I grew up on an island in the San Francisco Bay called Alameda. It's right next to Oakland in the shadow of San Francisco. At the time, the Alameda Theater, an Art Deco movie palace built in the early 1930s, had one giant theater downstairs and a former mezzanine split into two smaller theaters above. Being a movie fan and a budding actor, I spent a good amount of time haunting these theaters.
Probably a month or two after Star Wars premiered it showed up at the Alameda Theater. The big room, of course.
I loved it. And I wanted to see it again. And again. And again. My mother worked nights across the street from the theater, where the junior admission was a dollar, and she was grateful for the low-cost childcare.
So I got to see Star Wars at 7PM and 9:15 almost every night. And five times on the weekends. And that is how, in the summer of 1977, I wound up seeing Star Wars a hundred and two times.
Now for you Millennials, there was a time when if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the movies. It was a time when you could not play a recording of a movie in your car or download it on something called the Internet. This was during that time. The dark Days. Before the Clone Wars.
Star Wars was made for me. I "got it" deeply in my bones. I understood this to be the most remarkable motion picture ever made. Keep in mind, I was 11.
It was groundbreaking in so many ways, and I understand I'm not the first to say that. But what I really loved about Star Wars was the tangibility of it. These characters were real to me, I felt like I could know them, maybe not Darth Vader, but the rest of them - including the droids.
And it was funny. It never took itself too seriously. That's the part I loved the best. Han Solo swashbuckling and quipping across space. Princess Leia, the most sarcastic princess ever was also the coolest. Well, until Diana.
And of course, Luke Skywalker was our hero: someone who, in one way or another, we could all identify with. But I identified with him even more than most. We looked alike.
Luke Skywalker had shaggy blonde hair, I had shaggy blonde hair. He had blue eyes, I had blue eyes. He had a laid-back San Francisco Bay area kind of attitude that I had too. And our fathers were both distant. So I could be Luke Skywalker.
Except I didn't walk around in karate gear all day long like Luke.
Well, maybe I did on special occasions.
And of course, there was the sage Obi-Wan Kenobi played by Sir Alec Guinness; one of the greatest actors to ever live on this or any other planet; certainly one of the greatest actors in film history. I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't like Alec Guinness. And I guess that's why they wanted him for Star Wars.
Star Wars was not expected to be a hit. They were afraid that no one would see it. Especially with all these unknown actors. There was nothing to sell the picture.
So they begged Alec Guinness (and offered him a ton of money and a percentage) to be Obi-Wan Kenobi, to give the picture some legitimacy. And they were right. His presence in the film gave it a magnitudinal grounding. When he said "May the Force be with you, always" you knew that it would.
So imagine my surprise when in the summer of 2015 I got a note on Facebook from my old friend Tom, who sat through at least a few of those hundred and two screenings with me back in 1977. He sent me an article from Dangerousminds.net about Alec Guinness' final memoir A Positively Final Appearance, in which he describes his hatred of Star Wars, and then tells the story of meeting a young Star Wars fan back in 1979.
Tom's attached note said "Isn't this you?"
When I was 12 I got a chance to meet Alec Guinness and in some small strange way become part of his experience with Star Wars.
Now I had known the story, of course, because I was there. Tom knew because of course I told him about it when it happened. I'm sure I told a lot of other people too. It was pretty cool.
But I had no idea the influence it had on Sir Alec himself, so much so that 20 years later he would recall the story and include it on page 11 of his final memoir.
I reposted the story on social media and admitted that that was me. I got an avalanche of emails and comments from friends saying; "I've been telling that story for 15 years. That's you?" "Dude, that's you? Are you kidding me?"
I was completely shocked that lots of people seemed to know the story and yet I didn't know that it had been published by Sir Alec himself until sixteen years after the fact!
I immediately bought the memoir. I mean it's not every day one finds out Sir Alec Guinness wrote about you in his memoir!
When I read Guinness' retelling of the story, I was even more surprised. Sir Alec remembered almost precisely the words we said to each other that night. Twenty years later!
But then there was a major part where he surprised me for different reasons: he lied. Now you may be thinking "Did this guy just call Sir Alec Guinness a liar?" Well, yes I did. When you hear both versions of the story, you'll see I'm right.
So here's what Alec Guinness says happened in his 1999 memoir A Positively Final Appearance (hear Sir Alec read this passage)
"A refurbished Star Wars is on somewhere or everywhere. I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned. Twenty years ago, when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having. The bad penny first dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me proudly he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boys eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guess that one day they would explode.
'I would love for you to do something for me,' I said.
"Anything! Anything!' the boy said rapturously.
