Review

'Star Wars' bit players look back on a galaxy far, far away in the genial 'Elstree 1976'

Given what a multibillion-dollar behemoth the "Star Wars" universe has become, it's fascinating to discover that a long time ago in a studio sound stage far, far away,  no one took it very seriously at all.

"It didn't seem anything special to me," one man says of being in the 1977 film Star Wars," with another saying, "We thought it was going to be on TV" and a third adding, "It was just a job of work." So much for second sight.

Documentary director Jon Spira's genial, low-key "Elstree 1976," in theaters Friday, just two days after the traditional "May the Forth" festivities for "Star Wars" fans, doesn’t round up the usual suspects, like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.

Rather, it talks to what it calls "the people behind the masks and beneath the helmets," the extras and the actors with tiny speaking parts who gathered at the venerable Elstree studio in Britain  40 years ago to create they knew not what.

It is Spira's conceit to show these bit players whole, to tell us a little more than we perhaps expected about their personal stories -- for instance, revealing that Pam Rose, who played a waitress in the celebrated Mos Eisley Cantina scene ("It was just like any job, except I looked weird," she says) later became close with "Superman" star Christopher Reeves.

The best parts of "Elstree," not surprisingly, are the war stories these nine men and one woman share, their vivid memories of a shoot one calls "as primitive as it gets."

Laurie Goode, for instance, reveals that he was the Stormtrooper who is famously shown accidentally hitting his head on a beam because visibility from inside those white plastic helmets was almost nonexistent.

And Anthony Forrest talks about becoming distraught because what he thought would be his biggest part, playing Fixer, a young friend of Luke Skywalker, was cut from the final film.

But redemption was at hand, because, hidden under a helmet, Forrest also played the Stormtrooper who has a Jedi mind trick played on him when Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan Kenobi convinces him that "these aren't the droids you're looking for."

Some of the best stories involve a young, very serious George Lucas, so unassuming that an extra asked him to get coffee, and the director did. When an actor asked for guidance in playing an alien, Lucas' reply was a classic: "Play it like they do in the movies."

The range of personality types these folks display is first revealed in "Elstree's" opening sequence, when people comment on what it's like to have had action figures made of their characters.

"Immortalized in plastic, what greater fame can you have?," one man exults, while another insists, "It's not me personally, it's a George Lucas figure," and a third asks plaintively, "I've never seen it, do you know where I can buy one?"

Perhaps the best known of the 10 is Dave Prowse, the 6-foot-5-inch  former body builder (he left competition after being told he had ugly feet) who got inside the suit and played Darth Vader on set, speaking the lines that James Earl Jones' voice later made famous.

Prowse, as clips reveal, also had a key role literally doing heavy lifting in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" and ended up getting lasting fame instructing children how to safely cross the street as the Green Cross Man in British public service announcements.

No matter how tiny their time on-screen, all the "Star Wars" bit players have become participants in the world of fan conventions, signing memorabilia, posing for pictures and engaging in hierarchical squabbles about whether uncredited extras who spoke not a word have a right to call themselves cast members.

Though a bit perplexed by their fan celebrity, the "Star Wars" veterans finally understand. "They may be a little obsessed," one of them admits about the fans, "but aren't we all about something or other?"

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

Twitter: @KennethTuran

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"Elstree 1976."

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle NoHo, North Hollywood.

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