'Willow' star Warwick Davis celebrates his underdog return in Disney+ series: 'Absolutely magic'

Warwick Davis' beloved Willow Ufgood must be a great sorcerer after all. How else other than magic can you explain the return of "Willow" after 34 years?

Davis was just 17 when cast in director Ron Howard's 1988 fantasy adventure as the good-hearted magical trickster protecting a baby prophesied to bring about the downfall of an evil queen. Even with Val Kilmer as the washed-up knight Madmartigan and a story by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, "Willow" underperformed at the box office and could have easily never returned for a new chapter.

Yet marvelously, Davis, now 52, is set to continue the saga in the Disney+ series "Willow" (streaming Wednesday), to the delight of the growing legion of hardcore fans who have come to adore the original.

"For 34 years, fans have been saying to me, 'We'd love to see more of Willow.' There's a lot of love for it," Davis says. "But love is not enough to make a sequel. It didn't make a huge amount of money. It took a lot of hard work."

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Warwick's return is a family affair – with his actress daughter Annabelle, 25, playing his screen daughter, Mims, and son Harrison, 19, serving as his stunt and photo double – adding another heartwarming layer to the original, an ultimate underdog tale that broke ground by being set around its 3-foot-6 star.

"Normally you'd cast someone muscular, tall, dark and handsome in the hero role. I tick one of those boxes anyway," Warwick says. "What has captured audiences is supporting this underdog hero. Although he's shorter and physically disadvantaged, if the cause was in his heart, he succeeded."

The beloved-long-shot theme carries into Davis' entire career. It all started for Davis, who was born in Surrey, England, with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita, a rare bone growth disorder that results in dwarfism, when his grandmother heard a radio casting call in her kitchen for Lucas' 1983 movie "Return of the Jedi." She encouraged Davis, a "Star Wars" fanatic, to try out.

"If my grandmother hadn't been listening to the radio, I wouldn't be talking to you today," says Davis, who began a friendship with Lucas when cast as the Ewok Wicket.

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Even though Davis sparked Lucas' inspiration to create "Willow," the studio initially considered the teenage actor too young to convincingly portray a father of two. Director Howard was compelled to cast a wide Willow net.

"Ron went about auditioning short actors all over the world for the part that had been created for me," Davis says. "I auditioned many, many times."

One paired audition featured the "scruffy and disheveled" Kilmer, fresh off of "Top Gun" stardom, who pulled up after a New Mexico road trip.

"He was sunburned from driving his convertible and sort of staggered in, and there was immediate chemistry between us," Davis says. "At day's end, George and Ron came to me and offered me the role. It was at last mine."

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Creating "Willow" literally generated love. Davis met his future wife, Samantha, on the set (they married in 1991) and Kilmer met his future wife, Joanne Whalley, who starred as warrior Sorsha (they married in 1988 and divorced after eight years). Kilmer gave advice, support and, yes, alcohol to the under-pressure star, who bore the burden of the title role.

"He started giving me margaritas in the evening," Davis says. "It was him and Joanne, really. I wasn't a drinker at all at 17. But he said, 'Try one of these.' I don't drink to this day. I think they put me off drinking instead of encouraging me."

After the muted film opening, studio discussions around a new "Willow" were nonexistent as Davis' career took off. He appeared in roles ranging from "Harry Potter" to leading the "Leprechaun" horror franchise.

"But 'Willow' has always been the one movie he is most recognized for," Annabelle says. "Fans grew up with the film, have seen it so many times. They hold 'Willow' so dear, it's quite incredible."

While both father and daughter were shooting "Solo: A Star Wars Story" with Howard and screenwriter Jonathan Kasdan, a "Willow" superfan, the sequel conversation resurfaced, taking on light-bulb-on urgency.

"I remember Dad getting really excited, like, 'Maybe this can happen one day,' " Annabelle says.

For all the years of waiting, the new "Willow" series came to life remarkably quickly with Kasdan executive-producing, Whalley returning as the now Queen Sorsha, and the father-daughter team playing father-daughter Nelwyn people. "The way it all happened is absolutely magic," Davis says.

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Davis has one regret. Kilmer, whose successful treatment for throat cancer severely damaged his vocal cords, could not return as Madmartigan (the character is discussed in legendary terms in the new series). Even if Willow hated the way Madmartigan called him "Peck," a derogatory term for the diminutive Nelwyns, Davis deeply misses his dear co-star.

"When I think about my fond memories of 'Willow,' Val immediately pops into my head. There wasn't a day on the set of the new series that I didn't think of him. I wanted him to be in the series so bad. Unfortunately, that did not work out. But Val sent me a text before we started. He wrote, 'Go get 'em, Peck!' "

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Willow' Warwick Davis recalls Val Kilmer's margaritas, advice on fame