Posted on Friday, December 25th, 2015 by Blake Harris
What does the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special have to do with improving race relations and Elvis getting his groove back? Steve Binder. So this holiday season, I sat down with the legendary director to talk about Wookiees, Hound Dogs and some of the other highlights from his career.
For anyone who thinks Jar Jar Binks is the most despised thing in the Star Wars universe, I’ve got some bad news for you. The runaway victor in that category is the two-hour Star Wars Holiday Special that aired on CBS in November, 1978. Even George Lucas hates it, having famously once said at a Star Wars convention that, “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”
But before Lucas felt this way—before the Holiday Special ever went into production—he and his team at Lucasfilm thought there was a great opportunity here. One year prior, Star Wars had first hit theaters and broken just about every box office record on the planet. And one-and-a-half years later, The Empire Strikes Back would be released. So, from their perspective, the Holiday Special represented a great opportunity to whet some appetites in the meantime and, of course, sell some toys.
It’s no coincidence that the Star Wars Holiday Special premiered a week before Black Friday. Nor is it a coincidence that Kenner had been developing a new line of action figures based on the Wookiees who appeared in the special. [Nor is it, one can assume, a coincidence that a day after the Holiday Special, Saturday Night Live’s guest host that evening was none other than Carrie Fisher]
In light of this information, it’s easy to take a cynical point of view. But then again, selling merchandise and appealing to children has always been central to life in the Star Wars universe. So it seems much more likely that the Star Wars Holiday Special began with the best of intentions and then just spiraled out of control. And when it did, spiraling to the point that CBS considered pulling the plug, the project was rescued by a legendary variety show director by the name of Steve Binder.
So this past weekend, I sat down with Binder to find out what that experience like and also learn a bit about how he’d obtained that “legendary” moniker.
Below is a copy of our conversation. Merry Christmas from myself and the How Did This Get Made? gang who, once again, have put out a podcast episode that’s funnier and more enjoyable than most of the movies I’ve ever seen.
Part 1: “This Was Not Going to be Star Wars 2”
Blake Harris: I’d love to start off by hearing about the first time you ever even heard the words “Star Wars Holiday Special?”
Steve Binder: I got a call from Gary Smith, one of the executive producers, to see if I was available. At this point, the production had already been going for a week or had shut down. They’d run out of money. They were spending way, way over budget. And evidently there were lots of problems.
Blake Harris: What kind of problems?
Steve Binder: Well, I went out to Warner Bros. where they were shooting on a big stage. And they had built the Chewbacca family home, which was a phenomenal set. But it was a full, 360-degree set.
Blake Harris: You mean that unlike, say, a sitcom where an “apartment” is really just three walls and a wide opening for cameras and crew, this was essentially a self-contained—albeit it phenomenal—set?
Steve Binder: Right. I remember walking out there and saying, “No wonder you’re having problems. You have a 360 set with multiple cameras!” And there was no way they’d be able to get these cameras in to shoot. Another concern was the opening itself. Where there’s no dialogue and it’s just all subtitles with the Wookiees.
Blake Harris: That’s not quite a promising start. So what was it about the project that attracted you? Were you a big fan of the movie?
Steve Binder: I went to see the original and I loved the production value. But to be honest with you, I’m not a great science fiction fan. I love heartwarming stories. I’m a sucker for a good love story.
Blake Harris: This was at least more family-oriented. Less space opera.
Steve Binder: So I said yes and they FedExed me a bible, basically, on the Chewbacca family. A pre-life that George Lucas had written. I think having someone as creative as George writing the life of the Chewbacca family, taking the time to develop his characters and give them a full three-dimensional life before you even get to the beginning of the story in the special; that was fantastic. And I had obviously no input whatsoever on changing anything. I was just a fireman—I was there to get it done—if CBS decided to move forward at that point. Because they were all talking about pulling the plug. But they decided to go forward and I think the public wasn’t prepared in the television advertising etcetera for what this was. And I think that was the huge mistake. This was not going to be Star Wars 2. This was a variety special focused on selling toys for George’s merchandising deal.
Blake Harris: I want to hear more about all of that later, but first I can’t help but wonder: why you? And I mean that respectfully. When the production was in trouble, why were you the “fireman” they turned to try and save the day? I guess what I’m really asking is this: how did you become the go-to guy for variety shows?
Part 2: In Which the Prospect of Pretty Girls Reveals a New Path
Steve Binder: It’s kind of funny. When I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time in our family’s one bathroom fantasizing and pretending. I was a fighter pilot in World War II. I was a star football player for a college team. I listened to radio a whole lot and I was able to determine what my heroes and villains looked like and how they acted. And I think one of the great tragedies of television is that all those things that require your imagination have kind of been eliminated by, you know, casting directors. So I think radio was a great opportunity for me to expand my imagination.
Blake Harris: So growing up, did you always know you wanted to be in the entertainment business?
Steve Binder: I was raised in Los Angeles, in the heart of Hollywood. But show business, I just never dreamed about getting into that business, you know? All I knew was that I wanted to do something to make my parents proud ‘cause I was fortunate to come from a really solid middle-class home. My parents really struggled very hard to send my sister and myself to college. And, you know, we never felt we lacked anything in our childhood. So I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and when I went to University of Southern California, I actually started off as a premed student.
Blake Harris: Ha! How did you switch from medicine to entertainment?
Steve Binder: Well, when I went to USC, I did double duties: I worked at my Dad’s gas station in downtown Los Angeles and then I got a job announcing for KUSC radio on campus. That’s what really whet my appetite. Because I was basically, you know, pretty introverted on the outside and then when I got in front of that microphone I found this other personality coming out where I had no fear.
Not long after discovering this passion, Binder was drafted into the military. Stationed in Austria and Germany during the Korean War, he became an announcer on the American Forces Network. After Binder returned home, he was hoping to start a career in radio. But a high school friend wound up leading him in a slightly different direction.
Steve Binder: He was an assistant assistant editor at Paramount on Star Trek. And he suggested that if I wanted to meet some pretty girls, I should get a job at one of the studios. So I got a job at KABC, which was the ABC affiliate in Los Angeles. That would take an hour to explain, but literally in about 6 weeks I was directing the Soupy Sales Show. that set me on a path and I was kind of on my way.
Blake Harris: Did you know right away that this was the career for you?
Steve Binder: I mean, even when I had gotten the Steve Allen show, I wasn’t sure this was going to be my life’s work. I just thought this was a lot of fun and I might as well take advantage of it while the opportunity was there. Doing the Steve Allen Show, five nights a week and 90 minutes a night, I just kind of met everybody in show business during the couple years I was there. And as a result I realized that while all my friends were waiting to get off work to have some fun, I was having fun working and I thought: this is a great profession. So that’s what got me into it. But I’ve had a very eclectic career. I never really wanted to do just one thing. I always chose to have a beginning, middle and end, and then start it all over again on the next project.
Blake Harris: One of those next projects that really piqued my interest was the Petula Clark special [which aired on NBC in April 1968]. Can you tell me a little bit about that and the controversy that ensued over “the touch?”