If there was ever any doubt about who the real Darth Vader is, ‘Star Wars’ actor Mark Hamill laid it all to rest in a cheeky tweet back in 2018:
A — David Prowse IS Darth Vader. B — James Earl Jones is his voice. C — Bob Anderson is his stunt-double. D — Hayden Christensen is my son’s age. #HowIMetMyDads."
Prowse, whose hulking presence made him the perfect fit to play the iconic villain in George Lucas’ original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, died at the age of 85 after a short illness, leaving fans of the science fiction franchise in deep shock and mourning. His agent, Thomas Bowington, paid tribute to him after his death, writing: “May the force be with him, always!”
“Though famous for playing many monsters — for myself, and all who knew Dave and worked with him, he was a hero in our lives,” added Bowington.
Prowse’s ‘Star Wars’ journey began when Lucas first spotted his 6-foot-7-inch frame in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971), where he played Julian, the muscular and towering assistant to Patrick Magee’s wheelchair-bound character F Alexander.
Prowse once shared an amusing anecdote about how he nearly got himself fired from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in an interview with the ‘Stanley and Us’ project. In his mid-to-late-30s at the time, Prowse was tasked with carrying Magee in his wheelchair down a flight of stairs, turn a corner and be placed in another room — all to be shot in one take.
Director Kubrick, famous for insisting on doing many takes of each scene in his films, had Prowse worried about the number of times he’d be expected to perform the feat of strength.
“I said to Stanley, ‘You’re asking me to carry 200 pounds, or a 100 kilos, down the stairs. I have to put him on the floor, wheel him onto a table and then go on and hold a dialogue scene, you see?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you can do it’. And I said, ‘Yeah, I know. But your name is not ‘one-take Kubrick’ is it?’”
Prowse remembered the whole set going quiet at the time. “I was so sure I was going to get the sack, then and there,” he laughed.
But Prowse was lucky enough to have caught Kubrick in the right mood and the director just laughed it off, promising to wrap up shoot quickly, and ultimately the scene was shot in six takes.
In another interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, Prowse recalled how Lucas approached him for his part in ‘Star Wars’. “Lucas said to me, ‘You’ve got a choice of two characters in the movie. He said, ‘There’s a character called Chewbacca, which is like a huge teddy bear, or alternatively, there’s the main villain in the piece.’ Well, there’s no choice, is there? Thank you very much, I’ll have the villain’s piece.”
He later told the BBC he chose Vader over Chewbacca because “you always remember the bad guys”.
Prowse, of course, had no idea his face would be covered by the now iconic helmet and his costume would weight almost 20kg.
In his 2005 autobiography ‘Straight from the Force’s Mouth’, Prowse wrote, “If the suit was a problem, then the Darth Vader mask, which became such a Star Wars trademark, was nothing short of a nightmare. Once it was fitted, I became virtually blind, and the heat generated by the suit obeyed the laws of physics and travelled upwards, straight into the mask. This immediately misted up the eyepieces, which was inconvenient, to say the least, but was not an insurmountable problem so long as I could look down through the triangular cut-out beneath the mask’s nose moulding and use it as a spyhole.”
Prowse also attributed to his years spent in the body building business to his success portraying Darth Vader. “Body acting and body building are more closely related than most people would imagine, and all that posing I’d done to impress the judges in my early years began to pay dividends. From within the black leather suit, I treated Vader’s every gesture as a bodybuilding pose, refining here and exaggerating there, until my character ‘spoke’ with every tilt of his head and movement of his arms,” he wrote in his autobiography. “When I watch those ‘Star Wars’ movies (which I still do, from time to time) I’m quietly pleased at the amount of expression that Vader manages to convey without a facial expression to his name, save for the fixed menace of that mask.”
And while Prowse worked hard on his Vader lines (In the 2004 documentary ‘Empire of Dreams’, actress Carrie Fisher quipped that they nicknamed Prowse “Darth Farmer” — a jibe at his urban Bristolian accent), he was eventually dubbed over by James Earl Jones, who did such a terrific job that he went on to become synonymous with the character. “I think [Jones] did a wonderful job, but I still think I would have done equally as well given the right opportunity,” Prowse said.
And to add insult to injury, when Prowse thought audiences would finally see his face when his mask was taken off in ‘Return of the Jedi’, he was once again replaced by actor Sebastian Shaw.
The actor also said that he was wrongly accused of leaking news of Vader’s death to the media, which led to him getting banned from participating in official ‘Star Wars’ conventions by Lucas. Years later it was revealed that it was a set technician who leaked the information. Prowse, who was nonetheless an obvious hit at conventions for years, eventually retired from public appearances in October 2017.
In a 2012 interview with Rock Cellar Magazine, Prowse succintly summed up his Vader experience, “Everywhere I go in the world, I see the image of Darth Vader everywhere in stores with toys, books, movies, magazines, and games. I feel very proud to be a part of something that has affected the world so much. Nobody will ever forget Darth Vader, and it is a great honor for me to have played the ultimate screen villain of all time.”
Prowse was, of course, also known to a generation of British children as the Green Cross Code Man, a superhero in a series of road safety advertisements. And despite the enduring love from ‘Star Wars’ fanatics, the actor always maintained that playing the Green Cross Code Man, which he first portrayed in 1975, was the “best job I ever had”.
Born in Bristol, southwest England, in 1935, Prowse represented England in weightlifting at the Commonwealth Games in the 1950s before breaking into movies with roles that emphasised his commanding size, including Frankenstein’s monster in a pair of horror films, ‘The Horror of Frankenstein’ (1970) and ‘Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell’ (1974).