'You won't like what I'm going to ask you to do.' I said.
'Anything, sir, anything!'
'Well,' I said, 'do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?'
He bursts into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. 'What a dreadful thing to say to a child!' she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities."
Okay, so here's what really happened.
The San Francisco International Film Festival took place in October of 1979 at the Palace of Fine Arts. I knew about the SFIFF because I was in a film premiering that year called The Black Stallion. I had been acting in theatre since I was four, but this was my first feature film.
As luck would have it, the Festival offered an opening night gala: A Tribute to Alec Guinness. As excited as I was for my first movie, it was the Alec Guinness Tribute that excited me the most.
So my mother took me to see Alec Guinness, and it was wonderful and eye-opening.
It was a clip show-style tribute. An hour long program about his work: scenes from the The Lavender Hill Mob, The Bridge On the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and my personal favorite Murder by Death; with a Question and Answer period following.
I knew, of course, Guinness' work from Star Wars. And I also knew that he was an accomplished actor beyond that, but remember this was the time when you had to see movies at the movies or maybe if you're lucky you could catch one on late night TV. So I wasn't familiar with all of his work. But this tribute to him helped me understand who he was. And I was profoundly inspired.
Being there that night gave me the opportunity to see roles he had created 30 years before I was born. It gave me the opportunity to find out about performances that existed in another Galaxy not so far far away.
It was amazing to find out who this man was and what he was able to do with his acting career. Although each performance was quite different from the next, I could see something that ran through them all, or should I say under them all. While fully committed to the characteristics of each role, he also had a tiny bit of mad genius in there too.
He was sometimes contained, sometimes outlandish, but there was always that tiny glint in his eye which seemed to me to be his great joy of playing the character while adding his own unique twist underneath.
And I wanted to meet this mad genius.
But I heard that it would be difficult to meet him, or maybe that he wasn't giving autographs at the time, but I knew that I couldn't just wait at the stage door and expect to meet him. I think it might've even been a big party afterwards for people who paid lots and lots of money, and maybe that was the reason I wouldn't get to meet him.
But I didn't want to miss my chance.
In the Question and Answer section, after the clips, Sir Alec told some stories about the making of this picture or that, but most importantly to me he talked about how he approached acting, which inspired me to no end.
And then I saw my chance. I hoped that perhaps because I had seen Star Wars so many times, he might grant me the favor of an autograph. In fact I thought he would be impressed that I had seen it so many times. I was a true fan. He would surely give me that autograph, right?
Now, I had heard that he had issues with Star Wars, but I wasn't gonna let that stop me. I'd run down to the lip of the stage, he would lean over and sign my program and that would be that. A fun moment to tell the grandkids about. As it were.
So I raised my hand and the moderator called on me. I was near the back of the auditorium but I was already a seasoned actor so I could project my question all the way to the stage. "Sir Alec," I articulated in a big, loud voice. "I've seen Star Wars 102 times…"
And Sir Alec Guinness fell out in his chair.
He literally splayed his arms and legs out over the sides and edges of the chair in this completely wowed, perhaps slightly defeated position. He got a big laugh. And then he said "Well, it's not even my best picture." He got another laugh.
I was glad to be Sir Alec's straight man that night but I didn't let it deter me from my intention, so I timed the swell of laughter and as it crested, then fell I said "and it would mean very much to me if I could have your autograph."
There were some giggles and sounds of amazement, but Sir Alec immediately responded with a finger pointed across the auditorium in my direction and said "I'll see you after the show."
So my date with Alec Guinness was set. I don't remember what happened next, all I could think was I was going to get to meet Sir Alec! After the show my mother and I found our way to the stage door (I had done lots of theater, so I knew about stage doors.) And asked to see Sir Alec.
My mother and I waited a little while backstage, and then we were brought to him. He was dressed in a tuxedo and completely charming. That little glint in his eye that I saw in a lot of his performances was very much there in that moment. He was sweet and kind and funny.
The first thing he said to me was "I feel like I should give you some of my money back!" I laughed. He laughed. My mother laughed. The people standing around us laughed, of course.
It's interesting to me that the first thing he talked about was the money. It was a wonderful joke that everybody laughed at, but I think it was rooted in how he really felt about the whole Star Wars situation, which my question from the audience and mere presence somehow triggered.
Now I'm not a therapist, but I believe the money he made from Star Wars was certainly appreciated, but he also felt strange about it: Commerce vs. Art. It was the reason for his "hatred of Star Wars."
That's kind of what the comment seemed like to me. Even at the time.
