Let’s be honest, it really does seem like a long, long time ago. To tide us over in between Star Wars films when they first came out, we had comic books, rather awful holiday specials, and even a medium that by 1981 felt like a relic. Or one might say, a more elegant medium from a more civilized age…
Four years after Episode IV: A New Hope (then merely titled Star Wars) was released, National Public Radio aired a drama that told the first film’s story across 13 episodes. This all-audio version of Star Wars embraced the radio serial format popularized in the 1930s. (Space heroes of that age, such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, had of course inspired George Lucas when he wrote Star Wars in the first place.)
Most of the cast of Star Wars did not repirse their roles for the radio drama; Princess Leia and Han Solo, for instance, were played by Ann Sachs and Perry King. (The latter, who went on to star in TV’s Riptide, had actually auditioned for Han in the film and lost the gig.) Anchoring the cast, though, were Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels who were back as Luke Skywalker and C-3P0, and though there were some changes overall the new cast members captured their characters’ personas really well. Listen to the scene in Ben Kenobi’s house on Tatooine – Hamill and Daniels, plus Sachs and “new” Obi-Wan actor Bernard Behrens:
(Lucasfilm/National Public Radio)
As you can hear, there are additional bits of dialogue not in the original script. As is common in radio, the need for descriptors when characters talk to help fill in the blanks in the audience’s imagination are a factor; sci-fi novelist Brian Daley was brought in to craft the additional material. It hardly made a difference to many fans, especially kids (present company included!) who listened in back in the day. For lots of us, this beefed up Star Wars was the one we knew best, in the days just before home video made it possible to watch our favorite movies whenever we wanted. (For the longest time, I had them on cassettes my dad recorded for me dutifully.)
And I do mean extra beefed up – by at least two prologues! The action of the motion picture doesn’t take off in Star Wars on the radio until Chapter 3; meanwhile, the first episode introduces Luke with his friends on Tatooine, including Biggs and the others who were left on the cutting room floor. Chapter 2 – today rendered entirely non-canon, especially by Rogue One – spotlights Leia, her “father” (not yet called Bail Organa) and a creepy Imperial commander who gives the Alderaan royals a ton of trouble before Leia high-tails it with the Death Star plans. As for bonus stuff during the course of the main plot… remember how the movie cuts away just before Darth Vader tortures Leia for information? The radio drama doesn’t. It’s a whole scene, and a rough listen but amazingly acted by Sachs (whose Leia is tough as nails) and Brock Peters, who makes a menacing Vader.
The NPR production – which also aired on BBC Radio in the UK – proved popular enough to warrant the inevitable sequel; The Empire Strikes Back hit the airwaves in 1983 with the entire cast from the first serial returning, plus the welcome addition of Billy Dee Williams reprising Lando Calrissian. Meanwhile, the great John Lithgow brought his own otherworldy vocal twist to the role of Yoda. Check out this retro Entertainment Tonight featurette shot during the recording of ESB on NPR:
While the experience of Star Wars on the big screen is irreplaceable, the radio dramas are a unique bit of pop-culture and broadcasting history and well worth a listen today. They’re available to purchase as audiobooks via Audible.com; The Star Wars Radio Dramas are also available on CD.