How Freddy Krueger shaped Star Wars
Playing Freddy Krueger made Robert Englund a horror icon — but years earlier, he actually played a surprising role in shaping Star Wars.
I had a chance to chat with Englund while he was in Brisbane for Oz Comic-Con recently. Of course, he's best known as the face of the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise, but if another audition had gone his way in the '70s, his career — and film history — could have turned out very differently.
"Well, here’s what happened," he tells me. "I auditioned for the surfer in Apocalypse Now, and I was too old. I really thought I was going to nail it. I was 170 pounds of solid muscle, I had long, blond hair down my back, and when I went into the audition I was wearing thrift clothes — a pair of tight green Levi jeans, a pair of work boots, and a military green shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and I had dog tags on, too. So I looked a little military, but I looked like a surfer, too.
"I didn’t get the part, and as I started to leave, they said, 'Wait, Robert, they’re doing something across the hall with George Lucas'. And I perked right up when I heard ‘George Lucas’, because I love American Graffiti. It’s a perfect movie. The perfect film about my generation. I love it. So my eyes lit up and I went across the hall.
"They wanted an older Han Solo at that point. They wanted him to be like that cool uncle who just comes around once a year, you know? Luke Skywalker’s cool uncle who smokes a joint with him or something. At least that’s what they were talking about in the office with me.
"They just took Polaroids of me and that was it. I could tell I was too young. I don’t think Harrison was on their radar at that point; they were all friends but I don’t think he was on their radar for that part yet.
"So anyway, I picked up the sides [the parts of a script used for actors to audition with], went across the street, had a drink at the old Formosa and sat next to Elvis Presley’s sound mixer and shot the s**t for an hour. I drove home in my battered old sports car, up into the Hills."
If the story ended there, it'd be kind of interesting, but really no different to the experience of dozens of other actors — including Kurt Russell, Christopher Walken and Sylvester Stallone — who were up for the part of Han Solo.
It's what happened next that gives Englund a unique role in Star Wars history.
"At that time, Mark Hamill was always on my couch," Englund remembers. "He was a TV star. He was filming a TV series across the street; I think it was called The Texas Wheelers, with Gary Busey. So he was always at my place, and I knew he was home because his cowboy boots were out front. He always left his boots outside.
"So there he was, halfway through a six-pack, watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I went in and I said to him, ‘Look at these sides, I think you’re right for this, man. This character is like a space prince, and it’s George Lucas!’
"Mark loved science fiction and horror. I’d been a fanboy, too, but Mark was in arrested development as a fanboy. He’d been an army brat, and he just idolised everything in American popular culture. But he was hip, too! He was into The Kinks, he was into Lenny Bruce, he was into Monty Python before anybody. He turned me on to some of that.
"So I said to him, ‘Mark, you’ve got to do this, it’s George Lucas!’ I wasn’t even really pushing the space bit, I was just saying, ‘Wow, what if you got to be in a George Lucas movie, Mark? You’re the kind of actor he loves!’ So he got on the phone to his agent and the rest is history.
"That’s the true story. But the internet wants to make it like, you know, I turned down the part of Luke Skywalker for Mark Hamill. I would never have turned it down! F***ing Mark never even paid rent!"
Hamill may not have paid rent, but Englund liked having him around regardless.
"Mark was my dear, dear friend. Mark had so much money then because he was a TV star, and there was more money in television. He was always picking up the bill at coffee shops. There were always a couple of six packs in the refrigerator, courtesy of Mark. He was actually really generous, a real generous guy.
"But the thing was, Mark had an apartment in Hollywood. And he was such a terrible bachelor that he’d let his kitchen get out of control. He would never clean it, it would get so bad.
"He had the most beautiful girlfriend in the world, Anne Wyndham. She was a phenomenally beautiful actress, and she and Mark were in deep, deep love. But Mark was so worried that if she saw his kitchen, she would break up with him, because he was such a pig. So he literally nailed his kitchen door shut.
"So he was always at my apartment. I had this great contemporary apartment designed by the architect Richard Neutra, with a beautiful backyard and really hip gay neighbours, and Mark could walk to work from there. So that’s why he was always there."
Honestly, if someone doesn't greenlight an Odd Couple-style sitcom about a pre-fame Robert Englund and Mark Hamill's adventures together, they're leaving money on the table.
Oh, and according to Englund, young Luke Skywalker's outbursts about Toschi Station and power converters weren't too far from reality.
"His nickname back then was Baby Mark," Englund laughs, "because if he was late, or if his watch stopped working, or if his car had problems, he would throw a little fit about it. That was Baby Mark."
We'll never know just how different Star Wars could have been if Englund had played Han Solo, or if he hadn't turned Hamill onto the auditions.
But we know now what a space-faring epic starring Englund and Hamill might look like — because they both voice characters in the recently released sci-fi strategy game, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars.
The rest of my interview with Englund — on the secrets of Nightmare on Elm Street's success; the real reason we never saw Freddy vs Jason vs Ash; the genius of Deadpool; the one script that could convince Englund to reprise his role as Freddy Krueger; and the bigger, gayer remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 that Englund thinks the world is finally ready for — is a must-read for horror fans, and you can check it out at bmag.com.au.