Who is REALLY entitled to the Dark Lord’s glory?
Almost unbelievably, all was not always well on the Star Wars set in 1976. Even though the fantasy being produced would send positive vibes throughout the world for decades to come, it was not an easy ride during the making of it. The truth is, actor David Prowse wasn’t alone in his silent cynical sentiments toward the production as it proceeded. Like much of the native British crew (most of the films’ scenes were shot at Elstree Studios in London) he had a bit of a dismissive view toward what was being referred to as that “space movie”. In fact, it’s alleged that there was a bit of a shared snarky attitude. Whenever asked to vote for overtime – much-needed additional work that could only amount to fifteen minutes – the crew would unanimously vote Star Wars creator George Lucas’ request down. The young director was already approaching a nervous breakdown from trying to keep his mammoth vision afloat, on time and in budget. Dealing with disobliging Brits was the last thing he needed. Whether it was a disagreement with veteran cameraman Gil Taylor or the disheartenment caused by the skepticism of so many around him, all was not easy for George – not at all. At one point he had two backup units picking up shots because the production was behind schedule.
So how would you feel in the writer/director’s shoes? Literally suffering for your vision, and ultimately being rewarded for your persistence with massive success – then see one of your naysayers not only stubbornly embrace a character of your creation, but attempt to make it their own? Indeed, Dave Prowse took the ball and ran with it.
It may seem particularly distasteful in hindsight, considering all of the negativity Prowse relayed to the press since. But shortly after the film’s stellar release, he capitalized on the success immediately. At his age (42) it was an opportunity he would not let pass. He hired an agent and went on non-studio sanctioned personal appearance tours made possible by the popularity of Darth Vader. As he told Starlog Magazine in 1979, “I’m totally identified (as Vader) now… because of all the hard work… to drum up all this personal publicity”. Whereas the primary cast members were sought after for interviews, Prowse aggressively made himself available, seeking every press opportunity possible. He was doing so much and could speak so freely that he eventually publicly speculated that perhaps Darth Vader was really Luke Skywalker’s father, guesswork that could not have sat well with Lucas. In fact, one could imagine the bearded one saying “Just shut up already!”
But shutting up wasn’t Prowse’s style. He even expressed displeasure with the directing style of his true benefactor, Mr. Lucas. He also claimed that he was told that his voice would be “metallized and robotized” for Star Wars, but instead felt overlooked when he eventually heard James Earl Jones’ commanding bass emit from the mask in the final film. Likely due to all of the loose talk, it was decided to keep Prowse in the dark about everything, for the sake of the franchises integrity and secrecy. He was given dummy lines for the Empire Strikes Back, including the pivotal scene that rocked the world. Purportedly, after the immortal “I am your father” was first heard at the world premiere, so betrayed had Prowse felt that he walked out of the theater.
What needs to be understood is that no auditions were EVER held for the character of Darth Vader. Sure every SW fan has seen the videos of the cast, with hopeful actors like Kurt Russell, Teri Nunn and Cindy Williams trying out for the main roles. Why then, is there no video of aspiring Darth Vaders? It’s a simple explanation, really – for the same reason there were no auditions for Chewbacca, R2-D2, or the Jawas. All that was needed was someone of unique stature who could fill the suit! End of story. In fact those roles weren’t cast until the crew arrived in London to begin shooting. So inconsequential was it, they chose to use random locals for the non-essential parts. And even then, Lucas just looked at resumes before hiring the actors who would have some real screen time as masked space aliens. “I didn’t have to read for it. I didn’t have to do anything” Prowse recalled for Starlog Magazine in 1978. In fact, he was given his choice of TWO roles – Darth Vader or Chewbacca! Clearly, the need to fill costumes was the greater priority over finding the perfect performers.
So it makes sense that Prowse could eventually make more of a pest of himself than an asset in Lucas’ eyes. Before production on Empire, Dave hired a lawyer and actually managed to negotiate for a “minute” percentage of the film. Lucas could have easily replaced him but for the integrity of the sequel, presumably, he worked out a deal that probably kept Prowse supported for life.
But that’s not to say that the former bodybuilder wasn’t a popular component of the franchise without fans of his own. He used to do quite well at conventions selling signed pictures at fifty dollars a pop, and has even had a full length documentary made about him (he appears in others, too, often talking of how he was snubbed).
2015’s “I Am Your Father” plays on the angle that Prowse suffered another injustice when at the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader’s mask is removed to reveal the face of – some other actor (actually, his name was Sebastian Shaw, a Shakespearean-caliber thespian. But hey, Prowse played Patrick McGee’s manservant once). Supposedly Prowse couldn’t believe that Lucas stuck it to him again. First his voice wasn’t used and now his face! What about all of his involvement, the preparation, meetings over character development… oh right, there was none of that. He showed up for a costume fitting.
But the young filmmaker behind “I Am Your father” was so appalled by the lack of respect Mr. Prowse alleges to have suffered, that he even put up his own money to reshoot that climatic scene in Jedi, replacing Shaw with the now 80 year-old Prowse. Copyright restrictions prevent the new footage from actually being in the documentary or even uploaded online. But hey, it’s a good deed, admittedly kind of fun, and I look forward to seeing it when it leaks after Lucas passes away.
Remarkably, it seems that even to this day, you’ll read a little snippet here or there to the effect of ‘Darth Vader actor sees no royalties from Return of the Jedi’. “I get these occasional letters from Lucasfilm saying that… Jedi has never gone into profit” Prowse has relayed incredulously. That might be true; I can imagine Lucas trying to have a bit of a last word in response to Dave making a nuisance of himself back in ’82 and inserting some hidden clause in the Prowse contract that affected his ROTJ profits. It’s my understanding that the actor didn’t actually do much in that film anyway, was unpleasant to be around and is only in the shots where Vader appears fat. It’s been confirmed that it is not Dave executing those spry swordfight moves. But it doesn’t matter, Prowse has benefited exceedingly well from an initial call 40+ years ago that probably went something like this, “Hey, you want a gig down at Elstree wearing a costume for a couple weeks?”
It’s ironic, I made it through this with barely mentioning the legendary James Earl Jones, who has been incredibly gracious toward Prowse, even telling Star Wars Insider magazine, “David Prowse IS Darth Vader” (that’s even how Prowse signs his photos, lest anyone forget). But I disagree with the accomplished Mr. Jones. When I think of Darth Vader, I think of that awesome costume design and that booming menacing voice FIRST, and then the burly actor who walked around and pointed sometimes.