Trash for Cash: An Oral History of Garbage Pail Kids

Topps
Topps

Susan Wurthman of Massapequa Park said her daughter Tracy, who is 7 years old, collected Garbage Pail Kids until ''I put a stop to it'' because ''they're not at all healthy.'' In support of that argument, Mrs. Wurthman referred to a character named Dead Fred, depicted as a cigar-smoking juvenile gangster with a bullet penetrating his forehead. ''My daughter said: 'I like this one. My dolly would look nice with its head blown off, too.'"

The New York Times, February 5, 1986

Vomit. Snot. Drool. Occasionally, pus. No oozing orifice went unexplored in the 660 stickers produced by Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. between 1985 and 1988, when its line of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards broke free of convenience store counters to become the single most controversial kid’s product in the country. With characters like Luke Puke and Messy Tessie dripping bodily fluids in portraits created by talented—even Pulitzer Prize-winning—artists, the series delighted an audience obsessed with the gross.

While children bought well over 800 million of the mucus-covered cards, adults were mortified. Psychologists wondered if a preoccupation with upchuck could affect a child’s development. Schools banned them outright. Protest groups managed to get a CBS cartoon canceled before a single episode even aired. But no one was more offended than the Cabbage Patch Kids, whose lawyers argued that the vile, dimpled drawings were copyright infringement and devastating to their squeaky-clean reputation.

For the first time ever, over a dozen of the principal creative forces behind the Garbage Pail Kids—and a few of its detractors—have been roped in by mental_floss to discuss the making of the series, the cards that went too far, and how the widespread panic raised Topps’s profits while lowering their standards. No company since Kleenex has profited better from boogers. This is how they did it.

I. THE GARBAGE MEN

In 1938, Russian immigrant Morris Shorin decided to sell his gas station and tobacco interests to finance his family’s entry into the lucrative chewing gum business. With his four sons—Joe, Ira, Abram, and Philip—Shorin founded the Topps Chewing Gum company, named for their desire to “top” the competition.

In an effort to make their bubble gum more appealing to consumers, in 1948 Topps began inserting “X-ray” novelty cards into products that would materialize when viewed under cellophane. While those eventually gave way to sports cards, the company continued to pursue non-sports properties like Hopalong Cassidy and, later, Star Wars. It was only natural that Shorin’s grandson, Topps CEO Arthur Shorin, would try to secure the rights to the hottest pop culture property of the early 1980s: the Cabbage Patch Kids.

Mark Newgarden (Creative Consultant, Topps 1984-1993): The idea to do a Cabbage Patch parody series originated directly with Arthur Shorin. Topps had previously pursued a license with the Cabbage Patch folks.

Len Brown (Creative Director, Topps 1959-2000): We actually tried to get the rights to do Cabbage Patch, which were very popular. When that failed, one of the senior officers at Topps, and it was probably Arthur, said, “Well, let’s parody them if they don’t give us the rights.”

Roger Schlaifer (Former Licensing Agent, Cabbage Patch Kids): I went out to see Arthur Shorin at a country club. We were going to play golf but got rained out. In retrospect, it was probably symbolism.

Newgarden: All I ever heard was that [Cabbage Patch owners] Original Appalachian Artworks felt it was too low-end a product category for their high-profile brand. You have to remember that these dolls were originally luxury items and sold for fairly outrageous prices.

Schlaifer: I was interested and they seemed interested. I asked Topps to make a proposal on what they thought the cards would do, royalties, all of that. We had a unique agreement with licensees that penalized them if they didn’t come out with new product. All of a sudden, they stopped taking my calls.

Brown: I don’t know what was going on between Arthur and Roger.

Newgarden: I recall hearing they [Appalachian] had a problem with bubble gum cards. Maybe the severe terms were a reflection of that.

Topps’s decision to satirize the Cabbage Patch Kids had precedent in Wacky Packages, the company’s line of cards dating back to the 1960s that spoofed consumer products. It was part of an irreverent sense of humor that had been around nearly as long as the company itself.

Jay Lynch (Freelancer, New Product Development, Topps): Norm Saunders painted Batman cards for Topps in the 1960s. There was an extra space for a card on one of the proof sheets, and so for fun, he painted a secret Batman card with Batman taking a dump in the Bat-toilet. There was even copy on the back: “In the middle of an adventure, Batman must answer nature’s call.” There are about a dozen out there, just for the people who worked on it. Nobody ever told upper management.    

Brown: Topps had always done real well with baseball. Non-sports cards, I called them novelty cards, those came and went. It was just added business.

Lynch: There was a Wacky Packages card Mark Newgarden did called Garbage Pail Kids. He did the rough, wrote the joke, and John Pound did the painting.

The original Garbage Pail Kid. Copyright 2016 Mark Newgarden.

John Pound (Primary Artist, Garbage Pail Kids): The gag they had me do for Wacky Packages, they gave me a rough sketch and it looked like a little baby bum in a trash can.

Brown: It didn’t look like how the final Garbage Pail design looked, but it certainly came from Mark and his group.

Newgarden: I vividly recall that Cabbage Patch parody being rushed into that meeting to show Arthur that we were already thinking along such lines. And an hour later the word came down that we needed to figure out how to make a series out of this thing.

That responsibility fell to Topps art director Art Spiegelman, who was finishing what would become his Pulitzer-winning account of the Holocaust, Maus; supervisor Stan Hart; and Newgarden. Together, the New Product Development team began to hammer out the approach to “GPK” by auditioning a number of artists—Pound among them.  

Pound: The idea was to be rude, crude, gross, rebellious, snotty, disgusting, all of these things. I sent them 30 or 50 pages of ideas, including a nice one of a little kid barfing on a baby blanket.     

Lynch: Art Spiegelman at first just did a rough drawing of a doll with a big nose named Olga. It didn’t make sense, and he knew it, but eventually it was he who figured the way to do 80 cards which were all different, yet all part of the same universe.

Howard Cruse (Freelance Artist): I sent some concept sketches to them, but I didn’t know they were doing a riff on Cabbage Patch Kids and so my concept had nothing to do with that look. They were just strange and weird dolls. Playfully grim.

Newgarden: Right off the bat, John gave us about four times as much input as the others, including pages of gags, color studies and logo treatments. His creative energy literally dripped off the page.  

Pound: The idea of making them disgusting was not sitting real well with me. For selfish reasons, I wanted to have them feel good to look at. I was vaguely aware if you had the gross mixed with the cute, it was more interesting.

Newgarden: He worked in acrylics and airbrush and his paintings were bright and clean and vividly colored. His sense of composition and staging was impeccable. He brought a very strong, direct, poster-like approach to GPK that made almost any concept feel positively monumental.

Pound: Art or Len said, “OK, we like what you sent, let’s get practical. Can you do 44 paintings in two months?” The wanted it done by one artist for a consistent look and feel. It was basically a painting a day. I had to break it down—background is one hour, flesh is one hour, clothing one hour. They were all about five inches by seven, or twice the size of the card.

Newgarden: I do vividly recall opening John's FedEx package with that Adam Bomb painting in it pretty early on in the process. I felt then and there we had something special cooking. Strangely enough, I think I was the only one at Topps who felt it at the time.

Pound: Adam Bomb was about 85 percent my idea. I had the sketch of the kid sitting there pressing the button, and in background, a bomb blast going off. When Art Spiegelman approved the idea, he said, “Well, make it coming out of the head.” It’s like, "Yes, good one!"

Newgarden: There was always a lot of back and forth. Phone meetings, faxes, FedExed tracing paper overlays with voluminous notes. John's pencils or paintings would come in on a Monday and I'd make notes. Then on Tuesday, Art would make notes on my notes and we'd call John in the afternoon and hash it all out.

Lynch: My overall reaction was that this was nuts. You know, “Nobody will buy this.” But Arthur Shorin always thought it was a good idea.

Bob Sikoryak (Freelance Artist): When you talk to Art, he always references Harvey Kurtzman and MAD magazine. GPK totally came out of that.

Newgarden, Spiegelman, and other freelancers and Topps employees would often find themselves in brainstorming sessions, conceiving of characters plagued by indigestion or runny noses. Crucially, the pieces had names—Acne Amy, Slain Wayne—that allowed kids to feel as though they were personalized for their amusement.

Lynch: Art [Spiegelman] developed the system of a negative adjective before a kid's first name. He figured out the method. If there wasn’t a clear method, we’d be doing stuff randomly, throwing it against the wall.

Newgarden: We'd sit around the table, turn the paintings over one at time and play at being the Algonquin wits of snot and vomit.

Pound: There was one case where I had a stomach flu or food poisoning and I remember thinking between barfing, “How about a waiter barfing up a complete meal at a restaurant?” That one did get accepted.

Brown: Pound would send in rough sketches. We’d look at it as a group and make suggestions like, “More snot!”

Pound: For some reason, snot never occurred to me at first. Vomit, yes.

John Mariano (Freelance Writer/Artist): It was no different from a couple of guys hanging out in the cafeteria, running stuff by each other. Whatever makes you laugh. Our objective was to satirize.

