Interview: Mark Hamill talks Batman, Bilko and his favorite classic TV

This interview originally ran April 11, 2014.

For a room full of Star Wars fans, the notion of calling Mark Hamill (“Luke Skywalker” in the original trilogy) seemed like something from a galaxy far, far away. But there we were recently, talking to the man himself. His Star Wars role has him etched permanently in the collective consciousness of cinema, and not just in the sci-fi wing, but the main room as well. But beyond his iconic role, Mark Hamill is an incredibly busy voiceover artist, most famously giving the voice (and insidious signature cackle, in all its various shades) to the animated Batman series and its assorted accompanying video games. That he’s made such a mark in various sci-fi and fantasy situations is right in keeping with his own interests. He grew up as a science fiction and monster movie aficionado, and when he happened upon a Svengoolie episode one night, he was immediately transported back in time to the all but long gone days of horror hosts. The experience kick-started an immediate and enthusiastic bond not only with Sven, but with Me-TV as a network. He’s a faithful viewer, and was as eager to speak with us as we were with him. We gathered round our speakerphone and introduced ourselves.

Hi, Mark. You've got the teams from the Me-TV on-air promotion department and website here... 
Oh my gosh! Well, listen I can’t tell you what a fan I am, not only of Rich’s show, but of your station. It’s easily my favorite television network. I think it’s the most diverse, entertaining, family-friendly retro TV station on the air, bar none. And one of the things I love about your programming, I mean, clearly it’s run by TV lovers, for TV lovers. But the fact that you don’t shy away from black and white shows. You’ve got Alfred Hitchcock, The Fugitive, Mr. Lucky, Naked City, I could just go on and on, Twilight Zone, Thriller…there’s something for everyone, and I just couldn’t be a bigger fan. And I’ve even seen shows that I was on in the days before videotape recorders, that I’d never even seen! I know I did a Cannon and a Streets of San Francisco, but I can’t remember the titles or the subject matter. But I do remember doing a Night Gallery, and I remembered the title all these years later, so when I saw it listed on your network, I finally saw it, forty years later. 

Also, Rich Koz is here, our very own Svengoolie!
You know, I own a lot of the movies you show on disc, and when I saw Bride of Frankenstein in the listings one night, it was, like, twenty after the hour and I thought I’d just tune in and see which point the movie was at. And when I flipped over, and discovered, “Oh my gosh! A horror host!” I mean, my son said “Calm down, Dad!” because I got so excited. You don’t realize how much that means to me. When I was a kid, not only did they have hosts for horror movies, but Popeye cartoons, The Three Stooges, the afternoon movies, teenage dance shows—it really personalized television and made a bond between the viewer and whatever TV personality there was. The fact that you show kids’ letters and their drawings—I tell you, I’m eleven years old all over again, reading Famous Monsters Magazine and building my little Aurora monster kits.

It’s sensational and I think the world of you, and I think you’re fearless, being as silly as you want to be. I love when you do the backgrounds on the films, and you give the production notes and point out that this guy was the bartender on Gunsmoke—your enthusiasm for the stuff you do is just infectious, and I just adore Svengoolie. It’s the perfect show to watch with your kids and your grandchildren, and laugh. It’s a great connection to our past. I don’t know that there are any other hosts on television like you—it’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

Saturday night happens to be my favorite, not only because of Svengoolie, but my friend Bill Mumy’s Lost In Space is on. I have a real weakness for Batman and Wonder Woman, being a comic book geek. And then what I think are three of the top comedies of all time, The Honeymooners, The Phil Silvers Show, and Car 54, Where Are You? And for those of us with DVRs, I’ve been trying to get all of the younger people who are unaware of these shows to try them, because they’re just timeless, just hilarious.

And then there’s a whole bunch of shows that I’d heard about but never seen, like Land of the Lost and H.R. Pufnstuf—where did those shows come from?! Just tremendous, guys. I’m an exuberant fan, as you can tell!

You mentioned The Honeymooners earlier. The great Art Carney was on The Star Wars Holiday Special — did you have a chance to work with him?
No, I did not, unfortunately. It’s funny that you mention that, though, because LucasFilm officially said, “Don’t ever talk about it!” And I said, “Look, I think we have to own that,” if anything. I remember thinking at the time were doing it that it was a real mistake, because it wasn’t fitting in with anything we’d done before, and I said, “I’m not gonna do it!”

