hutt , and the other indirectly, He-Man.

Star Wars puppeteer in a Cardiff Library.
Toby Philpott, the left arm, tongue and eyes of Jabba the Hutt aged 67 in Cardiff.

The second item that popped up after combing the internet for more Star Wars related information was the He-Man connection. It turns out that George Lucas did more than just create the jedi and the force. Back in the time of the original film’s debut, Lucas offered to sell merchandising rights to his new, intended, franchise. The year before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope was released, George went to giant toy manufacturers Mattel and asked if the company wanted to buy the rights to make action figures for $750,000.

Not too surprisingly, Mattel said no. As was explained by Roger Sweet in a 2005 interview, that was a lot of money for an unknown film property. It was before the first Star Wars had even premiered and according to Sweet, there was no way that the, then, president of Mattel, Ray Wagoner, was going to pay that much money.

Of course the company found out that by Christmas of 1977, the Star Wars merchandise was so popular that kids were having to get vouchers for action figures because the demand was so high, the themed range couldn’t be made fast enough. Mattel realised, belatedly, that they had goofed. The order was put out to come up with their own action figures.

What happened next varies depending on who is telling the story, but essentially one thing that everyone agrees on, is that Mattel made history. In the world of show business merchandising, the show/movie/cartoon comes first. The action figures or other merchandise comes later. Initially, Mattel was going to make a Conan the Barbarian action figure.

That idea was shot down pretty quickly after the original “mock-up” didn’t go down well and the bosses at the toy company felt that, besides the figure being too scary with its horned helmet, the figure did not have huge appeal. Sweet was asked to come up with a new character and name to match.

Mattel did actually make a few Conan the Barbarian action figures that were given away as part of a promotion by mail-order. The company got sued by Conan Properties so that idea was finally scrapped. Roger Sweet says that the next idea was the winning one. Without having a movie, television show, or cartoon to use as a base, they came up with the He-Man action figure.

He-Man was Conan the Barbarian without the dark olive skin and dark brown hair. He had been “cleaned up” and given bronze “tanned” skin and blonde hair. Once the company had changed the appearance of their Conan figure and developed the idea of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, aka MOTU, the lawsuit brought by Conan Properties was shut down.

He Man a Mattel Invention.
He Man, Conan the Barbarian with toned down tan and blond hair.

The remaining problem was that Mattel had an action figure with no verse to live in. They then decided to create their own show, the Masters of the Universe cartoon and besides making history, the company made a bundle. Of course the cartoon did not materialise overnight. The first He Man figures came with a “mini-comic book” that chronicled the adventures of the action hero. The comic books formed the basis of the cartoon.

The figure first came into being in 1980 and by 1983 He-Man had his own show.

So searching for Star Wars connections, while trying to find out why Michael Arndt had been replaced as writer of the next installment of the film saga, unearthed these two interesting stories from behind the camera. ¬†Two figures, Jabba the Hut retired, and He-Man “the beginning” were both either part of or inspired by George Lucas and the first Star Wars films and both have an interesting history.

By Michael Smith
United Kingdom