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On Saturday, David Prowse, the bodybuilder from Bristol, England, who played Darth Vader in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, died of COVID-19 in a London hospital. I don’t know if it’s true that people generally die in the way that they lived, but Prowse’s death certainly reflects the oddity of his career.
Darth Vader is a staple of global culture, a byword for cinematic evil. Considered a celebrity in his own right, Vader would be the most famous person to succumb to the pandemic by some distance. But even Star Wars fanatics do not really think of Dave Prowse as Darth Vader.
And, well, that’s because Darth Vader has never been fewer than about a half-dozen people. James Earl Jones, as everybody knows, provided the menacing voice. (George Lucas’ first choice is said to have been Orson Welles.) Prowse turned out to be too clumsy to handle the light-sabre fight sequences, so a fencer and stage choreographer, Bob Anderson, “plays” Vader in most of those scenes — a fact informally suppressed until Mark Hamill spilled the beans in 1983.
During the big reveal in the conclusion of the trilogy, the unmasked Vader is, of course, played by Sebastian Shaw. Vader’s respiration, essential to the effect of the character, was provided by sound designer Ben Burtt playing around with scuba gear. And you can argue that none of these Vaders is as important as the designer of Vader’s costume, Ralph McQuarrie.
Prowse, already famous in the United Kingdom for being the star of a road safety publicity campaign for children, was recruited to “Star Wars” more or less strictly for his physique. He stood 6-6 and worked out; at that time, and especially on that side of the Atlantic, this made him as unusual as any circus performer. In our higher-tech age of filmmaking, the antagonist in a science-fiction epic would be one talented actor; special effects and Hollywood “exercise” routines would be used to take care of the rest. In the 1970s, George Lucas was forced to pioneer the synthetic villain.
Synthetic, sure, but on the set, in the scenes requiring Vader to interact with other actors, Dave Prowse had to do the work, which included suiting up in a fussy, awkward outfit. He learned all of Vader’s dialogue; Carrie Fisher later recalled that his West Country accent led to the cruel nickname Darth Farmer, which surely wasn’t coined by the Americans in the cast. English accent prejudices evidently date back long ago, and are found in galaxies far, far away.
Members of the Star Wars generation viewing the first film as adults may find, or merely fancy, that they can detect a seam between the “physical portrayal” of Vader and James Earl Jones’s delivery of the dialogue. But it can’t be denied that Vader’s towering physical presence was a non-negotiable feature of Star Wars. Prowse’s “part” of the Darth Vader performance gets the main point right. Vader is, above all, imperious and intimidating.
In later life, Prowse fell out with Lucas and the “Star Wars” merchandising empire. This may have been attributable to Prowse’s candour, for he was known to mention that his “profit-sharing” contract for “Return of the Jedi” added up to nothing after “Hollywood accounting” was applied.
Maybe Lucas and co. just felt that Prowse wasn’t Darth Vader-y enough without the costume and the dubbing, and preferred to keep him in the background. He remains there now, in death. And yet, according to the ancient traditions of the acting profession, the performer who first plays a role, and not the writer or the director, is referred to as its creator.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020