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Mahoning Valley community boasts connection to "Star Wars" film series

By Jordyn Grzelewski

Sunday, December 13, 2015



“Star Wars” fans eagerly await Thursday for the latest chapter in the science-fiction saga.

But few Mahoning Valley fans realize that More than 40 years ago, a Kinsman home is where the force awoke for the series’ first sequel.

Leigh Brackett, a prolific science-fiction author and screenwriter, wrote the first draft of 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” from the house where she spent her summers in that town until her death in 1978.

Brackett is best-known for her screenplays for iconic films such as “The Big Sleep,” the 1945 detective movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; “Rio Bravo,” a 1959 Western starring John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson; “The Long Goodbye,” released in 1973 and starring Elliott Gould; and “The Empire Strikes Back,” considered by most “Star Wars” buffs to be the best of the franchise’s six movies.


On Thursday, less than two weeks after what would have been Brackett’s 100th birthday, the newest “Star Wars” film will hit theaters. “The Force Awakens” is the seventh installment in the saga, and the first to be released in more than a decade. The film picks up 30 years after Han Solo defeated the Galactic Empire in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.”

Brackett penned her version of the second film – which opens with, “A sweeping dramatic shot of Luke Skywalker, mounted on a white snow-lizard, racing across a white snowy landscape,” according to an unverified copy of her draft posted on numerous websites – from the farmhouse in Kinsman.

Kinsman is a town of 2,000 on the northernmost edge of Trumbull County that is skirted by sprawling farmland and, at its center, populated with quaint, historic properties.

Brackett lived there with her husband, fellow sci-fi writer Edmond Hamilton. A Youngstown native, Edmond Hamilton was a writer of Batman and Superman comic books, as well as sci-fi short stories. He was the brother of well-known Vindicator columnist Esther Hamilton.

Brackett and Hamilton spent more than 20 summers at the farmhouse – which was situated across the street from a home shared by Hamilton’s sisters – after they purchased it in the early 1950s.

“In 1946, Edmond Hamilton and I decided to pool our talents, and got married. Somehow or another, though both of us planned to live on the Coast, we wound up in a century-and-a-quarter old farmhouse in a small Ohio town, where the deer and the woodchucks quite literally play, and we like it,” Brackett is quoted as saying, according to Vindicator files.

“I work in a small, white, wooden room under the eaves of our 125-year-old farmhouse,” she said. “One wall is lined solidly with our collection of old boy’s books – Henty, Ballantyne, Altsheler, Mayne Reid. I use a standard typewriter, and customarily sit down to it first thing in the morning. Before noon and after dinner are the best times to work, though if the job demands it, any time is good.”

Today that house is inhabited by Emily Webster Love, secretary of the Kinsman Historical Society and a former Vindicator reporter. She first set foot there in the 1970s when she arrived to interview Brackett for a story.

“I asked her what she was working on and she said, ‘A sequel to Star Wars,’” Love said. “I didn’t care much for Star Wars at the time.”

Love did not know how impressive Brackett’s credentials were as a writer of screenplays and fiction when she went to Kinsman for the interview, she said.

She realized the momentousness of the interview, however, when she noticed a mug with an inscribed message addressed to Leigh, “from Duke.” Love was even more surprised to learn that “Duke” – film legend John Wayne – had delivered the gift during a visit to the Kinsman house.

After her interview, Love began a correspondence with Brackett that lasted until Brackett’s death.

“After my story came out in The Vindicator, she sent me one of her books with a nice note,” recalled Love. “Then I started to collect her work. She wrote ‘The Long Tomorrow,’ which critics say is her best. It’s about [the Kinsman house], and she wrote it in this house. It’s about a post-nuclear America, which had no big cities anymore. Things had gone back to like an Amish type of living. It opens with a young boy who went to the Canfield Fair and knew he was in for a licking for it.”


Brackett dedicated herself to a writing career at age 13 and first was published in her 20s.

Her first big break into the movie industry, so the story goes, came after director Howard Hawks read her 1944 crime novel “No Good From a Corpse” and commissioned who he at first believed to be “Mr.” Brackett to write the screenplay for “The Big Sleep” with William Faulkner.

She went on to write several other screenplays for iconic films, but the majority of her work concentrated on sci-fi stories and novels.

Hamilton, too, distinguished himself in sci-fi writing, publishing hundreds of short stories and novels that earned him a place in the hearts of lovers of that genre.

