Anthony Daniels Finally Explains the Mystery of That Obscene C-3PO Trading Card

Kory westerhold, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Kory westerhold, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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.

A Topps 'Star Wars' trading card featuring C-3PO is pictured
baseball-nutz, eBay

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.”

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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