In 2007 we had a chat with Dave Prowse, the man behind the mask of everyone favorite villain, Darth Vader. See what he had to say about becoming the leader of the Empire, and the surprises along the way.
The American Film institute named him the third greatest movie villain of all time and director Kevin Smith once called him ”That dark vision of unholy evil and looming terror.”
The sound of his deep, methodic breaths have become synonymous with two words – his name: Darth Vader. And since his first scene in 1977’s Star Wars, Vader has been the epitome of malevolence and among the most mysterious characters in movie history.
But what has emerged in the 30 years since Vader first walked on screen to the sound of The Imperial March is less mystery about the character itself than the man behind the mask.
Audiences never heard him speak a word of Darth Vader’s dialogue in any of the six Star Wars films. And in that sense, it is ironic that actor Dave Prowse is so outspoken about his role as the Sith Lord.
So Fly got a hold of Prowse in early September at his London office and let him do the talking – about his career, the most popular film franchise in history and how his road to being the Empire’s resident bad-ass all began with feet.
Dave Prowse’s aspirations as a young man in England never revolved around being lord of the galaxy. As a matter of fact, he was more interested in being Mr. Universe. And at 6’7″ and 240 pounds, Prowse seemed like a shoe-in for the title until he got some disappointing news.
“At the end of the competition [the judges] said that I would never, ever win Mr. Universe because I have ugly feet,” says Prowse. “And I said, ‘Well, you know, I can’t do anything about the feet.’”
Putting the disappointment of his hammer toes behind him, Prowse moved on to competitive weightlifting and training for the Olympics until, in a financial crunch, the Weightlifting Association decided not to send him.
And so, with another set of shattered dreams, Prowse decided to cash in
on his physique in other ways. He soon took a part as “Death” in a London
theatre production. And though it was a small part, it got him into the British actors’ union, which eventually helped land him his first movie role in the 1966 film Casino Royale.
Prowse’s Royale role as Frankenstein’s monster would be the first of three times he would play the famous part. The next two came in movies produced by the famed British horror studio, Hammer Films.
In 1971, Prowse got his big break as “Julian the bodyguard” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. And although the film was pulled from distribution in England after Kubrick received death threats over its graphic content, Clockwork was in theaters long enough for a young director by the name of George Lucas to see it.
Five years later, Lucas still remembered the name of the hulk he had seen
in Clockwork and brought him in for a meeting at the 20th Century
“We went in to meet George, and it was like a long room and had … loads of drawings all the way around the room,” says Prowse. “They were all conceptual drawings for the different scenes and characters.
“[Lucas] said, ‘I’m doing this film called Star Wars and I’d like to offer you one of two parts in the movie.’
“And I thought, ‘Wow, this is great, I’m being offered two parts! … What are the two parts?’
“He said, ‘The first one is a character called Chewbacca.’
“I said, ‘What the hell is that?’”
After hearing the description of the good-guy Wookie, Prowse quickly turned it down, asking Lucas about the second character he was offering.
“[Lucas] said, ‘The other one is the big villain of the film, a character called Darth Vader.’
“I said, ‘Don’t say any more, George – I’ll take the villain’s part.’
“He said, ‘Tell me why.’
“And I said, ‘Well, if you think back on all the movies that you’ve ever seen where there are goodies and baddies – you always remember the baddie.’
“And he said, ‘Dave, I think you’ve made a very wise decision, because nobody will ever forget Darth Vader.’”
Even as Prowse finished the very first Star Wars movie, he clearly had no idea just how unforgettable his character, and the movie, would become.
When asked what Star Wars was about in a 1977 interview with Little Shoppe of Horrors journal, Prowse said it “is about this spaceship that travels around the universe keeping all the galaxies in check. … I’m in control of all this – I’m the bloke that does all the dirty work.”
This simplistic look at the movie is surprising, considering that the franchise would ultimately become a very complex epic about one man’s rise and fall to the dark side. But Prowse could have never foreseen Vader’s legendary future. And it would not be the only thing Prowse never saw coming.
“I did the voice [of Vader] all the way through all three movies,” he says. “But everything I’m saying is coming through the mask and is obviously no good for reproduction purposes. I kept saying to George, ‘What are we going to
do about the voice?’”
Lucas assured Prowse that Vader’s lines would be re-recorded in a studio later, and, assuming that he would be the one to read them, Prowse awaited the call. What he got instead was a telegram from his friend and director, Russ Myer, after the film opened, which read, “Congratulations, Dave. You’re in the biggest movie of all time. By the way, did you know they’ve overdubbed your voice?”
Rumors say that James Earl Jones was tapped to be the voice of Vader because of Prowse’s west-country British accent (Mark Hamill, a.k.a. Luke Skywalker, once said that the crew referred to Prowse as “Darth Farmer”), but Prowse maintains that it was because Lucas wanted Star Wars to be known as an American film. Thus, Lucas added in more American voices.
To avoid storyline leaks in the Star Wars films that followed, Prowse was not only kept in the dark about his own character’s death (and the casting of Sebastian Shaw as the face of Anakin Skywalker), but also about one of the biggest plot twists in cinematic history.
“I never had a copy of the script on [‘The Empire Strikes Back’]. There were no scripts available,” says Prowse. “So I had no idea as to the fact that Vader was going to turn out to be Luke Skywalker’s father.”
In fact, Prowse was given a false set of dialogue, while Hamill was taken aside before the scene was shot and given the real dialogue containing that infamous line: “No, I am your father.”
To this day, Prowse says he’s never seen a script for Empire or Return of the Jedi. And for many years, his contribution to the Darth Vader character was minimized. 20th Century Fox even went so far as to tell Prowse that Vader was “an amalgamation of three people” – Prowse, Jones, and stuntman Bob Anderson – further reducing Prowse’s part in the character’s legacy.
But his involvement was everything.
“I had no direction whatsoever from George Lucas,” says Prowse. “Everything that you saw in Star Wars and Empire and Jedi was all of my own volition, something I decided to do.
“When I started work on the movie, I wanted to make everybody subservient to Darth Vader. … When the captains are talking to me, or when we were on the march, I wanted them to almost run to catch up with me.”
Despite being kept in the dark during filming, and often living in the shadows of Jones’ voice, Prowse still loves this world he stumbled into.
“I’m eternally grateful for having been offered the role of Vader,” says Prowse. “I’m very proud of the fact that I made such a good job of Vader. I’m really very, very happy with my association with Star Wars, and long may it continue.”