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The Man Behind Darth Vader (Interview with Dave Prowse)

Written by: Marshall Ward

Actor Dave Prowse, in his iconic portrayal of Darth Vader, could command the power of the dark side to hurl objects through the air or crush his rivals’ throats by telekinesis.

And while Prowse doesn’t possess any telekinetic abilities (that we know of), he’s using his hands these days to sign thousands of autographs for Star Wars fans at sci-fi conventions around the world. In the weeks ahead, Prowse will be appearing at comic conventions in London, Birmingham, Dallas and Detroit, before headlining the huge Star Wars Weekend IV in Taastrup, Denmark.

Standing at an imposing six-foot-seven, the former bodybuilder and champion weightlifter personified the nefarious Darth Vader in the original trilogy, while James Earl Jones performed the unmistakable voice.  Prowse also appeared in such popular films as Casino RoyaleHorror of Frankenstein, and A Clockwork Orange, along with numerous TV shows like Benny HillDr. Who, and The Beverly Hillbillies.

Coming up on the 30th anniversary of Episode VI: Return of the JediRock Cellar Magazine recently tracked down actor Dave Prowse to chat about sci-fi conventions, meeting James Earl Jones, and the dark side of The Force.

Rock Cellar Magazine: How many times a year are you invited to appear at sci-fi conventions?

Dave Prowse:  If I wanted to be somewhere different in the world, every weekend, I could be.  That’s how big Star Wars is as these appearances take me all over the world – Liverpool, Norwich, El Paso, Cincinnati, Montreal, Toronto, Boston.  Then I’m off to Stockholm, Hamburg, Italy, France.  It’s amazing, isn’t it?

RCM: What do you take away from these conventions, besides money?

DP:  Love and affection (laughs). Honestly, I’m always amazed by the adulation you get from fans for a job I did 35 years ago. The nostalgia is incredible, as the people remember you with so much love and adulation.  And who would have thought, this character who is now regarded as the most famous villain of all time, would be received with so much love and affection.  It’s incredible.

RCM:  With all the Darth Vader toys and photos you’ve signed over the years, do fans ever surprise you these days with some rare piece of memorabilia you haven’t seen before?

DP:  No, it’s very rare nowadays that I would see anything I haven’t seen before, after being involved with these things for 30-odd years.  I think I must have seen just about everything by now.

RCM:  What’s in your personal Darth Vader collection?

DP:  Not much, really.  I’ve got a beautiful pewter statue which stands in the hallway of my house which everyone remarks on when they come in.  It was made by a company called Compulsion, and unfortunately the guy who sculpted it died soon after it was made.  But it’s beautiful.  They made four different ones — R2D2, C-3PO, Boba Fett, and Darth Vader. They weigh something like 90 kilos each and they were very expensive.  But obviously they gave me one, so that’s where it stands in my hallway.

RCM:  Do you have anything from the original Darth Vader costume?

DP:  I’ve got a replica mask, helmet and the breastplate, but that’s locked away.  It would have to be a very, very special occasion for me to get it out (laughs).  It’s in great shape, has not deteriorated whatsoever, and it has just increased in value over all this time.  Which is an interesting bit to think about.

RCM: How well could you see out of the Darth Vader mask?

DP:  As soon as I put it on and started breathing, all the heat and sweat from wearing the quilted leather suit – weighing about 40 pounds in total – would rise up inside the mask and fog up the eyepieces, making it really difficult to see where you’re going.

RCM: What if you had an itch?

DP:  If you had a terrible itch you could move the mask around and use the inside of the mask to scratch your nose, ’cause there really wasn’t anything inside it.  But I remember sweating and how the sweat would pour down my face and come out of the bottom of the mouthpiece. S o it was a matter of having it on for a few minutes and then taking the helmet and mask off, wipe the eyepieces down, then put it back on for another few minutes. But once the suit was on, it had a male-like and female-like fixing on the top for the head, so you had to almost unscrew it just to take it off.

RCM: Did you have to audition for the role?

DP:  When I first met [director] George Lucas, he said, “I’d like to offer you two parts for this movie I’m doing,” and I said, “What are the two parts?” And he said, “Well, the first character is called Chewbacca,” and I said, “What’s that?” George said, “It’s like a hairy gorilla.”

I thought about spending three months in a gorilla skin and I said, “No, you can keep that one, George.” So I asked him what’s the other one, and he told me the other role is a big villain in the film, a character called Darth Vader.  And I said, “Don’t say anymore, George. I’ll be the villain’s part.”  He asked me why, and I said, “When you think back on all the movies you’ve ever seen, you always remember the bad guy.”  I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – choosing to play the role of Darth Vader over Chewbacca.

