Before Yoda was a Muppet, the makers of Empire Strikes Back considered casting a monkey as the movie's spiritual center. Plus the lost Wampa raid on the rebel base, and the original portrayer of Palpatine finally revealed after thirty years!
J.W. Rinzler is the author of The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, an almost 400 page book full of all-new photographs and drawings detailing the making of the movie thirty years ago. The book is released this Tuesday, and Rinzler came to New York Comic Con to provide a little preview of the often wonderfully ridiculous stories behind the making of the movie.
The most awesome revelation has to be the secret origin of Yoda. When George Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan decided to make the ancient Jedi at the heart of Luke's spiritual journey into a two-foot tall, pointy-eared alien, it wasn't clear how the character could actually be realized on screen using 1980 technology. At the time, animatronic technology wasn't thought to be advanced enough to pull off Yoda.
So, in a solution that would make Karl Pilkington proud, they decided to try putting a trained monkey in a Yoda costume, including a full Yoda face mask. Rinzler showed a picture of the monkey on set, but he explained this idea was quickly abandoned when one of the people who worked on the primate scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey pointed out "Look, the monkey's just going to pull off the mask over and over again. It's never going to work."
You would have thought one wouldn't need first-hand experience to know that, but the creative team decided to junk the idea and enlist Muppet mastermind Jim Henson to create the world's first animatronic muppet. To show the extent of the character's Muppet origins, Rinzler showed a photo of Yoda hanging out with Kermit and Miss Piggy in the swamps of Dagobah.
Some technical limitations couldn't be overcome. The Wampa, the fearsome Yeti-like beast of the planet Hoth, was only glimpsed in a couple of scenes in the original Empire Strikes Back. The monster was originally meant to be an entire monster costume - which was later realized in the special edition - but the costume looked really fake and, worse, caused anyone wearing it to buckle and fall over after taking a couple steps. That's why only the monster's hand and head are seen in the original version.
Although the lack of an entire Wampa didn't change its scenes with Luke too much, it did lead to a second, bigger appearance by an entire band of Wampas to be cut from the film. In the original conception, the Wampas were going to lead a raid on the rebel base, shaking the Millennium Falcon half to pieces in the process. The Wampa raid was the original reason for why the Millennium Falcon is malfunctioning for so much of the movie, but when this got cut the creative team realized it was better for the Falcon to not be working simply because it's an old, broken down ship.
Rinzler has also solved one of the prevailing little mysteries about The Empire Strikes Back - who was the first person to play the Emperor? Ian McDiarmid played the role from Return of the Jedi onwards, but there wasn't an extensive casting process for the Emperor's brief, holographic appearance. Clive Revill ultimately voiced the character, but all that was known about the person behind the mask was that she was an unidentified woman in heavy prosthetic makeup.
Now we finally know who played the character - it was Elaine Baker, the then-wife of long-term Star Wars makeup designer Rick Baker. Considering Rick Baker put the gorilla suit on for the 1976 King Kong remake, this means Emperor Palpatine was once married to King Kong. I'd say the world is definitely a better place for us knowing that.
For even more awesome secrets and untold stories from The Empire Strikes Back, check out Rinzler's book, which comes out this Tuesday.