We’ll be starting our regular blogs with John in 2014, so be ready for some cool memories of days past and current experiences, but until then here’s his interview with the Elstree Base of the Rebel Legion.
John is best known as Dak, Luke Skywalker’s back-seater in the Battle of Hoth, The Empire Strikes Back. He also appeared in the film substituting for Jeremy Bulloch as Boba Fett on Bespin when Boba utters his famous line to Darth Vader, “He’s no good to me dead.” Currently, he is a regular contributor to the Official Star Wars Blog. Beyond the Galaxy, fans know John from roles in epic films like A Bridge Too Far, Superman II and Flash Gordon and in the BBC television series Oppenheimer. A veteran performer, he appeared on London’s West End stage and New York’s Off-Off Broadway as an actor and musician. When not acting, singing or playing guitar, he was a lighting and sound technician affiliated with London’s White Light Electrics working on such classic productions as The Rocky Horror Show, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby and thought-provoking plays by celebrated playwright David Hare. A published author, John’s Backstory In Blue: Ellington At Newport ’56 is a behind-the-scenes look at a legendary moment in American cultural history when a performance of the great Duke Ellington Orchestra almost caused a riot at the third Newport Jazz Festival. John’s plays have been produced in New York and Washington, notably his award-winning Hubris.
1) How did you come to be involved with Star Wars?
I’d been living in London since late 1971 when I was a graduate student for two terms as a “student reader” at the London School of Economics. After getting my degree in early 1973, I thought I’d work in documentary film, but I ended up through contacts working in London theatre as a lighting and sound technician, eventually working for “The Rocky Horror Show.” On the side, I was doing “floor spots” in pubs as a singer-songwriter with my guitar, opening for folk singers on the London folk circuit whose stars then were Ralph McTell and Martin Carthy, among others. I was discovered at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court by a theatre director and writer who asked if I could act (the right answer is always yes). He needed an American who could play the guitar and sing to star in a musical he was writing. The musical opened at The Orangetree Pub in Richmond in the summer of 1975 and eventually transferred directly to the West End in early 1976. I managed to get an agent and weeks towards an Equity card out of that. Anyway, the agent said, “You’re not really an actor, are you, darling, but I think I can get you work in film.” She put me up for my first role which was as Robert Redford’s chaplain in “A Bridge Too Far” in 1976, and I was off and running, which led me to getting cast by Irene Lamb, the casting director, for TESB in 1979. The short answer is that I went for an interview with Irene to get the part. There was no audition or screen test as such. But the long answer essentially gives the idea of how someone gets to be in the right place at the right time.
2) Did you get to meet George Lucas, and what was he like?
I did. I was with him on the set a number of times at Elstree. He directed me as well, along with Irvin Kershner and Gary Kurtz. I remember especially two instances. The first was sitting next to him in directors chairs on the sound stage where we were shooting the scenes inside the snowspeeders during the Battle of Hoth. George was in his trademark red and black check shirt, actually an oversized wool lumberjack shirt, I think. He was slightly built and rather shaggy in those days and of course under a lot a pressure and somewhat distracted. We talked briefly, and I recall thinking he was rather shy on an interpersonal level. His direction was very technical and had more to do with directing my eye lines in a variety of directions relative to the camera to give him maximum flexibility when it came to editing my shots against the animated scenes in the background. You see, the set-up on the sound stage was the snowspeeder against a blue matte screen, so one didn’t have any idea what to look at, beyond being told that I was looking at Imperial snow walkers (the term AT-ATs came much later) out there. As a director, George was much more of an editor/director than an actor’s director, so trying to get actors to emote was not really his thing. He relied on Kersh for that. In that sense, George was a very cerebral director like Kubrick, for whom I worked as well. Kubrick had a great influence on George. After all, George was filming at Elstree which was Stanley’s studio of choice. In fact Kubrick lived just down the road in Borehamwood.
3) How is Star Wars still part of your life?
Now that I am winding down my consulting work in Washington, DC, I am making more appearances at conventions worldwide. My second daughter is getting into celebrity relations and talent management and is responsible for doing the bookings. She is a fan and is often with me which is great. I am also blogging for StarWars.com, the official Star Wars Web Site. I shall soon be blogging also for Jedi News in the U.K. I’ve been a writer for decades and have had two plays produced and three books published, in addition to innumerable journalistic pieces. As a Star Wars blogger, I am really enjoying writing about the conventions and fans and musing on the meaning of all things Star Wars. I’m especially keen to interact with folks like those in the 501st who are doing good work for charitable causes, in particular those who are paramedics and first responders, two of the fields I’ve been supporting in my policy work in Washington since 1998. Click on , http://starwarsblog.starwars.com/index.php/author/jmorton/ follow me and be sure to comment. As well for Jedi News when my work for them gets going. I am very keen to work with Jedi News. U.K. fans might know that I am half-British and have a cottage in Wiltshire and U.K. residency. I have many British cousins and friends all over. My mother’s first cousin was the actor Robert Morley. During the War, Mum married my father, a career U.S. naval officer who was stationed in London and then went to the Pacific. They courted during the Blitz.
4) At what point did you realise that Star Wars was going to be the phenomenon it has become?
In 1997, I had heard that some Star Wars fan magazine had reckoned somehow that I was dead. I asked an old university friend of mine who was Internet savvy (I wasn’t at the time) to surf around and find out what this was all about. He got back to me and said there were some 1000 sites having to do with Star Wars which surprised both of us. So that was the first real eye-opener. He said he was going to try this university site in Texas, thinking that students were the most likely to be in the know. He contacted them, who turned out to be TheForce.net. They said they would tell me who was trying to find me in exchange for letting them interview me first for their site, i.e., giving them the scoop on who first found Dak. I said ok and then found out that it was the Star Wars Insider. They (Jon Bradley Snyder) were trying to track me down because they were putting together a Rebel Pilots Reunion feature. Jon did an interview was well which was published, and so by that time I realised how big a phenomenon it was. Until that time, I had not been focused on Star Wars at all. From there, the spring of 1997, I started making convention appearances and such and did so until about 2003 when I stopped because of parenting and work pressures. I got back into it with Celebration V in Orlando in 2010.
5) What types of events do you like attending the most?
I enjoy all kinds where I have a chance to meet and interact with the fans and renew my friendships with colleagues, especially in the U.K., with whom I worked in theatre and film. We were a fairly close bunch who shared a momentous time in London when a lot of significant culture was under going change both in terms of style and technology. I also enjoy hearing from fans their stories and their perspectives drawn from their coming of age in the 70s, 80s and 90s. It helps me appreciate how Star Wars has inspired people positively to find meaning, purpose and a mission in their lives to move all of our histories forward.
6) What is your favourite Star Wars memory?
I think it was the morning after I went to the opening of the re-release of TESB in Baltimore in February 1997. I had made the premier’s celebrity appearance and had taken my two daughters who were six and eight at the time. I had been all over the local and regional media in connection with the opening, since I was the only Star Wars personality available in the region for media to interview and feature. I was also the Parent Teacher Organization president for my daughters’ school at the time. The next morning when I took the girls to school, we found that someone had hung a huge white sheet with black lettering over the front entrance of the school. It read, “Our PTO president is Dak!”
7) And finally the most important question – Rebel or Imperial?
Rebel, definitely. I’m Dak, right? And as for being Bespin Boba Fett, my alter ego, as well…as Billy Strayhorn famously said of Duke Ellington, he is “beyond category.”