Star Wars Celebration kicks off with emotional '40 Years of Star Wars' panel

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Star Wars Celebration kicks off with emotional “40 Years of Star Wars” panel (Photo: Ryan Michael Painter)

ORLANDO, Florida (KUTV) —Thousands of fans lined up overnight for the chance to attend the “40 Years of Star Wars” panel in the Galaxy Stage room. Two thousand of those fans were able to watch the panel live, while thousands more watched a live stream of the event in both the Celebration and Behind-the-Scenes stage areas and around the world on .

Warwick Davis, who was only 11 years old when he was cast as Wicket in “Return of the Jedi,” was the first to take the stage. Davis, who also served as moderator for the panel, then introduced Kathleen Kennedy who paid tribute to the fans and then George Lucas, who was then introduced the first surprise guest.

Lucas, who has become more reclusive since selling Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, took the stage to a roar of approval.

Lucas discussed his early career in Hollywood and how two commercial failures with “THX 1138” and “American Graffiti” actually cleared the way for him to make “Star Wars” as a Fox executive was enamored with “American Graffiti” and told Lucas he would make the director’s next film, regardless of what that film was.

Looking back on the unexpected success of “Star Wars” Lucas says he wanted to make a “high action film” that mirrored the serial films he grew up on.

“I’m not supposed to say this now. I wasn’t supposed to say this then. It’s a film for 12-year olds,” Lucas said.

He further explained that the central story is loaded with a message that tells audiences to put value in friends, honest and trust. It also teaches us to live on the “light side” and avoid the “dark side.”

Over the years Lucas has faced his share of criticism from fans and critics alike, but he says that seeing how children have reacted to the film over the past 40 years makes it worthwhile.

“When you see all these little kids and the look on their face, it forgives everything,” Lucas said.

Davis then introduced “Star Wars Rebels” Executive Producer Dave Filoni.

Filoni worked closely with Lucas on the animated series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and shared the best advice that Lucas had given him,“Don’t be afraid and don’t make a decision out of fear.”

Lucas said that the reason he wanted to do a television show was because TV was a “great experimental cauldron” that allowed him to produce stories that might otherwise not be told.

“My whole life is, ‘You can’t do that,” Lucas said, and he took that challenge to Filoni and his team when he asked them to make a weekly series that looked as good as a theatrical release.

“And we did it on a TV budget,” Lucas said with a smile.

As Filoni left the stage he turned to Lucas and said, “What you taught me master, I will pass it on the best I can.”

A recorded message from Liam Neeson came next. He teased the crowd that while he would like to have been in Orlando in person, he was too busy making a film about Jar Jar’s journey to the dark side.

Following Neeson’s message Haden Christensen and Ian McDiarmid joined Lucas and Davis on stage. Lucas referred to the duo as “Dark side rockstars.”

When asked about all the sword training and rehearsal that he was put through to learn the final battle in “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” Christensen recalled Lucas telling him,“Looks really great, but I can see your mouth moving. You don’t have to do that. We’ll add the sound effects later.”

Christensen says that whenever he holds a lightsaber he’s been conditioned from birth to make the sound effects.

McDiarmid the recalled meeting with Lucas prior to being cast in “Return of the Jedi.”

Lucas was rather evasive when it actually came to the character that McDiarmid was being considered for. When the role was offered McDiarmid’s agent told him his character was “apparently called the emperor of the universe.”

“George doesn’t go into lengthy explanations,” McDiarmid said with a grin.

When it came time to make the prequels Lucas simply asked McDiarmid, “Do you know anyone who wants to be the emperor?”

McDiarmid most certainly did.

Christensen and McDiarmid left the stage as a video from Samuel L. Jackson played.

Jackson reminded those in the room that “Jedi can fall from incredible heights and survive.”

It would be the introduction to his plea to the filmmakers in the room to find space for Mace Windu in a future film.

Following Jackson, original cast members Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams and Peter Mayhew took to the stage.

Daniels joked with Lucas, saying that he was given a selection of different masks for C-3PO. The only one he disliked was ultimately the one Lucas chose.

Lucas defended his decision by saying he wanted a mask that was “completely neutral.” A face that showed no emotion. He wanted the attention to be given to the performance. Once Daniels was in the suit, the character came alive. Without Daniels C-3PO is nothing but a lifeless shell.

When asked about Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew said,“She’s a hell of a rebel, but she’s also a beautiful princess.”

Lucas retold the popular tale about how Chewbacca and the Wookiee race were based off of his large dog that used to co-pilot his car with him.

Billy Dee Williams, who was a more established actor than his co-stars, recalled jumping at the chance to be a part of the Star Wars Universe, “I thought that was like going straight to heaven. It was a wonderful, extraordinary experience.”

Davis then brought Mark Hamill on stage. Lucas recalled the casting process for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa. A story Hamill cringed his way through.

Lucas explained that the last phase of the year-long search came down to an audition where two or there actors up for the various roles were asked to read scenes with each other.

Lucas turned to Hamill and said, “Each of you would test with a different person until we found the combination that worked the best together.”

Lucas says it was the sense that Harrison Ford, Fisher and Hamill were already old friends that got Hamill the role.

“That and he’s shorter than I am,” Lucas said.

Footage from Hamill’s screen test found the actor covering his face.

When asked about some of the strange dialogue that Lucas gave him, Hamill says that his main goal was to “make it sound like spontaneous dialogue just rolling off the tongue?”

A task that he said wasn’t always easy to do.

The morning’s biggest surprise and cheers came as Harrison Ford took the stage.

Ford joked that after “American Graffiti” he went back to carpentry until, “Along came George once again and pulled me up by my bootstraps and put me to work.”

Looking back on what he calls “a good ride” Harrison thanked Lucas for “a brilliant mythology that has sustained for over 40 years.”

“An actor without a story to tell might as well go home,” he said.

The stage cleared, leaving only Lucas, who was then joined by Kennedy to pay tribute to Fisher, who died earlier this year.

Following a short video, an emotional Lucas described her as being very strong, smart, funny, bold and tough. A “one in a billion” type of person.

Kennedy added that “she will be remembered forever, even by those who aren't old enough to say ‘may the force be with you.’”

Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, then took the stage and talked about her mother, “the rebel who resisted the norm,” and thanked the audience for “embracing all of” her mother. “Nothing about her was a performance.”

Lourd then relayed the three things that her mother taught her. The first was a beautiful performance of the classic “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi” speech. The remaining two lessons were the advice, “If life isn’t funny then it’s just true” and a reminder that the strongest people are often also the most vulnerable.

Lourd, clearly moved by the standing ovation given to her and her mother’s memory began to leave the stage when a curtain covering the right side of the room pulled open revealing John Williams and full orchestra.

They played a gorgeous rendition of “Princess Leia’s Theme” before offering up a fantastic take on the “Star Wars Suite.”

Lucas and Kennedy joined Williams for a brief moment where Lucas described the composer as “Star Wars’ Special Sauce.”

Williams closed the panel with “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme).”

The four-day convention is expected to draw nearly 80,000 attendees from around the world.

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