Actor Dave Prowse on how Darth Vader ended up happily settled in Croydon, turning down Chewbacca and falling out with George Lucas
PUBLISHED: 10:30 20 February 2014 | UPDATED: 13:24 27 April 2018
In an exclusive interview with Surrey Life, Dave Prowse, the man behind Darth Vader's mask, reveals why he didn't want to play Chewbacca, what he really thinks of the films and how he's happily settled in Croydon after retiring from the dark side…
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (well, 1977, to be precise, in a fleapit cinema in Merthyr Tydfil), I sat open-mouthed as the opening titles to Star Wars filled the big screen.
It’s no exaggeration to say that it changed my life. I became obsessed with all things intergalactic, buying endless packets of chewing gum so I could fill the gaps in my Star Wars sticker album, and even converting my mother’s walk-in airing cupboard into the Millennium Falcon. There can’t be many mums who’ve entered warp speed while popping in for a clean towel!
Little did I realise as I watched Darth Vader striding imperiously through the Death Star that one day I would be sipping tea with the Dark Lord himself... in a semi in Croydon. But even twisted Jedi masters have to retire, and let’s face it, that pesky Rebel Alliance did have an annoying habit of blowing up his des res. So Croydon seemed the next best thing – obviously.
It’s your destiny...
Dave Prowse, the man behind that iconic costume, is 78 now, but Star Wars still colours his life. When we meet, he has just returned from a Star Wars convention in Paris and is preparing to fly out to another in Stockholm. “If I wanted to, I could be in a different part of the world every weekend,” he says.
He landed the role when he got a call from the managing director of 20th Century Fox, informing him that director George Lucas was in town and wanted to see him. “He was looking for a large, imposing actor and at the time I was six foot seven and weighed 20 stone.
“When we were introduced, Lucas, who remembered me from Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, offered me two roles. The first was a character called Chewbacca. I said: ‘What the hell is Chewbacca?’ and he told me it was a hairy gorilla on the side of the good guys. Well, all I could think about was three months in a gorilla suit, so I said, ‘What’s the other part?’ And he said it was the big villain of the film, so I chose that because people always remember the bad guy.”
Dave’s quilted leather costume was made to measure, but his fibreglass helmet was another matter. “It weighed 40 pounds and was way too big, so whenever I turned my head the mask still faced forward. They had to pad it out with foam rubber, but the damned thing still wobbled when they turned the wind machines on.”
Worse was to come. As soon as he started breathing inside the mask, his eye pieces steamed up and he couldn’t see where he was going. So every few minutes he had to remove the helmet to wipe away the condensation, before resuming his plans for intergalactic domination.
“I thought we were filming a load of rubbish, I really did,” he laughs. “We had these strange characters wandering around, the sets frequently toppled over and none of the cast seemed to know where their bits slotted into the rest of the movie.”
Dave worked on all the original films, but his favourite is The Empire Strikes Back. “We had a wonderful director, Irvin Kershner, and I thought the carbon freezing scenes [where Han Solo appeared to meet a grisly end] were sensational.”
But he feels the films took a nosedive with Return of the Jedi. “I didn’t like the ewoks. The premise that a bunch of teddy bears with sticks and stones could defeat the might of the storm troopers was totally unbelievable.” He is even more critical of the recent prequels, claiming they bear no comparison to the originals.
His comments have not gone unnoticed by Lucasfilm, who have banned him from official Star Wars fan conventions. Lucas has given no reason, other than to state that Dave has “burnt too many bridges” between Lucasfilm and himself. As far as Dave is concerned, however, his feelings towards the production team began to sour early on when American actor James Earl Jones was hired to redub Dave’s lines on Star Wars.
“I kept asking Lucas what we were going to do about the sound quality because everything I said behind the mask sounded muffled. He told me not to worry – we’d re-record my dialogue at the end. But it proved too expensive to fly me out to Hollywood, so they got one of the best voiceover artists in the business, who did a great job.”
