Star Wars interview: David Prowse

We catch up with the original Dark Lord of the Sith to celebrate the release of the Star Wars Complete Saga on Blu-ray

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Do you remember what the first thing you heard about Star Wars was?

“I got a phonecall from a very good friend of mine, he was managing director of 20th Century Fox – I was quite friendly with him and his wife, I had my own exercise consultancy in Harrods and there were all sorts of people who got very friendly with me, and they used to come and see me and I could get them discounts on the various things that they wanted. Anyway, he rang me up one day and said, ‘Dave, this guy’s sat in the 20th Century Fox offices in Soho Square and he very much want to see you’, and I said ‘Do you know what it’s about?’, and he said, ‘No I don’t, just that he definitely wants to see you’. So I went over to 20th Century Fox and I met up with George and he showed me these conceptual drawings that they had pinned up on the wall from the film, and then he turned round to me and said, ‘Look, I’m doing this film called Star Wars, and I’d to offer you one of two parts in the movie’, and I thought, ‘this is something new for me, being offered one of two parts’. So I said ‘Can you tell me what the two parts are?’, and he said, ‘The first one is a character called Chewbacca, he’s a hairy gorilla that goes through the film on the side of the goodies’, and I thought ‘Three months in a gorilla skin, imagine how hot and sweaty that’s gonna be like’ and I said no. He said ‘The other one’s the big villain of the film, a character called Darth Vader’ and in my opinion villains are always the best characters to play – they’re always the ones that get remembered, and I said ‘I’ll take that part’. And then I said, ‘But how did you know if me?’ and he said, ‘I saw you in A Clockwork Orange, and if you’re good enough for Stanley Kubrick you’re good enough for me’ and that was something that was coming up on quite a regular basis, I’d be asked to get interviewed by somebody or be offered a role ina  film and all they wanted to talk about was Stanley Kubrick, and what it was like to work with Stanley Kurbick. All George wanted to do was talk about Stanley Kubrick.

“The film came ou very briefly, we filmed it in ’71 and it came out very briefly in ’72 and Stanley started getting all sorts of death threats because of the content of the movie – because it was quite violent, and quite sexy and things like that. I think Stanley thought, ‘Sod this, I don’t have to put up with this – I’m going to take it off and nobody will ever see it again’, and so that’s what he did. Luckily for me, in the two months that it was out, Lucas saw it in Los Angeles and remembered me for five years.”

Do you remember the first time you saw the Darth Vader costume?

“I’d seen the conceptual drawings of it when I went to see George the first time. I went to Birmingham for the costume itself, and it was an amazing costume. The helmet and the mask came later, I can’t remember quite when they came, but it was a later addition. And then there were all sorts of problems, I thought the mask was miles too big and turned round to George, and he said ‘turn your head from left to right’, and so I turned my head from left to right and the mask stayed facing forwards! So I said, ‘It’s obviously much to big, you’ll have to get a new mould and one that fits my head more’, and he said, ‘No, no, no, no, it’s absolutely perfect in relation to your body size and armour, so what we’ll do is pad all the inside of it out with foam rubber’. And of course that made the mask so hot, but that was just one of the things you put up with for the role.”

Your visibility must have been dreadful…

“There were problems once again there because they had opaque lenses to start with, so I could see out of them quite easily. But then Lucas turned round and said, ‘Look, we don’t want to see anything of you at all through the mask – we don’t want to see your eyes, we don’t want to see anything’, so the next time they put amber lenses in, and they weren’t dark enough, so they put dark amber lenses in and I thought, ‘I’ll go blind!’, but in the bright lights of the studio you could see just well enough to do what you wanted to do.”

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What was your favourite thing about working on Star Wars?

