Lucasfilm
Anthony Breznican
August 13, 2015 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Harrison Ford’s first day back as Han Solo after 32 years was not the “Chewie, we’re home” scene, but that’s how it felt for those who watched it that day on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

It took place on a soundstage at Pinewood Studios outside London, where lots of massive movies have been made, including most of the 007 titles and some of the later Harry Potter films. Crews here are old hands, and not the kind to get starstruck.

That’s why Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy was caught off guard by their reaction. “The minute Harrison and Chewie walked on board the Millennium Falcon — that was incredible,” she tells EW. “Every single person on the set was stunned. I remember turning around, and there must have been 200 people gathered behind me — completely quiet. I didn’t even know they were there. The whole crew had stopped working, staring at the monitor, because it was so iconic.”

Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on the original trilogy and wrote The Force Awakens with director J.J. Abrams also took note of that hush. “It was sort of surreal for everybody, and it wasn’t just Han, it wasn’t just Harrison. It was seeing all this stuff,” he says. “The Millennium Falcon has been a big part of my life, from Empire to Jedi to Force Awakens — and now I’ve written a movie about the young Han. So the Falcon has enormous resonance for me. And I don’t know if you can imagine what it would be like to watch things being shot on that set with those people.”

He laughs, trying to find the right words, and settles on: “It’s pretty cool!”

Over the years, Ford has grumbled about the space smuggler, saying he thought the character was “dumb as a stump” and even wished Solo had died at the end of the original saga — the selfish, sarcastic anti-hero who sacrifices himself for the greater good.

But on his first day back, the 72-year-old actor, who long ago told The Today Show he was “glad to see that costume for the last time,” appeared a bit overcome himself to be back in it.

“Harrison was going through his own experience, finding that place for himself again, to return to something that had been so much a part of his identity and acting career,” Kennedy says. “It was his own little personal journey, but once he got there, it was amazing. I mean, he was Han Solo again. That’s why everybody else got so quiet! They were like, ‘Oh my God, he’s back!’”

And then, later, they dropped a door on him.

NEXT PAGE: The accident’s aftermath …

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AFTER THE FALL

The accident happened mid-way through production when a large segment of the Millennium Falcon came loose and landed on the actor, breaking his leg. Abrams recently told The Daily Show he strained so hard trying to lift the door off Ford that he ended up rupturing a vertebrae and had to wear a back brace. The film’s release was never pushed back, but principal photography was put on hold and the wrap-date was shifted to the fall so Ford could recuperate.

“It was obviously a horrible experience that I wish had never happened for obvious reasons,” Abrams says now. “But the truth is, once we knew that Harrison was going to be okay, we all realized this was this greatest gift to the movie, and I would think that any filmmaker would say, ‘If I could get a break after a month of shooting, for a few weeks, to recalibrate, I would take it.’”

It gave Abrams and Kasdan time to rewrite some upcoming scenes, and reshoot some footage that they weren’t happy with, while giving the other actors bonus time to rehearse with one another.

At first, Abrams expected to have to rewrite the rest of the script so that Han Solo spent a lot more time sitting down.

“It wasn’t something that we knew for a little while. When it became clear that he was going to be just fine, we realized we didn’t need to change that at all,” Abrams says. “In fact, there are some places where he’s more active than he was prior to the accident. As you’ll see in the movie, he is running and doing more physical activity in this movie than I think anyone who knows he was injured would expect. Nothing was adjusted or lessened because of that accident. Even for Harrison, who is famously resilient and strong, he blew everyone’s minds.”

They witnessed another astounding recovery months later, in March, when Ford survived the crash-landing of a refurbished World War II training plane and recovered in time to wave a plastic lightsaber at San Diego Comic-Con in July.

“He apparently is an actual superhero,” Kasdan says.

NEXT PAGE: Ford’s reunion with Chewbacca star Peter Mayhew.

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WOOKIEE WALKING WOUNDED

Another cast member who was working through injury was Ford’s Falcon co-pilot, Peter Mayhew, the 7-foot-3 actor who plays Chewbacca. Like many people of such large size, Mayhew, who’s 71, has had joint problems and underwent double knee replacement surgery in 2013. He walks with the aid of a cane — shaped like a lightsaber — but fast movements are difficult for him.

As a result, another actor had to fill the fur suit for some action sequences, but Mayhew was Abrams and Kennedy’s preference whenever possible. Even though it wasn’t Mayhew in the Wookiee suit for Ford’s first day, there was another emotional moment the first time the two men saw each other.

“We had a dinner and the whole cast was reunited just before we started shooting,” Kennedy says. “I had no idea how close Peter and Harrison were. And when Harrison came into the room and Peter was sitting down, he just went over and gave him the biggest hug, and you could just see that there had been this incredible relationship between these two.”

NEXT PAGE: Making peace with Solo…

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FINDING A WAY BACK

The thing that really surprised everyone was that the on-set accident that broke Ford’s leg didn’t sour that renewed goodwill he had for Star Wars.

“It’s a strange kind of thing,” Kasdan says. “But there was this moment of pause, and when Harrison came back, he lit up the whole place. And he was so funny and warm and helpful to the young people, and generous with his old costars… I don’t know. It was kind of miraculous.”

Ford and other original trilogy stars Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill were recruited back to the franchise before Lucasfilm was even purchased by The Walt Disney Co., which announced the new slate of films. And Kennedy says he wasn’t difficult to persuade. Certainly, whatever compensation package he’ll be getting this time around dwarfs whatever he made as a relatively unknown carpenter-turned-actor on the first Star Wars films, but that doesn’t account for the emotional shift on Han Solo.

Maybe it was working with Abrams, who first collaborated with the actor on Mike Nichols’ 1990 drama Regarding Henry, which Abrams wrote (and had a cameo in as a grocery delivery boy.) Maybe it was working with young actors like John Boyega, who brought Han Solo merchandise to the set for him to sign.

“I think what really got him excited was when he read the first draft, and he saw where we were going and what we were doing. He was immediately on board, and then he sat down and had a great conversation with J.J. and went through, in detail, what we were thinking about doing,” says Kennedy. “And then, you know, Harrison — and I’ve always found this over the years with the Indiana Jones films we’ve all done together — he’s incredibly collaborative when it comes to story and developing his character, and really engaged in the process. And he was every bit that on this film. “

The old stories of Ford haggling with Lucas over stilted dialogue (“George, you can type this sh-t, but you can’t say it!”), or debating with The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner about how best to deliver the “I love you”/”I know” line don’t exactly suggest an actor who couldn’t care less about the character. It sounds like he cared a lot.

Somewhere along the line, maybe he lost that. But now, it seems, he’s home.

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