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‘Star Wars’ in 1977: How the Saga Began With That ‘Old Desert Rat’ Obi-Wan Kenobi

The frenzy is intense for the Dec. 18 debut of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” so it’s strange to realize that not so long ago, in a galaxy not very far away, people had no idea what “Star Wars” was.

On March 24, 1976, Variety reported that George Lucas had begun filming an $8 million sci-fi fantasy film for 20th Century Fox in Tunisia. Alec Guinness had been set to play “a bearded old desert rat.” While Obi-Wan might balk at that description, the story continued, “The cast will also include three large roles for relatively unknown young performers, who haven’t yet been announced.”

A few weeks later, on April 7, the paper said that 23-year-old Mark Hamill would make his film debut as Luke Starkiller — that was before the character’s name change — in “the outer-space comedy-adventure.” And on May 10, Harrison Ford was announced as playing Han Solo, “a tough James Dean-style starpilot of a pirate starship.”

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In January 1977, Fox took out a 24-page insert, touting its hefty 19-film slate for 1977. The Lucas film was described as “a romantic space fantasy.” The full-page ad among those for movies including “Julia,” “The Turning Point” and “An Unmarried Woman,” as well as less memorable ones, such as “Mr. Billion,” “Moving Violation” and “The World’s Greatest Lover.”

A year later, “Star Wars” opened — or, more accurately, it exploded. The movie debuted May 25, 1977 (a Wednesday), on 34 screens; it added 9 screens two days later. Its six-day tally over Memorial Day weekend was $2,556,718, which was then amazing.

On June 10, Variety said that “direct cost of the film was about $10 million. Fox has 60% of the profits, Lucas 40% (from which he dealt out points to others). Breakeven is estimated in the neighborhood of $22-25 million.” Again, it’s a shock to think that anyone ever wondered whether “Star Wars” would make a profit.

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The film carried a PG rating rather than G (for “General”) because the MPAA’s Code & Rating Administration members were split and Fox asked for PG (“Parental Guidance”), saying the producer felt some scenes might frighten small children unaccompanied by adults. But Variety wrote that an insider said Fox also thought a G rating might make it seem “uncool” in teenage circles.

Aside from earning 40% of the profits, Lucas retained sequel rights and merchandising — one of the smartest moves in Hollywood history. But he had a good track record at that point: Lucas’ second film, the 1973 “American Graffiti,” cost $750,000 and brought in $115 million to distributor Universal. And even though Disney has been creating merchandise for decades, it was for animated characters like Mickey Mouse; the idea of merchandise for live-action films was rare.

By November, “Star Wars” had become the domestic all-time champ, with $187 million at the box office, of which $120 million was in rentals (i.e., the portion returned to the studio). Its tallies surpassed the Steven Spielberg-directed 1975 “Jaws” so in December, Spielberg took out an ad congratulating Lucas and the film.

“Star Wars” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and won six in below-the-line categories including John Williams for score, with sound maven Benjamin Burtt Jr. also given a special achievement award “for the creation of the alien, creature and robot voices” in the film. However, the best picture, director and original screenplay Oscars all went to “Annie Hall.”

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