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Little aliens in Death Valley? Yes, the proof’s in the original ‘Star Wars’

You can’t see “Rogue One” just yet, so here’s another “Star Wars” story for you:

A long time ago in a desert outpost not so far from Las Vegas, seven lucky kids got to skip class to appear, ever so briefly, in one of the highest-grossing films of all time.

Remember the Jawas, those little scavengers in the brown hooded robes who make off with R2-D2 near the beginning of the original “Star Wars” movie? Some of them are played by students recruited from a one-room schoolhouse in Death Valley in early 1977.

Back then, George Lucas was known as the guy who had made “American Graffiti.” Nobody knew what “Star Wars” was yet.

“I think we mostly liked getting a day off from school,” recalls Joe Weber, who was 6 years old when he was picked to play a Jawa.

The children were chosen based on their height. They needed to fit into the costumes and match footage previously shot in Tunisia using dwarfs to play Jawas.

Andrea Miller is a married mother of three who owns a gym with her husband in San Francisco. But in 1977, she was Andrea Wickman, a 7-year-old second-grader at Death Valley Elementary. The K-6 school in Cow Creek, about 130 miles northwest of Las Vegas, mostly serves the sons and daughters of National Park Service employees, members of the Timbisha Shoshone Indian tribe and workers at the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort.

Miller remembers the day the film crew showed up at her school to measure all the kids.

“I was small for my age,” she said. “I just won the lottery and was the right height.”


Weber recalls being fitted for his costume, a robe of thick cloth — maybe burlap — with a metal bandoleer slung across one shoulder. He wore his school clothes underneath it, his sneakers wrapped in fabric.

Their scene was shot in the desert off Artist’s Drive, about 15 miles south of the school, where the kids had to lug R2-D2 up a rocky slope over and over.

“He was hard to pick up. It was like trying to carry a 55-gallon drum. It was heavy and smooth and there was nothing to hold onto,” said Weber, who was in the first grade at the time. “We just kind of walked until they told us to stop.”

They had to do it several times so the scene could be filmed from different angles.

“My biggest memory is how heavy the outfit was,” Miller said. “It was really heavy and really hard to walk in.”

During one take, Weber said, he and his fellow Jawas stopped dead in their tracks after R2-D2’s head fell off. “They were shouting at us to keep going until they realized what had happened,” he said.

Weber remembers the shoot lasting into the late afternoon. Once it was over, each of the kids was handed a check for $25.

“I’m so bummed I cashed it,” Miller said. It was the only written proof she had of her big-screen debut.

The schoolchildren don’t speak or show their faces in the movie, and none of them are named in the credits.

Miller thinks she’s the Jawa positioned at R2-D2’s right foot, but there’s no way to be sure. The only one they all seem to recognize is a boy named Johnny, who Miller said was picked to played the Jawa with glowing red eyes because he was the only one brave enough to wear the creepy, battery-powered lights over his cloth-covered face.


Within six months of the shoot, “Star Wars” was a worldwide sensation. A Polaroid photo from that year shows Miller and Weber dressed as Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker for Halloween.

Weber said he and his older brother saw the movie right after it came out at the old Parkway theater in Las Vegas during one of the family’s periodic trips to the city to stock up on groceries and other supplies. He’s been a “Star Wars” fan ever since.

“It just blew us away. We’d never seen anything like it,” he said.

Miller said she ended up marrying a “Star Wars” fanatic, but that’s probably just a coincidence.

Now she gets to enjoy the science-fiction franchise with her kids, and they get to tell all their friends that their mom once played a Jawa.

“We’ve already bought our tickets for ‘Rogue One,’” she said.

Weber is also excited for the next installment in the series, though he plans to wait until the crowds die down a bit. “I won’t be standing in line overnight or anything,” he said.

For the past 15 years, Weber has worked as a professor in the geography department at the University of Alabama.

In 2011, he returned to Death Valley for its annual history conference to give a presentation on the production of “Star Wars” and his small part in it. His report, later published as part of a collection from that year’s conference, documents all the places where filming took place, including Artist’s Drive, Dante’s View, Mesquite Flat sand dunes and Desolation Canyon.

Of all the footage shot in Death Valley, only a minute or two ended up in the movie, spliced together with other desert scenes filmed elsewhere, Weber said. He and his classmates appear on screen for no more than a few seconds.

Death Valley also makes a brief appearance at the beginning of 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” the third movie in the series. The scene where R2-D2 and C-3PO make their way to Jabba the Hutt’s palace was shot in Twenty Mule Team Canyon by a skeleton crew from Lucasfilm in 1982. No local extras were used. Most valley residents didn’t even know the filming had taken place until they saw “Jedi” in theaters, Weber said.


In Death Valley, the 1977 “Star Wars” shoot is probably best-remembered for the elephant.

To play the part of a Bantha, the preferred pack animal of the sand people in Luke Skywalker’s home world, the filmmakers brought in Mardji, a trained Asian elephant from a wildlife park near San Francisco.

Miller’s stepmother, Judy Wickman, recalls seeing Mardji standing in front of the Furnace Creek Ranch dressed in her woolly costume and headpiece with the curled horns.

Wickman drove a school bus and taught kindergarten at Death Valley Elementary in 1977. She said she served as chaperone when her stepdaughter and the other kids were fitted for their Jawa costumes inside a motel room at the ranch.

“To me they looked a little cheesy,” Wickman said of the costumes. “I thought maybe there wasn’t much of a budget.”

Apparently she and other grown-ups in Death Valley didn’t hold out much hope for the bizarre space opera.

“At the time we were saying, ‘This will never make it to the theaters,’” she said with a laugh. “It seemed kind of silly.”

Of course, people changed their minds quickly when they saw the finished movie later that year.

“We just sat there with our mouths open,” Wickman said.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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