RCM:  I once read that you tried to get the lead role in the 1978 film Superman…?

DP:  Yeah, I tried very hard to get the Superman role, which obviously went to Christopher Reeve.  I kept on talking to various people, asking about the opportunity to play the role of Superman in this upcoming movie I’d heard about.  I’d ask them, “What’s the problem?” and they’d say, “Well, you’re not American are you?” I’d say, “What difference does that make?” Then they’d say, “Oh no, you can’t have anything but an American as Superman!”

RCM: Was it because of your English accent?

DP:  No, it had nothing to do with the accent.  What it is, was, they’d said that Superman is such a major part of American comic folklore history, and the American public – who are going to account for 90% of the revenue for the movie – just would not accept anything but an American Superman.  So that was the end of that, so I gave up trying.

RCM:  But you ended up being Christopher Reeve’s personal trainer as he prepared for the role, right?

DP:  Yes, even though I wanted the role for myself (laughs). What happened was one day I got a call from Dick Donner, the director, and he said, “Dave, we’ve got this guy called Christopher Reeve who is going to play Superman,” and I said, “Great – what’s he like?”  He said, “Oh, he’s about 6 foot 5 and about 160 lbs, and I said, “What do you mean?  It sounds like he’s really skinny.”  So they asked for my help and said, “We’re going to have to build him up.” I wanted to meet Christopher first before I committed to training him, so I sat down with him and found him to be very, very nice.  I spent six weeks with him before he went into the Superman suit, and I got 40 pounds on him in six weeks!  And he looked quite good by the time he went into the suit.

RCM:  You were a professional bodybuilder who transitioned into competitive weightlifting before you began acting.  Do you still work out regularly?

DP:  I still train and exercise. I was still weightlifting until I had this recent knee trouble.  I had a serious operation on my leg about 18 months ago.  I had my hip, my femur, and my knee all replaced in one go.  I had an infection on the side of my leg which was oozing like mad.  What I didn’t know was the infection was eating away everything inside, as it were. When they operated they told me, “We can give you a new hip and new femur, but your patella, where your knee was is so far gone that we can’t do anything about that.”  So fortunately, they put everything back together, but unfortunately, my knee has become very, very painful.  I can’t walk around on my leg very well.  I walk around with a single crutch everywhere, but it doesn’t stop me from doing everything I want to do. I can still get around, I can drive and do all these conventions.

People on the airline take pity on me (laughs), so I occasionally get upgraded when they see me hobbling in on a single crutch.  It’s good – I really play it up! They’re really nice.

RCM:  How did you make the transition from bodybuilding and weightlifting to acting in major films?

DP:  After a short time competing as a bodybuilder, I finished up in the Mr. Universe contest before changing over to competitive weightlifting where I became the British Heavyweight Champion.  I did that for about five years and then I did the Empire Games in Perth, Australia and the World Championships in Budapest.  Then 1964 came along and I was training for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, and at the very last minute the weightlifting association turned around and said, “We’re ever so sorry, but we haven’t got enough money to compete, so you won’t be going.”

So I had to think about whether I should carry on training for the next four years with the hopes I’ll get selected for the next Olympics, or should I turn professional and make some money out of a career?  And that was when my career in the film business started, when I decided I wouldn’t worry about competing in four years time.  At the time, I was working in a gym which was also a stunt agency.  One day the manager asked me if I ever considered going into show business.  And that’s when I started to get offers from agencies for stunt work.  So it all started off with stunt work, but eventually I got myself some really good agents and some really good acting work started coming my way.

RCM:  Like the 1973 British horror movie, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell?

DP:  Yes, that was actually one of my favorite films and I think one of my best acting performances as well.  I was the monster and wore a mask and the body was built up on a wetsuit.  It was the second time I played the monster role in a Hammer Film, as I did the Horror of Frankenstein as well a few years earlier.

RCM: How was Horror of Frankenstein received by audiences?

DP: Producer Jimmy Sangster had fun with the genre, rather than filming it as a pure gothic horror film, so I don’t think the Hammer horror aficionados appreciated it very much.  But I thought Ralph Bates, who played the role of Dr. Frankenstein did a great job while Kate O’Mara and Veronica Carlson provided all the sex and glamour.  I remember being on the set was quite an enjoyable experience.

RCM:  What was it like working with Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange?

