When Star Wars was released in 1977, the sprawling and detailed mythology created by George Lucas existed mostly in the director’s head. There was no online hub to confirm how to spell Chewbacca or learn the name of the actor who played him. (The late Peter Mayhew, for the record.) Fans who wanted information beyond the scope of the film had to look toward the novelization by Alan Dean Foster, the Star Wars comic books issued by Marvel, or a series of trading card sets released by the Topps company.
Buried in these cards and their depictions of the various characters and scenes of the film was a strange and arguably obscene anomaly. On the front of card number 207, protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is seen emerging from an oil bath and appearing to be anatomically correct, a rare feature of robots.
In 2007, the official Star Wars website explained that the image was nothing more than a fluke. According to the Lucasfilm-endorsed explanation, a piece of the costume became loose at the precise moment the photo was taken, lending the character the appearance of mechanical arousal:
“…[It] appears that the extra appendage is not the work of an artist, but rather a trick of timing and light. The untouched archive photo shows the image just as it appears on the card. The current theory is that the instant the photo was snapped, a piece fell off the Threepio costume, and just happened to line up in such a way as to suggest a bawdy image. The original contact sheets from the photo shoot attest to this. They are not retouched in any way, yet still contain the same image. Whatever the real explanation is, the ‘mischievous airbrush artist’ scenario simply doesn’t fit.”
An alternative explanation by Gary Gerani, who oversaw the selection of images for Topps at that time, indicated that the Pfizer version of C-3PO was the result of prop masters fooling around on set for their own amusement.
Neither explanation, however, appears to be the true story. Mental Floss reached out to Daniels, who is currently finishing his autobiography, I Am C-3PO: The Inside Story, which is due for release on November 5. Declaring both theories “nonsense,” Daniels was gracious enough to illuminate this sizable mystery.
According to Daniels, the phallic mishap happened on set in London’s Elstree Studios while shooting the scene in which Threepio was to be lowered into his oil bath. “It really was oil,” Daniels tells Mental Floss. “I stood on a platform that gently lowered me into the green liquid. The crew had been kind enough to warm it. Not as much as was indicated by the steam. That was achieved with two electric kettles hidden behind me.”
But this oil had an unintended consequence. “The oil permeated the inner spaces between me and the costume legs as I chatted with my new master, Luke Skywalker [Mark Hamill]. I eventually rose again, dripping but without incident. Or so I thought.”
Daniels finished the scene—and the film—without giving the shot another thought. Years later, he came across the card and realized what had happened. “At that time, the pants section of the costume was in two pieces of thin plastic. Front and back. A strip of gold-colored tape fixed them together, [which was] fine. But being immersed in vegetable oil dissolved the adhesive and the two parts sprung apart. At the same time, Threepio’s left leg dropped down over the shoe. The combination led to an over-exposure of plastic in that region. It left a bulging crease.”
What happened next is still open to a bit of interpretation. The now-defunct story on the Star Wars home page insisted that the card image was taken from the untouched photo snapped on the set; Daniels believes a mischievous Topps employee took the photo with the crease and accentuated the protruding part so it appeared larger and with some additional anatomical detail. This account, he says, was verified by Lucasfilm.
In any event, the photo made its way into the Topps set because Gerani and his editors were simply overwhelmed by the number of still images to comb through. After viewing hundreds of them, they were oblivious to the gaffe and sent the card into production. Parents purchasing the trading cards for their kids noticed C-3PO’s pelvic surplus and brought it to the attention of Topps executives, who quickly replaced the card by airbrushing the image to remove the offending detail.
Salacious or otherwise unwanted imagery has long plagued the trading card industry. Most infamously, a 1989 Billy Ripken baseball card from Fleer featured the player holding a bat with a profane message written on the handle. (Ripken had scribbled the obscenity, which rhymes with “muck face,” so he could easily identify his bat during practice, then forgot about it when his photo was taken.)
Though such errors can be sought after by collectors, the C-3PO card is not particularly scarce. The “X-rated” version can typically be purchased for between $30 and $100 on eBay, depending on its condition.
Just don’t expect Daniels to autograph it for you. “If you see one signed on the surface by me, it is a forgery,” the actor says. “I would never autograph it. Call me humorless, but, clever though the artwork was, I find it an insult to a good friend of mine who cannot speak for himself on this planet.”
Aside from being juvenile, Daniels believes the card commits a worse sin: It contradicts Threepio’s character. “As a protocol droid and skilled in the niceties of etiquette, Threepio would never, ever appear as excited as that in public. And that is a fact.”