His version of our story is correct. He did say I'd like for you to do something for me exactly as he quoted. I did say "Anything, sir, anything!" I was for the first time in my life meeting a true master. Not a Jedi Master, mind you, a master in the art of Acting. So, I would've done anything Alec Guinness asked of me especially after what I had seen on the screen that evening.
And then he did say "Well, do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?"
Now here is the moment where we differ.
Sir Alec says I then cried and my mother got haughty and dragged me away. Presumably without my coveted autograph.
But that's not what happened at all.
I said "Yes sir, I can." And then he got a pen, leaned his head down, (he was shorter than me and I can actually still see his freckles on his little bald head) and he wrote "To Danny, Good wishes always. Alec Guinness. And you have promised me not to see Star Wars again!” (original emphasis).
I thanked him profusely for the autograph. He said it was wonderful to meet me and my mother. He obviously remembered my mother because 20 years later when he wrote the memoir he included a reference to my "elegant mother." (And he was right about her too, she is elegant.) So we both must've made an impression on him that night.
And then we were shown the exit; me beaming the whole time looking at my new autograph from Obi-Wan Kenobi. Oops. I mean Sir Alec Guinness.
And that was that. I went my way, he went his.
I think I told everybody I knew what happened. People were probably exhausted from hearing about it.
I have tried to dine out on it a bit in my adulthood, too, but it's not every day you can just slip in the conversation: "When I was a boy I met Alec Guinness and he asked me never to see Star Wars again." It just doesn't come up. My friend Lesli loves Star Wars so much she had Storm Troopers at her wedding, and she loved the story, because it's kind of great.
And that's why I don't understand why he changed the story. I know writers always embellish when they retell a story. In fact, my great friend Mark, who is a writer, is one of those people who said "That's you? I've been telling the story for 15 years!" But when he told it back to me even he had added a little bit. So, I understand that writers are writers.
But why did Guinness make himself into a monster? Why did he change the story from his being kind and gracious and lovely to his being so mean to a child that the child busts out crying and his mother becomes haughty and drags him away?
When you hear my story, it's a fun story. It still tells you the issues he had with Star Wars, but you get to see the gracious man that I got to see. When he tells the story, he's a curmudgeon. A man who would make sweet-faced boys cry. Because he was so concerned that I would be living in a fantasy life.
And that's what he talks about in his memoir: the "star-shells of madness" that he thought he saw forming in my eyes. He was concerned that I would somehow think Star Wars was reality or something?
"Star-shells of madness?" What a funny phrase. Is that something to be worried about? Something to be feared? Star-shells sound fun.
Those little star-shells of madness that he saw was probably my love for the Theater and Hollywood. He was probably seeing the "star-shells of madness" because I had just seen an hour of his work that was truly mind blowing. If I had star-shells of anything in my eyes that night, it was star-shells of Alec Guinness. Certainly not Obi-Wan Kenobi.
You probably have two questions. One is something about what happened with the star shells of madness. Did I ever escape to a fantasy world not dealing with reality but making up another world for myself to live in?
Well, when I was 24 I moved to Los Angeles from New York after studying acting at New York University and founded a small theater company in Hollywood called The Blank Theatre. It could be said that the whole idea of opening a live theater in Hollywood must've been born from some form of madness.
And no I don't live in a galaxy far, far away. I definitely live in Silverlake, California. I realize to some that IS a galaxy far, far away.
Now I can see that in fact, that is what's underneath all of Alec Guinness' performances. That even in his most conservative roles – he's always alive and always has a glimmer of madness underneath. Star-shells indeed.
In my work now as a theatrical artist, I'm always trying to re-create the kind of genius that Sir Alec Guinness introduced me to that night. A mad abandon in the most precise of work with something else entirely lurking underneath.
And your final question? Did I keep my promise? Have I ever seen Star Wars again? I now understand that perhaps I took a page from Sir Alec's playbook. There's what actually happened and then there's my version of what happened.
I must admit since then I have twice gone to the movie theater and paid to see Star Wars. There've been two major re-releases since 1979 and I felt like I needed to go, even if just to visit old dear friends to see how well they've held up.
But both times I walked out of the theater for about 10 minutes at the same part in the film, so my answer is: technically, I did keep my promise to Sir Alec, I never saw all of Star Wars again.
The lesson I've learned from Sir Alec is to get it almost right. Tell the truth but leave just a little wiggle room for creativity, and for putting your own spin on whatever comes your way, and leave something underneath to intrigue your audience and keep them wanting more. That is the making of a true genius.
And a true genius he was. Thank you, Sir Alec for allowing me to be one tiny moment of your incredible life.
Whether you like it or not, the Force will be with you, always.