Newgarden: Len was always very concerned about making absolutely sure we were including the most popular kid names of the moment. We never had a "Mark" in the first GPK series because Len insisted it wasn't a popular name. Since nobody ever thought these would go beyond the next series, the idea was to always feature the most common names so kids could actually use them.  

Brown: We did names way back on the Ugly Stickers series in the 1960s. Kids looked for their name and loved to find a friend or classmate to use as a nasty put-down, like Vomit Vic.

Newgarden: At a certain point I tracked down a slightly outdated baby-naming book, which we worked from.

When Pound’s 44 paintings had been completed, they were taken to Shorin for a final review. 

Newgarden: Arthur Shorin was the final word at Topps, period. So the line was probably drawn depending on whatever Arthur had for breakfast that morning.

Pound: Religious elements didn’t fly. One little gag sketch had a little kid like Moses receiving GPK stickers instead of the Ten Commandments tablets. Then things, gags that were suicide-related, like someone hanging themselves, you didn’t want to promote that as something kids might do or try.

Steve Kroninger (Freelance Artist): There was one of a kid in an oven. It was a sketch from Mark or Art. It got painted but didn’t get final approval. 

Newgarden: I don’t believe we ever put a baby in an oven.

Pound: There was an idea I had done of a kid in a pickle jar. It went all the way through to a completed painting. Maybe that was an issue of taste or interpretation, like it could’ve been an aborted fetus.

Brown: I remember that image.

Pound: Lincoln, that one was an idea assigned to me, to do Lincoln with a bullet hole in his hat. I did that. Someone suggested adding a Playbill to it.

Brown: More often than not, I had a sense of what Arthur would go for. He liked underwear gags. 

Kroninger: Len was the grown-up in the room.

Brown: We knew we could push envelope just so far.

Pound: There was change I saw happening later. We had a wino Garbage Pail Kid in series one, a little drunk bum character staggering around and leaning on a post. Later on, we shied away from jokes about alcohol.

Lynch: The best card I ever did they didn’t use. It was a little girl and a dog and a turd. The little girl is pointing at the turd accusingly, looking at the dog, but the dog is pointing equally accusingly. They didn’t use it because it had two characters.

Newgarden: We always had an extra painting or two up our sleeves for the final “elimination round” of every GPK series, so if Arthur Shorin nixed an image, like the Lincoln assassination, we would have a less objectionable backup all ready to go. Then we would resubmit those rejected images next time around, again and again, and eventually wear poor Arthur down.

Brown: Using “moron” or “idiot” was off-limits for a long time. Someone at the company had a child who was mentally challenged, and Arthur just cringed at those words. We couldn’t do it. Later, we probably did Moronic Morton or something.

Kroninger: There was one of a kid playing a trumpet and blowing a cloud of smoke out of his butt. That was the Garbage Pail Kids.

II. DUMPSTER DIVERS

When the 88-card Garbage Pail Kids were released in June 1985—each character was printed twice, with a different name on each—Topps anticipated nothing more than a single series of cards. Testing the 25-cent packs in local northeast markets, distributors were quick to let them know something bigger was happening.

Brown: We’d do testing in retail stores. There was one store across street from a school, and we knew kids would come in every day at three o’clock to buy candy, baseball cards, and, hopefully, a pack of Garbage Pail Kids. We’d call the place at four after the rush and see how things were going. Kids loved it.

Pound: Topps had an amazing distribution system. The cards were always right by the candy counter or by the register.

Newgarden: Art used to drive back into Manhattan and I'd often go along for the ride or to hang out afterward at his place in SoHo. He'd normally drive over the Brooklyn Bridge and cut through Chinatown. One day we both did a double-take when we saw some guy on a street corner selling ersatz uncut GPK series two sheets [that] had literally just come out. We stopped and checked them out. How an original uncut sheet made its way into the hands of the nefarious Chinatown counterfeiters so quickly is still an unsolved mystery.

Tom Bunk (Freelance Artist): I knew they were popular, but I didn’t realize how popular until I would go and see wrappers on the floor, on public toilets, the stickers all over. Punk bands had them on guitars.

Brown: In those days, we had tobacco distributors selling to stores. And we’d hear from them: “I just sold three cases. Give me a dozen more.” We kept going back to press. I got an immediate, panicked call from Arthur Shorin: “Get started on series two. This is like a wildfire.”

With demand growing, Garbage Pail Kids became Newgarden’s full-time responsibility at Topps. And while the company wanted to maintain a consistent visual look, it was clear that John Pound did not have enough hours in the day to keep up.

Newgarden: Our job was to crank out rancid sausages—but we were determined to give them the best rancid sausages possible.

Bunk: Sometimes Pound would just refuse to do jobs that were too disgusting for him.

Newgarden: John Pound was a very fertile GPK idea machine. At one point he designed a software program to randomly generate GPK concepts.

Pound: On my first computer, I wrote a program that generated GPK ideas by combining words or phrases. These could be printed out as a list of ideas. I sent a printout to Mark, and I think there was [one usable] idea in it, something like “kid with a skateboard foot.”

Bunk: I was working in Berlin and came to New York in 1983 for personal reasons—a love affair. I didn’t know anyone in New York, so I went to Art Spiegelman’s address because I knew where he lived. He asked me if I would be interested in working for Topps. For Pound, I think he was working on like one painting a day, which is crazy, so they asked me to start helping with the fronts. Then James Warhola came on as a third.

James Warhola (Freelance Artist): They showed me the cards, and at first, I didn’t let my opinion out. I thought they were most obnoxious, disgusting illustrations I was ever requested to do. I took some sketches home and got the hang of it, [and] really enjoyed it after the first week. But before that, it was revolting.

Editors advised Warhola to use "more goo" for "Julius Sneezer."

Newgarden: James came from the world of fantasy illustration and he painted his Garbage Pail Kids in oils. His renderings had a spooky, moody vibe that contrasted nicely with the others. I always felt his strength was in the depiction of “place.” When I think of James, I think of craggy trees, weathered rock, and bleak landscapes.

Bunk: I tried to give each Kid a soul, something which was not just a cold drawing and stuff, but like a real kid. You also had to try to emulate John, who had developed the style. He was like Walt Disney.

Warhola: Sometimes when an idea was too obnoxious, as an artist I would say, “This is a little bit over the line, I don’t think I’m good for this particular card.” I didn’t mind a kid on an island in a toilet, with feces floating. It’s gross, but I’d probably draw the line if it was too bloody, like barbed wire or knives. I’m squeamish.

Pound: I didn’t know they were going to have other artists doing ideas from pencils I had done, like Fat Elvis. I was a little frustrated and jealous at the time.

Newgarden: John was sometimes supplying more concepts than paintings, so some got swapped around.

With more and more cards needed to fill the sets, Newgarden employed a growing number of freelancers to pitch ideas for characters or jokes for the card backs.

Mariano: In a sense, we were kind of like factory workers. There would be jokes about the tuna sandwich at the cafeteria. “Come to Topps and get a free lunch.”

Kroninger: I remember the grilled cheese sandwiches in the cafeteria. It was part of the deal. You got $50 for the day, then Mark would buy you lunch.

Newgarden: That wasn’t a typical situation. Kroninger was a friend and an entertaining guy to hang out with who could use the $50, so I invited him out to visit. 

Kroninger: He knew I was broke at the time. I think he was lonely there, too. 

Newgarden: He came up with a few good ones.

Kroninger: I remember my wife, who was my girlfriend at time, realized I could use the money, so she did one which was an astronaut up in space with vomit hanging in front of his head. I called it Haley’s Vomit.

Bunk: I’d usually go there once or twice a week. There were no windows in this room. It was like a bunker.

Newgarden: Tom [Bunk] was local so he’d take the subway over and we'd hold the same sort of session in person. Seeing what these guys would come up with was always a highlight of my week.

Tom Bunk and Newgarden (R) in a snot summit. Copyright 2016 Mark Newgarden.

Warhola: Week after week, it was like being on a treadmill with them. You’d pick up sketches, deliver finals from the previous week, pick up sketches for the next week, go one week after another. It was pretty intense for about two years.

Kroninger: You’re just kind of walking around on the street and realize you’re thinking of horrible ways to torture children.

Newgarden: Topps never imagined there would be a need for a "next" GPK series until the new set flew off the shelves. Again. Then they needed that next series by Monday morning. 

Warhola: I would talk to my uncle [Andy Warhol] pretty regularly. He was always interested in what I was doing. He knew I was trying to be an illustrator. He found the Garbage Pail theme and whole nature of it quite intriguing. He admitted they were pretty gross and disgusting, but he liked it.

As popular as the card series was becoming—some stores reported sales of up to 500 packs a day—it wouldn’t be long before the media noticed. In a preview of the tidal wave of negative publicity to come, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene wrote two stories—printed November 17, 1985 and February 16, 1986—that took Topps to task for circulating cards that could be used as a tool for bullies in grade school.

Bob Greene (Former Columnist, Chicago Tribune): What prompted them was the teacher and principal being distressed about how terrible the child was being made to feel because the card [which read “Most Unpopular Student”] had been anonymously left on his desk. I probably had never heard of the cards before the principal and teacher told me about what the boy was going through.  

Newgarden: I'm sure it didn't hurt any, but I think GPK was already a high enough profile fad for Greene to pick up on.