Lucas maintains that he had never intended using Dave’s voice, but Dave is clearly unconvinced and says the thing that hurt him most was the fact that “it was all done without telling me”. He also refuses to accept that his strong Bristol accent may have influenced Lucas’ decision, even though Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) once quipped that he was nicknamed ‘Darth Farmer’ on set because of his unintimidating West Country vowels. “I could have done just as good a Darth Vader voice,” he says.
But another disappointment was to come – when veteran British actor Sebastian Shaw stepped in for Darth Vader’s momentous unmasking scene at the end of Return of the Jedi. “Again, they never ran it past me,” he alleges. “They never said, ‘Dave – do you mind if someone else plays you?’ Everybody was waiting to see me and instead they unmasked an old man covered in make-up.”
For the showdown between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Darth Vader, he claims he wasn’t even given the real lines and had no idea about the big revelation until he saw it at the premiere. “Suddenly, there was me saying to Luke, ‘I am your father’ – and I thought ‘This is new!’ I was sitting behind Mark, who knew the real dialogue, and he thought I was going to jump over three rows of seats and smash him for not telling me.”
This didn’t deter Lucas from suspecting Dave of leaking information about plotlines, however. Though Dave strongly denied the allegation, he was barely used on Return of the Jedi and Lucas never spoke to him again.
“I can only assume it’s because I do interviews like this and like to be truthful,” he says. “But I never say anything that is detrimental to Lucas or the films. And you can’t blame me for having an opinion. It really saddens me that I don’t have a personal friendship with Lucas because he’s a genius and I’m full of admiration for him.”
Happily, away from the movie world, Dave leads a contented life in Addiscombe, Croydon, with his wife Norma. He settled there in 1963 when he was invited to become a European sales manager for a company specialising in body-building equipment and health supplements.
“Croydon gets a bad press, but the town centre is wonderful,” he says. “It has two large shopping areas, lovely swimming pools, an excellent tram system, for which I attended the launch, and it’s close to Crystal Palace football ground. It’s also conveniently close to the M25, Heathrow and Gatwick – which is perfect for me because I’m always travelling.”
Following the code… Dave’s path to stardom began in his teens when he took up body building. “I’d spent the best part of a year in hospital with suspected tuberculosis of the knee and when I came out all I wanted to do was exercise because I looked like a beanpole.”
He began competing professionally, even entering the Mr Universe contest in 1960. But when a judge told him he would never win a major contest because his feet were too ugly, he switched to weightlifting, winning the British Weightlifting Championships three years in a row. He went on to compete in the World Championships and the Empire Games (now the Commonwealth Games), but quit when he failed to be selected for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
Undeterred, he opened several gyms and bulked up many actors for famous film roles, including Christopher Reeve for Superman and Daniel Day Lewis for The Last of the Mohicans. But he was soon sucked into showbiz himself, often cast as muscle men or monsters in everything from Doctor Who and The Tomorrow People to Hammer’s The Horror of Frankenstein.
Darth Vader aside, however, he is best known as the Green Cross Code man, a superhero invented to promote a British road safety campaign for children (1971-1990). “We reduced road accident figures in the UK by more than half and saved around a quarter of a million children’s lives,” says Dave, who received an MBE in 2000 for his contribution.
But to Star Wars fans, he will always be the Dark Lord, and he is excited about the plans to shoot Star Wars: Episode VII at Pinewood Studios next spring. Does he have any advice for wannabes, keen to secure a role in the new film? “Be very serious about the whole thing,” he says. “After all, you can’t go, ‘Ooh-arr, here’s my lightsaber!’”
A Star Wars character with a West Country accent? Now that would be ridiculous... wouldn’t it, Dave?
My Favourite Surrey…
Restaurant: Albert’s Table in South Croydon. The food is delicious and the service is excellent.
Shop: Coolings Garden Centre at Knockholt, Sevenoaks, near the Surrey/Kent border. It has a nice restaurant and we always buy our garden equipment there.
View: From Shirley Hills in Croydon. You can see right across South London.
Place to relax: My getaway cabin at the bottom of the garden, where I weight train.