Hamill goes on to say that, though Lucas did not mention anything to him about casting him and Fisher as an aging Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, respectively, that "[Lucas] wanted us to know before everybody else knew."
Now, informing two of the core members of his original cast before anyone else may just have been an act of courtesy and respect on the part of Lucas. He's become very close with Hamill and Fisher again in recent years, as Hamill told me when I interviewed him for EW myself in July. The three of them took part in an impromptu on-stage reunion in front of thousands of adoring fans at Star Wars Celebration V in Orlando in 2010. Or Lucas may very well be setting the stage for Hamill and Fisher to be involved in the new trilogy even if their parts are very small. I noted yesterday in my theories about Episode VII that J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot established the idea of rebuilding an aging movie property around a new, young cast, while still including a beloved favorite (in that case, Leonard Nimoy's Spock) who fulfills the dual functions of anchoring the reboot to the franchise's storied history and helping pass the torch to a new generation.
This could very well be what happens in Episode VII. Decades before Abrams' Star Trek, when George Lucas first talked about his proposed "Sequel Trilogy," this seems to be what he had in mind. We here at Hollywood.com did some research and dug up some old interviews that suggest as much. Speaking to comics legend Jim Steranko, an artist who contributed key concept art for Raiders of the Lost, in an interview for Steranko's Prevue magazine for its September-October 1980 edition, Lucas said that Episode VII would begin "roughly 20 (or perhaps 30 or 40) years" after the end of Return of the Jedi. He also told TIME in 1983 that he imagined Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and even Harrison Ford appearing in Episodes VII, VIII, and IX when they're in their 60s or 70s. And in a sweeping profile titled "George Lucas: Father of the Force" in a February 1988 issue of Starlog, Lucas revealed that he imagined Luke having a romantic relationship with a female love interest in the sequel trilogy.
Mark Hamill himself confirmed much of this in a press conference at Fox Home Entertainment's junket for the DVD release of the Original Trilogy in September 2004. Recalling Lucas' original plans for his involvement in a sequel trilogy, Hamill said the following: "[George] said, 'Um, how'd you like to be in Episode IX?' This is 1976. 'When is that going to be?' '2011.' I defy anyone to add 36 years to their lives and not be stunned." Hamill then added, "I said, 'Well, what do you want me to do?' George said, 'You'll just be like a cameo. You'll be like Obi-Wan handing the lightsaber down to the next new hope.'"
Well, Episode VII is slated for 2015, so only a few years after Lucas's original prediction that Hamill would reprise his most famous role in 2011. All of this is still up in the air, and anything could happen, of course. But, if you didn't already feel bullish about the chances of at least Hamill having a cameo in another Star Wars movie, check out this cryptic tweet from the erstwhile Jedi Master: "Congratulations to George for today's mega-deal! Can't comment on Ep 7 before I have all the facts which are short supply right now-Patience."
Maybe Episode VII will be a return of the Jedi indeed.