“Oh gosh, well I’ll tell you one of my favourite things… I was having terrible problems on Jedi because for some reason or other Richard Marquand decided he didn’t want anything to do with me, and never spoke to me for the whole movie. I had so little to do because they were only sending you the lines a day at a time, so I was sitting around doing practically nothing, all of a sudden I see my stuntman getting dressed – Bob Anderson, he was a tall skinny guy and a very good fencer, he was a fencing coach, but he was nowhere near my size – I saw him getting dressed and I said, ‘What you are getting dressed for Bob?’ and he said, ‘Oh, the Emperor has to be thrown off the balcony’, and I said ‘You’re going to do this!?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’re going to try and arrange the stunt’, and I thought ‘Well, this is going to be interesting’ because there was no way that Bob was going to throw anybody off the balcony. So I sat down and I sat and watched them. The first thing they did was try and get the Emperor high enough and then lower him down onto my stuntman’s hands and then once he had him, for him to walk forward and throw him over the balcony. And of course what happened was everytime they lowered him down onto my stuntman, my stuntman couldn’t hold him and they just collapsed on the floor. And this went on for two or three days. And then the next thing I see is they’ve brought in what they call a ‘teeterboard’ which is like a seesaw – like the classic circus act where someone stands on one end of the seesaw and someone stands high up and jumps down onto the top end of the seesaw and this then projects the guy on the lower half wherever he’s got to go, to a catcher usually. So for another three days I watched them do this – I’ve never laughed so much in my life. Everytime he went up in the air, there was no way that Bob could catch him without them falling all over the floor – and this went on for an entire week! So on the Friday afternoon when we were all about to depart, I went up to Marquand – you know, I’m gonna talk to him if he’s not gonna talk to me – and I said, ‘Excuse me, but just what are you trying to do?’ and he said, ‘Oh, it’s the bit where the Emperor gets thrown down the balcony’, I said ‘Well that’s easy’, and he said, ‘What do you mean easy?’ and I said, ‘Well I can just pick him up, press him above my head, then I can walk to the balcony with him and then I can throw him off’. He said, ‘Can you do that!?’ and I said, ‘Of course, I’m not the British weightlifting champion for nothing you know’. He said, ‘Alright, first thing Monday then’, so I went in on the Monday and did it in one take, straight like that – bang. I felt like putting the beef on him, like ‘Well, you should’ve used me instead of being so bloody pigheaded and not speaking to me for a week’. The money that it was costing… it must have cost them hundreds of thousands trying to do that scene, and I did it in five minutes.”

What was it that made The Empire Strikes Back your favourite film?

“Irvin Kershner – he was a friendly guy to work with, I enjoyed his company. It was good working with Mark and Carrie and Harrison, of course, and Billy Dee Williams came in for it as well – him and Harrison Ford got a set of weights together and I used to instruct them on how to train, which was very, very nice because it got me very friendly with the pair of them. It was a much friendlier situation, I still never had much to say to George  because he kept himself very aloof. He was a very, very quiet individual.”

Did you have any input into the lines?

“Not as far as the dialogue was concerned, no, none whatsoever. But there were instances… the very first scene I did was the walk up the corridor, and I decided right from the very beginning that I wanted to make everybody subservient to me. One of the first things you do when you’re creating a character is get the walk right – you’ve got to get the walk right and everything just falls into place. What I wanted to do was really stride out as everybody else almost had to run to keep up with me, as it were, anyway we had the camera on the dolly, and George Lucas was sat on the dolly, and he said the word ‘action’ and I took off. I got to the end of the corridor and I was on my own! [laughs] George Lucas came up to me and he said, ‘You’ve got to slow up, we can’t keep up with you. It’s the little things like that which are so important, the walk was important and delivering each line as if was an order, was important. I wanted him to be the most dominant character in the movie, I wanted everyone to be frightened to death of him, and I wanted for all his dialogue to be very, very short and abrupt, as if everything he said was like an order, and basically that was how I delivered the lines. I think James Earl Jones did a wonderful job of overdubbing my voice.”

Has it amazed you how each generation seems to discover Star Wars as something fresh?

“I think it’s wonderful, I think Star Wars has a fantastic longevity and it’s going to go on and on and on – I just had a call from an events organiser in Denmark, who’s asked me along to Copenhagen early next year for the opening of The Phantom Menace in 3D! We’ve got all this amazing new technology, there’s Blu-ray and now 3D- which I think is going to be interesting, only they’ve started with I-II-III, rather than IV-V-VI that they did originally.”

Star Wars Complete Saga Blu-ray box set is available September 12 from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, price £67.49, and SciFiNow’s collector’s edition Star Wars issue is available now from all good newsagents and online from the Imagineshop.