DP:  Oh, that was an amazing film and working with Stanley Kubrick was one of the greatest experiences of my film career.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and he was absolutely super to me.  I got along very, very well with him.  It actually took me ages to meet him to start with, as he kept calling me to go and see him, but every time I traipsed all the way up to his place – about two hours to get to his house – he’d be delayed because he was working all the time.  But eventually we met up this one Sunday night at his house and he wanted to talk at length about my film career, and my weightlifting and bodybuilding career.  I remember all I had to do was read one line, and Stanley said, “We’d like you very much to play this role.”  So I ended up playing the part of Julian, the bodyguard to the writer.

The film was only released for a short period because unfortunately, Stanley started getting all these death threats because everybody thought the film was terribly sexual and terribly violent;  and there were people who threatened to kill him!  So he decided that nobody was ever going to see this film again and said, “I’m going to take it off the circuit.” And that’s what he did, he recalled it and the film was basically put on the shelf and nobody actually saw the film again until Stanley died.  The film came out almost right away after he died.  But for the brief period it was out, George Lucas saw it, and he remembered me. When I met him he said, “I saw you in Clockwork Orange, and if you’re good enough for Stanley Kubrick, you’re good enough for me.”

RCM:  When was the last time you spoke with George Lucas?

DP:  I haven’t seen George since the end of filming Jedi. That would be the last time I’ve ever spoken with him.

RCM:  I’ve read that, though you delivered all of Darth Vader’s lines on set, you were unaware that your voice would be overdubbed with that of James Earl Jones in Star Wars.  Is this true?

DP:  When I got the script for Star Wars, I did all of Darth Vader’s dialogue, all the way through the movie.  But I kept turning to George and saying, “What are we going to do with Darth Vader’s dialogue, because everything I’m saying is coming muffled through the mask?”  He said, “Oh yeah, don’t worry, we’re going to the sound studios and we’ll record all of your dialogue at the end of the movie.”  Well, unfortunately, I assumed wrongly that it was me that was going to go into the sound studio and record all the dialogue.  Anyway, what happened was they got to the end of the movie and they took it back to America because they couldn’t get all the special effects they wanted.

So when they were in America they had a choice of either flying me all the way over to Hollywood, or wherever they were doing the dubbing, for half a dozen lines because Darth Vader didn’t say an awful lot during the course of the picture, or the alternative was to employ a voice-over actor – and James Earl Jones fit the part perfectly.   think he did a wonderful job.

RCM:  Have you ever met James Earl Jones?

DP:  I met him for the first time a couple of months ago.  He came over to England to do Driving Miss Daisy, but prior to that, I’d never met him.  I tried to meet him a year or so ago when he came for the play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and I had made arrangements to meet him.  James was stuck in London, waiting to fly out of England because of that big ash cloud from the volcano in Iceland.  They thought the ash would damage the jet engines, but then they announced on the news that it wasn’t as dangerous as they originally thought, so James was on the next plane out to New York, so I missed him that time.

Then he came over again and his son, Flynn got in touch with me and said, “Look, James definitely wants to meet up with you,” so they sent me and my wife tickets to a matinee.  So we finally met, after all these years, and James was absolutely lovely.  When we spoke, I was very complimentary about everything he did and he was very complimentary about everything I did.  The nicest thing was actually towards the end of our visit and he said, “You know, Dave, I would love to do a sci-fi convention with you.”  And I said, “If you’re really serious about that, James, I could arrange that very, very easily!”  It would be really great to do one together.

The other interesting thing about that performance was that Vanessa Redgrave was in the play, and I used to be her personal trainer years ago.  So it was quite the event, for me, meeting up with Vanessa and James at the same time.

RCM: How often do you meet up with other cast members of the original Star Wars trilogy?

DP:  Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) you see quite regularly at sci-fi conventions, along with Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian).  But you’d never see Harrison Ford, he never does conventions, and Mark Hamill you see very rarely.  And then of course the rest of the cast were all English, so I’ll see them at all the English conventions and a lot of the American conventions, we’ll all go to and fro.  You’ve got R2D2 [Kenny Baker], C-3PO [Anthony Daniels], Boba Fett [Jeremy Bulloch], Chewbacca [Peter Mayhew] and myself.  Then you’ll get the lesser-known cast members, like people who played Ewoks [Warwick Davis],  Jawas, and that kind of thing.  Then there’s people from the newer Star Wars movies, you’ll see at these conventions as well.

RCM: How do you feel about the more recent Star Wars films, like Episode One: The Phantom Menace?

DP:  I personally didn’t like them very much at all, to be honest.  I didn’t think they compared to the first three in any way, really.  There were a couple of good things I saw, like the pod racing scene along with the introduction of Darth Maul, but I think they killed that character off too early.  They should have kept him until Episode Three and had Darth Vader kill him off.  Those films got too complicated and I don’t feel the characters ever had the same feel as the ones in the original trilogy.  I don’t think fans ever felt the same level of affection for those characters, as they did with the first three pictures.  Those new Star Wars movies were a great example of Lucas’ art and film-making, but they lost the plot as far as the story is concerned.

