Friday, 26 August 2016

RIP Kenny Baker, 1934-2016: the man who was R2-D2

Kenny Baker with Anthony Daniels
on the set of Star Wars in 1976

The fan reaction to the death of Kenny Baker, the man who was R2-D2, showed how much the character meant to generations of Star Wars lovers. Episode Nothing reflects on Kenny Baker’s contribution to the original Star Wars – and considers what difference it made to have a real person operating the levers and lights to bring R2-D2 to life.

Kenny Baker dies aged 81

Kenny Baker on the Throne Room
set for Star Wars 

The news of Kenny Baker’s death was announced on August 13 2016 and prompted kind words from fans and showbusiness people alike.

George Lucas, who had hired Baker to sit inside an aluminium droid and operate its controls in 1976, paid a characteristically generous tribute

"Kenny Baker was a real gentleman as well as an incredible trooper who always worked hard under difficult circumstances. A talented vaudevillian who could always make everybody laugh, Kenny was truly the heart and soul of R2-D2 and will be missed by all his fans and everyone who knew him.”

Baker is not the first of the Star Wars principals to die, of course. We lost Peter Cushing in 1994 and Alec Guinness in 2000. But Baker was, along with Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, one of only two actors whose name is on all the movies to date. And as the fan reaction made clear, he remained a crucial part of the Star Wars ‘family’.

His face, of course, was never seen on screen, and if you were creating a pint-sized robot for the screen today, you almost certainly would not ask a 3’ 8” man to sit inside it and pull levers. So what was Baker's contribution to Star Wars and how unique was it?

Why Star Wars needed Kenny Baker as R2-D2

This picture of C-3PO and R2-D2 was on
many a Star Wars fan's wall in the 1970s.
It features the three-legged R2
without Kenny Baker inside

When Kenny Baker died, the news media left no room for doubt that this man was R2-D2. Few obituaries even sought to explain that he was not R2 in every shot.

Things were very different in 1977, when a lot of people didn’t seem to know that there was ever an actor inside the aluminium. I remember Anthony Daniels appearing on the BBC’s Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, where presenter Noel Edmonds remarked incredulously that there surely couldn’t be a person inside the smaller droid.

In fact, having a person inside the droid made a lot of sense when Lucas hired Baker in 1976. Remote control technology was not as reliable as today. Some outtakes featured in the 1977 documentary The Making of Star Wars show why. Remote controlled droids tended to stop working or veer out of control. For shots in which R2-D2 was just moving his domed head, flashing his lights, or jiggling from side to side, it made sense to have him operated in a much more old fashioned way. That’s where Kenny Baker came in.

In an interview published in the UK’s Star Wars Weekly in March 1978, Baker explained what it was like inside the droid: “It was aluminium, alloys, metal, fibreglass, with a removable head – I could take it off when we had a break and a cuppa.

“Inside I sat on a child’s car seat, wearing a safety harness so that I didn’t rattle like an old tin can if the thing fell over. There were lots of batteries and switches, so that I could flash the various lights and move the head in answer to the dialogue of the others. Mind you, sometimes the noise was such that I never heard the director, George Lucas, shouting either ‘Action’ or ‘Cut’. Thank heavens, there were always people to see I was okay and not falling down any steps or anything like that.”

Generally, when we see R2 rolling along on three wheels, he’s a remote controlled model which was the responsibility of John Stears, the film’s supervisor of production and mechanical effects. When his middle leg is not seen, you can be pretty sure Baker is inside.

While there were good practical reasons for having a person inside the R2-D2 shell, I suspect that decision may also have given the character some of the humanity that made him so enormously popular, as we’ll see shortly. Yet Baker was reluctant to take the job – and must surely have made himself unique in Star Wars history by turning down a principal role three times.

Kenny Baker biography

A publicity shot of Kenny Baker and
Jack Purvis as the Mini-Tones

A look at Kenny Baker’s early life reminds us how society treated people of restricted growth decades ago. 

He was born on August 24, 1934, in Solihull in England’s West Midlands, to a couple of average height, Harold and Ethel. They raised him in Cheltenham, where they played in their own dance band, Harry Baker and His Collegians. But when Harry and Ethel separated during World War II, Kenny was put into the care of a charity, the Shaftesbury Society, which sent him to a boarding school in Sevenoaks, Kent, for children with disabilities.

Leaving school at 16, Kenny was approached in the street by a member of Burton Lester’s Midgets, a touring theatrical troupe, and he performed with them in ice shows and pantomimes. He became a clown for Billy Smart’s Circus and you can see him in an uncredited role in the 1960 British chiller Circus of Horrors, as well as a 1962 episode of the ITC series Man of the World.

In 1975, Baker appeared in an episode of the BBC’s Dave Allen at Large. By this time, he was half of a musical comedy double act called the Mini-Tones, with Jack Purvis, and they had enjoyed a run of several appearances on the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks. For that reason, he initially turned down Star Wars.

“Some agents approached me first, but I do a cabaret act with my partner, Jack Purvis, and I didn’t think it was fair to go off and leave my mate,” he told Aydrey Smith in that 1978 Star Wars Weekly interview.

“Of course we didn’t imagine then that the film would turn out to be one of the most successful ever made! They had three goes at me and then I said yes, because Jack went along with me and played the Chief of the Jawas, one of the galactic tribes.”

Purvis would also play the chief Ugnaught in The Empire Strikes Back and the Ewok Teebo in Return of the Jedi – appearing, in fact, in every film that Baker made until the 1990s, when Purvis became quadriplegic following an accident. He died aged 60 in 1997.

