Alden Ehrenreich may indeed have big boots to fill in ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story,’ but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before.
This will be a strange weekend for many Star Wars fans. For more than 40 years, the franchise has been synonymous with Harrison Ford, the carpenter-turned-heartthrob who is responsible for more iconic film characters than any other actor in his era. And now, for the first time in a generation, fans will watch as someone else dons the feathered hair and leather jacket that helped make Ford famous. Rumors have circulated around Alden Ehrenreich‘s performance in Solo: A Star Wars Story ever since he accepted the role; good or bad, fans will need to wrap their heads around a Han Solo played by someone other than Ford.
It’s a nice narrative. It’s also not the whole story. For some Star Wars fans, there has always been another actor synonymous with Han Solo, one who has produced a steady, albeit anonymous, career in Hollywood outside of his iconic role. Maybe there has only ever been one Han Solo on screen, but throw voice acting into the mix, and another actor can trace his roots to Han Solo all the way back to the birth of the character in the late 1970s.
Most dedicated Star Wars fans can tell you that Al Pacino and Kurt Russell were once in the mix for the role of Han Solo, and while few will complain about how the casting shook out, there was another audition that foretold an interesting chapter in the Star Wars series. Perry King, perhaps best known as the lead in the NBC detective series Riptide, was then an up-and-coming television actor who had parlayed a Yale education and a starring role opposite Shirley MacLaine into a career in Hollywood. Lucas would choose to go in a different direction with the movie role, of course, but King would get a chance to play the role of Han Solo just a few years later in the Star Wars Radio Drama, a dramatic retelling of the events of Star Wars produced and distributed by NPR.
I’ve written elsewhere at length about the Star Wars Radio Drama before, but it bears repeating: there is no version of Star Wars that can match the Radio Drama for the sheer exuberance of its storytelling. With both Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels reprising their roles from the original movie, and a sound mix that includes all of the effects from the film (Lucas reportedly optioned the rights to NPR for a single dollar) the Star Wars Radio Drama is the pinnacle of the medium, the last great serialized radio drama for a dying industry. Listen to just a few minutes of the first episode and it’s clear that Hamill was destined for great things as a voice actor. Listen for a few minutes more and you might even get used to hearing Brock Peters, not James Earl Jones, in the role of Darth Vader.
And then there’s King. Listening to King as Han Solo is an odd experience. Like Ford before him, King’s performance is anchored in the absolute confidence — one might even say the smugness — of Han Solo as the character. Much of King’s dialogue comes from the other side of a sneer; with more airtime given to the characters and their interactions with each other, the initial hostility between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo is given more room to breath, especially once Leia Organa enters into the picture. What makes King different, however, is how much emotion he brings to the character. Ford’s gift as an actor is to make any piece of dialogue seem effortless; when we hear the emotions behind Han Solo as a character, it creates an uncanny valley effect of what Solo can be.
Of course, King was well aware of the big boots he was stepping into. “I was aware I’d be compared and most people would find me coming up short,” King told Yahoo! in 2016, “but the only decision you can make when you have a situation like that is I’m going to do it my way, and if you don’t like it, that’s that. You can’t let yourself be intimidated. I’m not Harrison Ford, I’m going to do my version of it.” And once you get over the differences in delivery between the two actors, there’s something poignant about how King adapts Solo for a new medium. Ford’s solo works best in a visual medium; radio requires a slight exaggeration of the performance, and King manages to find the core elements of Solo — his roguishness, bravery, and intense likability — while bringing a wider range of emotions to the table.
For some actors, the prospect of being passed on for a major Hollywood franchise only to be cast as the same character in a radio adaptation might seem like a slap in the face. For King, though, the process of playing Solo as a voice actor was an incredible experience. “I think it’s more fun, frankly, to be Han Solo on radio than it is in person,” King told NPR. “I’ve done probably — a little bit, at least — of every kind of acting in the world, and the most enjoyable acting I’ve ever done is radio acting.” In interviews, King likens the experience of radio acting as echoing the “sheer joy” of acting as a kid, where the logistics of blocking and special effects and cinematography give way to the unbridled enthusiasm of just performing.
In the years that followed, NPR would produce two more adaptations of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and King would reprise his role as Han Solo in each of them. All told, that gives King more than 14 hours in the role of Han Solo, easily eclipsing the involvement of Ford. King may remain something of a footnote in the Star Wars universe, but his own unique take on the character of Han Solo proves the character does not belong to just one actor. Harrison Ford may be in a league all his own. Han Solo doesn’t have to be.