The couple also was known to encourage younger writers, mostly notably counting author and science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury as their protege.

“Locally, they were a little-known couple that nobody paid any attention to, but they were known internationally,” Love said. “They only stayed here in the summer. Leigh would come to town and buy a convertible and drive it all summer.”

The memory of the couple’s high-end cars is etched into the mind of Don Sutton, a local man who paid much attention to Brackett and Hamilton when he lived down the road from them as a child.

Today, Sutton owns Market Square, an old-fashioned general store in the center of town that proudly features a display dedicated to the writers.

His first memory of “Ed and Leigh,” as he fondly calls them, was when, as a 7-year-old, he saw their brand-new 1963 Corvette Stingray parked outside his family’s pharmacy.

“My mother told me, ‘Superman bought that Corvette,’” he said. It was the first time he put together that Hamilton was the writer behind some of his favorite comic-book heroes.

Sutton seems to have revered the pair as a child; he would drop by their house to chat or request autographs.

“The first time I asked to get some books autographed, they politely explained they were tied to their typewriters,” he said. “But they would always call back.”


Although they spent only part of the year in town, Kinsman seemed to have a special place in their hearts, Sutton said. “When they came back in the spring, they’d always say, ‘It’s good to be home.’”

A few aspects of their lifestyle set them apart from others, he said, such as the days they’d spend holed up at home, writing under deadline (“Oh, you wouldn’t want to see that!” Brackett once told Sutton, throwing up her hands, when he asked what happened if she and Hamilton both had a deadline to meet), and the fancy sports cars they drove. But he recalls them as strikingly ordinary in other ways.

After Brackett sold the rights to “Hatari!” – a 1962 action/adventure movie starring John Wayne – the couple decided to embark on a 90-day round-the-world cruise, Sutton said.

But first, they had to stop back home.

“They had to come back to Kinsman to dig the turnips up,” he said.

Growing up with high-profile Hollywood writers in his midst seems to have left an impression on Sutton. A display in his shop is crammed with a collection of Brackett’s books, “Star Wars” posters, Yoda gift bags, Batman memorabilia and other relics of the writers’ personal and professional lives.

Over the years, Kinsman has drawn visitors interested to see where the famous couple lived. One day, a visitor stopped into his shop to ask about the house on Orangeville Kinsman Road where Brackett and Hamilton made their home.

“That was when it dawned on me what a charmed childhood I had to know these people,” he said.

Brackett left an impression on Love as well. The two kept in touch until Brackett died March 17, 1978.

“When I met her, she was working on the first draft of ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ but she got so sick ...” Love said. “The cancer hit her.”

Brackett finished the draft a month before she died. George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan are credited with finalizing the script.


The final product released to viewers May 21, 1980, bore a strong resemblance to what Brackett imagined, but with some notable changes.

The nature of those differences was a source of speculation for decades because Brackett’s draft – titled “Star Wars Sequel” – was never made public until, in 2010, a fan website got hold of Brackett’s draft, which one blogger called the “holy grail.”

“The original Leigh Brackett draft of “Empire” is a bit of a marvel in and of itself. ... It is really drastically different than what appeared in the final film,” wrote Mike Ryan, formerly senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post, in a 2013 blog post.

Some features of Brackett’s screenplay are:

Luke’s twin sister was named Nellith instead of Leia.

It more prominently features a subplot about The Wampas, who battle the Rebel Alliance.

Darth Vader was not Luke’s father.

Yoda was named Minch.

Despite drastic changes by Lucas and Kasdan, some who analyzed the original draft say that Brackett got to the heart of the story. “Through the years, space opera writer Leigh Brackett’s contributions to ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ have been a bit downplayed and overshadowed by Kasdan’s much bigger star. But Brackett ... was vital to the creative process of Empire, especially in its pivotal early days,” wrote John Saavedra in a post for “Den of Geek,” a website dedicated to reviewing cult television shows, movies, games and comics.

“You see that Brackett’s draft, while definitely in need of a rewrite and several tweaks, holds all of the big moments we’d eventually see on screen,” he wrote.

“We still get a version of the Battle of Hoth (a much more ridiculous one), the wise words of an old Jedi Master, the excitement of zooming through a deadly asteroid field, a love triangle, a majestic city in the clouds, unexpected betrayals, and the climactic duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that we would re-enact on playgrounds for years to come,” Saavedra wrote.

Contributor: Staff writer Guy D’Astolfo