Everyone knows that James Earl Jones voices Darth Vader, but does anyone stop to think about the man under the suit? It wasn't Jones walking around in stifling heat for the original Star Wars trilogy -- it was British actor David Prowse.
Moviefone chatted with Prowse over the phone about wearing the iconic costume, his mysterious conflict with George Lucas and throwing the Emperor over the balcony.
So just to clarify, you were in the Darth Vader suit the entire time?
The entire time; the first three movies. Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi. I also did all the dialogue through the three movies. Everything I was saying was coming through the mouth, which was obviously useless for production purposes. [Laughs] When they finished filming, they brought all the footage back to America, so they had to choose whether to pay to bring me over there to Hollywood to do all the overdubbing of the voice, or alternatively, employ a voiceover specialist from the US. Financially, we both know what was viable. [Laughs]
What was it like in the costume and behind the mask?
The costume was made to measure, so it was very comfortable. It went on in about 15 different pieces, with quilting and fibreglass and all the rest. The helmet and the mask were the major problems, because once they went on, they had troubles with the helmet wobbling every time I moved. It would also make terrible noise. Of course, there was the problem of the weather too - we filmed Star Wars during the hottest summer in Great Britain! [Laughs] I learned very quickly how to adjust myself during the day - I stayed out of the helmet, the mask and the cape as long as I possibly could.
While wearing the costume, did it make you feel any different?
I felt powerful. It was funny, everyone was subservient to Darth Vader -- the character in the movie. And everybody treated me that way in real life, too. It was quite interesting.
Not to mention you're almost seven feet tall. You must have towered over Mark Hamill.
Yeah, I'd say with the helmet and the mask on I was about 6'9''. I did tower over him, yeah. [Laughs]
Did you have a good working relationship with Hamill?
He was very nice. He was the bright-eyed boy on set, and everything was new and exciting. This was his first big movie. He was effervescent and bubbly. I saw him a couple years ago and he was still just as nice as he was right from the very beginning. The entire cast of Star Wars, actually, is a very pleasant group of people -- Sir Alec Guinness, Gary Kurtz, Billy Dee Williams, Carrie Fisher. I had very little to do with George [Lucas], though.
In my research I've read some alleged reports of a dust-up you had with George Lucas over revealing plots. What is that about?
I never had a dust-up with Lucas. Obviously they were very concerned about the plot getting out before the films were released, but honestly I don't have any idea where these sorts of stories come from. When we did Star Wars, we had a script, so I knew the plot all the way through. But when we did Empire and Jedi, all we got were our pages. You had no idea where that little bit, that particular scene, fit into the whole picture. In some stage of my life, I've obviously upset him, but I really don't know what it was all about.
I think it has to do with an interview I did. Somebody went away and put it into a film, The People vs. George Lucas. I think that's what's upset him. I had no idea who I was doing the interview for, and I don't recall saying anything untoward about Lucas or the film. Unfortunately he's taken umbrage to it and he's trying to stop me from doing various things. I just wish I knew what it was all about.
That seems unfair. What sorts of things is he stopping you from doing?
They stopped me from doing the Disney Star Wars Weekends, which I used to do every year, which I loved to do with all the kids. It's such a shame too, because Darth Vader is the most popular character in the movie! To run conventions and Star Wars events without Darth Vader is quite strange.
Did you do the light sabre fighting scenes in the trilogy? I'm seeing conflicting reports.
I did all the fighting with Alec Guinness on the first one. I only did a very small part of it in the second one, because it started to get dangerous -- we were fighting up on the gangway. But the worst thing that could happen on a movie is to have your principals injured or put out of action. So consequently, I had a stuntman [Bob Anderson] in the second movie. He doubled for me in some of the fight scenes.
You were the one who threw the Emperor to his death off the balcony, though, correct?
[Laughs] I was having a terrible time on the third movie. When things went wrong between myself and Lucas ... perhaps [director]Richard Marquand got instructions from Lucas to shut me out. Marquand never spoke to me once during the whole movie. How do you make a movie without speaking to your principal?
Anyway, I was sitting around in the studio, watching what was happening. My stunt double suited up for the Emperor scene. You have to understand that he was a tall skinny guy, and I thought, 'Well, this should be interesting.' Let's not forget that I'm the British weightlifting champion. They spent an entire week trying to shoot this scene. So much money was wasted, and I was getting fed up. I went up to Marquand and said, "Look, I can do this in one shot." He said, "What do you mean you can do this in one take?"
So on the following Monday, I got dressed up, everything was ready, and I picked him up like I was lifting a barbell. I put him across my chest, took a couple steps towards the balcony and threw him over! [Laughs] All in one shot. The whole thing was ridiculous.
You had a choice to play Chewbacca or Darth Vader at the beginning. Why did you ultimately choose Vader?
Lucas asked for me to come in and meet him. He took me around the room and showed me all these conceptual drawings of the characters and various scenes from the movie. I asked him, first off, how he heard of me, and he said, "I saw you in A Clockwork Orange. If you're good enough for Stanley Kubrick, you're good enough for me." That's how I got the role, because he saw me in Clockwork Orange.
He offered me one of two roles in the movie. He said that the first was a character named Chewbacca. I said, 'What the hell is Chewbacca?' He told me he was a hairy gorilla who was on the good side throughout the films. All I could think was: three months in a gorilla suit. That would be terrible and sweaty. I said that I didn't fancy that, so he said, 'Well, the other one is the big villain of the film.' That's what I chose. And really, if you look back at all the movies you've ever seen where there are good guys and bad guys, you always remember the bad guy. He turned to me and said, 'I think you made a wise decision, because nobody will ever forget Darth Vader.' And here we are, 35 years later.
You can meet David Prowse yourself at Canada's Fan Expo, which takes place in Toronto from August 23-26.