Brown: Topps was very worried because of the link with baseball. They didn’t want to give themselves a black eye.

Greene: There are a lot of people out there who have been pushed around and mocked and made to feel small on a daily basis. Only in recent years has bullying been given widespread attention. I think that perhaps the most wrenching line in the piece was when the boy said: "I've been through this before."

Elaine Smith (Teacher, via Observer-Reporter, March 5, 1986): There is one card with a character named Susie Snot. Now, what if you have a child with a bad cold or an asthmatic child? These names stick.

Greene: I don't know what became of the cards in the years that followed, whether or not the more hurtful messages were removed from them and they became something more lighthearted; my piece was about what that one boy was enduring.

Brown: Greene was syndicated, so it went nationwide. I remember that being a very big deal. “Look at what Bob Greene wrote.”

Lynch: I knew Bob. I used to illustrate articles he wrote for Midwest Magazine, an insert for The Chicago Sun-Times. He didn’t know I worked on the cards, though.

The cards proved to be such a distraction in classrooms that many districts banned them from school property. It was also rare for a Garbage Pail series to be released without accompanying news stories about the negative impact they could have on children. (When the line was released in France, famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau warned parents that children exposed to them could “go off the deep end and end up on cocaine.”) Owing to the controversy, a planned animated show for CBS was fully produced but never aired in America.

Bob Hathcock (Director, The Garbage Pail Kids animated series, 1987): We visited Arthur Shorin at Topps’s headquarters in Brooklyn and they said they had hired child psychologists who assured them that the content was similar to old fairy tales in that it gave children a face for their fears—not getting to the toilet on time, being maimed, etc.

Brown: I don’t recall that. I do know Topps really wanted that deal with CBS [for the cartoon] to go through. It sounds like we were coached by Shorin before the meeting. 

Hathcock: There was a boycott in the Bible Belt against the cards, network, and advertisers and this caused CBS to chicken out and pull the show before it aired and before anyone saw a frame of film. We made 13 episodes.

Judy Price (Vice President, Children’s Programs, CBS): That was basically born out of the fact that advertisers got nervous, affiliates got nervous, and that’s what happens when you have interest groups. If we had gone on air with it, it’s likely affiliates might not have carried it, and some advertisers might have pulled out.

Hathcock: We could not use the really gross stuff. The show got pulled anyway. The protest was about the cards and they never saw a frame of film. If they had seen the show without prior knowledge of the cards there would have never been a problem.

Price: It cost at least $1.5 million. When the plug was pulled on the show, we had not completed production. Because I didn’t think it was fair to lay off the production team after they had been promised 13 episodes, I insisted we finish it.

Hathcock: We were so close to being finished that it made more sense to get them in the can for possible future use.

The CBS cartoon was eventually released on DVD. Topps didn’t share the network’s reluctance, however, doubling down on the cards by releasing up to five series a year despite criticism.

Newgarden: The mailroom ladies would sometimes stop by and share something particularly off-the-wall with me, but I never saw any death threats. We did see plenty of public hatred for GPK on TV newscasts and in print. Most of it was absurd and amusing, and naturally fueled sales. For Topps it was like hitting the lotto again and again.

Brown: For years, we weren’t allowed to talk to anyone outside the company. If a major publication called us, like LIFE, we had to turn it over to our PR person. It wasn’t until Topps started to do comics in 1990s that staff was allowed to talk.

Newgarden: [We made the cover of Reverend Jerry Falwell’s] The Liberty Report in September 1986. Imagine how proud we all were!

III. IN THE TOILET


With stores actually limiting the number of cards children could purchase in order to have packs left over and even accusing Topps of withholding inventory to increase demand, Garbage Pail mania was at its peak in the spring of 1986. That’s when Topps was hit with a potentially devastating response from Original Appalachian Artworks, the copyright holders of the Cabbage Patch Kids.

Brown: I think we got pretty far before we heard from them legally.

Schlaifer: I think I saw the cards three or four months after the meeting with Shorin. I thought, “Damn, how could that guy do that? He seemed so nice.”

Pound: I probably used a Cabbage Patch doll as a reference, yes.

Cruse: When the Cabbage Patch dolls became one of those cloying, mass-produced things, that’s like waving a flag to cartoonists.

Schlaifer: They violated the MAD magazine rule of limiting it. I think it’s fair to say unless you’re Donald Trump, ridicule is not good, particularly with something that has an endearing quality to it.

Brown: Satire tends to ridicule something. I don’t know how you do soft satire if you want to be funny.

Schlaifer: It wasn’t parody. It was debasement.

Newgarden: It was a bit unnerving. There were a lot of emergency closed-door meetings and palpable anxiety. All of my GPK drawings vanished from the office overnight. They didn’t want me testifying. They didn’t want Art [Spiegelman] testifying.

Pound: I remember the opposing side doing a deposition, talking with me, and they did find something, some note I had kept from Topps that said something like, “Make them look more like Cabbage Patch Kids.” I thought, “Hmm, this won’t be helpful.”

Newgarden: Ultimately, Arthur, Len and John Pound all went to Atlanta. We heard they were not getting good “vibes” from the court down there and thought it was safer to settle.

Bunk: I knew they had to pay millions, and had to change look of it, the logo, the banner.

Newgarden: The terms were never revealed but they called for a redesign to avoid the look of their “soft-sculpture” dolls.

Tom Bunk's style guide for the "new," post-lawsuit Garbage Pail Kids.

Brown: The concession was to make them so they didn’t look too much like the Cabbage Patch dolls. We made the artwork look like it was made of hard plastic, not a soft, woven doll. We actually painted in little cracks.

Brown: We were desperate to continue. It was like printing money.

Schlaifer: They made $70 million on those cards.

Bunk: Topps didn’t really share anything with us, didn’t even get a bonus. They made so many millions, but as artists, we didn’t get anything

Brown: We agreed to pay royalties as though we had licensed it. So we owed them a chunk of dough and then paid out moving forward.

Schlaifer: They paid what was tantamount to a license fee and Topps had the ability to continue selling them. My wife and I and everybody associated with the company put everything they had into creating the brand, and to let it continue to have a disparaging marketing component, nothing about it was pleasing to me. It was just unsatisfying.

At roughly the same time of the February 1987 settlement, Topps entered into a deal with modest distribution/production studio Atlantic Releasing for a live-action The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.   

Newgarden: My understanding was that [director] Rod Amateau was the party who optioned it from Topps. I think he had some connection to Arthur and that’s how the deal came about.

Mackenzie Astin (Actor, “Dodger”): I had been on The Facts of Life for three seasons. Making the jump to the silver screen is something everyone wants to do. It’s a different vibe. This came along, and the title alone appealed to me. I was a fan of the cards. I know I was more enamored with the idea of starring in a movie than focused on whether the material was worth investigating.

Newgarden: Amateau was getting on and seemed a little disconnected. And we really weren’t exactly thrilled to have to meet with a Hollywood producer and hear ideas for a movie based on our thing.

Astin: Rod had been in the business for 60-something years. He was a stunt guy for a number of actors. And it was a money job for him. It made sure he got Directors Guild benefits.

Newgarden: I think he passed around some Polaroids of the sculpts for the masks and we chatted congenially. But he seemed fairly clueless about GPK and somewhat unengaged in general. I was probably in denial at this point and was absolutely convinced the movie would never happen.

MGM

Astin: The contracts were signed by the time my dad [actor John Astin] had a chance to look at the script. He did everything he could to get me out of it. Like, “Dude. This is not a good idea, son. I know what I’m talking about.” But the ink was dry.

Kroninger: I think Mark was hoping to write it.

Newgarden: I would have loved to be involved in a GPK script but Arthur would have never permitted it. Topps definitely didn’t want us spending our valuable time on anything that might interfere with getting the next series out. With these license deals it was always a case of “take the money and run.” There was never any semblance of quality control once GPK passed to another entity.

Brown: [Co-star] Anthony Newley was the equivalent of a Broadway star in England.

Astin: Newley was famous for a play and song he did, "What Kind of Fool Am I?" And when the movie came out, my dad got a chuckle out of a review that started, “Now I know what kind of fool Anthony Newley is.”

Amateau and co-writer Linda Palmer wrote a modestly budgeted script about an antiques dealer (Newley) who acts as a caretaker for a bunch of mischievous mutant children. When his young employee (Astin) accidentally lets them out of their trash can home, he tries to round them up before they’re committed to a “home for the ugly.” To realize the cast of Garbage Pail characters, Amateau hired several little people and had them fitted with latex and foam masks that could be controlled by off-screen puppeteers.

William Butler (Effects Artist): I painted the heads. Normally, we used special paint that has a flexible medium in it that allows the puppets to move, but I had never used the stuff. I painted the heads only with acrylic paint not knowing it would harden. We got the heads on set, dressed the little people in outfits, and as the mouths opened up, they ripped on both sides like the Joker.

Kevin Thompson (Actor, “Ali Gator”): I remember that. The constant touching up, it was like getting fumigated from all the paint.

MGM

Butler: I single-handedly nearly destroyed the movie. Lucky for me everyone rallied and filled the cuts, but if you look closely at the movie, the heads look like they have scarring on the mouths. That’s thanks to Billy Boy.

