When the Georgia Straight gets Dave Prowse—the man who played Darth Vader in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi—on the telephone, his voice is something of a surprise.
Not that anyone expects him to sound like James Earl Jones—who dubbed Vader in the Star Wars films—but there is a vague expectation that Prowse’s voice will be booming, even menacing, considering his strapping frame and long history of playing cinematic heavies.
As it turns out, he isn’t intimidating at all. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone more amiable and polite. Darth Vader, as it happens, is a kindly gentleman with a soft West Country lilt.
Appearing in Vancouver this coming weekend at Fan Expo Vancouver (April 20-21, at the Vancouver Convention Centre), Prowse is a veteran of the convention circuit, and an enthusiastic—if somewhat astonished—participant in the ongoing popularity of Darth Vader.
“Incredible, isn’t it? I’m just amazed by the whole thing,” the 77-year-old Prowse says, on the line from his home in Croydon, England. “For Darth Vader, who was this terrible baddie, to become the iconic figure of the whole trilogy, as it were, it’s incredible. And the way in which he’s regarded with huge affection, that’s what gets me: you have this terrible villain who everybody loves.”
Starting out as a bodybuilder, the 6’7” Prowse entered the Mr. Universe contest in 1960 as the tallest entrant in the history of the competition. “I had quite a nice physique, although nothing in comparison to what you see now, but at the time I was one of the foremost physiques in the country.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to win. In fact, Prowse was told by the chief of judges that he could never win. “And I said, ‘Well, why not? I’m the biggest competitor you’ve ever had, and I’m only 25, I can get a lot bigger with all the training and eating and everything else.’ And the judge said, ‘Oh no, it’s got nothing to do with your physique, it’s that you’ve got ugly feet!’”
Prowse laughs uproariously as he recounts the judge’s assessment: “’You’ve got hammer toes and bunions and it detracts from your physique, so you’ll never, ever, win this competition!’ So I thought, ‘Well, if this is what bodybuilding’s all about I’ll pack it in.’”
And so he did. But with the physical strength gained during his training for Mr. Universe, Prowse decided to try his hand at weightlifting. It proved a wise choice, as he went on to win the British weightlifting championship in 1962, 1963, and 1964, and was recruited by a stunt and acting agency called Tough Guys.
His first acting job was in the West End London play Don’t Let Summer Come, in which he had one scene, as Death, carrying off a dying character. “I went over and scooped him up,” Prowse says of his audition, “and I said, ‘Where would you like him?’ and they said, ‘Oh, could you do that twice nightly?’ And I said, ‘if you pay me enough, I’ll do it 20 times a night!’ And that got me into the acting business, that got me my equity ticket, as it were. I became Dave Prowse, actor.”
From there, Prowse quickly graduated to the movies, where he found steady work in roles which reflected his massive frame: ‘Muscular Man’ in Up Pompeii (1971), ‘Bearded Torturer’ in Carry on Henry (1971) ‘Strongman’ in Vampire Circus (1972), and of course Dr. Frankenstein’s creation not once but three times, in Casino Royale (1967) as well as in the Hammer films The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973).
However, of all his early film work, it was his role as Julian the bodyguard in A Clockwork Orange (1971), directed by Stanley Kubrick, which really stands out in Prowse’s mind.
“It was an amazing experience, working with Stanley,” Prowse recalls, “I got on very, very well with him. Everybody was frightened to death of him, and frightened to say anything, where I was just the opposite. He was always asking me to come and sit and talk with him. He wanted to talk about weightlifting and bodybuilding and training and all these sorts of things; things that I don’t think anybody’d ever talked to him about before. He was a lovely, lovely, lovely man and I really enjoyed his company.”
Prowse, it seems, was also one of the very few who could—or would—stand up to the notoriously temperamental director when it came to the Kubrick’s endless and physically demanding re-shoots.
“Stanley came to me and said, ‘We’re going to do this scene where you carry Patrick Magee down the stairs in a wheelchair,’ and I said, ‘Whoa-whoa-whoa, hang on a minute, Stanley—you’re name’s not ‘one-take Kubrick’, is it?’ And everybody went quiet on the set and they thought, ‘Old Dave Prowse is going to get the sack here’, but he just smiled and said, ‘We’ll do it as quickly as we can.’ I think we shot it in four or five takes.”
Working with Kubrick opened all kinds of new doors, including the meeting with Star Wars director George Lucas where Prowse was famously offered his choice of roles: Darth Vader or Chewbacca. Chewie’s no slouch, to be sure, but if the past 36 years have illustrated anything, it’s that Prowse surely made the right choice with Vader.
Sadly, Prowse’s relationship with Lucas has soured over the over the years. In 2010, Prowse announced on his website that “It is with regret that I have been informed…that I am not to be invited to C5 [Star Wars Celebration V, an official Lucasfilm Star Wars convention] this year or any other Lucasfilm associated events. After enquiring, the only thing I have been told is that I have ‘burnt too many bridges between Lucasfilm and myself’—no other reason given.”
When asked about the rift, Prowse, says, “I really don’t know what the problem is, to be perfectly honest. I’m always getting asked to do interviews, and when I do these interviews I try to be as honest as possible about anything which is asked. And I think what happened was, I did an interview for somebody or other, and I had no idea who it was, and unfortunately it went into a film called The People vs. George Lucas, and I think this has upset the apple cart. I can’t remember saying anything untoward, but that’s the only thing that’s ever happened, as far as I’m concerned.”
Whatever Lucas thinks, it’s clear that it hasn’t dampened Prowse’s enthusiasm for either Star Wars or his life as an actor. He happily speaks of a career full of great memories, and is a font of amusing stories. But one can also sense his deep passion, especially when he talks about his time in the 1970s and ‘80s as the Green Cross Code Man, promoting children’s road safety in Britain through a series PSAs and public appearances.
“The best job I’ve ever had,” Prowse recalls of the campaign which would see him awarded an MBE for his efforts. “It was tremendous. When we started, 40,000 children a year were getting knocked down—injured and killed—on the roads in Great Britain. And when we finished, we’d actually halved the road accidents and gone down to 20,000. It was an amazing, amazing campaign.”
“Star Wars and the Green Cross Code Man came at exactly the same time,” Prowse continues, “and all the kids knew you were Darth Vader, this was all part and parcel of the whole thing, it just made the whole talk much more acceptable for the children to know that they were actually being spoken to by Darth Vader in the guise of the Green Cross Code Man. But to me, that was a good thing—it made them more aware of road safety.”
Having played not one but two beloved characters, it’s clear that Prowse has been luckier than most when it comes to roles. And though he’s had some health problems (hip and knee replacements have cost him some of his famous height—“I’m probably about six-four now. It’s still quite tall,” he says with a good-natured chuckle), he’s out on the convention circuit more weekends than not, meeting fans ands and helping ensure the legacy of Darth Vader.
But movie-making, it seems, is still in Prowse’s blood—something that’s evident when the conversation turns to the upcoming J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Wars Episode VII. With Disney now in control of the franchise, and Luke (Mark Hamill), Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) likely to return to the screen, could Darth Vader be far behind—even if only in flashback?
It’s a thought that Prowse relishes.
“I would love to be involved, definitely.”