Arts & Culture

David Prowse, English actor and weightlifter who embodied Darth Vader, dies at 85

In this file photo dated Friday, May 7, 1999, Dave Prowse, the original Darth Vader from the #x201c;Star Wars Trilogy,#x
In this file photo dated Friday, May 7, 1999, Dave Prowse, the original Darth Vader from the “Star Wars Trilogy,” poses during the New York Comic and Fantasy Creators Convention. The British actor, Prowse who played Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, has died aged 85 on Saturday, according to an announcement by his agent Sunday Nov. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Lynsey Addario)
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David Prowse, an English actor and competitive weightlifter who used his towering height and broad shoulders to portray the bionic body of the evil Darth Vader in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, died Nov. 28 at a hospital in London. He was 85.

His agent, Thomas Bowington, confirmed the death but did not provide an immediate cause. He announced in 2014 that he had dementia, following an earlier bout of prostate cancer.

The phenomenal success of the “Star Wars” series after its launch in 1977 made the Dark Lord of the Sith, as Prowse’s character was also known, one of cinema’s most instantly recognizable villains — even as Prowse remained largely unknown to moviegoers because of his full-body costume.

At 6-foot-7 and weighing 275 pounds, he used his imposing physique to give shape and form to Darth Vader’s threatening presence on screen as the embodiment of the Evil Empire. His costume featured a menacing grilled face mask, a glistening black helmet modeled after samurai headgear, a leather jumpsuit, black gloves, knee-high boots, a sweeping cape and a flashing electronic chest panel on a fiberglass breastplate.

“The only way of presenting Darth Vader as the ultimate baddie was to show virtually everyone else either terrified or completely awestruck whenever he was around,” Prowse wrote in his 2011 autobiography, “Straight From the Force’s Mouth.”

Adding to the ominous presence of Darth Vader was his signature mechanical breathing, which was created by sound designer Ben Burtt recording himself inhaling and exhaling through an old Dacor scuba regulator. The dialogue delivered originally in Prowse’s West Country English accent was dubbed in post-production editing using the sonorous voice of American actor James Earl Jones.

“Star Wars” creator George Lucas viewed Darth Vader as the product of a collaboration by a team of artists. In addition to Jones, they included British fencing coach Bob Anderson, who played Darth Vader in many lightsaber duels, and veteran stage actor Sebastian Shaw, who in “Return of the Jedi” (1983) — the final installment in the original trilogy — provided the face of a dying Darth Vader.

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The decisions to use Jones and Shaw came as surprises to Prowse and contributed to his strained relationship with the movies’ producers.

Prowse met Lucas at 20th Century Fox’s offices in London in the summer of 1976. He was 40 and had appeared on-screen in minor roles as brutes and monsters. His most noted performance was a brief turn as a bodyguard in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971).

Lucas offered Prowse a choice between two roles for his upcoming movie, “Star Wars,” which was being shot partly at a soundstage north of London. The first option was the furry Chewbacca character, but the thought of spending London’s hot summer sweating in a hairy costume led Prowse to select option two: Darth Vader.

As it turned out, the Vader outfit, weighing about 40 pounds, trapped so much body heat and provided so little ventilation that the mask’s eye lenses frequently fogged up, making it difficult for Prowse to hit his marks.

Unable to use facial expressions, he said he carefully considered his walk and swagger. He drew on his experience as a bodybuilder to convey Darth Vader’s intimidating aura.

He appeared on-screen for only 12 minutes in “Star Wars” (1977) but became a more central character three years later in “The Empire Strikes Back,” when the father-son relationship between Darth Vader and his young nemesis Luke Skywalker is revealed.

Prowse wrote that his worst filming experience came during the making of “Return of the Jedi” (1983). He said a Daily Mail reporter told him that Darth Vader was being killed off in the movie and that an actor was performing the death scene at a secret location. The subsequent article “was written in such a way that it looked as though all the information had come from me,” Prowse wrote in his book.

He said that he felt ostracized for the rest of the production of the film with his stuntman increasingly doubling in for him. “Return of the Jedi” would be the last movie to feature Darth Vader although the next three chronically released movies in the Star Wars franchise explored the backstory of Darth Vader as a young Anakin Skywalker.

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Prowse said he was later banned from official Lucasfilm Star Wars conventions, but he continued for years to travel around the world as a featured guest at other science fiction and space-fantasy fan events. He regularly signed promotional photographs “Dave Prowse Is Darth Vader.”

David Charles Prowse was born in Bristol, England, on July 1, 1935. His father was a sheet metal worker at a Bristol Aeroplane assembly plant.

After his father died in 1940 while recovering from surgery for a duodenal ulcer, his mother took in lodgers to support the family. By age 12, the young Prowse was a swift rugby player and exceptional track and field sprinter and long jumper.

But his dreams of one day playing for England’s national rugby team were dashed after he developed persistent swelling in his left knee. He spent 10 months in a tuberculosis sanatorium with his leg immobilized in a splint, but a cause for his knee ailment was never determined. To address his atrophied muscles, he took up swimming and, home after a workout one day, became captivated by a magazine cover of French bodybuilder Robert Duranton in a newspaper’s shop window display.

“All I knew at that moment was that I wanted to be just like him, with a great physique and two good legs,” Prowse wrote in his book.

He trained as a bodybuilder for more than 10 years before focusing on competitive weightlifting, eventually becoming Britain’s top heavyweight weightlifter in the early 1960s. He competed in national and international competitions until he was passed over to represent Great Britain at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

His exploits as a weightlifter caught the attention of an advertising agency, which, he said, hired him to do a TV commercial for a washing machine and dryer company with the tag line: “Even Britain’s strongest man cannot wring water out of a towel that has been spin-dried by the Hot Spinner.”

While pursuing a career in show business, he also opened a gym and sold fitness equipment at Harrods department store in London.

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In 1963, he married Norma Scammell. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children, a brother and grandchildren.

Prowse said the most satisfying period of his acting career was the years he spent playing the Green Cross Code Man, a cape-wearing superhero who warns children to follow safety rules when crossing streets. The character became a staple of TV ads from the late 1970s to the early 1990s and led to his frequent visits to schools. In 2000, he was honored as a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to charity and to road safety.

“The kids loved being talked to by Darth Vader,” he told the Western Daily Press. “We reduced road accidents for children from over 40,000 per year to 20,000, saving thousands of lives. That has been my greatest achievement.”

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