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It’s pretty impossible to imagine the Star Wars universe without Yoda in it. He wasn’t introduced until The Empire Strikes Back, but he’s become such an iconic part of the franchise that even people who aren’t fans know his name. George Lucas had no idea the Jedi master would become such a big deal, though -- and it turns out he actually had serious doubts about introducing him into the films at all.
The Star Wars director’s dubiousness about Yoda came from a logical place. It’s not that he didn’t like the character or didn’t see his value. It was just that there were so many moving parts on the Empire Strikes Back set that he had no idea what to expect when he began filming with the puppet:
I didn’t really understand it until the first day of shooting, and seeing the dailies and seeing it in action and under the right lighting conditions. A lot of those things, like Yoda, got finished like an hour before we shot it. Everything was always on the run. So I finally got to see the whole thing finished, put together, lit properly, and that’s when I knew it was going to work. Before that I had to rely on Frank Oz. Frank had performed great in rehearsals and Stuart Freeborn was working very diligently on trying to get the puppet to work, but it didn’t convince me until I saw the actual movie.
It’s easy to see how that would be stressful. George Lucas recalled to StarWars.com that he had a lot of expectations riding on his shoulders as he was making The Empire Strikes Back, so introducing an element he wasn’t sure of had to require a huge leap of faith:
If it hadn’t worked, obviously the movie would have been terrible. It would have never worked….And you don’t really know until you actually show it to an audience and they don’t get up and storm out and say ‘This is stupid.’
To be completely fair, he definitely didn’t have as much success with some of the other characters he introduced later on in the film series. It is hard to guess what fans will connect with and what they’ll dislike, and the Star Wars franchise has faced that challenge time and time again, with mixed results.
Still, there’s no denying the fact that Frank Oz, Stuart Freeborn and George Lucas created something truly magical with Yoda. For being such a small creature, he’s cast a long shadow on the franchise, to the point that The Mandalorian's The Child (which has been given his name) was the catalyst for huge viral moments last year. Star Wars fans have grown to love Yoda in all his forms, so it’s a good thing George Lucas trusted the process and took the risk to introduce him to the world. You can stream Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back on Disney+ now.