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Friday, 15 December 2017

As Dave Prowse retires: a tribute to the original Darth Vader 

Dave Prowse as Darth Vader

As Dave Prowse, makes his final public appearance this weekend, Episode Nothing considers the legacy of the original Darth Vader.

David Prowse, the original Darth Vader, announced in September that his convention-going days were at an end. At the age of 82, ill-health had prompted him to retire. Dave Prowse Empire Day this Saturday, at Feltham Assembly Hall in London, is due to be his last public appearance. 

Even though he does not get along with Lucasfilm, Prowse has been a fixture at science fiction conventions around the world – and he has always been an engaging raconteur, happy to tell the same stories about Star Wars that he must have told a million times before. 

Was his contribution to Star Wars unique, or could anyone with a big enough physical frame have done the same job? I can't help thinking Prowse brought something special to the film – not least his astounding gift for publicity. 

The story, according to Dave Prowse, of how he became Darth Vader 

The cover of Dave Prowse's autobiography
Straight From the Force's Mouth 

He isn't in Empire of Dreams, the DVD documentary which sought to tell the definitive story of Star Wars. But fortunately, Dave Prowse has told many times how he came to play Darth Vader. 

In his book Straight From the Force's Mouth, Prowse recalls being escorted by Peter Beale, the managing director of 20th Century-Fox in the UK, to a meeting with George Lucas. The director "looked like a keen young student, with all of the verve and enthusiasm of someone with unlimited ideas and something to prove".  

Prowse writes: 

"He explained that his latest venture was to be the first in a series of space fantasy films, entitled Star Wars. … After giving me a basic outline of his concept for the movie, George produced a pile of Ralph MacQuarrie drawings, depicting the main characters and film sets. While we pored over these superb pieces of artwork, George revealed that he’d seen most of my film work and that he’d been impressed by what I’d done for Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange. I had assumed that I had been called in to take part in an audition for whatever part I was being considered to play, but instead George spent the whole time asking me about what it was like to work with Stanley Kubrick."  

According to Prowse, Lucas told him he could have a choice of two parts in the movie – Darth Vader or Chewbacca. He chose Vader because everyone remembers a great villain. “I think you’ve made a very wise decision, Dave," he recalls Lucas saying. "I assure you, Darth Vader is one villain that no one will ever forget.”  

He was unaware that the character would be masked, he writes. What’s more – and this was a point that would rankle forever after – he was unaware that Darth Vader would have someone else’s voice. 

Could anyone have played Darth Vader?

Dave Prowse in his bodybuilding days

Britain sweltered in a record-breaking heatwave in the summer of 1976. While most people desperately tried to cool off, Dave Prowse was marching about Elstree Studios in a heavy leather costume, cloak and helmet. 

Prowse has recalled just how uncomfortable that costume was. Not only was it heavy, and the helmet uncomfortable, but he was practically unable to see out of it. Only by looking down through that triangular mouthpiece could he see the tape on the floor that marked the points where he should stop. It must have been a long summer.

Cynics might say that anyone with the right physique could have played Vader, but I think that’s unfair on Prowse. Firstly, there aren’t that many people with the right physique. And secondly, there is something about the character’s physical presence and movement that clearly came from Prowse.

In his book, Prowse notes:

"I’ve listened, enthralled, while the great and good of the acting profession have discussed the finer points of characterisation, and I’d always wondered why these renowned performers placed so much emphasis on getting the character’s walk just right. I’d even been told that once the walk is established the rest would fall into place. Vader’s walk required total authority. A Dark Lord would never hesitate in his stride or falter in his direction. Vader’s cape must flow and his minions must trail in his wake, almost running to keep up with their master. "

He goes on: 

"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."
The notion that anybody of the right frame could have played the part was occasionally shared by the people who organised publicity events. At the time of Star Wars’ release, other people would appear as the character to promote the movie. Prowse had good reason to feel slighted when C3PO, R2-D2 and Darth Vader were all called to put their footprints in the cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in August 1977, but without Prowse in the Vader costume. He was titled to stake his claim as the original Vader. 

Bristol’s dark lord of the Sith – the Dave Prowse’s special importance for UK fans 

In Britain, many of us knew the face behind Darth Vader’s mask.

His films up to that point had mainly been movies for adults only: A Clockwork Orange, Vampire Circus, Horror of Frankenstein, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. But shortly after Star Wars came along, Prowse took another job that would make him a familiar figure for schoolchildren. He was Green Cross Man.

Green Cross Man was the superhero who appeared in government-sponsored TV ads encouraging children to cross the road safely. “Every time you cross the road, always use the Green Cross Code,” he would tell kids. Green Cross Man wasn’t just a TV job. It also involved appearing in person, in schools and at events, and Prowse was proud of its impact.

Plenty of news articles at the time told us that Darth Vader and the Green Cross Man were played by the same actor. Did it make Vader any less scary? Not a bit. But it was one more piece of trivia with which we first generation Star Wars geeks could try to impress our friends.

Prowse is from Bristol, the city in south western England which also gave the world Cary Grant. But Cary Grant didn’t sound like he came from Bristol. Prowse definitely did, and that was part of his charm for British viewers

Americans didn’t generally seem know what his accent was. He was reportedly called “Darth Farmer” on set, even though Bristol is in fact the city with the eighth biggest population in the UK. 
The Empire of Dreams documentary allowed us to see raw footage of Prowse playing Darth Vader his Bristol accent, and people have, not unnaturally, had a bit of a laugh at it. But in fairness, Prowse was speaking from inside a helmet, just getting the lines out in the expectation, he says, that he would be re-recording them later. 

The fact that the man in the mask had a regional accent that British viewers would recognise was somehow just part of the fun of being Star Wars fan. 

Dave Prowse and the Star Wars leaks

Dave Prowse's familiar way of signing an autograph

Prowse was particularly good at promoting Star Wars, because he was good at promoting himself. He’s a self-made man who, after a difficult childhood (his book is particularly good on that score), got into competitive body-building.

Practically everything Prowse has done since has been as a freelance – appearing in films and TV, training body-building clients (including Christopher Reeve for his role as Superman), running a gym, selling fitness equipment at Harrods and writing books. To put together that kind of career, you need to be good at self-promotion, and Prowse was certainly that – chatting fluently and amusingly about every aspect of his career. Sometimes, he might have been too good at it.

As Star Wars publicity became more tightly controlled by the growing Lucasfilm headquarters, Prowse was suspected of leaking too much information. It certainly seems the case that, at least one fan event, he revealed in 1978 that Darth Vader might turn out to be Luke Skywalker's father.

Whether Lucasfilm spotted that one is unclear, but the relationship soured, and these days Prowse says he has been banned from official Star Wars events.

But without Dave Prowse, Star Wars would have lost one of its most engaging spokespeople, and fans would have lost the enjoyment his appearances generated when we were getting to know the characters behind the Star Wars universe.

For this reason and for his role in creating Darth Vader's extraordinary physical presence on screen, Prowse should surely be celebrated. He has earned the right to sign his autographs the way he has for many years:

"Dave Prowse is Darth Vader."

1 comment:

John white said...

Good article.

You know, i've long felt that i knew about Darth being Luke's dad way before Empire came out. My feeling is that i learned it from the Marvel comics, but that seems unlikely to be honest. I might have read it somewhere else, but I just have this feeling that the comic let the cat out of the bag.

I read the novelisation before seeingthe film and it didn't spoil the experience of the seeing the film one bit.

Of course over in Britain and Ireland we had ample opportunity to get spoilersbecause we saw the film many months after the US did.