Holiday Special > Text > Interviews > Lev Mailer

Interview with Lev Mailer, "Imperial Guard #1"
By SKot Kirkwood - November 11, 2008

Lev MailerYou know him by that deep, growling evil voice he did, as well as by the distinctive bushy moustache he wore while bullying Art Carney's shopkeeper character Saun Dann. Lev Mailer has a long history as an actor in film, television, and theater, as well as a long history coaching and teaching acting. But he will certainly always be remembered for two particular small parts he played in the wildly popular sci-fi institutions Star Trek and Star Wars. In the original series Star Trek episode "Return of the Archons" he played Bilar, proclaimer of the Festival! And in the Star Wars Holiday Special, of course, he was the menacing Imperial Guard #1. Get ready to boo and hiss as he menaces us again... here's Lev Mailer!

SKot: How did you get the part of the Imperial Guard in The Star Wars Holiday Special?

Lev: Well, back in New York I was in the same acting class with Mitzie [Welch, producer of the Holiday Special]. She was an actor at the time. And I got to know her and Ken [Welch, also one of the producers], and they didn't live too far from where I lived. So we kind of got to know each other on a little more than just the basis of me being in her acting class. And if I remember correctly, I think she and I did a scene together, so I was over at her house and I spent some time and got to know both of them. And so lo and behold, many years later, now we're both in Los Angeles... I get a call, she asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said "sure!"

Lev Mailer as Imperial Guard #1SKot: Had you seen Star Wars at that point?

Lev: Well, it's '78... yeah, sure! I had seen Star Wars.

SKot: Did you consider yourself a fan of Star Wars?

Lev: No, I wasn't a fan, it was just an acting job. It was very similar to what happened in terms of doing Star Trek. Years later, when it became an institution, suddenly you're related to it in a much different way, and... at the time, no, I wasn't a particular fan of Star Wars.

SKot: When you came in, what do you remember about the rehearsals or the filming?

Lev: Well, when they told us we were going to meet at this church in Hollywood on the corner of Franklin and Highland, I thought "well, why can't we shoot at the studio?" And then of course I got in there, and having worked on the stage, I was used to all the chalk marks on the ground because they stood for walls and steps and furniture, you know, how the set would eventually handle all the blocking.

They were nice people. The director was very easy to work with. The remarkable thing is that I thought about how I had absolutely no relationship with Art Carney except the work we did on camera. And having grown up in Brooklyn and being enamored of The Honeymooners, I would have loved to have spoken with him--and I'm sure at that time he was probably saturated with people discussing The Honeymooners. So I did regret that I didn't even have enough time... because I had a great deal of respect for Art Carney as a performer, and was delighted to be able to just have this little scene with him and sort of be the straight man for his jokes.

SKot: So he wasn't there at the rehearsals then?

Lev: Yeah, he was at the rehearsals, but it was... whenever we stopped, or they worked on something else, he sort of disappeared. And he wasn't around, so I didn't have time to talk to him. Yes, he was there for the rehearsals. I rehearsed with him.

And I remember seeing the guy who plays the Wookiee [Peter Mayhew] and realizing how huge he was, you know!

Lev with Art Carney as Saun Dann.SKot: How did you wind up doing that growly, deep, Imperial Guard voice that you did on the show? Was that something they suggested?

Lev: Oh yeah, they finally, that was the resolution that was... [deeply growling] "they wanted know...really cold...arrrggrrrargrrargrrrr!" Because then it played better off of what Art Carney was doing. It's what I call in my acting class "The Bully and The Idiot". It's a classic Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy... it's the classic, overbearing... Walter Mathau & Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple. I define it as "The Bully and The Idiot". And so he was playing this idiot to my bully... but of course, the idiot was, you know, sending signals out to the Wookiee's wife that that big furry package would be arriving for Christmas!

SKot: When I saw this as a kid and it got to that scene, I remember thinking that you were kind of like the Darth Vader figure, since they really didn't have Darth Vader as such in the Special.

Lev: Yeah, I was... my character was menacing, yeah.

SKot: You even had the helmet that sort of mirrored Darth Vader's helmet, with the big flare-out in the back...

Lev: And the kind of slow, deliberate movement. And just, you know, he said "oh well, do you want to trade it or do you want to buy it?"... [growling] "No, I'll take it!" [laughs]

SKot: It seems like you got to take Darth Vader's place in a way, be the Darth Vader in this show.

The moustache.Lev: Yeah!

Oh, one other thing: about the moustache. In about '72, I did something for FOX... and they put a phony moustache on me. I think it was The Great Houdinis, and I was one of the Houdini brothers. And they put this moustache on... and all week long (it was a week's work) I would be walking around looking in mirrors with my moustache. And after I finished, I decided to grow a moustache. And I was really surprised they didn't ask me to shave off my moustache!

SKot: So it was a real moustache?

Lev: Yeah, it was a real moustache! It was my moustache that I wore, literally from about '72 to '78, because I think somewhere around that period I shaved it off, in the late '70s. So that's the moustache story.

SKot: How did they wind up using that church you talked about as a rehearsal space?

Lev: Well, the church... I don't know exactly how they did that, but the church had a theater group in it. So the church was not an unusual place for a theater event, to do exactly what we did. Because I can remember when I was in New York we were going into this theater, and yet we were working in a rehearsal hall somewhere else rehearsing because we couldn't get into this theater for whatever reason... and at that time they were rebuilding. But sometimes if you're going into a theater where there's a set, and they haven't struck the set, you would end up in another location. So the church... I don't know about television shows, but I know about the church relative to theater. So they could do a rehearsal for a theater, and then go into the theater say two weeks before they open. So the church already was a place that was not unusual to be used for a rehearsal space.

