A cringe usually follows the mention of the ill-fated “Star Wars Holiday Special” by any self-respecting fan of arguably the most beloved sci-fi film of all time.
It’s common for “Star Wars” aficionados who weren’t alive when the game changing project hit screens in 1977 to mock the bizarre variety show, “Star Wars Holiday Special,” which debuted 45 years ago.
The half-baked program, which never aired again on commercial television, but has been available on YouTube for years, inspired “A Disturbance in the Force,” a comical behind-the scenes documentary, which premiered at South By Southwest in March.
The “Star Wars Holiday Special” is awful. While it includes most of the original star-studded cast (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fischer and Harrison Ford), it also included some others. In one skit, the force was not with Donny Osmond, who played Luke Skywalker and his sister Marie Osmond, who portrayed Princess Leia. For some reason, in said skit, Kris Kristofferson agreed to take a crack at Han Solo with Utah’s most significant siblings, with apologies to the dancing Houghs. Old school actors Bea Arthur and Art Carney were also inexplicably tabbed to take part in the regrettable holiday special.
Directors Steve Kozak and Jeremy Coon knock it out of the park with “A Disturbance in the Force,” which is informative and amusing. Kozak, 60, takes it a step further with the book, “A Disturbance in the Force: How and Why the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened.” The book and film will be discussed Saturday at a Northwest Passages event at the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center.
Kozak, a veteran Hollywood producer (“Whose Line Is it Anyway,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”) and director of research and clearances with “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” will satisfy the most ardent “Star Wars” fan, since he not only covers considerable ground during his deep dive into the special but he lived through the variety era.
For those who missed out on that period, yes, the “Star Wars Holiday Special” is wretched, but so was just about every 1960s and ‘70s variety program. No one is better to detail how terrible the shows were than Kozak, since his father, Elliott Kozak, produced Bob Hope’s many variety shows.
Hope, who portrays “Barf Vader” during a disturbing “Star Wars” send-up, starred in an endless array of variety show clunkers. But the audience was well aware of how low the variety show bar was during that period.
“It’s so true,” Kozak said while calling from his Utah home. “No one who watched those variety shows got a great viewing experience. It goes back to “The Ed Sullivan Show” where you would sit through a juggler before you saw a few minutes of the Rolling Stones and then you would go to a ventriloquist.” Kozak recalls wincing through his father’s Hope productions. “I remember one of the worst was when (‘Wheel of Fortune’ letter turner) Vanna White was asked to sing with Hope on a Christmas special and they did ‘Silver Bells.’ It was one of many horrific moments I lived through.”
The experiences were so bad that Kozak passed on meeting Michael Jackson when his father produced the iconic “Motown 25” special in 1983 when Jackson shocked the world with his initial televised moonwalk during a performance of “Billie Jean.”
“I turned my dad down when he asked if I wanted to come out to that show and I went on a date with this girl that night who couldn’t stop singing songs from ‘Thriller,’ ” Kozak said. “She was a huge Michael Jackson fan. I could have introduced her to Michael that night and I would have been king, but I had to tell my dad, ‘No, I don’t want to come out to your lame show.’
“I just thought that variety shows were lame.”
However, George Lucas, who wrote and directed “Star Wars,” believed the “Star Wars Holiday Special” would be anything but lame. “Star Wars Holiday Show” producer Steve Binder directed Elvis Presley’s iconic 1968 comeback special, which revitalized the king’s career. The production company, Smith-Hemion, put together Bing Crosby’s acclaimed final holiday special, “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas.”
That special featured the surprising duet between Crosby and David Bowie.
“So, George Lucas had faith in the ‘Star Wars’ special because of the Bowie-Bing collaboration,” Kozak said. “He thought, ‘If they can make it work so well with David Bowie, they can work on a ‘Star Wars’ project.’ ”
Kozak’s anecdotes are much better than the “Star Wars Holiday Show.” Kozak reveals what happened when Bowie performed with Crosby. The only reason the Thin White Duke agreed to perform with Spokane’s favorite son was because of his mother, who was a huge fan of Crosby.
“When Bowie was asked to sing ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ Bowie said, ‘I hate that song,’ ” Kozak said. “But the amazing part of all of this is that when all of this was happening, there were two songwriters (on the staff), who in an hour came up with ‘The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth’ that appealed to Bowie. That duet still blows my mind.”
Kozak, who grew up at the epicenter of entertainment, has many mind-blowing stories that he has no problem sharing. While growing up in Los Angeles, his family was close friends with Don Rickles and Bob Newhart. Both of the legendary comics were at Kozak’s bar mitzvah. Rickles stole the show from the then 13-year-old Kozak.
“There was never anyone like Don Rickles and Bob Newhart, who are two of the funniest men of all time,” Kozak said. “I used to hang out with Timmy Newhart and Rob Newhart and Larry Rickles. We went to see ‘Star Wars’ together when I was living in Westwood.”
Kozak was initially reluctant to catch the much-buzzed-about movie, due to the endless hype, but eventually succumbed to the iconic film. Kozak, like much of America, swooned over “Star Wars” as the credits rolled. Nearly a half century later Kozak crafted two different entertaining love letters to a special that is perhaps best left forgotten.
“ ‘Star Wars’ fans just can’t leave that special behind,” Kozak said. “I’ve kept the conversation going by doing my research. I like to dig up stuff.” That’s Kozak’s gig at Kimmel. When Eddie Murphy appeared on Kimmel in late November to plug his new film, “Candy Cane Lane,” a still was needed from when the former Saturday Night Live star hosted a Sammy Davis Jr. variety show from 1985.
“I know the producer from that variety show really well and he went into his archive and immediately sent me this amazing photo. The shot was of Eddie, Sammy, Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson, Richard Pryor, Frank Sinatra and Clint Eastwood. It was just incredible. That was an amazing variety show moment that was cool to see. Unfortunately, there isn’t a moment like that in the ‘Star Wars Variety Show,’ but there was something about that show that people still hold on to.”
Variety shows are difficult to watch. Just check out such disasters as “The Pink Lady and Jeff” or any Brady Bunch reunion special for proof.
“There were so many bad variety shows and that was my dad’s world,” Kozak said. “Being on a Bob Hope special was like being on ‘The Love Boat.’ My father was fairly legendary. He didn’t smoke or drink or fool around, but when he gets to heaven he will have to answer for those variety shows.”
But Kozak did try to help his father during a Sammy David Jr. and Bob Hope special.
“He told me we have a chance to get Gregory Hines, who at that time was at the top of his game as a dancer,” Kozak said. “My father said ‘What will we do with Hines and Sammy?’ I said, ‘Just open up the stage and don’t do a thing. Just let them dance.’ But then Bob Hope would go right in the middle of them and do this soft shoe number. When they did that, I thought, ‘They don’t deserve Gregory Hines.’ But that’s how it was with variety shows.”