So Baker was sent to Tunisia to play R2 – turning that domed head and throwing those switches to bring the character to life in searing heat. His wife Eileen, who predeceased him in 1993, was due to appear as well, she told Aydrey Smith: “I should have been in the film too. It was so hot on location in Tunisia that you dozed off waiting for them to set up the scenes. I woke up when it was all over. That was the end of my debut in Star Wars.”

The heat was pretty oppressive in the UK that year, when production of Star Wars moved to Elstree Studios during a record-breakingly hot summer. Baker, unlike other costumed actors, could at least step out of the R2 shell when there was a break of any length.

While we think of Baker today as being at the core of Star Wars, he wasn’t always treated that way at the time. Although C-3PO and R2-D2 hosted The Making of Star Wars, he was not invited back alongside Anthony Daniels. And when the droids left their footprints in the cement outside Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Baker was back in the UK. Maybe this was because there was no practical need for him on these occasions, or maybe, as Daniels has sometimes complained, there was a reluctance to destroy the mystery around the droids by acknowledging that there were actors inside.

Yet Baker was to pick up an increasing amount of work after Star Wars, including Wombling Free (1977), Flash Gordon and The Elephant Man (both 1980), Time Bandits (probably his most substantial role, for Terry Gilliam, in 1981), Amadeus (1984), Mona Lisa (1986) and the Lucas productions Labyrinth (1986) and Willow (1988).

The Mini-Tones continued for some time after Star Wars and, although I can’t find a reference to it online, I vividly remember them playing their xylophones on an ITV variety show in the wake of Star Wars’ success.

What did Kenny Baker bring to R2-D2 that a remote control robot couldn’t have done?

George Lucas with an R2-D2 prototype

I remember, even in the 1970s, wondering whether Kenny Baker would be needed for a Star Wars sequel. Surely remote control technology would eliminate the need for an actor inside the droid shell. These were, after all, times when we were constantly told robot butlers were just around the corner. (The UK’s Star Wars poster magazine was among the publications making that confident assertion at the time, as we’ll see in a future post.)

The fact that Baker returned for all the subsequent Star Wars films (billed as an “R2 consultant” on The Force Awakens last year) may have something to do with sentiment on Lucasfilm’s part, but it also surely demonstrates that having a person inside R2 brought some extra humanity to him.

Ralph McQuarrie concept art
showing R2-D2 and C-3PO

There had been a short, multi-armed maintenance robot in all four of George Lucas’s radically different scripts for Star Wars. Early on, the droid was to speak in dialogue rather than electronic noises. Concept artist Ralph McQuarrie imagined the look of the robot early on.

However, the need to accommodate an actor inside the R2 body meant that the robot was built somewhat bigger than he looks in many of McQuarrie’s designs, and you have to wonder whether viewers instinctively responded to something that was nearer to the size of a person. What is certain is that Baker was inside making some of the movements that endeared R2 to audiences.

For example: That moment by the Jawa sandcrawler, when R2 jiggles from side to side for attention as Luke Skywalker prepares to buy another droid, and C-3PO seems all set to desert him? That’s Baker making that very human movement.

The key to R2 is his humanity. Even that electronic language is very human. Sound effects creator Ben Burtt created many of those noises by recording himself making baby talk sounds and putting them through a synthesiser. And that surely brings us to the reason that R2 remains many people’s favourite character in the movie.

Why R2-D2 is many people’s favourite Star Wars character – especially children’s

The 1977 Kenner R2-D2 figure.
The droid was always one of Star Wars'
most popular characters

Adults, asked about the characters of Star Wars, are likely to mention Han Solo, the jaded gunslinger who abandons his cynicism to help the Rebels; or Luke Skywalker, the picaresque hero whose journey the film depicts. They might mention Princess Leia, the gun-toting Rebel leader who overturns the damsel in distress stereotype. It’s easy to forget the importance of the droids, and R2-D2 in particular.

Lucas spoke early on of his interest in telling the Star Wars story through the eyes of two humble droids. They are lowly foot-soldiers in a giant conflict, like the characters in Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. This is one story idea that doesn’t seem to have been greatly exaggerated in retrospect the way some aspects of Star Wars have.

But R2 was always the more sympathetic of the droids, and the one who is most directly vital to the plot. He has the stolen Death Star plans, of course; he’s the one on a quest to find Obi-Wan Kenobi; and he saves the lives of everyone else in the story.

That’s all well and good, but children in particular will tend to cite R2 as their favourite character in the movie. C-3PO may be the one with a humanoid outline and human voice, but R2 is the one they identify with.

It’s not hard to see why. R2 is, in many respects, just like a child. He’s stubborn. He pursues his key task in the movie (delivering the plans) with the plucky single-mindedness that a child can admire. Yet he pricks the pomposity of his nagging partner, C-3PO. Although C-3PO pretends to some authority over his partner, R2 reacts to him the way a naughty child would. He pursues his own agenda, he sniggers and he makes rude noises. Yet he also wants approval. His feelings are easily hurt, he sulks, he makes sad noises when ticked-off or abandoned.

No wonder kids love him. R2 is essentially a five-year-old.

R2 remains a huge part of the success of Star Wars, and that’s surely a fitting testament to Kenny Baker. 

The future of the character might involve an actor in an aluminium shell, a remote controlled model or a CGI creation. But however R2 is depicted, all involved will be trying to recreate the humanity that Kenny Baker gave the character back in the sweltering heat of Tunisia and Elstree in 1976.


Unknown said...

Recenty-ish, I saw the Mini Tones do a routine on a repeat of 3-2-1 on the Challange Channel. From memory, Ted Rogers mentioned Star Wars in his introduction.

Darren Slade said...

Ah, thanks Dec. I thought I must have seen the Mini-Tones on one of those Palladium-type variety shows of the 1970s, but I wonder whether it was 3-2-1. One to record if we run across it again!