Well, I got a call and it was Mr. Lucas himself and he said they really wanted me to do it. The movie had been in the theaters for over a year and they wanted to keep a presence, with an idea towards the merchandising and keeping the public aware that we were there. It just seemed so odd. I said, “I’m not doing a musical number. Luke wouldn’t sing!” I mean, I’d done a Broadway musical, but I just didn’t think it was right for my character.

And so even though it came out as this kind of quirky misfire, I still thought we should own it. You know, just include it as a DVD extra, just to show how fallible we are! We make mistakes, too. But when I say this, I also point out what an excellent cast we had: Beatrice Arthur, and especially Art Carney, who I think is one of the all-time comic giants in any media. That’s my one regret. I wish I’d know what they were doing and when they were doing it, and I would have gone to the set just to meet him. I didn’t work with Peter Cushing in Star Wars, but I did make sure I got out to the set so I could meet him.

But that Star Wars Holiday Special was put together like a variety show, there was no priority put on who was doing what when, so I didn’t get a chance to meet him., unfortunately. 

For the real Star Wars completist, though, that was the first introduction of Boba Fett, in animated form. That came out before Empire Strikes Back, so it’s probably historically significant to people that want to explore every bit of Star Wars minutia. I’m not one of those people, but I totally understand it, because I’m totally that way with The Beatles, or the Universal horror films—I’m a fan myself, so I can totally understand that mindset.

You mentioned Peter Cushing, what was he like?
A gentleman. So kind and gracious. He was surprised that I knew so much of his résumé. He was in one of my favorite Laurel and Hardy films, A Chump at Oxford, and that was one of his first films in Hollywood. And he played the off-camera to Leslie Howard in The Man in the Iron Mask, so they could do the twins. He told me that was the perfect entry into filmmaking, because he knew he would be cut out of it, so he had no stage fright. I asked him why he didn’t stay in Hollywood, because A Chump at Oxford was ’39 or ’40, and he said it was because of the war. He went back because of his patriotism.

But, what a delightful guy. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to meet him, and find out how erudite, and warm and witty he was.

You also mentioned The Twilight Zone. Do you have a favorite episode?
That’s one of those shows where I’ve got the box set, but when it’s on Me-TV, I watch it. I think one of my favorite episodes is Eye of the Beholder with Donna Douglas, where she’s in the hospital, and she’s all bandaged up and the hospital staff are only seen in shadows, and they tell her she’s been horribly disfigured. Of course, the twist at the end—spoiler alert! Close your ears if you don’t want to hear—they unwrap the bandages and of course, she’s the gorgeous Donna Douglas of Beverly Hillbillies fame. And they cut to the doctors and nurses and it’s that hideous. It scared me to death when I was a kid!

That’s what I love about The Twilight Zone, it’s so versatile—they did light comedy, suspense and they did horror. Bill Mumy, my buddy from Lost In Space, he did a couple of classic episodes: the one about the little boy that wishes people into the cornfield, and the other one where he’s receiving phone calls from his dead grandmother on his toy telephone. I think that was one of the ones they did on videotape. It looks live.

But I probably have a top ten list, because there’s so many of them that I love. There’s the one about the guys that return from the space voyage, and one by one they disappear, until there’s only one guy left and eventually they cut to “And there were no survivors.” I love the time travel ones, like where the guy goes back and tries to warn people about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, or the guy who’s on the Titanic trying to warn them that they’re going to hit an iceberg. Especially when I was like, 8, 9, 10 years old, there’s that strong desire to alter history, you know, and the fact that you can’t makes you feel so vulnerable.

I know you did an episode of Night Gallery. Did you get a chance to interact with Rod Serling at all?
No. First of all, they’d have him in and he’d do 4 or 5 of those intros at a time, and it was connected to the actual production of the episode. But I have to tell you, on Night Gallery, I only worked one day. Me and the monster were one day players! It was called "There Aren’t Any More McBains," and Joel Grey was the star, and it was like maybe the second or third thing I’d ever done. I played a telegram delivery boy, and I remember the woman who was dressed up in the monster makeup, and she had these contact lenses that gave her solid white eyes. And I was beside myself because it was sort of like a cousin to The Twilight Zone.