Thompson: We only had one head each, and if it got ruined, production got shut down, so you had to make it durable, and the thing about durable is, it’s not going to be cute, and it’s not going to look as good.

Astin: The heroes of the entire experience are the seven little people actors in costumes every day in triple-digit heat in the San Fernando Valley. They couldn’t see or hear. There was only so much time they could have the heads on before they ran out of oxygen.

Thompson: Mac was a great kid. The air conditioning would be out, we’d be sitting in costumes for 15 minutes until he got out of school, and I’d say, “Can you please nail this in one take?”

Butler: They were constantly running into walls. We didn’t film on a soundstage; we filmed in a warehouse. The metal roof screwed with the radio controls. All of a sudden, the eyes would start whirring around in a circle.

Astin: There were these huge hoses connected to generators connected to air conditioners outside that were stuffed into every crevice to keep people alive, literally.

Butler: We had worked on over 100 movies by then, and no one thought to ask, “Hey, is this being shot on a soundstage?” That’s like asking if we’ll have running water or toilets.

Astin: They were hampered by me being a minor at the time. It was maybe an eight-hour day as opposed to 12 or 15. 

Thompson: Phil Fondacaro, who played Greaser Greg, left for a week to go shoot Willow. His brother took over. Production was a little upset about that.

Newgarden anticipates the film's opening. Copyright 2016 Mark Newgarden.

Opening in limited release in August 1987, the film received near-universal scorn, making just $661,512 in its opening weekend. While kids didn't need an adult's permission to buy a 25-cent pack of cards, they did need someone to drive them to the movies. Few parents wanted to.

Kroninger: Having them team together as a gang—no! They’re all isolated misfits! Nobody hangs out!

Astin: The first scene in the movie is a drug dealer chasing down a 13-year-old kid with his two goons. What drug dealer worth his salt is chasing down kids in a park in the middle of the day?

Newgarden: To his credit, Arthur Shorin gave us a bonus when it was finally released, but that was it.

Thompson: I thought it would do well. There were 150 kids in line to meet me in costume at the premiere.

Astin: I remember going on opening day in Los Angeles, and there were about eight people there.

Butler: I think it was a stupid idea of a stupid screenplay, with stupid designs, that made for a cacophony of stupidity

IV: FINE FART WORK


By the end of 1988, it was clear the fascination with Garbage Pail Kids was dwindling. Though a 16th series was completed, Topps opted not to release it. By way of closure, the last card in the regular line was of Ada Bomb, a bookend to the first release’s Adam Bomb.

Newgarden: The movie was worse than I could have ever imagined and no doubt helped drag down the kids’ perception of GPK.

Kroninger: I think Mark lost interest in them. They weren’t fun anymore.

Newgarden: For me the characters became somewhat diluted as a result of the lawsuit and subsequent redesign. They were less appealing and there was also a little bit of a loss of visual continuity for the collectors. But, I think in the end, GPK had run its natural course. It was a fad, and that generation moved on.

Brown: I just think it died a natural death. We did 15 sets, about the same as Wacky Packages. There was almost a pattern. The first series was good, the second one had kids getting more aware of it, three and four were a peak, and then it was a slow decline from there.

Adam via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Pound: I worked on Trash Can Trolls, Bathroom Buddies. Mark Newgarden had a project, Toxic High, that was a parody of a high school class yearbook.

Kroninger: Toxic High was even grosser than Garbage Pail. I’m not even sure it made it out of tests.

Sikoryak: That was a more envelope-pushing series. I wrote some gags for it, but I don’t think I was mean enough. I had found my level with Garbage Pail.

Although Pound, Bunk, Warhola, and other contributors elevated the card series into a kind of gross-out master class in cartooning, the card industry at the time had little interest in acknowledging their work or returning their art. In 1989, the company held an auction that sold many original works from Garbage Pail predecessor line Wacky Packages.

Newgarden: We’re talking late 20th century here, but Topps business practices were still firmly rooted in the late 19th. Topps naturally didn't want our names involved because they were afraid that we'd be all instantly wooed away by deep-pocketed competitors. Or maybe even medium-pocketed competitors. Or maybe just competitors that had pants.

Brown: I thought we had promised the artists we’d return the work after a certain period of time. Art Spiegelman lobbied very strongly about all of this. He brought in so many artists.

Bunk: We were not allowed to keep the artwork, the final art. Then in the late 1980s, Topps had an auction and sold them to make money, but we artists didn’t get anything from that. That’s when Art Spiegelman got pissed and left.

Warhola: There was a little bit of bitterness from there, art being sold for profit for the company. It’s a little bit of a tacky thing.

Brown: It was an alien idea at the time. We bought and paid for the art. Why give it back? I agree now, but at the time, it’s the way business was done.

Cruse: Topps said, “Well, we have to hold on to it. We might reprint it.” All of a sudden, they’re making big money with auctions. It was kind of a drag. But I don’t blame Len Brown for that. It was a corporate decision.

Pound: One thing that was discussed early on was that the work would be unsigned and that any unhappy PR stuff would be handled by Topps. The artists were basically anonymous to the world. I would have preferred to sign my work. Although some other artist did “John Pond,” which was a kid covered in pee. 

Warhola: It was just like Disney. Disney didn’t want anybody to sign art. Same with the kids. It never bothered me.

Lynch: I didn’t especially want to take credit for it at the time. I don’t think anyone did. The underground comix we did then were deeply intellectual studies of the human condition, whereas this is just mindless insanity. With heavy emphasis on bodily fluids.

Newgarden: We'd occasionally sneak our names or initials into products, but nobody ever seemed to notice or care.

Pound: I put a big, red “J.P.” in graffiti on one card.

Today, those names are not only well-known, but appreciated. Pound, Bunk, and others were asked back when Topps revived the series in 2003; a documentary, 30 Years of Garbage, is scheduled for release in the summer.

Bunk: Now kids who grew up with them have jobs and can afford to buy sketches and stuff. I do a lot of commissions. It made such a strong impression on them they want to relive it.

Warhola: Lately I’ve have been doing these large paintings inspired by the Garbage Pail cards, big 4-by-5 foot cards for my own amusement, turning lowbrow art into some highbrow piece. Maybe I’ll show them someday.

Highbrow meets lowbrow. Courtesy of James Warhola.

Sikoryak: This stuff hit kids really intensely. They were so lovingly painted that it was easy to get taken [in] by them. It was a lot of craft considering how proudly lowbrow they are.

Kroninger: It was our chance to subvert the youth of the nation. Kids kind of need it. They’re spoon-fed unicorns and lollipops. It’s a necessary corrective.

Pound: It kind of felt like they were underground comics for kids.

Sikoryak: Seeing a subversion of something so ubiquitous like Cabbage Patch, it can’t help but be an eye-opener.

Astin: Cabbage Patch was so crazy popular with parents climbing over one another before they sold out. It was the counter-culture aspect of cards that spoke to people, seeing through that consumerism craziness.

Warhola: Who would’ve thought they turned into what they did? It was a part of American culture from the 1980s that lit up little kids.

Pound: Going into cartooning, it was an attempt to just be a kid, to never have to grow up and to play. And when Garbage Pail Kids came along, it was a chance to play a lot.

Mariano: I think you could say Ren and Stimpy was influenced by Garbage Pail Kids. Animation changed at that period. It became kind of gross and crazy.

Lynch: Everything was in poor taste then. But now turn on the TV, and everybody vomits. SpongeBob farts.

Cruse: Just like kids love horror, which gives them a chance to rehearse fears for real-world horror, kids enjoyed Garbage Pail. It gave them a chance to vent feelings about disgusting things.

Bunk: It’s like everyone who read MAD for the first time, when you recognized what was really going on. It’s like waking up out of a dream. This kind of attitude was carried on in underground comics. And Garbage Pail Kids was all in the same spirit. Not everything is pretty. Life is not pretty.

Lynch: When I die, any people who visit my grave will come because of Garbage Pail Kids. And will probably vomit on it.

All images courtesy of Topps and Aaron J. Booton via GPKWorld.com unless credited otherwise.

Your Friend 'Til the End: An Oral History of Child's Play

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As a film student at UCLA in the mid-1980s, Don Mancini was amused by the hysteria surrounding the Cabbage Patch Kids, those ubiquitous, slightly homely dolls that were disappearing from toy shelves and prompting physical fights between parents. Mancini’s father had worked in the advertising industry all his life, and his son knew how effective marketing could pull strings, resulting in consumer bedlam.

“I wanted to write a dark satire about how marketing affected children,” Mancini tells Mental Floss. “Cabbage Patch was really popular. I put the two impulses together.”

Out of Mancini’s efforts came Child’s Play, the 1988 film written by a college student, directed by a horror veteran, and produced by a man who had just finished an animated family film for Steven Spielberg. Like 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the movie was a well-received, effects-heavy twist on the slasher genre. And like that film, it birthed one of the great horror icons of the 20th century: Chucky, the carrot-topped doll possessed with the soul of a serial killer.

The portable monster—or, as Mancini puts it, an “innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth”—went on to star in five sequels, a Universal Studios horror attraction, and a comic book, launching Mancini’s career and providing horror fans with another antihero to root for. Mental Floss spoke with the cast and crew members who endured an uncooperative puppet, freezing weather, and setting an actor on fire to break new territory in creating a highly animated, expressive, and iconic tiny terror.

