Carrie Fisher, the actress whose role as Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” trilogy inspired millions of fans worldwide, helped George Lucas’ space-fantasy epic redefine Hollywood blockbusters for a new generation of moviegoers.
While she had starred in multiple movies over a 40-year career, at her time of death in December 2016 at the age of 60, she was still known as the intergalactic battle star, Leia.
Carrie Frances Fisher was born Oct. 21, 1956, in Beverly Hills, California. Her parents were entertainment royalty: actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher. She made her motion picture debut in the 1975 comedy “Shampoo,” which starred Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and Goldie Hawn.
But it was in 1977, when Lucas cast her as Princess Leia in his interplanetary swashbuckler, that she shot to stardom alongside her “Star Wars” costars Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill. Fisher was still a teenager when she filmed the movie that would change her life, catapulting her from celebrity daughter to movie icon almost overnight. She was eager to star in the movie that many Hollywood insiders at the time considered a potential disaster. In an era when moviegoers were more accustomed to grittily realistic dramas than space-laser fairy tales, Fisher found George Lucas’ script “fantastic,” she told Short and Sweet NYC. “I thought I would like it, but I didn’t think I’d have that many people that would agree with me.”
As it turned out, nearly everybody agreed with Fisher that “Star Wars” was fantastic. The movie was an immediate phenomenon, breaking box office records and making Fisher and her young costars household names. With the 1980 release of “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Star Wars” became a franchise, and Fisher would ultimately appear in five of the eight-and-counting episodes in the series (including next year’s forthcoming installment, already filmed).
Leia Organa was arguably the first of a new breed of cinematic heroine, a tough-talking rebel leader who didn’t hesitate to pick up a particle beam blaster or hop into the pilot’s seat of a speeder bike to fight the evil hordes of the galactic Empire right alongside her male counterparts. From her very first sequence, attempting to blast her way to freedom from Darth Vader’s Imperial attack, Leia fascinated viewers with her strength. Her next key scene in the movie would cement her status in pop culture; appearing as a hologram clad in a demure white robe and with her hair arranged in the cinnamon-roll buns that would become her trademark, Leia earnestly called her allies to join her in the Rebellion with an unforgettable quote: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”
Fisher’s character would continue to fascinate as she developed throughout the series. While she told the Guardian of the first film, “A lot of it was just running down corridors,” that running showed us an active heroine who wasn’t afraid to find her own way out of a dangerous situation. In one of those corridors, as she was being rescued by Luke and Han, it was Leia who had to blast her way through a blockade of stormtroopers, casually remarking, “Somebody has to save our skins,” as she grabbed Han’s gun and leveled it at the enemy.
And though Leia was more typically dressed in sensible trousers or robes, an iconic scene from “Return of the Jedi” sexualized her in a metallic bikini and chains that made her the object of countless fantasies. Yet Fisher was quick to remind us that the metal-bikini episode ended when Leia used her chains to strangle and kill Jabba the Hutt, who had enslaved her. “A giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit,” she told the Wall Street Journal, “and then I killed him because I didn’t like it.” Lesson: Here was a woman who remained levelheaded and resourceful, even in the most compromising of situations.
Fisher returned to portray an older and wiser Leia, promoted to the rank of general, in 2015’s “The Force Awakens.” Though her role in the film is small, she remains a powerful leader, one whose years of fighting have made her a role model to the younger rebels. And after years of speaking frankly in the real world, Fisher delighted and inspired many when she responded to criticisms of her appearance, nearly 40 years after the first “Star Wars” film made her a 20-year-old sex symbol. “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well,” she tweeted. “Unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings. My body hasn’t aged as well as I have.”
For Fisher’s – and Leia’s – fans, the question of how gracefully she aged wasn’t the issue. They were more interested in the way she inspired decades of strong adventure heroines. As the film website BirthMoviesDeath.com noted in 2015 in an essay about Fisher’s portrayal of Leia: “(H)er legacy continues to be felt in blockbuster genre films and television series from ‘The Hunger Games’ to ‘Xena’ and several shades of badass women in between.”