SKot: So they probably used that church because the actual set was in use, or not available at the time?

Lev: Well, I would say they were probably building the set. And they probably felt that if they kept us in the church it would be cheaper than to utilize the space that they had. I mean, I don't know, I'm hypothesizing... they could have been shooting something there, then they got rid of that set, then they had to build our set... and there wasn't enough time for us to get in there for them to do that. Because I'm pretty sure whatever they did was cost-effective. Otherwise they wouldn't have done it, if it wasn't in their interest to keep us in the church for the period of time before we actually went on the set.

SKot: You've said you remember working with Steve Binder?

Lev: Yeah, that's my only experience with Steve Binder, because he was the director. I found him to be a very affable, easy guy to work with, you know, and whatever he suggested, I did, and then that was fine.

The Imperial Guard inspects the wares.SKot: Was it a pretty quick take?

Lev: Yeah, I don't remember doing too many takes on that, as a matter of fact. I think whatever Steve Binder was looking for, he got. So I don't know if we did one, two, three takes, I can't remember... I don't remember it being a huge amount of takes.

SKot: And you probably don't have to do many takes with Art Carney, because he's so good at what he does, and he improvises so much.

Lev: Yeah, and he gives you so much to play off of. So that's always helpful.

SKot: Did you actually see the Special when it aired?

Lev: Yeah, yeah I did see it when it aired.

SKot: Quite a bit of the cast and crew didn't see it when it aired. And then of course it only aired once...

Lev: Right around Thanksgiving, if I remember.

SKot: Yeah, that's right. Down the road, did you start to wonder what had happened to the Holiday Special?

Lev: Yeah, sure. Because, you know, for an actor the first thing you think about once the show is done is what kind of residuals am I going to make? And this show made zilch! So I was always curious about what had happened to it. And then I began to ask questions, and then somewhere down the line somebody said Lucas HATES it... and therefore it's been pulled from the market. And that was that. Until suddenly this underground movement, you know, this cult kind of thing started to happen. And when I went to this what they call MarsCon here in Minneapolis, which is basically a sci-fi convention... suddenly I realized that not only was there a whole group of people who were fascinated by the Star Wars Holiday Special, but I suddenly got a copy of it in a case with pictures on it, and you know, it was totally... it wasn't a bootleg copy. It was something that had been manufactured rather than somebody picking it up from some secondary source--which I had had initially! Somebody in California had sent me a copy of it, they had taken it off television, I don't know where they got it from, but it was bad quality. And then when I went to this science fiction convention and they gave me (as part of my being a guest speaker or guest star) a copy of the Holiday Special, I was delighted. Which I now have, and can show.

SKot: What did you think after seeing it again?

Lev: Well, it's a fun show. I can understand from the point of view of Mr. Lucas, because he had a certain quality control that perhaps he didn't have a hold of in this one. But I thought it was kind of a fun little show. It had a certain charm.

SKot: Now that it's been 30 years since it aired, what are your thoughts about it looking back?

Lev: Well, except for the fact that it became somewhat of an institution, you know, it would have been just another job for me along with some of the other television and film jobs that I did in California during my years there. It would have had no special place. But if you go up on my website you'll see a picture of me from Star Wars and Star Trek on there simply because these are two institutional shows. It has an identity apart from the actuality, from the quality of the show... it kind of transcends it because it becomes something that thousands and thousands of people are fascinated by. And so in retrospect I look at it differently--simply because, you know, everybody is carrying on about it--so I have to step back and say "well, looks like I was part of it... inadvertently, but I was part of it!"

"I hate fish!!"SKot: It's got to feel good to be able to say, and to realize, that you got to play a scene with Art Carney. Kind of a Honeymooners tribute, almost.

Lev: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, because when I was a kid I used to watch The Honeymooners, and loved it. As a matter of fact, Jackie Gleason came from the same neighborhood in Brooklyn that I grew up in. So he was a local boy. So you had an interest in him beyond the fact that he was now an institution and doing this wonderful Jackie Gleason Show, which I adored.

SKot: It's interesting, really, that it may be only a footnote in the work you have done, but it's sort of become eternal in a way.

Lev: Well sure, sure... and the same thing with Star Trek, you know. The thing I did in Star Trek was literally the first television show I ever did, in 1966. And so it has a very unique place for me, because when I was sitting there looking at the show, I'm looking and I said "oh, there's so-and-so, there's so-and-so, and there's so-and-so..." And then I literally, I stopped, I was watching television... "who the hell's that? And then I said, "oh my god, that's me!" [laughs] That was my reaction, SKot! Because I was so totally unsophisticated about ever having seen myself in that format that I was not even prepared, because I'd never seen myself before!

SKot: And now you'll be remembered fondly for years and years to come...

Lev: That's right. Now I've become an institution... they just put out new Star Trek trading cards, and I've got my own trading card that came out this past March.

SKot: Would you like to see the Holiday Special released officially?

Lev: Well, I don't see why not! I mean, there's a whole bunch of people out there who are interested in it.

SKot: It seems like the interest and the demand for it will just continue to keep building up and building up. And someday I think George Lucas is going to have a to take another look at this and say, "well, maybe I can have a sense of humor about this, and maybe we can finally release this thing and have fun with it!"

Lev: Yeah, well, as I've said, it's George Lucas' ugly child and people have fallen in love with it. And therefore it's no longer ugly... because love is in the eye of the beholder!