I: Batteries Not Included

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

After two years as an English major at Columbia University, Don Mancini transferred to UCLA with an eye on becoming a filmmaker. A teacher was impressed with his first script, Split Screen, about a small town overtaken by a horror production. Riding on that enthusiasm, Mancini tackled his second script by exploring the idea that a doll could be a child’s violent alter ego.

Don Mancini (Writer): Being a horror fan all of my life, I had seen Trilogy of Terror, I had seen the Talky Tina episode of The Twilight Zone, and I knew the killer doll trope. But what I realized was that it had never been done as a feature-length film in the age of animatronics.

Howard Berger (Special Effects Artist, KNB): Animatronics were not exactly booming, but we were doing what we could with them. At the time, they were not nearly as advanced as what would eventually be required for Chucky.

David Kirschner (Executive Producer): I had just done my first film for Steven Spielberg, An American Tail, and was in London where I bought a book called The Dollhouse Murders. I read it, got back home, and told my development person that I’d love to do something with dolls.

Mancini: This was shortly after Gremlins, and effects had progressed to the point where you could create a puppet that was extremely articulated.

Kirschner: Talky Tina terrified me as a kid. My sister’s dolls did, too. They had a night light under them, like when you hold a flashlight up to your chin.

Mancini: Before, the doll jaws in movies had been kind of floppy or Muppet-like, but there was a new level of nuance I thought I could take advantage of.

Kirschner: I later co-wrote a movie with Richard Matheson, The Dreamer of Oz, which we did with John Ritter. He was a paternal figure in my life, and strangely, I never did ask him about [co-writing the 1975 TV movie] Trilogy of Terror.

Tom Holland (Co-Writer, Director): I quoted Trilogy of Terror to everyone. I basically got involved with this movie due to the sequence, “Prey,” and how they put a camera on a skateboard for a doll to terrorize Karen Black, shaking it from side to side. It looked terrific.

Mancini: This was shortly after A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was really important in the development of the slasher genre. Freddy was a villain with a very distinct sense of humor, someone who could taunt victims verbally. I was quite consciously influenced by that with Chucky, the idea of an innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth.

Kirschner: It was in many ways what Spielberg had done with Poltergeist, which was about suburbia and bringing the terror home.

Mancini: It was originally titled Batteries Not Included. I was living in a house off-campus with three other film students, one of whom had graduated and was working as an assistant to a producer at Orion Pictures. She passed it on to his boss, who read it and passed it on to an agent. He got wind Steven Spielberg was doing a movie with the same title and suggested I change it. So it went out as Blood Buddy.

Brad Dourif and Alex Vincent in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Kirschner: The development person said, “Actually, there’s a script that’s been making the rounds called Blood Buddy, but everyone’s passed on it.” I read it and loved Don’s idea.

Mancini: It's not completely true [that everyone passed]. I did get some bites. Charles Band was one producer who saw it and liked it. He had a studio that turned out really low-budget horror and exploitation films. I don’t remember why he didn’t buy it, but he did end up doing movies called Dolls and Puppet Master. And he hired me to write a movie called Cellar Dwellers, which I used a pseudonym on.

Holland: In Don’s original script, there needed to be a way to sympathize with the son and mother.

Mancini: In my script, the doll was not possessed by a killer. The doll was a manifestation of a little boy’s unconscious rage, his id.

Kirschner: The idea of what brought the doll to life wasn’t there yet.

Mancini: If you played too rough with him, his latex skin would break and he’d bleed this red substance so you’d have to buy special bandages. So the boy, Andy, in a rite of brotherhood, cuts his thumb and mixes it with the doll’s blood, and that’s the catalyst that brings the doll to life.

Kirschner: At that point, I was a relatively new father and wasn’t sure anybody would buy a doll with blood in it. It didn’t make sense to me, but there were a lot of cool things in there, some cool deaths.

Mancini: He starts acting out against the boy’s enemies, which he might not even be able to express. Like a babysitter who tells him to go to bed, or a teacher who gives him a bad grade.

Holland: What Don wrote originally felt more like a Twilight Zone episode. The little boy fell asleep and the doll came to life. It didn’t emotionally involve you.

Mancini: Ultimately, the mother was a target, too. The kid had an unconscious resentment toward her. She was an ambitious single mother who wasn’t around, so she got him the hot toy.

In my script, the doll wasn’t really seen until the third act, where he's spouting one-liners and killing the kid’s dentist. I should really bring that back at some point.

Kirschner: I did two drawings of the character and went out to studios. A guy I had never heard of named Tony Thomopoulos from United Artists came to my office and said, “We want to make this movie.” He was wonderful and he lived up to everything he ever promised.

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

With Kirschner attracting interest in Blood Buddy, he began the process of revising the script on the belief that audiences needed a more sympathetic character than a boy with a murderous alter ego.

Kirschner: The studio did not want Don, so we brought in John Lafia.

John Lafia (Co-Writer): I believe David and I were at the same agency at the time and got introduced that way. He showed me Don’s draft and that’s how I got involved. He told me his take on it and I did two drafts. This was after Tom had come on for the first time.

Holland: I had come on the project once before and couldn’t solve it. In horror, the audience is involved in direct proportion to how much you care about the people. And that wasn’t the situation here. So I left to go do Fatal Beauty with Whoopi Goldberg.

Lafia: I went to a toy store and looked around. I remember picking up a Bugs Bunny, pulling the string, and hearing a scratchy voice. There was also a freaky Woody Woodpecker that talked.

Holland: You had to set up a situation where you can believe in a possessed doll, which sounds silly in the light of day, but that was the job.

Lafia: I was thinking of The Terminator, actually, but in micro form. Just this thing that keeps coming.

Kirschner: John got us to a point where we could go to directors. I met with William Friedkin, who I was terrified of, but he was a wonderful man. And I talked to Irvin Kershner, who did The Empire Strikes Back.

Lafia: I think the biggest contribution I made was to give the character a back story so it was a human who somehow became a doll. In my draft, it became Charles Lee Ray. I coined the name Chucky.

Holland: By the time I came around a second time, Lafia had done a rewrite and I think they had spoken with Joe Ruben, who had done The Stepfather. In the year or so I spent away from it, I figured out how to involve the killer.

Kirschner: I had seen Fright Night, which I loved. Tom seemed nice. I called Spielberg because Tom had done an Amazing Stories for him. He said Tom was an arrogant guy, but talented.

Mancini: I was still just a kid in school. It was just sort of this unspoken thing—pushing you out the door. Let the adults take over.

Lafia: My take on it, and I don’t think Don’s was that far off, was more like Poltergeist, with a family threatened by supernatural forces. I remember David and I watching that movie to refresh our memory.

Mancini: I was excited. I was a fan of Fright Night, of Psycho II.

Holland: I learned so much by writing Psycho II about moving movies forward visually. I had to study Alfred Hitchcock.

Mancini: It was Tom or David or John who brought in the voodoo, which I was never thrilled with and a mythology we got stuck with for six movies.

Lafia: My device was not voodoo. It was more of a Frankenstein-type of moment at a toy factory. A prisoner was being electrocuted on death row and his spirit got into the doll. We would cross-cut with his execution and the doll being manufactured.

Mancini: Tom has said over the years that it’s an original screenplay even though the credits say it isn’t, which is complete bullsh*t.

Holland: The Guild is set up to protect the writer. It is what it is. Failure has no fathers, success has many.

Securing Holland gave Blood Buddy—now titled Child’s Play—a strong anchor, but the film would succeed or fail based on whether the movie could convince audiences a malevolent doll could go on a killing spree. To make that happen, Kirschner enlisted Kevin Yagher, a 24-year-old effects expert who had worked on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3. Yagher and a team of effects artists, including Howard Berger, would spend months perfecting ways to bring the puppet to life.

Kirschner: I drew Chucky in graphite, and Kevin brought him to life incredibly.

Berger: David’s drawings were a great jumping-off point. We had so many versions of Chucky. The one we used most was from the waist-up.

Mancini: I was so involved with school that it was all just moving along without me. I had no involvement with the doll's development.

Berger: He really couldn’t walk. We tried putting him on a six-foot dolly, but it just sort of dragged itself along.

Kirschner: If you’ve got someone controlling the eyes, someone else the mouth, someone else the hands, something will go wrong. It’s going to take a very long time. But Kevin and his team were amazing.

Berger: We made the doll heads to look increasingly more human as the movie goes on. The hairline begins to match Brad Dourif’s.

Mancini: Over the course of the movie, his hairline is receding. At the top of the movie, he’s got a full mop of hair. Visually, it was cool, but I was never down with the story logic. Why would that happen? What does it mean? Does it mean he’d ultimately be a human thing?

Berger: We had different expressions. A neutral one, angry, one that was screaming. One Chucky we literally just hooked up to a Nikita drill motor. When you turn him on, he’d just spin and flail around, kicking.

Mancini: While I was still writing the script, a lawyer had encouraged me to describe the doll in great detail—in as much detail as I could think up. Because if the movie became a hit and if there was merchandise, there would be a scramble over who was legally the creator of the character. And sure enough, there was.

