HEAT VISION

Inside Darth Vader Actor David Prowse's Other Famous Character

David Prowse and fan in Darth Vader costume at 2013 Star Wars convention
THIERRY ZOCCOLAN/AFP via Getty Images
For a generation of Britons, the late actor was more than a 'Star Wars' villain, he was also the superhero who cared if you made it across the road safely.

To most audiences, the late David Prowse was the personification of evil — or, at least, the physical manifestation of it — thanks to what is easily his most famous role of all, Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy of movies. For a particular demographic, however, Prowse’s onscreen legacy is complicated by another role that was iconic to an entire generation of British children: the guardian of road safety known as the Green Cross Code Man.

As the name suggests, the Green Cross Code Man was a superhero, albeit hardly one likely to last long against a contemporary super threat like Josh Brolin’s Thanos or even Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord; with only one super power at his disposal — teleportation, which he used sparingly — his true appeal was Prowse’s impressively comic book-esque physique and his attitude, which could best be described as “Superman, if he was more paternal and just slightly disappointed in your decisions.”

Perhaps fittingly for a superhero, the character was the creation of the British government, appearing in a series of public information films created by the Central Office of Information as a method of teaching children how to cross the road without accident or mishap. The character was created in 1970 for a print campaign, to advertise a six-point “code” that promoted road safety, asking children to Think, Stop, Use Your Eyes and Ears, Wait Until It Is Safe to Cross, Look and Listen, and Arrive Alive, whenever even considering what to do when approaching the curb.

Unlike other, similar British public information projects of the period — such as the anti-smoking ”Nick O’Teen” campaign that featured Superman, which briefly overlapped with the Green Cross Code Man campaign — Prowse’s road safety hero didn’t have an arch-nemesis to tangle or trade bon mots with. His enemy was, it seemed, the very idea that children might not have their best interests at heart when crossing the road, and he was prepared to deal with that in the only way he knew how: by lecturing them sternly.

Prowse, unfortunately, wasn’t able to lecture them in his own voice, at least to begin with. In an unfortunate bit of foreshadowing, the first couple of Green Cross Code Man films saw the actor’s dialogue dubbed by someone who lacked his particular accent, just as George Lucas would choose to use James Earl Jones to voice Darth Vader two years later. By the third outing for the Green Cross Code Man, thankfully, Prowse was able to speak for himself, allowing viewers the chance to hear what Darth Vader could have sounded like in another, arguably gentler, world.

The Green Cross Code Man campaign ran for five years, airing on British television from 1975 through 1980, meaning that it overlapped with both the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; during that period, Prowse would make public appearances as the hero, doubling down on the fact that he represented the Duality of Man for an eager nerd audience that couldn’t quite handle that concept just yet. By the time Return of the Jedi rolled around in 1983, Prowse had stopped putting on the green tights, although Vader’s own turn towards the light in the final (for then) Star Wars installment redeemed him from any accusations of going bad entirely.

Prowse would return to the road just a handful of years ago, with the then-80-year-old actor once again taking on the Green Cross Code Man character for 2014’s Road Safety Week; as he’d grown older, though, so had the subjects of his lectures — this time around, they were young adults who needed to be told to look up from their phones to avoid accidents. (No, really.)

In truth, the Green Cross Code Man is an odd footnote in a career that included winning weightlifting contests, training both Christopher Reeve for Superman: The Movie and Cary Elwes for The Princess Bride, and appearing in Doctor Who, Jabberwocky, and A Clockwork Orange, not to mention Star Wars. It was a role that lasted only a handful of short films, a minimal amount of effort for Prowse himself.

Growing up in Scotland, as one of the target audience for the campaign at its time of release, however, I have to admit that it’s the first thing I think of when Prowse’s name is mentioned — even ahead of Darth Vader and Star Wars. To this day, more than four decades later, I still know to Stop, Look, and Listen when crossing the road, and that’s more than any dark lord of the Sith could ever manage.

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