Before Star Wars started filming in 1976, director George Lucas auditioned dozens of actors for the first episode of his space saga, since rechristened as A New Hope. Over the years we’ve learned that Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Kurt Russell all read for the part of Han Solo before the role went to Harrison Ford. But there was a lesser-known candidate who almost scored the gig: Glynn Turman.
Turman, 70, started his career on Broadway, when he was cast as a 13-year-old in the original production of A Raisin in the Sun alongside legends Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. Steadily picking up more and more screen roles through the ’70s, Turman finally got his chance to shine in 1975 as the lead of Cooley High. In the slice-of-life feature, Turman played a proxy of sorts for screenwriter and Good Times creator Eric Monte — a gifted young writer who aspires to a life beyond his housing project. Cooley High showcased Turman’s ability to play a scoundrel capable of great achievements. It’s no big surprise that performance captured the attention of Lucas.
“Cooley High had just come out, so I had a lot of attention in ’75, ’76,” Turman told Yahoo Entertainment. “I was kind of on a roll. I remember going up to see Lucas for a picture they were going to do called Star Wars. At that time it was an audition. I went in and auditioned.
“I forgot all about it, and then I went right into J.D.’s Revenge and two or three films right after that,” Turman continued. “Of course, the film would come out and it was a gigantic hit. But I almost don’t even remember that I had gone in for it. I didn’t see up there on the screen what part I was [auditioning] for. So to me, I said, ‘Oh, they cut the part of the black guy out.’ I had no idea that it was for the part of Han Solo.”
Turman wouldn’t know how close he came to the iconic part until years later when Dale Pollock’s Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas was published. A friend called Turman and shared the news that Lucas came close to casting him.
“I said, ‘Get out of here! What are you talking about?'”
Indeed, Skywalking names Turman as a leading candidate for the role of Han Solo before Ford was finally cast. Turman read the passage for us:
Lucas was aware that if he developed the love interest between Han and Leia, an interracial romance could cause problems. “I didn’t want to make Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at that point, so I sort of backed off,” [Lucas] acknowledges.
“I read this and I said, ‘Wait a minute. Let’s call up Harrison Ford because I want the rest of the parts that he’s gotten!'” Turman said with a smile. “He owes his entire career to me!”
Lucas liked Turman so much, the actor was indeed considered for another famous part. “Later, I was approached for the role, in that same franchise, that [was given to] Billy Dee Williams,” Turman recalled. “Handsome, swashbuckling, dashing Billy Dee. I hate him! Not true. Dear friend and a talented man. Lando Calrissian! That wouldn’t have fit me anyway. But it fits a Billy Dee Williams.”
Asked if Star Wars had missed an opportunity by not showcasing a more diverse cast, Turman responded, “I think that any time you don’t use all of the tools at your disposal, your story is stilted. … It’s one-sided.
“We’ve got Chewbacca, we’ve got [R2-D2]. … You see the bar, everything in the world in [the Mos Eisley Cantina] you couldn’t imagine, and then all of the sudden there are no black people? … So yes, to answer your question, I think there was an opportunity missed because I’m sure, just box-office-wise, if more ethnicities had been included in the original, if you can imagine, it would have taken in even more money. It would have been more loved than it already is as a franchise. But better late than never.”
Still, Turman has taken pleasure in the increasing diversity of the Star Wars universe and more prominent black characters that would follow Williams’s Lando. Turman pointed to Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu in the prequels and John Boyega’s Finn in the current trilogy. “John Boyega is playing a major role, so to Lucas’s credit and to the credit of the franchise, it was an idea that was probably ahead of its time at that time, but not forgotten. My hat’s off to the franchise for sticking to its idea.”
And don’t feel sorry for Turman. While he didn’t appear in any Star Wars film, he has been acting steadily ever since. You’ve probably spotted him in one of your favorite television shows (including The Wire, A Different World, and House of Lies) and films (such as Gremlins and Super 8).
Beyond his work as an actor, writer, and director, Turman is also a rodeo champion. A native of Harlem, Turman would skip school and head to the stables of Central Park. That experience with horses would help when he took on roles in westerns like Centennial.
“I got to know a lot of stuntmen in the business,” Turman recalled. “And a lot of those guys were cowboys. So I got to hang out with those guys a lot. One thing led to another and the next thing I know, I’m throwing the rope in the rodeos, on my way to Oklahoma City for the national finals — where I did pretty doggone good.”
After attending a conference on race relations with Coretta Scott King in Atlanta, Turman decided to volunteer his ranch and horses as a summer camp for inner-city kids. “It’s been over 25 years now, of bringing kids to the ranch,” Turman said of “Camp Gid D Up.” [Some of the kids] have gone on to college on rodeo scholarships. These are kids out of Watts and Compton.”
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