Berger: Chucky went through a few iterations. Originally his head was more football-shaped, like a Zeppelin.

Mancini: I was very distinct in the script: red hair, two feet tall, blue eyes, freckles, striped shirt. David designed the doll, but didn’t deviate from those details.

Kirschner: After American Tail, I wanted to do something different. My agent was not happy about it. My mother was not happy about it. My wife thought it was great.

II: The Assembly Line

Brad Dourif, Jack Colvin, Tommy Swerdlow, and Alex Vincent in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Child’s Play began production in the winter of 1988 in Chicago and Los Angeles—the former during the coldest time of the year. Holland’s cast included Catherine Hicks as Karen Barclay, Chris Sarandon as Detective Mike Norris, and Brad Dourif as Charles Lee Ray, the killer fated to become trapped in the plastic prison of a retail toy.

For shots beyond the ability of the puppet to perform, Holland enlisted actor Ed Gale, a three-foot, six-inch tall performer who had made his film debut as the title character in 1986’s Howard the Duck.

Ed Gale (“Chucky”): I knew Howard Berger from other projects. I met with Tom having just done Spaceballs. I wound up doing Child’s Play and Phantasm II at the same time. I don't take credit for being Chucky. It's Brad [Dourif], the puppeteers, and me.

Holland: Brad is wonderful, a genuine actor.

Alex Vincent (“Andy Barclay”): Brad’s voice was on playback on the set. The puppeteers would synch the movement to his voice, sometimes at half-speed.

Mancini: There was a Writers Guild strike and I wasn’t legally allowed to be on the set, so I didn’t rejoin the process until after shooting was over. But I don’t think I would’ve been welcome anyway.

Holland: I don’t remember ever meeting Don. I thought the writer’s strike was toward the end of shooting.

Mancini: My understanding through David is that Tom was the auteur and wouldn’t want anyone else around.

Holland: He certainly would have been welcome to come to the set.

Chris Sarandon in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Although a few of Holland’s leads struggled—Sarandon’s vocal cords once froze during a sub-zero exterior shot—nothing caused more trouble with the production than Chucky, a complex mechanism requiring multiple puppeteers. His presence led to differing opinions over how best to approach the tone of the film.

Kirschner: This was my first live-action film project. I was a real quiet, shy person, and Tom was a real presence.

Gale: Tom was very driven and focused. I very distinctly remember a scene where Alex needed to cry and Tom was spitballing how he could get him to react. He was asking the social worker, “Can I blow smoke in his face? Can I pinch him?”

Holland: I was very sensitive to Alex’s feelings. He was not an actor with experience. I hugged him after reach take.

Vincent: Tom was very passionate about getting specific things from me and being really happy when he got them.

Gale: I think he wound up telling him scary stories.

Holland: I don’t remember any scary stories. I just kept having him do the scene.

Vincent: I don’t remember anything specific he said. I do remember that they ran out of film when I was doing it and I told them, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep crying.”

Gale: When you look at the crying scene, it’s pretty convincing. Tom is a genius director. As a person, I won’t comment.

Kirschner: I felt he kept showing too much of the doll. I wanted to be gentlemanly about it and kept whispering in his ear, and he was getting fed up with me.

Berger: The doll was a pain in the ass. Everything was a hassle. I remember the scene where Chucky was in a mental hospital electrocuting a doctor. It took 27 takes to get him to press a button.

Vincent: I was aware of the puppet [being slow] because I’d be standing there for 43 takes. Having him flip his middle finger was this whole process.

Kirschner: The doll was not working great. Jaws had come out and I had seen how great that worked. You were postponing the fear. Tom wanted to show the doll.

Brad Dourif and Alex Vincent in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Holland: The studio was applying pressure because of costs. It became more tension-filled.

Berger: Chucky made a horrible noise when he moved because of the servos—like scree, scree. He was very noisy.

Kirschner: I felt it should be more like Jaws or Alien where you don’t see anything for a long time.

Holland: There was a disagreement as to tone. David made movies for children.

Vincent: I remember being taken off set a couple of times when there was a fight or disagreement. I’d have some big production assistant put me on his shoulders and carry me out.

Berger: What you have to remember is, it took quite a few of us to make the doll work. Someone was doing the hands, then someone else the eyebrows, and someone else the mouth. It was like we all had to become one brain.

Gale: It didn’t really involve me, but I do remember David calling me up at 3 or 4 in the morning just to talk. I told him, “You’re the producer. Put your foot down.”

Kirschner: I won’t go into the near-bloody details of the fight we had.

Holland: David was a skinny kid then. It never got physical. There was just a difference in temperament.

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A difficult performer, Chucky would go on to become the catalyst for strained working relationships on the set.

Kirschner: Kevin Yagher was brilliant at what he did, but he didn’t have a ton of experience. And Tom is screaming and shouting at him.

Holland: It was no knock on Kevin, but it was all the doll could do to take a step.

Berger: Chucky’s fingers would get worn out quickly. The aluminum fingers would begin to poke right through the latex skin. I had this big bag of Chucky hands and changed them three times a day.

Holland: I had a terrible time with the eyeline of the doll. He couldn’t look at actors. The puppeteers were under the set and for reasons I could never figure out, the monitors they had were reversed. He'd look left instead of right.

Kirschner: It took like 11 people to make the puppet work.

Berger: This was a puppet that was radio-controlled who was in half the movie. It was brand-new territory.

Brad Dourif in Child's Play (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Holland leaned on Ed Gale to perform broader movements. Because he was significantly larger than Chucky, the production built sets 30 percent larger than normal to maintain a forced perspective.

Holland: That was something I learned from Darby O’Gill and the Little People. You use forced perspective with overbuilt sets.

Mancini: I thought that was really cool. I love those sleight of hand things.

Gale: Facially, nothing can beat a puppet. But to make it actually work full body, running, or jumping, they needed me.

Mancini: Tom had directed him to walk in a sort of mechanical way, almost like a clockwork. He just marches.

Gale: The puppet would move more smoothly and I’d walk a little more like a robot and we’d meet in the middle. The problem was that I had zero visibility. I’d rehearse and walk through a scene with my eyes closed. It’s like taking a drink while blindfolded. You look like an idiot. I was also set on fire.

Holland: Ed is a very brave guy.

Gale: I got weaned into it. They set one arm on fire first, then my chest, then both arms. You wear an oxygen mask.

Vincent: I did not want to see that. Ed was my friend and I didn’t want to see him spinning around on fire.

Gale: I did the scene in segments. First I was on fire in the fireplace, cut. Kicking the gate open, cut. Walk out on fire, cut. Each was only about 45 seconds, which is a little less than a lifetime when you’re on fire.

The only close call was when they wanted to drop me into the fireplace. They could see the assistant’s shadow, so they wound up hoisting me up further and I dropped six or eight feet, hurting my back. It put me out of work for a few days. I also got burns on my wrists. Nothing bad.

III: Chucky Unleashed

After filming on Child's Play was completed in spring 1988, Kirschner wanted to separate himself from Holland, with whom he had developed an acrimonious working relationship.

Kirschner: The film did not screen well. It tested horribly. Tom had a right to his cut. After that, we took him off the film.

Mancini: David invited me to watch the original cut, which was much longer. It was about two hours.

Kirschner: We invited Don in at certain times to bring him back into the process.

Mancini: At that point, David needed a relatively objective opinion of where the movie was. For him to have me voice mine was very gracious. Not all producers would do that.

Kirschner: We cut about a half-hour out of the movie.

Mancini: Seeing the edit was my first time seeing Chucky, which was thrilling. But the voice in the cut was not Brad. It was Jessica Walter [of Arrested Development].

Holland: I tried to use an electronic overlay to the voice, like a Robbie the Robot kind of thing, because that’s how the toys with sound chips worked. Then I tried Jessica Walter, who had been in Play Misty for Me. She could make the threats work, but not the humor. So we went back to Brad.

Mancini: Tom’s logic was that the voice of the devil was done by a woman in The Exorcist. But her voice, while being creepy, just didn’t fit.

Child’s Play premiered on November 11, 1988. Mancini and Kirschner had already gone to test screenings to gauge the reaction of an audience.

Mancini: The scene where the mom finds out that the batteries are included and still in the box was like a cattle prod. The audience just roared.

Holland: I kept building up to that moment where Chucky comes alive in her hands. The doll does a 180 with his head, which is a nod to The Exorcist.

Kirschner: Brad Dourif ad-libbed the line where he’s in an elevator with an older couple and the wife says, “That’s the ugliest doll I’ve ever seen.” Chucky says, “F*ck you.” The audience loved it.

Vincent: My grandfather rented out an entire theater in our hometown for a screening. I wore a tuxedo.

Lafia: I actually didn’t like when they had a little person in the Chucky outfit, only because he looked thicker and bigger. No matter how well a human being moves, your brain just knows it’s not the puppet.

Mancini: There’s a good shot of Ed climbing on the bed with a knife. I thought most of his shots were very successful.

Earning $33 million, Child’s Play became the second-highest grossing horror film of the year, behind the fourth installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. But United Artists, which had supported the production, made the decision not to be involved in a sequel for a reason almost unfathomable in Hollywood: moral grounds.