But, completely disconnected with appearing on Night Gallery, I was in the lobby of ‘The Black Tower’ at Universal, which is where all the executive offices are located. I was there for some audition, and I pushed the button for the elevator, and the doors opened and there’s Rod Serling standing there with his hands clasped, in his suit, looking exactly the way he looked when he was doing those introductions to The Twilight Zone! You know, (he goes into perfect Serling impression) “Submitted for your approval…” And I was absolutely gobsmacked. I don’t think I said anything because I was going in and he was headed out, but it was certainly a memorable moment for me. The elevator doors open, and there’s the man standing there!

But I don’t like bothering people, you know? I remember seeing John Lennon when I was in New York, walking down Columbus Avenue, and one time outside The Dakota (the famous apartment building where Lennon lived). And I remember hearing him say that one of the reasons he moved to New York was that people left him alone, and he didn’t have to deal with people flipping out and becoming Beatlemaniacs on a day to day basis. I always make a mental note and say, “Don’t bother them; just enjoy the moment.”

Going on to more sci-fi stuff, like Batman: do you have a favorite episode or a favorite Batman villain? Perhaps Cesar Romero?

I must have been 12 when Batman came on, and I realized very early on that it’s a comedy. It’s not meant to be serious. But I was borderline; I took it seriously but my older brothers and sisters would be laughing at it, and I’d be like, “Shut up, you guys!” And then I kind of realized, okay, they’re clearly sending it up.

I would say my favorite villain, though, comes from the very first episode—The Riddler. I’d never seen Frank Gorshin before, and that laugh of his! I just thought he was tremendous. I mean, Burgess Meredith is brilliant as The Penguin, but if you really pushed me to make a single choice, I’d have to say Frank Gorshin as The Riddler, and probably that very first episode with Jill St. John disguising herself as Robin. I loved that, because when she takes the mask off, she’s got the curvaceous female body, and then when she gets into the disguise it’s obviously played by Burt Ward with her dubbing the voice.

I have comic book fans who just can’t stand that Batman; they like it all dark and so forth. But I say, to be fair, when you look at the comic books of the time, it’s quite accurate in depicting the silliness of the comics. So I think it’s perfectly legitimate in its own way, and now they have various Batmans to choose from; they’ve got Adam West or Christian Bale, Michael Keaton or Val Kilmer. George Clooney! Choose your Batman. And now it’s going to be Ben Affleck.

The Joker laugh that you do, it seems to be based more on Frank Gorshin’s than Cesar. Did that have any influence on you?

Probably, not overtly, though. When I started doing the animated Batman, I had just gotten off a year of Broadway doing Amadeus. And one of the characteristics of Mozart is that he writes this heavenly music, but he has this donkey bray-like laugh! And that shocks Solieri because he can’t figure out how such beautiful music can come from someone so uncouth. So during the week of doing the show, you can’t change the dialogue, but you can tweak the laugh a little bit. I was playing around with that laugh all the time. I was like, I think I’ll do an Oliver Hardy laugh; I think I’ll do a Peter Lorre laugh, I’ll do Renfield (the lunatic from Dracula). So after doing Batman for a bit, I finally asked them what it was that got me the part, and they told me it was the laugh! I try not to do it in any one specific way. I like it to be like a musical instrument, where it reflects his mood. It can be dark and menacing, or it can be high pitched and giggling and over the top.

And one of my favorite things that’s surprised and delighted me has been watching Svengoolie and hearing him use my Joker laugh as sound bites. That’s how I got in touch with Rich: I sent him an email with the subject line “My vocal cameo!” I think I took him by surprise because he thought I was going to ask for royalties! And I believe he used it again last week when he showed The Invisible Man.

Rich Koz: I think it was in there, Mark!

And then also the line, “Yes, well this is all tremendously boring”! He likes to throw that in when he starts getting into the minutia, which I find fascinating, but after about seven or eight facts, he likes to use that audio drop. One thing that really thrilled me is when he showed the Adam West Batman movie, he used my laugh instead of Cesar Romero’s laugh, so I was very proud of that. Actually, I got to meet Cesar—we were at some event, I can’t remember what it was, but at the table next to us was just the golden age of Hollywood. You know, Donald O’Connor, Cesar Romero, Dorothy Lamour; it was amazing. And I know I mentioned that I don’t like to bother people, but I did go up to Cesar Romero and introduce myself and he had no idea who I was!