Though she’s remembered best for “Star Wars,” Fisher had other notable movie roles over the years: a murderous ex-fiancée in “The Blues Brothers” (1980), an actress and caterer in “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), the main characters best friend in “When Harry Met Sally…” (1989).
An author as well as an actress, Fisher is known for her semiautobiographical novels including “Postcards From the Edge”; she also wrote the screenplay for the movie by the same name. She followed “Postcards” with a number of other novels, including “Surrender the Pink” and “Delusions of Grandma.”
Fisher referenced “Postcards” when wryly commenting on the legacy she left. “I am Princess Leia, no matter what,” she told US Weekly. “If I were trying to get a good table, I wouldn’t say I wrote “Postcards.” Or, if I’m trying to get someone to take my check and I don’t have ID, I wouldn’t say, ‘Have you seen “Harry Met Sally?”‘ Princess Leia will be on my tombstone.”
Yet in her later years, it was writing to which Fisher turned with much greater frequency than acting. She was a sought-after script doctor, tweaking and improving screenplays for movies such as “”The Wedding Singer,” “Sister Act,” and “Hook.” She also wrote nonfiction books including “Wishful Drinking,” which was based on her autobiographical, one-woman play about her struggles with alcohol.
It was Fisher’s candid writing about her bipolar disorder and her addictions – to cocaine and prescription medication as well as alcohol – that made her, to many fans, most relatable and beloved. She identified as a survivor, and her willingness to discuss her illnesses helped destigmatize them. In 2016, just months before her death, Harvard College honored Fisher with their Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, noting, “Ms. Fisher’s work humanizes a popular culture obsessed with celebrity, and helps readers laugh at the absurdity of contemporary society and relationships. Her forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.”
Fisher’s no-holds-barred honesty extended to discussions of her family, as well. It was no secret that that family was a splintered one: Her father famously left her mother after carrying on an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, marrying Taylor just hours after the divorce was finalized. He would go on to a number of other high-profile dalliances, while Reynolds remarried a man who gambled away all her money.
Fisher maintained relationships with both of her parents over the years, though she didn’t pull any punches when she talked about her father. After reading his autobiography, she commented in the Daily Mail, “I wanted to get my DNA fumigated.” Later in life, she softened toward her father, still acknowledging his failings as a parent but also expressing her love for him. In her 2011 book “Shockaholic,” she wrote, “I loved my father. The man was beyond fun to hang out with, appreciative, playful and eccentrically sweet. But this was also a man who – though he genuinely meant to give bona fide diamonds of only the finest colour, cut, and clarity – ultimately was only able to offer cubic zirconium.”
Fisher was involved in high-profile relationships of her own. Longest lasting was her relationship with musician Paul Simon, to whom she was married briefly in 1983 and 1984 but dated for years before – and after – the marriage. During a break from Simon in 1980, she was engaged to comedian Dan Aykroyd, though she broke it off before the wedding. It was with talent agent Bryan Lourd that Fisher had her one child, Billie Catherine Lourd, an actress who currently stars in TV’s “Scream Queens.”
In Wishful Drinking—a one-woman show Fisher later adapted into a book—Fisher dug into her complicated relationship with the Star Wars franchise, which both made her a household name and, she jokingly wrote, “ruined” her life. One of her most amusing anecdotes about shooting the first film involves Princess Leia’s signature white outfit and a special bit of world-building by Star Wars czar George Lucas:
George comes up to me the first day of filming and he takes one look at the dress and says, “You can’t wear a bra under that dress.”
So, I say, “Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”
And he says, “Because. . . there’s no underwear in space.”
Right! Of course! There are, however, gold bikinis in space; everyone knows that.
According to Fisher, Lucas did eventually explain why galaxies far, far away are underwear-free zones—which led her to a great gag about how she’d eventually like to go:
“What happens is you go to space and you become weightless. So far so good, right? But then your body expands??? But your bra doesn’t—so you get strangled by your own bra.
Now I think that this would make for a fantastic obit—so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”
As you wish, your Worshipfulness
- Adapted from tributes by Legacy.com and Vanity Fair