Wednesday, 5 November 2008
Meet Dave Prowse, the man behind the mask of the Lord of the Dark Side.
Unless you were an avid fan of the original three Star Wars films, you may not recognise Dave Prowse's name. But mention Darth Vader and the distinctive breathing, angular mask, mechanical chest and long black cape instantly spring to mind.
It is almost ironic that the man who played one of the most iconic science-fiction villains in the history of film only ever had ambitions to be Mr Universe, and from the age of 15 to 25, this was the only career Dave Prowse pursued.
Although he came second or third in many Mr Universe tournaments, his 6' 7" frame meant he never looked as muscly as the smaller contenders, and once a judge told him his ugly feet would always count against him, he turned with success to weight lifting, representing England in the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia.
"I became the British Heavy Weight lifting champion for three years until retiring in 1964 because I didn’t go to Tokyo for the Olympic Games," explains Dave. "I was selected but at the last moment they decided they didn’t have enough money to send a heavy weight to Tokyo so I thought I'd turn to professional acting, just to see what happened and within two weeks I was offered a part in a play."
Although he was 31 when he started acting, he quickly moved into television commercials, and then onto the now cult television series of the 60s and 70s.
"I was in Avengers, The Beverly Hillbillies, Space 1999, The Benny Hill Shows, Dr. Who - in fact every television series that came out of Elstree and Pinewood studios."
"I worked with Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii and then again in Up The Chastity Belt. On my first day there he was chasing me around the entire time," Dave says, laughing. "But he was very nice to me, and we became quite good friends during the filming."
"I also did Carry On Henry which was one of the funniest times I ever had; it was great. I played the executioner and was very fortunate to get the part although it involved much hanging around for me to do my bit, but I was stuck with Kenneth Williams."
"I was sat with him for five days and he had me in absolute stitches from the time I arrived in the morning until the time I left at night. He was so hilarious, I’ve never come across anybody who could keep me amused for so long; I had the best experience with Kenny."
More roles followed, including a part in Stanley Kubrick's infamous film, Clockwork Orange, and by a twist of fate, it was this job that lead to him being offered the part of Darth Vader.
"It was 1976 when George Lucas came over to the the UK. I got a call from the managing director of Twentieth Century Fox, saying we’ve got this guy over here who is casting for a film and he wants to you. I was shocked that anyone was looking for me, so I went to the Twentieth Century Fox office and met up with him."
"George said, 'I am doing this film called Star Wars which is a space fantasy movie, and I would like to offer you one of two parts.' I asked how he knew of me, and he said he had seen Clockwork Orange in 1971 and had remembered me ever since. He also said, 'If you are good enough to work for Stanley Kubrick, you are good enough to work for me.'"
"I was surprised because the film only came out very briefly because Kubrick was getting all sorts of death threats and eventually they took it off the circuit and no one could see it after that. Anyway, I asked George what the two parts were."
"The first character was Chewbacca who George described as a hairy gorilla on the side of the goodies. I didn't fancy that one very much so I asked what the other one, and it was of course, Darth Vader."
When Dave said he would prefer Darth Vader, George asked him why. Dave said that everyone always remembers the villains.
"George said; 'You’ve made a wise decision because nobody will ever forget Darth Vader.' And here we are thirty years later and I am still chasing round the world on the back of Star Wars."
In hindsight, George Lucas was correct but during the making of the film Dave was not convinced.
"When we were making Star Wars, to be perfectly honestly, I really thought it was going to be a load of rubbish. The only give-away was that Alex Guinness was in it, then Peter Cushing came into it as well, and you could see there was an enormous amount of money being spent on the set, so I thought to myself, they must be onto something, but we had no idea just how big it was all going be."
"I thought it would be one of these films that came out, did the rounds, and was then forgotten. It came out in America in June 1977 and was a huge success. People were queing round the block six times to get into the cinema. It didn't come out here until December 1977, and then we realised just what a phenomena it was."
Of course what makes Darth Vader so memorable is his costume but Star Wars was filmed during the scorching summer of 1976.
"The costume is huge. When I had it on for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, with the helmet and mask on I reached about 7ft tall"
"It was in 15 different pieces, but the worst problem with the costume was the helmet and mask. The mask was too big, so they decided they ought to keep the mask how it was, and put the helmet on top. Consequently you'd put the mask on and the helmet on top of that, so all the heat used to rise up inside the costume so it was stop-start, stop-start."
The only disappointment for Dave was the fact they dubbed his voice, and did not tell him anything about it until after the film was released in America.
"It took us five months to make Star Wars and James Earl Jones recorded all the dialogue in an afternoon in a studio in America. All the heavy breathing and bits and pieces were put on after, and the breathing sound was created with an underwater respiratory. I didn't know anything about that until the film came out over here."
"A famous American film director AS Byatt said to me at the British premier, 'Congratulation for being in the biggest film of all time. By the way did you know your voice had been over dubbed over?' That was the first time I had heard anything about it."
"I actually thought it was me that was going to do all the dialogue, but George took the film back to America because they couldn't get all the special effects they wanted here, and it was then he made the decision he wanted the film to be known as an American movie."
