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Kenny Baker, the actor who played beloved droid R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars films, died Saturday at 81. The star, who stood 3 feet, 8 inches, wasn’t expected to live past adolescence, but he defied the odds, going on to be part of a worldwide phenomenon.
In 2004, Baker — then 70 and preparing to film his final turn as the droid in Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith — spoke to The Hollywood Reporter awards analyst Scott Feinberg for a wide-ranging interview discussing his early forays into performing, why he initially turned down Star Wars and rumors of tension with C-3PO actor Anthony Daniels (“I didn’t have a relationship with him. He was an actor and I was an actor,” he said).
Before gaining worldwide fame in Star Wars, Baker got his start after leaving school at 17 and joining a touring company of little people. He went on to find success with ice shows and touring theatrical work before starting a two-man variety act, the Mini-Tones, which saw him and partner Jack Purvis (himself a future Ewok in Star Wars) tour all over Europe.
Below are highlights from the 2004 interview, with Baker recalling his life and career in his own words.
On meeting George Lucas and turning down Star Wars
Lucas came into London looking for someone to fit inside the robot. In fact, they’d already made the robot, but they couldn’t find anybody to move it, because it was heavy. So I went to London, into 20th Century Fox in Soho Square. And there was George Lucas with [co-producer] Gary Kurtz and [production supervisor] Robert Watts. They said, “He’ll do,” because I was the right size. That was all it was. And I just jumped into the robot. And I didn’t enjoy it at all, I didn’t like it all. I didn’t think it was gonna be very successful. So I turned it down about three times … I thought, “Well, I’d rather not be stuck in a robot, to be honest.” But they talked me into it and, as we all know now, it was a big success.
On being inside the droid
I was mainly stationary for the acting, the dialogue. I’m moving the robot … and George shouts at me with a megaphone. “Look this way!” “Look that way!” … It’s moving the robot and making it look as though it’s knowing what it’s doing. That’s all. You’ve got to try and make it make sense, you know? … I’m not involved with all the big scenes. The big scenes — with fighting and a huge cast of fighters or stormtroopers — I’m not usually in it. I might be in it in a one-shot, but that’s about it. I can’t move [in the droid], I can’t travel. So I’m usually only in close-ups.
On George Lucas as a director
He’s very good because he knows what he wants. He tells you to do it, and you know he’s going to be correct, because he’s got a great vision and can see what the eventual picture will be.
On Star Wars’ success
It just happened to hit at the right time — everybody was looking for a fantasy after the Vietnam War, and everything like that. It was pretty grim, you know? And I think Star Wars just came out at the right time, when everybody could go and enjoy themselves at the movies and see a good fantasy story, a good gung-ho type of Harrison Ford, you know, with the whip. No blood anywhere.
On being a little person in the industry
There are not very many opportunities for little people in the industry. There are small parts and character parts, but we don’t get the girl at the end of the film kind of parts … but I was quite happy with what I was doing. I didn’t really get involved too heavily with being an actual film person. I’ve always been a cabaret-vaudeville artist — an hourlong cabaret and a floor show in a hotel — somebody like that. That’s my main forte.
On his favorite Star Wars memory
Just meeting the people, you know? Carrie Fisher was very young. So was Harrison. And Alec Guinness was a very nice person — you know, very English.
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