Kirschner: It was the second highest-grossing film for United Artists that year after Rain Man.

Mancini: The studio initiated a sequel immediately. I was set to work on writing the script by Christmas 1988. John Lafia, who did a draft of the first, was going to direct it. By summer of 1989, the script was done and going into production. Then United Artists was sold to Qintex Group, and they had a reputation for family entertainment. And it wasn’t a project they were interested in pursuing.

Kirschner: I got a call from the head of the studio, Richard Berger. He said, “David, I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but the company buying UA doesn’t want it. They want to be more like Disney.”

Lafia: We were green-lit and all of a sudden they make this ridiculous pronouncement.

Mancini: Because David was under an overall deal there and they wanted to maintain that relationship, they literally just gave it back to him. And he went out and made a deal with Universal, where we’ve done all the subsequent movies.

Lafia: They basically gave him the franchise for next to nothing. It was an unbelievably stupid thing for them to do.

Kirschner: They were decent guys. I got a call from Spielberg who said, “I know you’re getting calls about this from all over the place, but do me a favor and give Universal the first shot.” Well, of course, Steven.

Child’s Play 2 opened at number one in November 1990.; Child’s Play 3 arrived less than a year later. In 1998, the franchise took a turn into dark comedy with Bride of Chucky, where the maniac finds a love interest.

Vincent: I did the second [movie]. We shot it on the same lot as Back to the Future Part III. I had lunch with Michael J. Fox. It was awesome.

Mancini: John wanted to shoot with a puppet 100 percent of the time, but Ed was around for the whole production.

Gale: Lafia was a complete idiot to me. He did an interview with Fangoria where they asked him if he used me like Holland did, and he said, “No, I hired a midget but never used it.” That’s an offensive word. When Child’s Play 3 came along, I hung up the phone.

Lafia: Ed did a great job, but I wanted to avoid it. He moved too much like a person.

Gale: On Bride of Chucky, they begged and begged, and I finally did it. And then they used the word “midget” [in the movie]. So I refused Seed of Chucky. They filmed in Romania, too, and I don’t fly.

Mancini: It [the line] was wrong, and it's my responsibility.

Gale: One of the reasons they credited me as Chucky’s stunt double was so they could pay me fewer residuals.

Mancini: One reason we used fewer little actors as the series went on is because it’s expensive to build sets 30 percent larger. Each successive movie, we have less and less money. On Curse of Chucky, I used Debbie Carrington to double Chucky—partly because she’s a good friend of mine, and partly because bodies change as people age. Ed physically became too large to play Chucky. It’s just the reality we were facing.

In 2013, Mancini wrote and directed Curse of Chucky, a critically-praised return to Chucky’s more sinister roots.

Mancini: To this day I prefer my concept of the doll being a product of the little kid’s subconscious, but the concept used ended up being gangbusters. Tom was a seasoned writer who made improvements.

Vincent: Starting with the second one, the movies really became Don’s. He came into the forefront.

Mancini: We start production on the next Chucky in Winnipeg in January. It continues the story of Nica, who was introduced in Curse of Chucky. At the end of that movie, she’s taken the rap for the murder of her family and has been institutionalized in an asylum. That’s the basic premise and setting.

Vincent: What’s interesting is that you can tell different types of stories with Chucky. There’s a balance between playfulness and that anger.

Mancini: Even in the movies that aren’t overt comedies, there’s an amusement factor of a doll coming to life. It’s disturbing on a primal level. Dolls are distortions of the human form. They’re humanoid. There’s something inherently off and creepy about them.

Kirschner: Chucky’s become so iconic. When you refer to a kid being awful, you refer to him as Chucky.

Lafia: Chucky has a very unique skill set for a villain, which is that he can be sitting in a room and you don’t think he’s a threat at all. He’s hiding in plain sight.

Mancini: He’s an ambassador for the horror genre, for Halloween, for why we as a culture enjoy this stuff. It’s celebrating the fun of being scared.

Gale: I have the screen-used Chucky hands. No one else does. So if you buy a pair that claim to be worn in the film, you got ripped off.

This story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2019.

The Dark Side: An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special

Larry Heider
Larry Heider

Summer 1978: Over a year after its debut, Star Wars wasn’t through smashing box office records. Ushered back into theaters for a return engagement that July, it made $10 million in just three days. George Lucas had welded mythological structure, pioneering special effects, and a spectacular production design to create a cinematic phenomenon that redefined how studios selected and marketed big-budget spectacles. Movies would never be the same again.

Neither would television. That same month, filming began on The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 97-minute musical-variety show that featured Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat and Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, being seduced by a virtual reality image of Diahann Carroll. Originally, the show was intended to keep the property viable and licensed merchandise moving off shelves until the inevitable sequel. But with Lucas’s focus on The Empire Strikes Back and producers shrinking his galaxy for a television budget, the Holiday Special suffered. So did viewers.

Mental Floss spoke with many of the principal production team members to find out exactly how Lucas’s original intentions—a sentimental look at Chewbacca’s family during a galactic holiday celebration—turned to the Dark Side.

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

According to onetime Lucasfilm marketing director Charles Lippincott, CBS approached Star Wars distributor 20th Century Fox in 1978 to propose a television special. Fox had seen a boost in box office returns after several aliens from the Cantina scene appeared on Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show; CBS figured the success of the film would translate into a ratings win; Lucasfilm and Lippincott though it would be a good vehicle to push toys.

With all parties motivated to move forward, two writers—Leonard “Lenny” Ripps and Pat Proft—were brought on to write a script based on an original story by Lucas.

Leonard Ripps (Co-Writer): Pat and I spent the entire day with Lucas. He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about. His idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.

Pat Proft (Co-Writer): Wookiees played a big part of it. Stormtroopers were harassing them. I don't have the script. It sure as [hell] wasn't what it ended up being.

Ripps: Pat and I had written for mimes Shields and Yarnell, which is why we were brought on. We had written lots of non-verbal stuff. The challenge was how to get things across. Wookiees aren’t articulate. Even in silent movies, you had subtitles. Whatever we wrote, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Proft and Ripps delivered their script several weeks after the meeting. It focused on a galactic holiday celebrated by all species, with the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk selected to host the festivities that year. Chewbacca’s family—father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy—were introduced, with the writers leaving gaps for executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith to insert celebrity guest stars and musical acts. For the latter, Hemion and Smith turned to producers Ken and Mitzie Welch to arrange original songs and enlist talent.

Elle Puritz (Assistant to the Producer): I was working for the Welches at the time. I remember hearing, “OK, we’re going to do a Star Wars holiday special,” and everyone laughing about it. I thought it was a terrible idea.

Miki Herman (Lucasfilm Consultant): Lippincott requested I be involved with the special. I did a lot of ancillary projects. I knew all the props, all the actors. I hired Stan Winston to create the Wookiee family. [Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context.

George Lucas (via Empire, 2009): Fox said, "You can promote the film by doing the TV special." So I kind of got talked into doing the special.

Ripps: Lucas told us Han Solo was married to a Wookiee but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.

Herman: I do remember Gary Smith saying they wanted to have Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margret involved, high-caliber people that were popular.

Puritz: Ken and Mitzie called Bea Arthur. They wrote a song with her in mind.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Ripps: It never occurred to us to get Bea Arthur. We spent just that one day with Lucas, then got put in touch with [director] David Acomba. Our notion was Acomba was very much Lucas’s guy, so he spoke for Lucas.

Acomba was a Canadian filmmaker who had coincidentally gone to the University of Southern California around the same time as Lucas, though the two never crossed paths at the time. Lippincott knew him, however, and hired him to direct the special in keeping with Lucas’s spirit of finding talent outside the Hollywood system.

Larry Heider (Camera Operator): David came out of a rock 'n' roll world, a documentary world. Smith and Hemion had three different projects going on at the same time, so I think they felt they wouldn’t have time to direct just this one thing.

Puritz: David wasn’t used to shooting television. Using five cameras, everything shooting at the same time. He was very indignant about his own lack of knowledge, and he did not get along with the Welches.

Ripps: I got the impression it was not what he wanted, and had turned into something he didn’t want to do. I don’t want to say he was overwhelmed, but it would’ve been overwhelming for anyone.

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 millionThe Star Wars Holiday Special began filming in Burbank, California in the summer of 1978 with a script that had been heavily revised by variety show veterans Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch to reflect the Smith-Hemion style of bombastic musical numbers and kitsch. Chewbacca was now trying to race home in time for “Life Day,” with his family watching interstellar musical interludes and comedic sketches—like a four-armed Julia Child parody—on a video screen. 

Ripps: Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.

Herman: Personally, I was not a fan of Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, or Art Carney. That wasn’t my generation. But they had relationships with Dwight Hemion and the Welches.

Heider: Bea Arthur was known for being a little cold and demanding. When she was asked to do something a second time, she wanted someone to explain what was wrong. When the script wasn’t making sense for her to say something, she had a hard time translating all of that. She was pretty much [her television character] Maude.

Bea Arthur [via The Portland Mercury, 2005]: I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.

After shooting the Cantina scene, it became apparent that Acomba was an ill fit for the constraints of a television schedule.