But I love his Joker; he has great energy. The only thing that bothers me is that he didn’t feel committed enough to shave his mustache! Come on, guy, it’ll grow back! 

A lot of comedians point out how great Sgt. Bilko was, and how influential a show it is. Do you have any thoughts on that?

First of all, I think it’s the meeting of two comedic geniuses, Phil Silvers and Nat Hiken. You read about the genesis of the show, and that they were trying to figure out a way to best use Phil Silvers’ con man, fast-talking shyster character. And when they came upon the idea of putting him in the Army, and having him running his own private little fiefdom, it was perfect. Because it was post World War II, there weren’t any major confrontations going on in the world. Nat Hiken had an ability to write farce.

One of the things I love about the show so much is that it was done in New York, and so the supporting cast and some of the guest stars are some of the best character actors in the New York theater, on and off Broadway. And that was carried over, you see a lot of the same actors repeat in Car 54. Not only Fred Gwynne, who did several guest appearances on Bilko, but Joe E. Ross, who played Sgt. Ritzik on Bilko, and Toody on Car 54. And the actor who played his wife, Lucille, on Car 54, Beatrice Pons, she was from the Yiddish Theater in New York, and she’s just a comic dynamo. When she goes to the window and screams, “I’m married to a nut! I’m married to a nut!” Just incredible! And Alice Ghostley and Al Lewis.

And in some ways I am blurring Bilko and Car 54, but they’re both these gang comedies; one set in the Army, one set in the police force. But they both have this great contrast of rigid, orderly behavior with this out of control, chaotic comedic behavior, and nobody did it better than Nat Hiken.

There’s that episode of Sgt. Bilko [The Phil Silvers Show] called "The Court Martial," where they’re trying to streamline inductions into the Army and they accidentally induct a chimpanzee! It’s one of the greatest half hours of comedy I’ve ever seen. When people come over and they haven’t seen Sgt. Bilko, that’s the one I’ll put on. And if you watch that and don’t laugh, well, we have nothing further to discuss!

In the courtroom scene, the monkey gets up out of the chair, goes upstage and picks up a phone receiver, and without missing a beat, God bless Phil Silvers for having that vaudeville and stage experience, and says (Here Mark does a spot-on Phil Silvers impression), “Just hold it a minute. He’s consulting another lawyer!” You see the other actors, all these great dramatic actors, Paul Ford, Barnard Hughes, just these people who were rocks of dramatic live television like Playhouse 90 and Alcoa Theater—and that’s what’s so important in farce; these dramatic actors playing the truth that’s written into these characters—but you see all these guys strain not to break! They put their hands to their mouths, and it’s just astonishing to see how quickly Phil Silvers comes up with that ad lib. 

Another one of my favorite episodes is "A Mess Sergeant Just Can’t Win," and I think you guys aired that last Saturday night. It’s where Bilko feels bad that he’s taken advantage of Ritzik to such a degree that Ritzik is broke, and he’s gonna leave the Army to get away from Bilko. So Bilko endeavors to make a bet with Ritzik that Ritzik can’t lose, but he keeps winning. Ritzik is born in Cincinnati, but Bilko bets him that he was born in Singapore! And like any great farce, it just keeps on escalating and piling on quickly. 

Mark, it’s been so great to talk with you, and we really appreciate you taking the time. Is there anything you’re working on now that you can tell our readers about? 

Well, you know, there’s a couple of things that I am working on, but in this day and age, it’s all non-disclosure! It’s bad timing, because I can’t really talk about it at this point in time. My main reason for talking with you guys is selfish, really. Because I’m not being disingenuous when I say that without question, you’re my favorite network on television. Just for the fact that you run so many of the shows I love, but also so many shows that I’ve never seen: The Rifleman. Incredible writing, I love that show! I love the anthology shows like Route 66, Wagon Train and The Fugitive, where the cast changes from week to week.

I love the film noir theme that you do, it’s just wonderful. And there are the shows that capture a much more innocent time in our history, like The Donna Reed Show, Make Room For Daddy, Leave It To Beaver, just unbelievably timeless, and perfect family friendly television. The shows you just can’t get anywhere else. Only on Me-TV!
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