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David Prowse, the champion English weightlifter and bodybuilder who supplied his 6-foot-7 frame — but not the voice or the deep breathing — to portray Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, died early Saturday morning following a short illness. He was 85.
Prowse’s death was confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter by his agent Thomas Bowington. Bowington Management also shared the news on Twitter, announcing his passing with “great regret and heart-wrenching sadness for us and million of fans around the world.”
Appropriately, the strapping Prowse also portrayed the Frankenstein monster in three movies: the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) and, for Hammer Films, The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974), the last opposite a future Star Wars co-star, Peter Cushing.
In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Prowse appeared as the muscular manservant working for author Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee), and he later helped a slender Christopher Reeve bulk up for the role of the Man of Steel in the Superman films.
Prowse was well-known in the U.K. for portraying the Green Cross Code Man — a superhero-like character used in public-service advertisements to help children get across the street safely — from 1967 through 1990. For that, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2000.
“It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done,” he once said.
Born on July 1, 1935, in Bristol, England, Prowse was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis of the knee and forced to wear a leg splint for four years as a youngster (it turned out he actually had osteoarthritis). Yet he went on to compete for the Mr. Universe bodybuilding title in 1960 before capturing the British weightlifting championship three straight years running, from 1962-64. (At age 50, he was still able to dead-lift 700 pounds.)
Prowse’s first forays into acting included gigs on The Beverly Hillbillies, The Saint and Doctor Who, and he went on to star as “The Mighty Tonka” in a toy commercial directed by Ridley Scott.
George Lucas had seen him in Clockwork Orange and offered him a part in the first Star Wars (1977).
“Lucas said to me, ‘You’ve got a choice of two characters in the movie,'” Prowse recalled in a 2016 interview. “He said, ‘There’s a character called Chewbacca, which is like a huge teddy bear, or alternatively, there’s the main villain in the piece.’ Well, there’s no choice, is there? Thank you very much, I’ll have the villain’s piece.”
Prowse didn’t realize that his head and face would be covered by that now-iconic Samurai-inspired helmet and mask or that his outfit, made of fiberglass and leather, would weigh 40 pounds and be extremely, uncomfortably hot.
“Once [the mask] was fitted, I became virtually blind, and the heat generated by the suit obeyed the laws of physics and traveled upward, straight into the mash,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir, Straight From the Force’s Mouth. “This immediately misted up the eyepieces, which was inconvenient, to say the least, but was not an insurmountable problem so long as I could look down through the triangular cut-out beneath the mask’s nose molding and use it as a spyhole.”
Prowse spoke his lines in his West Country accent during the filming in London as Carrie Fisher playfully nicknamed him “Darth Farmer” because of his rural tone. He said he realized his voice was hard to make out through the thick mask but was told his dialogue would be added down the road.
But months later, back in the U.S., Lucas subbed in the deep voice of James Earl Jones for his during postproduction. “I think [Jones] did a wonderful job, but I still think I would have done equally as well given the right opportunity,” Prowse said.
Meanwhile, even Vader’s menacing, deep breathing wasn’t performed by Prowse — that was an effect created by sound designer Ben Burtt, who recorded himself though a scuba-diving respirator.
Jones, who reportedly got $7,000 for his work on the first film, then returned, as did Prowse, once again hidden, for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).
Prowse said he figured he would be seen — finally! — in Return of the Jedi when Vader’s mask is removed, but moviegoers saw the scarred face of British actor Sebastian Shaw instead. And Prowse was replaced again by stuntman/fencing coach Bob Anderson in scenes featuring lightsaber duels in Episodes V and VI.
With a nod to an actor who appeared in Episodes II and III, Star Wars legend Mark Hamill clarified this Darth Vader business quite nicely in a June 2018 tweet:
A-David Prowse IS Darth Vader.
B-James Earl Jones is his voice.
C-Bob Anderson is his stunt-double.
D-Hayden Christensen is my son’s age.
To be sure, Prowse was proud of what he brought to the trilogy.
“Body acting and bodybuilding are more closely related than most people would image, and all that posing I’d done to impress the judges in my early years [paid] dividends,” he wrote in his book. “From within the black leather suit, I treated Vader’s every gesture as a bodybuilding pose, refining here and exaggerating there, until my character ‘spoke’ with every tilt of his head or movement of his arms.”
He was the subject of a 2015 documentary, I Am Your Father, and a script for an unproduced movie about this life, titled Strongman, appeared on the 2017 Black List.
Prowse, who in his later years did publicity work for Welsh singer Jayce Lewis, was married since 1963 to Norma Scammell and had three children.
The actor said Lucas wrongly accused him of leaking news of Vader’s death to the media and eventually banned him from participating in official Star Wars conventions. (A journalist who broke the story would reveal years later that Prowse was not his source.) Still, he remained very much in demand, but in October 2017 he announced that he was retiring and would no longer make any public appearances.
Of course, “nobody will ever forget Darth Vader,” he said in 2012, “and it is a great honor for me to have played the ultimate screen villain of all time.”
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