Heider: David was used to a single camera—run and gun, keep it moving, a real rock 'n' roll pace. This show was anything but. There were huge sets, make-up, costumes. It was slow-paced, and it got to him.

Ripps: I didn’t go down for the filming, but Pat went down. He has a story.

Proft: Took my kid for the Cantina scene. All the characters from the bar were there. However, they forgot [to pump] oxygen into the masks. Characters were fainting left and right.

Heider: Characters would walk around onstage with just their shirts on to stay cool. We were shooting in a very warm part of the year in Los Angeles, and it was difficult, especially with the Wookiees. They took a lot more breaks than they had calculated.

Ripps: I knew how frustrated David was. It wasn’t his vision. He phoned me up and said, “I’m not going to be working on this anymore.”

Acomba left after only shooting a handful of scenes. A frantic Smith phoned Steve Binder, a director with extensive experience in television—he had overseen the famous Elvis ’68 Comeback Special—and told him he needed someone to report to the set the following Monday morning.

Steve Binder (Director): I was between projects and got a call from Gary basically saying they had completely shut down in Burbank and there was talk of shutting it down for good. The first thing I realized was, they had built this phenomenal Chewbacca home on a huge film stage, but it was a 360-degree set. There was no fourth wall to remove to bring multiple cameras into the home. I would think it would be impossible for a crew to even get into the set to shoot anything.

Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.

Heider: I remember when that happened. I don’t think it was David’s idea. It was the way it was conceived by producers on how to make this look really cool, but it didn’t work. You have no lighting control. Steve got it. He’s really a pro. There’s no ego.

Binder: They FedExed me the script. The first thing I looked at was, the first 10 minutes was done with basically no dialogue from the actors. It was strictly Chewbacca sounds. The sound effects people would use bear sounds for the voicing. It concerned me, but there was no time to start changing the script.

Ripps: We had concerns about that. But George said, "This is the story I want to tell."

Binder: The Chewbacca family could only be in the costumes for 45 minutes. Then they’d have the heads taken off, and be given oxygen. It slowed everything down. The suits were so physically cumbersome and heavy. The actress playing Lumpy [Patty Maloney], when she came in, I don’t think she was more than 80 or 90 pounds and she a lost tremendous amount of weight while filming.

In addition to guest stars Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney, Lucasfilm approached most of the principals from the feature for cameo appearances. Feeling indebted to Lucas, they agreed to participate—reluctantly.

Puritz: They had made this big movie, and now they’re doing a TV special. Carrie Fisher did not want to be there.

Herman: They didn’t love doing TV. At that time, movie actors didn’t do TV. There was a stigma against it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Heider: Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all. Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.

Binder: My recall with the whole cast was that there was a little mumbling going on with a few of the actors who felt they should’ve been compensated more for the movie. I think Lucas did do that after the special, giving them small percentages.

Heider: We were doing a scene where Ford was sitting in the Millennium Falcon and he just wanted to get his lines done and he made that very clear. “Can we just do this? How long is this going to take?”

Harrison Ford (via press tour, 2011): It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.

Heider: Mark Hamill was a good guy. He just had that normal-guy-trying-to-work vibe.

Mark Hamill (via Reddit, 2014): I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. And I initially said that I didn't want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player, so I did it. And I also said that I didn't think Luke should sing, so they cut that number.

Herman: I worked with the actors on a lot of the ancillary stuff. Honestly, they were just all so dopey.

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

Before Acomba departed the production, he and Lucas reached out to a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, to prepare a nine-minute cartoon that would formally introduce one of the characters from The Empire Strikes Back: Boba Fett. The bounty hunter originated from a design for an unused Stormtrooper by production designers Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie; he was intended to make public appearances in the interim between films, initially popping up at the San Anselmo County Fair parade in September of 1978.

Michael Hirsh (Nelvana Co-Founder): David knew me personally. Lucas watched a special of ours, A Cosmic Christmas, that was just coming on air at the time. He asked people on his crew, including David, who we were. David said, "Oh, I know these guys." We were not a well-known company at time.

Clive Smith (Nelvana Co-Founder, Animation Director): Lucas supplied a script that he wrote. I think I probably had about two weeks to storyboard, then start character designs.

Hirsh: Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place—if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in.

Smith: We ended up shooting slides of each storyboard frame. There must’ve been 300 to 400 frames. I loaded them up, put myself on a plane, and went down to San Francisco and did a presentation with a slide projector. I was in this room of people who were absolutely silent. Things that were funny, not a whimper or murmur. But at the end, George clapped.

Hirsh: CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons. But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A. The style of animation was modeled after [French artist] Jean “Moebius” Geraud, at Lucas’s request.


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

Smith: A lot of the designs and characters were inspired by Moebius, who did a lot of work for Heavy Metal magazine. We thought it was a good direction to point ourselves in. At the time, there was no Star Wars animation to follow.

Hirsh: There was a big deal made about the introduction of Boba Fett.

Smith: We needed to design Boba Fett, and all we had was some black and white footage of a costumed actor who had been photographed in someone’s backyard moving around. We took what was there and turned it into a graphic idea.

Hirsh: I directed the voice sessions. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had the most dialogue, and the other actors came in for short sessions. Harrison Ford and the other performers generally came in and nailed lines, whereas Mark Hamill was anxious to try different things. [Hamill would go on to a successful career in voiceover work.]

Herman: Michael got upset when I told him Princess Leia wore a belt. It was part of her costume, and they didn’t have it. Redoing it was going to cost them a lot of money.

Hirsh: That’s possible. Lucas was happy with how it turned out. After the special, we stayed in touch and we were developing a project with Lucasfilm and the Bee Gees. Nothing ever came of it.

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Nelvana had a relatively smooth journey to the finish line compared to the live-action production team. By the time Binder was prepared to shoot the climactic “Life Day” celebration with the entire cast and a group of robed Wookiees, there was virtually no money in the budget left for a large-scale spectacle.

Binder: No one ever mentioned there was no set for the closing. I was told by the art director we had no money for it in the budget. So I said, "No problem, just go out and buy every candle you can find in the store." We filled an empty stage with candles. I had experimented with this on another special, maybe a Victor Borge ice skating show. Candles in a dark environment give off an incredibly creative effect.

Herman: The sad truth is, everyone was so overwhelmed. Ken and Mitzie knew that last scene was a disaster. They came to me saying, "Help us." But George was out of the picture. It was a runaway production.

Ripps: Acomba and Lucas had walked away from it. They weren’t there to fight for anything.

Lucas: It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two.

Heider: They were spending a lot of money for stage rental, lighting, a TV truck, and everyone was putting in really long hours. It translated into a big below-line budget problem. 

Herman: Honestly, a set wasn’t going to save that scene. All the Wookiees were wearing [consumer licensee] Don Post masks.

Premiering November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was seen by 13 million viewers, a significant but not overly impressive audience for the three-network television landscape of the era. It came in second to The Love Boat on ABC for its first hour, with a marked drop-off following the conclusion of the cartoon at the halfway point. Gurgling, apron-clad Wookiees, low-budget Imperial threats—they do nothing more sinister than trash Lumpy’s room—and an appearance by Jefferson Starship proved too bizarre for viewers.

Binder: I felt you have to open with a bang, really grab the audience, make it worth their time to sit and watch. The opening scene going on as long as it did was a killer for the TV audience.

Ripps: I had no idea what had happened to it. When it was broadcast, I had a party at my house and ordered catering. After the first commercial, I turned it off and said, "Let’s eat."

Binder: The day I finished shooting, I was on to other projects. It’s the only show I never edited or supervised the editing of. The Welches had the whole weight of the unedited special in their hands, and I questioned how much experience they had at that given they were songwriters.

Heider: Somebody made choices in terms of how long each scene would be on TV, and it's really painful.

Herman: I remember I was moving to Marin County the next day. I was staying at a friend’s house, and their son was a Star Wars fan. I had given him all the toys. Watching him watch it, he was really bored.

Binder: What I realized was, the public was not told this wasn’t going to be Star Wars. It was not the second movie. It was going to be a TV show to sell toys to kids. That was the real purpose of the show. It had nowhere near the budget of a feature film. [Lucasfilm and Kenner produced prototype action figures of Chewbacca’s family; they were never released.]

Heider: I didn’t watch it when it was on, but I do have a copy I bought several years ago on eBay. It’s not a great copy, but it’s enough to show how it was cut together. I haven’t been able to sit through whole thing at one time.

Herman: George hated it, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Binder: I never met Lucas, never got a phone call, anything. Which was disappointing to me. It was his show, he developed it. To totally walk away from it and critique it negatively was, I felt, not cool.

Ripps: One of the reasons I took the job was I thought it would be an annuity. Every year, I’d get a check for Star Wars.

Hirsh: I did watch it. I was happy with our contribution. It was a phenomenal opportunity for our little company. We got to work on the Droids and Ewoks animated shows later on.

Ripps: I still go out to dinners on the stories. Once, at a dinner party, one of the waiters had Star Wars tattoos up and down both of his arms. When he found out I wrote the special, we got better service than anyone in the restaurant.

Lucas: I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic.

Herman: The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.

Dwight Hemion (via NPR, 2002): It was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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