"As it was filmed in England there were too many English voices in it and it looked as if it was a big English movie, so he re-dubbed some of the masked people, and some of the captains and commanders."
Aside from this disappointment, Dave is the first to admit this role worked fantastically well for him.
"I thought the film was geared towards Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. It was very fortunate for me that the Darth Vader character usurped that and became the star of the movie, and in fact became the cult figure of the Sith series. Although I was not the those films, they were another three films in which everyone was talking about Darth Vader again."
For those unfamiliar with the Star Wars story, the original three movies in the trilogy are Episodes 4, 5 and 6 which focus on the development of Darth Vader up to his death, and are the films Dave starred in. The new trilogy of Star Wars films known as Sith series centred on the development of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, and are known as Episodes 1, 2 and 3.
The scale of the Star Wars cult following today is still surprisingly strong. Dave goes to around 30 Star Wars conventions a year, all over the world.
"They have quite a few in America, and one very large one every so often called the Celebration Convention. The last one was when the last film Revenge of the Sith was released and 120,000 people came to that. The next big one next will be the 25th anniversary of the original Star Wars film, which is next year."
"There's also the San Francisco ComiCon where they have 50,000 to 60,000 people through. America is probably one of the major places for conventions, although I did one in Mexico too earlier this year. I do one at Dallas on the first weekend of July, the following weekend there is one in Las Vegas, the next weekend, one in San Diego. You wouldn’t call it hard work - you just go around, talk to fans and sign autographs, but it is a lot of travelling."
All the original actors except Harrison Ford go to the conventions.
"Harrison Ford is the only one we don't see, but all the rest of them come to conventions. Carrie Fisher and Peter Mayfield will also be over for the 25th birthday convention at Earls Court."
They may have dubbed over his voice in the Star Wars films, but his West Country accent is still instantly recognisable as the Green Cross Code man in the safety campaign of the late 70s and 80s. It was in fact this role that lead to him being awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2000 for services to road safety and charity.
"It is strange, but I got the Darth Vader part and the Green Cross code job at exactly the same time, within two weeks of each other. The campaign actually became the most successful road safety campaign we have ever had in this country. The reason it was so successful was because all the kids knew that although I was dressed up as a green superman for the Green Cross Code man, they knew it was Darth Vader talking to them about road safety!"
"I did fifteen television commercials, and I went to 760 schools around the world in Australia, Barbados and British forces bases, speaking to half a million children. We actually reduced accidents on the road by half and if you add it all up we actually saved a quarter of a million children's lives with the campaign."
"Although I am very proud I played Darth Vader, I am probably more proud of the Green Cross Code campaign because it did so much good and saved so many children's lives."
Although coming up to 71 years of age, Dave is still acting and pursuing his other interests.
"When I retired at 65, there were three things I wanted to do. One of them was to learn how to use computers, so I went on a computer course. The other thing was photography, so I brought myself some new digital cameras. I am still working in the film business and have recently finished a film over here called the Perfect Woman, starring Caprice as the perfect woman, so I have taken some lovely pictures of that. The third thing I decided I wanted to do was learn how to sing, so I have been having singing lessons for the last five years."
As a man with many strings to his bow, it could be this musical string that leads Dave into yet another career.
"I was at a convention in Las Vegas a few years ago and I actually sang with Howard King which was just wonderful. He was very complimentary and at one stage we even got offered a recording contract. We were just mucking about, singing Soliloquy and Won't Send Roses by Mack and Mabel. Everyone was standing around a applauding when this guy comes rushing over afterwards and says, 'I'm La Toya Jackson's ex-husband and I have my own recording company in Los Angeles. If there is any chance of getting you and Howard singing together I will give you a recording contract.' Sadly, Howard was 84 and had just been diagnosed with colon cancer, and died within six months."
"Just last week though, I did go into the studio just to see what I sound like and what we can do with it. I also met with Simon Cowell last week, and Pete Waterman. We had a big do at Elstree because it was the only showing of the original Star Wars film anywhere in the world this year, so I went up to host the evening."
"They said come up early because we are unveiling a plaque to Simon Cowell and said I could meet him. I did say to him that I may be getting in touch to show him some of my singing at some stage or another. I don't know if I will or not, but I definitely don't fancy auditioning on the X Factor!"
Without one gadget in particular, however, Dave would find honing his potential singing career and continuing his work at the Star Wars conventions impossible, and that is his Siemens hearing aid.
"It's a tiny computerised hearing aid that cuts out incoming interference. It is practically invisible so no one notices it, which is a big thing because you don't want to feel embarrassed about wearing one."
"When you go to these conventions and do question and answer sessions, there are about 1000 people in the audience in a large area. When people asked me a question from the audience I couldn't hear them, I had to keep asking them to repeat it, and then leave the stage to find out what they wanted to ask. Now I can hear them perfectly. Without it, it would make doing what I enjoy a lot harder."
Rachael Hannan: Interview 2005
Published on 50connect.co.uk