RCM:  When filming the original trilogy, how much of the full plot did you know?

DP:  Well, what a lot of people don’t realize is, when we did Star Wars they had a script, so basically everyone knew what the story was for Star Wars.  But when it came to Empire, they got absolutely paranoid about secrecy.  And what they used to do is they would courier your pages to you the night before you were performing, and that would be the first time you’d see them.  You’d have to learn the lines overnight and then go back into the studios in the morning and do your little bit of acting.  Then we’d have to hand our pages back in.

So the only thing you knew about the film was that little bit you were going to do that day, if you even had half a dozen scenes or so.  You knew nothing about anything else that was going on.  So basically, although I knew the story of the first film while we were making it, I knew nothing of the second two movies.

RCM:  The plot twist of Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father was also kept a secret until the film was released in theatres, right?

DP:  Yes, I didn’t know I was Luke’s father until I was in Hollywood at the premiere and saw the film.  I remember thinking “Wow,  this is quite the switch!”  Like I said, I wasn’t privy to everything going on in the movie, and was disappointed when I learned that the dying Darth Vader would be played by actor Sebastian Shaw.  I think the fans were disappointed too, as they hoped to see Dave Prowse when Darth Vader was finally unmasked.

RCM:  How did Sebastian Shaw get the role of the dying Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker?

DP:  What happened there was Sebastian Shaw was a great friend of Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi), and by chance Shaw was having a bad time of it financially.  So Shaw said to Sir Alec Guinness, “Do you think you can get in touch with George Lucas and see if he can get me a part in this movie you’re doing?” And so Alec Guinness asked George, and George said the only thing available is the role of the dying Darth Vader.  So that’s how Sebastian Shaw came to do it.  And that was all that we saw of him in the film, that tiny little bit.

Unfortunately, everybody was expecting to see me, and unfortunately for me, they got to see Sebastian Shaw.  I would have loved to play that part.  And it had nothing to do with any problems they were having with me, or anything like that.  It was simply Alec doing his friend a favor and George was doing him a favor, as it were.

RCM:  Having played the role of Darth Vader under a mask, you have a certain degree of anonymity when you go out in public though, right?

DP:  Well, it’s interesting you should say that, because only in recent years have I become even more recognizable, as I’m now sort of a public figure, since becoming the vice-president of the Physically Handicapped and Able-bodied Association.  And I’ve become the face of the Prostate Cancer Association’s campaign, so they’ve got my face plastered all over the backs of buses and in bus shelters. So everywhere I go, people recognize me now. Whereas before, up until a couple years ago, being Darth Vader hardly made any difference to anybody in this area where I live in England.  Nobody here thinks of Dave Prowse as Darth Vader, or at least they didn’t think of it that way, but now it’s completely different. In fact, I get requests all the time now, as some really obscure charities try getting in touch with you, and so you have to be very careful in the selection, and how much you get involved in.

RCM:  And people in England would also remember you from your involvement with the children’s road safety program, The Green Cross Code, right?

DP:  Yes, I became the figurehead of the government’s child road safety campaign which lasted 14 years, where I was on television for five nights a week in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, teaching children how to cross the roads safely.  I traveled all over the world, visiting three schools a day, five days a week for eight months of the year.  If I remember correctly, I visited something like 700 towns and cities and gave my talk to over half a million children.

People still come up to me at conventions and ask me about being the Green Cross Code Man, as they remember seeing me on TV dressed up like a Superman-type character.  It was a wonderful job, it was a fantastic campaign to be a part of, and one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.  And I think a large measure of the campaign’s success – reducing road accidents in the UK from 40,000 a year to 20,000 – was because kids knew that the Green Cross Code Man was also Darth Vader, and they liked the idea of Darth Vader giving them advice (laughs).

RCM:  You’re still traveling the world, with appearances at sci-fi conventions planned throughout North America well into 2013.  Do you ever plan to slow down?

DP:  I don’t want to retire – life is fantastic!  I do so many great shows and meet so many wonderful people. It’s been just incredible.  Along with these huge sci-fi conventions that keep growing in size – Fan Expo Canada, Dragon Con, Comic Con International – the nostalgia and popularity of Star Wars seems to grow bigger with every passing year.

And still, 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.

~*~*~*

Star Wars Fans: Visit Dave Prowse’s Website HERE.

Dave Prowse Official Facebook Page: HERE!

Dave Prowse’s brand new autobiography Straight From the Force’s Mouth is now available. Click photo for more details:

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