Star Wars Celebrates 40-Year Anniversary to kick off convention weekend

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Apr 13, 2017, 2:30 PM EDT

The first panel of Star Wars Celebration 2017 brought tired fans together for a wake-up call at the early-morning Star Wars 40th Anniversary Panel. Fans were far from the only ones in attendance, though, as Lucasfilm brought a panel of guests from every era of Star Wars to help kick off the celebration.

After the customary warm-up featuring some Star Wars-themed comedy and T-shirt giveaways, the first panel of the show started in earnest. Warwick Davis, who has appeared in all three trilogies, hosted the panel, welcoming fans to "the center of the Star Wars galaxy for the next four days."

A video celebrating 40 years of Star Wars ran, starting with images of the original film being shot and the first fans waiting in line to see the films. Fans reacted particularly loudly when Carrie Fisher came on screen, talking about the generations of fandom that Star Wars has brought together.

After the video, Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, took the stage. She thanked the fans for their support and called this whole community the Star Wars family ... and introduced the progenitor of that family, George Lucas. The crowd's reaction was staggering, with every single fan on their feet, chanting his name.

The creator's first thought about Star Wars was an idea to make an action Saturday matinee that also had big "psychological motifs." After American Graffiti, 20th Century Fox saw the film and loved it and hired Lucas for his next movie on the spot -- even though it was something completely different. "The idea was simply to do high adventure film, which is what I loved as a kid, with a meaningful psychological theme. It was a cockamamie idea!"

Lucas reiterated that Star Wars is "a film for 12 year-olds," despite not wanting to say it to this crowd. "The real thrill was when I saw the fans, when we were shooting Padme's palace in Spain, there were thousands of fans, and so many little kids, reaching through the fence, all they wanted to do was touch my hand. This is what I did it for. In the real world, certain critics and fans may not be very nice, but when you see the kids, nothing else matters."

Dave Filoni, supervising producer of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, came out on stage next, and George Lucas affectionately put his hand on Filoni's shoulder, saying, "This is one of my kids."

Filoni said his biggest lesson learned from George was to "never be afraid to try something." That was part of Lucas' philosophy, and what he put ILM through, then Filoni and Lucasfilm animation. "I'd come in and tell them, we're going to do this. We'll figure it out," Lucas said, and they'd look at him with exasperation -- but then they'd make it happen.

A pre-taped message from Liam Neeson joking that he was making a movie about Jar Jar Binks going to the Dark Side aired, getting lots of laughs. Then the prequel love continued, with Ian McDiarmid and Hayden Christensen taking the stage to massive applause. According to a decibel tracking app, they hit around 112 decibels, equivalent to a stadium rock concert. Not bad, young Anakin.

The pair of actors praised working with each other, and George praised them both, specifically saying McDiarmid is "the nicest man alive -- nothing like the Emperor." That moved into Christensen talking about training for lightsaber battles. His biggest challenge? Not making the lightsaber sounds out loud while fighting. "George came over to me and said, 'I can see your mouth moving. You don't have to do that -- we add the sound effects afterwards!'" he said with, and to, several laughs.

The Prequels fight scenes, McDiarmid revealed, were all shot in full, multiple times. When the pair left the stage, they received a second standing ovation.

A second pre-recorded message, this one from Samuel L. Jackson, thanked fans and George Lucas for being part of the Star Wars family. "I know you're in my corner here: Jedi can fall from very big heights. Mace Windu is alive, and I'm waiting to return. Just give me a call!"

Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) took the stage next. Lucas praised Anthony Daniels for the way he was able to bring a completely neutral-looking and still character so much personality. Mayhew played Chewbacca as "a mimed character" for the most part, trying to act with his movements as much as possible. Emotionally remembering his friend Carrie Fisher, he said she was "a hell of a Rebel, and a beautiful Princess."

The inspiration for Chewbacca was George's dog, Indiana, who rode with him in the front seat, giving him the idea of a "dog as a co-pilot."

As a big fan of THX 1138 and George Lucas, Williams described being a part of Star Wars as "going straight to heaven."

Mark Hamill came out to possibly the largest pop yet, and said he's "always just stunned at the passion that has lasted all these years."

Lucas revealed they spent a full year trying to cast Luke Skywalker. They had "maybe two or three of each" of the three main characters of Luke, Leia and Han, and tested them all together "until we found the combination of the three that came off the most as old friends," as the final round. After some clever anecdotes, the largest explosion of applause yet came when Harrison Ford was brought out. Davis joked, "I don't know how we kept it a secret when you landed your plane on I-4," making Ford explode with laughter.

Ford was installing a door for Francis Ford Coppola, and while he was finishing, "in walked George with Richard Dreyfuss. It was a surprise, and he was having, I thought, an interview for a new science fiction film." After they chatted, he wound up getting a reading. "He got the part because in the end, I asked him, 'You know how to fly?'" Lucas said. "I said, 'Fly, yeah. Land?'" Ford instantly deadpanned.

Ford said they were able to have the relationships and fun and success they had because of George's story.

The panelists were all thanked, with George getting a final thank you for his work as Kathleen Kennedy joined him on stage a final time.

George Lucas spoke from the heart about Carrie Fisher. "I've said many times now that she really is a modern woman. She was a princess, she was a senator, she played a part that was very smart, and held her own against two big lugs, these goofballs screwing everything up. She was the boss, it was her war. When Carrie came in, she was that character, very strong, very smart, very funny, very bold, very tough. There are not very many people like her. They're one in a billion. She could hold her own against anything. She wore a dress through the whole thing, but she was the toughest one of the group. It was a hard part to play, and she pulled it off brilliantly. She was brilliant and we'll all miss her. She'll always be the princess who took command and never backed down, never was in jeopardy, she was always helping the other guys get out of the messes they created. We'll all love her forever and ever."

Kennedy said, "There was no greater honor than working with the late, truly great Carrie Fisher. Her humor, her insight, her brilliance; when you think of Princess Leia, you realize that was Carrie. She will be remembered forever, even by those not yet old enough to say the words, 'May the Force be With You.'"

Carrie's daughter Billie Lourde was next out, in a dress reminiscent in a way of Leia. She said her mother even said she "didn't know where Leia ended and Carrie began." "She loved you, because you accepted and embraced all of her. She knew it wasn't about the fight you were fighting, but how you fought it, how you resisted," Lourde said. "In our world, Star Wars eventually became our religion, our family, our way of life. When she was surrounded by her fans at Celebrations like this, if she had her way she would've been the last person to leave the convention center, having had a shared Leia moment with every person in the arena."

Lourde said that her mother taught her things every daughter should learn from their mother and delivered the entire "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi" monologue. "Secondly, she taught me that if life isn't funny, then it's just true, and that's unacceptable." Finally, she said, "The most evolved person in the room is a contradiction, they're both the strongest and most vulnerable. That is her, and that is Leia."

The panel ended with a touching tribute to Carrie Fisher that didn't leave a dry eye in the house. After the tribute video, John Williams and a fully orchestra appeared from behind a corner curtain and began with Leia's theme. They then played the Main Title, a bit of the Imperial March and the End Credits theme as a medley.

Onward with Star Wars Celebration 2017!